Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part I)

[Great Mosque of Córdoba]

The former Great Mosque of Córdoba, now the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption.
Photo courtesy Nathan Wong through this Creative Commons license.

My sister Celena, who kindly agreed to read this post even after she realized how long it is, gave it the following ringing endorsement: “History’s got a bad rap, but people will probably find this interesting if anyone actually reads it.”

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If you read a lot about the Camino de Santiago, at some point you’re going to come across references to the Moors—Muslims of Arab and Berber origin who ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula in medieval times.

There’s the Camino del Norte, which is said to have developed when Muslim raids made the Camino Francés too dangerous. There’s the Camino Mozárabe from Granada, named after the Mozarabs (Christians who lived in Moorish Spain, or al-Andalus). There are various legends related to battles between Christian and Muslim armies. And then, of course, there’s Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-Slayer, whose image decorates many Camino churches.

So who were the Moors, and what were they doing in Spain? It’s a long but fascinating story. Just sit back, relax, and join me on a journey back to the Iberian Peninsula in the year 711.

The Invasion

At the beginning of 711, most of the peninsula was ruled by the Visigoths, a Germanic tribe that had been Romanized and become Christian before arriving in Spain. They were busy fighting a civil war because some noblemen opposed the new king.

At the same time, Muslims in North Africa were casting covetous glances across the Strait of Gibraltar. Throughout much of its history, Southern Spain has been more closely linked with Africa than with the rest of Spain, because the mountains that divide the peninsula are more of a barrier than is the narrow strait. Thus, Spain was a logical next target for the Muslim armies that had recently conquered, and at least nominally converted, the African Berbers.

An army of Berber tribesmen under Arab leadership swept into Spain in 711. Within a decade, the Muslims had killed the Visigothic king and taken over most of the peninsula.

Parts of the conquest were bloody, but others were relatively peaceful. Many local noblemen signed treaties with the Muslims that would allow the lords to continue ruling their lands as long as they paid tribute to their new rulers. By 720, all the regions previously under Visigothic rule were controlled by Muslims.

Living Together

Any look at the medieval history of the Iberian Peninsula is complicated by the fact that the history is incredibly political today.

For more than seven centuries, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in medieval Iberia. Some scholars and others see this as a period of convivencia, a term that means “living together.”

As anyone who’s lived with another person knows, living together is not all sweetness and light, but convivencia advocates tend to see it that way. They emphasize the positive relationships between people of different faiths—which certainly did exist—and downplay things like religiously-motivated massacres and religious intolerance—which are also easy to find in the historical record. Al-Andalus, they say, proves that harmonious relations between the three great monotheistic religions are possible.

There’s a lot we don’t know about the first few centuries of al-Andalus, because of a lack of surviving documents from that period. We do know that Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their faiths, because by Muslim tradition they were considered dhimmi, or Peoples of the Book.

But we also know there were religiously motivated conflicts—although the extent to which the conflicts were based on religious beliefs is debatable.

The Beginning of the Reconquista?

And this brings us to the other tradition of medieval Iberian history: the Spanish nationalist myth.

Originally, the Muslim conquest reached as far as the Asturias region in northern Spain (as well as far into Septimania, or Southern France). Muslim troops soon withdrew from the Asturias, and their departure was linked in some way to a local rebellion led by a Christian nobleman called Pelagius (also known as Pelayo).

According to the Spanish nationalist myth, the uprising was the first blow struck against the Moors in the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain.

In reality, it seems the uprising was quite small. There’s even a possibility it didn’t cause the Muslim troops to leave, but rather was triggered by their departure. The Muslims seem to have deliberately left the area, which was so different from their desert homelands.

But whatever the reasons for the Muslim departure, that small enclave of Christians in the Asturias attracted other Christians who fled from al-Andalus, and it eventually became the kingdom of Castilla y León.

