When you think of medieval Europe, you usually think of knights, castles, and the church. Rarely, though, do you think of the Moors, the powerful, benevolent rulers of Spain for nearly 700 years. While the rest of Europe was still struggling with Feudalism and food shortages, Moorish Spain was a center of culture, science, and trade. The illustrious Moors brought to the dry Spanish plains irrigation systems imported from Syria, transforming the area into a rich agricultural cornucopia. Foods introduced by the Moors were pomegranates, oranges, lemons, aubergines, sugar-cane, cotton, rice, figs, grapes, and many others. The Moorish conquest and subsequent colonization of Spain had many effects on Spanish and European culture.
In the early 8th century Moorish soldiers crossed over to Spain from North Africa. The 10,000 man army was lead by Tarik bin Ziyad, who in 711 AD won a major victory over the defenders of the Iberian peninsula. After this quick victory Tarik ran like a plague through the Iberian Peninsula and after a month had ended European dominance there. Musa bin Nusayr, the Arab governor of North Africa, crossed over with 18,000 men to help subdue the peninsula. In the aftermath of the Arab conquest thousands of eager Arabs flooded into the newly conquered emirate. This quick and easy conquest could not have been accomplished without the events of 755. At that time the current rulers of Spain were the Visigoths. In 755 the Visigothic King was engaged in a power struggle with his half- brother, who had claimed the thrown for himself. To subdue this usurper, the King asked for aid from the Witiza family, a powerful and influential clan in Morocco. The clan agreed and helped in capturing and beheading the usurper. Meanwhile, as the king was busy quelling the rebellion, he was not winning any popularity contests. The Arabs in turn made pacts with local nobles, who agreed that they would withhold support from the king when the Moors invaded. These agreements, together with the indigenous population’s apathy, lead to the speedy take over of Spain.
By the beginning of the 9th century, Spain had become the gem of Europe with its bristling capital at Cordoba. At a time when London was no more than a wide spot in the road, Cordoba boasted a half-million citizens, 700 mosques, 300 public baths, and over 70 libraries. The twenty-one suburbs had paved and lit streets, with marble and mosaic floors and balconies. Artificial gardens and fountains graced the city proper, and paper, still unheard of to the west, was in ample supply.
Nearing the end of the 1st Millennium, Cordoba was the intellectual center of Europe. Students from all over Europe came to be taught by Arab, Christian, and Jewish scholars in the great Library of Cordoba, which held over 600,000 manuscripts. The rich and complex society had a tolerant view of other faiths. Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in harmony, and the society had a literary base. Private land ownership was encouraged, as well as banking among Jews. Non-believers in the Muslim faith were simply levied a special tax. Unfortunately, rifts began to form within Arabic Spain, and in 1013 Cordoba fell to a Muslim faction with fanatical religious beliefs. The great library of Cordoba was torched, and many inhabitants fled the once brilliant city. Luckily, most of the books were spared the flame and were dispersed among the surrounding towns.
As the Moors were fighting and dividing, the Christians in the north were doing the opposite. In the northern areas of Spain, Christian kingdoms united to drive the Moors from the European continent. In 1105 the Christians captured Toledo, where the Muslims held vast libraries of Greek, Roman, and Arabic books on philosophy and mathematics. These books included the classics of Rome and Greece, lost to the west for hundreds of years. The intellectual plunder lead to scholars from all over Europe to come to Toledo. Using Jewish interpreters, the scholars translated the Arabic books, and these works left lasting jealousies on the scholars of Europe. The texts included medicine, astrology, astronomy, pharmacology, psychology, physics, physiology, zoology, biology, botany, mineralogy, optics, chemistry, mathematics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, music, meteorology, geography, mechanics, hydrostasis, navigation, and history. These transcripts helped to light the fire of the renaissance. While the intellectual plunder of Toledo was being studied by European scholars, the Moors were being pushed back by Christian armies. As every new enclave was taken, more information was seized and translated. In 1234 the Moors were reduced into the Vassal state of Granada, which fell in 1492. With this victory, the intolerant Spaniards killed or exiled all Arab or Jewish people who had retreated into Granada.
The Moors left a lasting impact on Spain as well as all of Europe. Because of the flood of information gained, the first universities sprang up and degrees were developed. Directly from the Moors we get the Arabic number system still in use today. Also, the concept of zero was gained. Arabic music spread giving us the keyboard, flute, and harmony. The new agricultural crops gave the Spanish reason to create vast sugar cane and cotton plantations in the new world. Mathematics and architecture were derived, and optics lead to the use of perspective in painting. The first lawyers began to practice, and food utensils were beginning to gain favor. As a result of centuries of Moorish domination, many words from Arabic, the language of Islam, are now used in Spanish. One example is “almirante,” Spanish for admiral, derived from Arabic amir-al-bahr (“prince of the sea”). Many Spanish words beginning with “al” are derived from Arabic articles. Another example of Arabic influence on the Spanish Language is the word wadi, Arabic for river. Wadi is found in many Spanish river names such as Guadalajara and Guadalquivir. Altogether the Moors had major impact on Spanish and European culture.