What was the Spanish Reconquista?

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The Spanish Reconquista was a centuries-long effort by the Christian kingdoms of Spain to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule. The campaign began in AD 718 and lasted until AD 1492, when Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia, fell to the Catholic forces. 

Spain after the fall of Rome

The region of Iberia, which is modern Spain, had been controlled by different people groups in the ancient world. Most notably, the Roman Empire controlled it from the time of the Second Punic War at the end of the 3rd century BC, until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.

 

The western half of the Roman empire fell apart due to constant pressures from invading Germanic tribes. These tribes eventually captured and settled different parts of western Europe and set up their own kingdoms.

 

The Visigothic Kingdom was the first Germanic kingdom in Iberia, and it lasted from AD 410-718. Initially, the Visigoths were Arian Christians, which was different to the Christianity of the Roman Catholic Church. However, in around AD 589, the Visigoth leader Reccared I converted to Catholic Christianity, along with his subjects. From this point on, they were considered to be a Christian Kingdom.

 

In the early 7th century, a new religious force emerged in the Middle East, known as Islam. Its followers quickly expanded the Arab Muslim empire, which soon reached the borders of Visigothic Spain. In AD 718, at the Battle of Guadalete, the Visigoths were defeated by the invaders and Iberia became an Islamic kingdom instead of Christian. 


Muslim rule

After the defeat of the Visigoths, the Arabs took control of Spain and ruled it for centuries. The Umayyad Caliphate, which was based in Damascus, controlled most of Spain from AD 720-750.

 

However, their rule was challenged by a competing Muslim dynasty known as the Abbasids who overthrew the Umayyads and took control of the Caliphate in AD 750. 

 

The Abbasids moved the capital of the Caliphate from Damascus to Baghdad, which caused many Muslims in Spain to break away and establish an independent Emirate in Cordoba. The Umayyad Emirate of Cordoba lasted from AD 756-909. 

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The Reconquista begins

The reconquest of Spain began in AD 718 when the Christian king Pelagius defeated the Muslim army at the Battle of Covadonga. This victory encouraged successive Christian rulers to launch similar attacks on the Muslim forces in the hope of recapturing all of Spain for the Christian religion.

 

The process of 'recapturing' or 'reconverting' was known as Reconquista. The reconquest continued throughout the centuries as different Christian kingdoms slowly wrested control of territory from Muslim rule. 

 

Alfonso VI of Castile took the city of Toledo in 1085. He followed the Arab custom of keeping the multi-religious character of this culturally developed metropolis, which included Muslims, Christians, and Jews. For a time, he called himself to be "emperor over the two religions." 

 

After a series of devastated defeats at the hands of Christian armies, the Muslim rulers in the south sought military support from a new Muslim people group called the Almoravids. The Almoravids were a Berber dynasty based in Morocco in north Africa.

 

The Almoravids, landed in Spain in 1086 and swiftly overran the Christian strongholds that had been recently conquered. They are ultimately stopped on the east coast by the famous Christian military hero, El Cid, who captured the city of Valencia in 1094. Then, the city of Saragossa fell to the Christians in 1118.

 

The advance of the Christian kingdoms gradually weakened the Almoravids and, in 1147, the Almoravid's capital city in north Africa, Marrakesh, was captured by another group of Muslim Berbers, called the Almohads.


The Almohad dynasty

With the fall of the Almoravids, the Almohad dynasty took over control of the Muslim parts of Spain. They were able to push back against the Reconquista and reabsorb parts of Spain between 1147 and 1212.

 

The Christian King Alfonso VIII suffered a significant defeat at the Battle of Alarcos in July 1195 against the Almohads. In desperation, he called on the other Christian kings in Europe to help him.

 

In response to his call, Pope Innocent III declared a Crusade against the Almohads in 1212. With the extra crusading troops, Alfonso was able to defeat the Almohad emir of Morocco, Muḥammad al-Nāṣir, at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in July 1212.

 

Under the leadership of King Ferdinand III of Castile, the Christian armies were able to capture Cordoba in 1236 and forced the city of Sevilla to surrender in 1248. By this point, both Christian and Muslim forces were exhausted.

 

Ferdinand III permitted the Muslim territory of Granada to remain unconquered in return for a substantial annual payment. So, for the next century, the Reconquista ground to a halt, as the Christian kingdoms focused on rebuilding their newly conquered territories and restabalising their economies.

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The end of the Reconquista

The reconquest of Spain was finally completed in 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, conquered the last Muslim stronghold of Granada.

 

These two rulers combined the two most powerful Christian kingdoms: Castile and Aragon. With the fall of Granada, Muslims were no longer allowed to practice their religion openly and were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain. 

 

During their several decades in power, both Isabella and Ferdinand were worried about the religious beliefs of their subjects. The people in their kingdom were a mix of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

 

However, they wanted all of their subjects to be Christians. Therefore, they ruled that people either convert or leave their lands. It became obvious quite quickly that, in order to avoid leaving, many people pretended to convert to Christianity, but still practised their own faith in private.

 

For rulers that took their religion seriously, Isabella and Ferdinand wanted to find out who was faking their faith. To this end, they established the Spanish Inquisition in 1477. The Inquisition was a tribunal that investigated heresy and apostasy among Christians. Those who were found guilty could be tortured or burned at the stake.

 

Due to its growing brutal reputation, the Inquisition was gradually phased out as an effective tool of conversion. 


Legacy

The 1000-year period of Muslim rule in Spain, and the subsequent Reconquista had long-term impacts on the history of Spain. Modern historians argue that the militarism that formed the heart of the Reconquista created a Spanish which promoted religious conformity.

 

Furthermore, the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492 resulted in the spread of ideas and cultures throughout the Mediterranean world, as these people sought new homes.

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Further reading