The Umayyad Dynasty

Back in al-Andalus, the Muslims weren’t particularly worried about the Christians in the Asturias. They were too busy fighting each other. The Berbers, whom the Arabs had only recently conquered and converted, were treated as second-class citizens by the minority Arabs. A revolt in the Maghrib (North Africa) spread to al-Andalus, where Berbers were particularly incensed at having been given the worst lands. Civil war swept through the land.

Meanwhile, in the Muslim capital of Damascus, the ruling Umayyad dynasty was facing similar problems. More recent converts, upset at being subordinate to the Arabs, rebelled, slaughtering the Umayyads and bringing in the Abbasid dynasty.

One Umayyad escaped and fled to al-Andalus, a far-flung corner of the Muslim world, and in 756 established his capital in Córdoba. At first, this Umayyad, Abd al-Rahman I, and the followers he brought from Damascas made up just one of many Andalusi factions. But by the time of his death thirty-two years later, he’d brought much of al-Andalus under his control.

His successors, the Umayyad emirs, maintained a tenuous hold over the peninsula. They managed to rule a land fractured by ethnic and religious differences by, historian Roger Collins argues, making the disunity into a strength. They cynically but intelligently played adjacent racial or religious groups off one another, to check the ambitions of each group. In some cases, rebel leaders couldn’t stage an effective rebellion because their potential supporters were too busy feuding with their neighbours.

But between rebellions, revolts, bandits and Viking raids, the Umayyad emirs sometimes lost control of vast stretches of territory. Abd-Allah, who ruled from 888 to 912, had the worst of it. At times he didn’t rule anywhere beyond the city of Córdoba.

And rulers in the developing Christian kingdoms took advantage of Umayyad weakness.

Pelagius’s nephew Alfonso I and his own son Fruela I ravaged a large stretch of land between their Asturian kingdom and the area the Muslims controlled more firmly. They forced its inhabitants to move north to the Asturias and Galicia.

For several hundred years thereafter, the peninsula was made up of Muslim-controlled lands in the south, lands under Christian control in the north, and a fluctuating no-man’s-land between them, the tierras despobladas.

Christians in al-Andalus

A number of Christians emigrated northward around the time of the conquest and for centuries afterward, but a much larger number stayed in the south.

Many—although certainly not all—appear to have converted to Islam. This was not, it would seem, because of any overt pressure (Muslim rulers weren’t allowed to tax other Muslims to the extent they could tax non-Muslims, so they relied on the dhimmi for revenue) or even strong religious convictions. Rather it seems likely the conversions came about as the result of intermarriage, and the social pressure that probably followed the conversion of prominent local families. Conversion also meant fewer taxes, and—at least in cities—more job opportunities.

Some Christian converts, like the Berbers, may have rebelled against their second-class status as non-Arab Muslims. The series of revolts known as the muwallad revolts (converts were called muwallads) seem to have been led by men from convert families. But it’s not actually clear if they revolted because of their treatment as converts, or because they wanted more independence and, during the times when emirs were losing control, thought they could get it.

Not all Christians converted, and in fact a mid-ninth-century martyrdom movement in Córdoba encouraged Christians to publicly condemn Islam and suffer the penalty—death. But at the same time, other prominent Christians encouraged moderation among their followers.

The Umayyad emirate became a caliphate and reached what many consider its peak under Abd al-Rahman III, who ruled from 912 to 961. Because of the emirs’ habit of taking Christian slaves as concubines and marrying Christian princesses, Abd al-Rahman III was genetically three-fourths Hispano-Basque, and is said to have dyed his reddish hair black to look more like an Arab.

Muslim Raids on Christian Lands

Among his many other activities, Abd al-Rahman III led raids on the Christian lands to the north. These were usually successful, but the caliph stopped leading his armies himself after suffering a serious defeat to a Leonese army.

Abd al-Rahman’s raids don’t seem to have been motivated by religion. He certainly wasn’t an intolerant man: he sent the Christian bishop Recemund on diplomatic missions, and the Jewish physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut became one of his chief advisors.

