The Reconquista of Spain

The Reconquista (Reconquest) of Spain (711-1942) is one of the longest series of wars in history. Later centuries turned it into a conflict in which the Christian states of Spain fought to liberate their country from the Muslim invaders. As with most of history, the story is far more complicated.

In the 7th century, Muslim armies, spurred on by religious zeal and a new found unity, expanded their control in an almost straight line west and east across the globe. They followed in the wake of untold numbers of Muslim missionaries, spreading the word of the new religion.

By 711, Muslim armies crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, conquering two thirds of Spain. In 717 they crossed the Pyrenees Mountains into France. In 734, Prince Charles Martel ended their expansion northward at the Battle of Tours, and in 759 the Muslims were forced back into Spain.

The situation in Spain stabilized, and a number of Christian and Muslim states developed, at various times fighting each other or making temporary alliances. Religion took a backseat to politics, and Christians and Muslims fought side by side. Cultural and military blending made it difficult to distinguish friend from foe.

Today, foreign fighters are pouring into Syria and Iraq, but for several centuries, Spain was the place for young men to go. Knights from all over Christendom, usually second and later sons, with just enough funds for arms and weapons, gathered their followers and headed off to seek their fortunes. If they were lucky, they could fight for several years for different masters, building up a reputation and military experience, find a wife of either religion, and become a noble landholder in their own right. More often, they only found an unmarked grave on some unnamed battlefield. Muslim warriors did the same. Even Vikings and archers from the steppes of Asia joined in the never ending conflict.

The life of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar (1043-1099), known as El Cid, the most famous knight of the Reconquista, exemplified this trend. He started his career fighting Christians for a Muslim king, and hopped back an forth as his fortunes waxed and waned. Finally, he ruled a principality, officially as a vassal of a Christian king but really independent, before dying in the siege of Valencia against Muslims.

Roland, the legendary paladin of Charlemagne, died in an ambush at the Battle of Roncevaux Pass (778). He was killed fighting rebellious Basques Christians, but later chroniclers changed the story to Muslims.

Edward the Black Prince (1330 -1376), the first Prince of Wales to die before becoming King of England, caught his fatal illness while campaigning in Spain, from which he suffered for years before dying.

The Crusades would put an end to the impasse, as the flood of Christian warriors greatly increased, while many Muslims left to go fight in the Holy Land. Although the Muslims eventually won the Crusades, they had enough other problems, from invading Mongol armies and inter struggles, and mostly gave up Spain as a lost cause.

In 1469 the marriage of two teenagers spelled the end of Muslim Spain. Queen Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon joined their two nations, and by 1492 captured the last Muslim stronghold of Granada. (As seen in the picture). They celebrated their victory by sending Christopher Columbus off to discover a new route to India, and by expelling from the country all of the Muslims and Jews who refused to convert.

So began the Spanish Empire, which for the next several centuries would dominant politics in Europe. It would explore and conquer the New World and even reach out to the Pacific. It was the time of Spanish armies, the dreaded Inquisition, and huge Treasure Fleets. Several centuries would go by before this empire died, exhausted by war, economic mismanagement, superstition, and religious repression.

Vast numbers of books in Latin, Greek, or Arabic captured during this reconquest would fuel the Renaissance in Europe.

I have visited the palace of Granada, admiring its beautiful artwork and pools of water invented as early air conditioning. Spain is a wonderful nation with a long history, and countless unknown heroes lie in perpetual slumber in her soil.

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