By the 10th Century the city of Cordoba, Spain boasted a population of over 500,000 people making it the largest city on earth. Other cities like Paris only had 38,000 people and the world had never seen a city so big as Cordoba which had 700 mosques, 60,000 palaces, and 70 libraries. It was reported at the time that one of those libraries contained over 500,000 manuscripts and employed a staff of book binders, researchers, librarians, and teachers (illuminators). At its peak Cordoba had 900 public baths and boasted Europe’s first street lights. The palace of the Islamic Caliph was located 5 miles outside the city and was known as the Madinat al-Zahra. It was an ornate complex of marble, stucco, ivory, and onyx that took some 40 years to build costing about 1/3 of the city’s revenue. It was destroyed in the 11th Century but prior to its destruction the Caliph’s Palace at Cordoba was one of the wonders of the world. The ruins of the palace are being restored today, slowly.
The first notable Muslim to reach Spain was named Abd al-Rahman. North African Arabs were already entreched in Spain by the time of his arrival. Their forays into France were halted by Charles Martel so the Muslims in Spain began to focus on what would be known as al-Andalus, southern Spain (Andalusia). They began to build a civilization there that was superior to anything seen in Spain before. The Spanish Muslims treated Christians and Jews with tolerance and many of them began to embrace Islam as their faith. The Muslims improved trade and agriculture, patronized the arts, and made numerous and valuable contributions to science. Cordoba quickly became the largest and most sophisticated city in all of Europe under Muslim rule.
By the eleventh century, however, a small pocket of Christian resistance had begun to grow, and under Alfonso VI Christian forces retook Toledo. It was the beginning of the period the Christians called the Reconquest, and it underlined a serious problem that marred this refined, graceful, and charming era: the inability of the numerous rulers of Islamic Spain to maintain their unity. This so weakened them that when the various Christian kingdoms began to pose a serious threat, the Muslim rulers in Spain had to ask the Almoravids, a North African Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravids came and crushed the Christian uprising, but eventually seized control themselves. In 1147, the Almoravids were in turn defeated by another coalition of Berber tribes, the Almohads.
Internal conflict was not uncommon in these times and the Christian Kingdoms warred frequently among themselves. This diverted Muslim strength at a time when the Christians were beginning to negotiate strong alliances and form powerful armies. They eventually waged a campaign agaisnt the Muslims that would bring about the end of Muslim Arab rule in Spain.
The Arabs did not surrender easily; al-Andalus was their land too. But, bit by bit, they had to retreat, first from northern Spain, then from central Spain. By the thirteenth century their once extensive domains were reduced to a few scattered kingdoms deep in the mountains of Andalusia – where, for some two hundred years longer, they would not only survive but flourish.
It is both odd and poignant that it was then, in the last two centuries of their rule, that the Arabs created that extravagantly lovely kingdom for which they are most famous: Granada. It seems as if, in their slow retreat to the south, they suddenly realized that they were, as Washington Irving wrote, a people without a country, and set about building a memorial: the Alhambra, the citadel above Granada that one writer has called “the glory and the wonder of the civilized world.”
The Alhambra was begun in 1238 by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar who, to buy safety for his people when King Ferdinand of Aragon laid siege to Granada, once rode to Ferdinand’s tent and humbly offered to become the king’s vassal in return for peace.
Over the years, what started as a fortress slowly evolved under Ibn al-Ahmar’s successors into a remarkable series of delicately lovely buildings, quiet courtyards, limpid pools, and hidden gardens. Later, after Ibn al-Ahmar’s death, Granada itself was rebuilt and became, as one Arab visitor wrote, “as a silver vase filled with emeralds.”
Meanwhile, outside Granada, the Christian kings waited. In relentless succession they had retaken Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. Only Granada survived. Then, in 1482, in a trivial quarrel, the Muslim kingdom split into two hostile factions and, simultaneously, two strong Christian sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, married and merged their kingdoms. As a result, Granada fell ten years later. On January 2, 1492 – the year they sent Columbus to America – Ferdinand and Isabella hoisted the banner of Christian Spain above the Alhambra and Boabdil, the last Muslim king, rode weeping into exile with the bitter envoi from his aged mother, “Weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a man!”
In describing the fate of Islam in Spain, Irving suggested that the Muslims were then swiftly and thoroughly wiped out. Never, he wrote, was the annihilation of a people more complete. In fact, by emigration to North Africa and elsewhere, many Muslims carried remnants of the Spanish era with them and were thus able to make important contributions to the material and cultural life of their adopted lands.
Much of the emigration, however, came later. At first, most Muslims simply stayed in Spain; cut off from their original roots by time and distance they quite simply had no other place to go. Until the Inquisition, furthermore, conditions in Spain were not intolerable. The Christians permitted Muslims to work, serve in the army, own land, and even practice their religion – all concessions to the importance of Muslims in Spain’s still prosperous economy. But then, in the period of the Inquisition, all the rights of the Muslims were withdrawn, their lives became difficult, and more began to emigrate. Finally, in the early seventeenth century, most of the survivors were forcibly expelled.