One major motivation behind his raids on the Christian kingdoms (including his relatives, as his mother had been a Navarran princess) may have been partly motivated by keeping an eye on his marcher (border) lords, who were inclined to be rebellious.

And there were strong financial motives as well. Like other European rulers at the time, Abd al-Rahman could replenish his coffers by looting and taking captives. Both Christians and Muslims sold captives of lesser rank as slaves, and high-ranking captives were ransomed to their families. Generally captives were only killed by one side or another if they considered their opponents to have broken the conventions of war.

The Muslims had the upper hand during this period, and could have expanded into Christian territories by settling the lands they raided, but they don’t seem to have been interested in conquering the north.

Later, al-Mansur (known as Almanzor to the Christians), who controlled Abd al-Rahman’s grandson, the puppet caliph Hisham II, escalated the raids.

His raids are often cast in a starkly Muslim versus Christian light. The reality, insofar as historians have been able to read between the lines, may have been somewhat different.

Al-Mansur’s most notorious raid was on Santiago de Compostela in 997, when his troops sacked the city, destroyed the cathedral, and stole its bells.

The event is often seen as an example of the religious basis of his raids, but while that may be partially true, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

It’s true that al-Mansur’s many raids attracted volunteers who were interested in jihad, or holy war—in much the same way, as historian Richard Fletcher notes, that Christian knights several centuries later would spend a few years on crusade. In Islamic countries, Spain was informally referred to as Dar Djihad, the Land of Jihad.

Al-Mansur himself made a show of extreme piety and portrayed his raids as jihad, but it’s hard to be sure how much of that was sincere.

He used large numbers of Christian mercenaries in his armies, something he probably wouldn’t have done if he were an extreme religious fundamentalist. He allied himself with disaffected noblemen from the northern kingdoms who—as was common at the time—made their alliances based on politics, not religion. Without guidance from these noblemen, al-Mansur wouldn’t have found his way to Santiago in the first place. The Christians received their share of booty for their trouble, and don’t appear to have suffered any severe moral qualms about their participation in the raid.

Also, while al-Mansur destroyed the cathedral, he didn’t touch the remains said to belong to St. James—a surprising omission, as Collins points out, if he were truly a religious fanatic.

There’s no question that al-Mansur’s raids were many and bloody, and the Christians had good reason to believe he’d bargained with the devil and to rejoice at his death.

But Fletcher argues that al-Mansur’s raids, while framed as jihad to keep religious leaders happy, were more like Abd al-Rahman’s earlier raids for wealth than like religious warfare.

Al-Mansur had a lot of expenses. He had to keep his supporters happy, and pay off his enemies. He built both a huge palace complex outside Córdoba for himself and his family, and an expensive extension to the city’s Great Mosque. He increased his popularity among the citizenry through tax cuts, and enlarged his armies because of political developments in Africa. He needed some serious money.

Monasteries acted in some ways like medieval banks, where the local nobility would deposit gold and other valuables.

And so, if asked why he really plundered monasteries, al-Mansur might well have given the same answer Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks.

“Because that’s where the money is.”

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The information here largely comes from Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher (a wonderful, very readable book) and Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400-1000 by Roger Collins (it’s more academic, but if you ever wondered about how the Visigoths fit into Spanish history, this one’s for you). If you know something about the history already and want to read excerpts from some original sources, Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable, is a fascinating read.

Be sure to come back next week for the riveting conclusion to “Who Were the Moors Anyway?” It will address such scintillating topics as the rise and fall of the party kings (who really did have a good time when they weren’t being conquered and exiled), the invention of Santiago Matamoros, and whether the Reconquista was actually just a conquista with good PR.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 10:48 am
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2 Responses to Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part I)

  1. Celena says:

    This really is very interesting – you are so passionate about history, and I’m starting to understand why! Who would have thought?! It’s the story – it’s all about the story.

    • Anna-Marie says:

      First pilgrimage, now history—I seem to be converting you every which way. Now you just need to get me riding.