03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities, Christianity, Europe, Islam, Religion, Spain, Travel

Medieval Al-Andalus

Medieval Al-Andalus

The Andalusian region certainly has a different flavor, sound, and look than the rest of Spain. Today this region is called Andalusia but that comes from the Arabic term Al-Andalus for the Muslim-controlled regions of the Iberian Peninsula. This multicultural past remains very visible in the major cities of Cordoba, Granada and Seville (the three cities we happened to visit during our Spanish trip).

So here’s a little history about Al-Andalus:


Umayyad Conquest

In the 7th century the Muslim Umayyad dynasty was ousted from their capital in Damascus, Syria and one prince, Abd al-Rahman I escaped across North Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. This is the start of 700 years of Muslim rule in Spain.

Abd al-Rahman I signed a treaty with a Visigothic ruler in 713 (called the Treaty of Tudmir) granting him just rule over the local Christian territory. Abd al-Rahman I wanted to recreated his old capital at Damascus and embarked upon a monumental plan for new architecture, public spaces, and gardens. Additionally, they introduced new agricultural methods, foods and plants, luxury goods such as perfumes, silk, ivories, and metalworking originally from the Middle East. Out of all the arts, architecture and poetry made the biggest impact upon the Peninsula as artisans poured into this new cosmopolitan society.

Medieval Al-Andalus was known as a light in the “Dark Ages” (a term I personally hate for the medieval period but that’s another blog post entirely). The sciences, mathematics, Greek knowledge, and the arts were all flourishing in what is now seen as an enlightened society with Muslims, Christians, and Jews working together to further their scientific, philosophical, and theological aims. Although history is never as pretty as we’d like it to seem, this certainly was a “golden age” for Southern Spain.



One of the fundamental aspects of religious tolerance in Al-Andalus was the concept of dhimma. This was a contract between Muslims and the other “People of the Book” (aka Christians and Jews). The document stipulated that the religious minorities would receive protection and freedom of practice but had to submit to Islamic political authority and a special non-Muslim tax called jizya. There were other stipulations such as a ban on intermarriage and social stratification that may sound less tolerant but considering the circumstances and time period, this was unprecedented and created a strong culture of coexistence.

One visible evidence of this conglomeration of religions is through architecture. The best example today is the Mezquita (Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba): the horseshoe arches are reminiscent of influence from the Visigoths while the function as a mosque is distinctly Muslim and when the Christian kings took over Cordoba they transformed the minaret for the call to prayer into a belltower for Christian worship without destroying much of the original structure.



1492 was a big year for Spain: Columbus sailed the ocean blue but more importantly it was the official end of the Iberian Reconquista. The reconquista is a centuries-long desire to “reclaim” Christian lands from Muslim hands and can be seen as a branch of the medieval crusades. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand are credited as “The Catholic Monarchs” for their success in ending the last Islamic kingdom of Granada and expelling all the Jews.

This effectually is the end of the Islamic political influence in the Iberian Peninsula, but not the end of their cultural influence. Today you can smell distinct spices being used that are Arab in origin and the Catholic monarchs did not (thankfully!) destroy the Islamic architecture, they just augmented and incorporated their own flair and Christian use. For example, the famous mosque of Cordoba is now the cathedral but it still retains the famed horseshoe hypostyle hall built during the 8th century.


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