Saturday, April 28, 2012

A potted tale of invasion and reconquest


By April 711 the Romans had gone. They took their toilets, language and education with them. The Christian Visigoths were top dog. Well they were until their Royals began to squabble. One of them, a Prince no less, invited the North Africans, the Moors, to give him a hand in kicking out his old dad. The Moors weren't that keen. They didn't fancy crossing the open water between Morocco and Spain. In the end they did. An army of about ten thousand Berbers landed at Gibraltar led by a chap called Tariq and smashed the Visigothic army. The Prince had expected the Moors to come, grab a bit of booty and then push off home. He must have been upset when they decided to stay!

The Moorish army swept on to capture the Goth capital, Toledo. Every now and then Tariq chopped up and boiled a prisoner or two to make sure that rumours spread that he was well hard. The next year another Moorish army crossed the Straits commanded by Tariq's boss, Musa. The two men and their armies met up in Toledo and then pushed up on North.They strolled through Spain, more or less unhindered. An army that never exceeded 40,000 troops conquered the whole of Spain in about ten years..

The bit the Spaniards like best about this story is the next bit. It's 722 and the Moors are mopping up the remnants of the Visigothic army that has fallen in with some local resistance fighters led by a minor warlord called Pelayo. Pelayo gives the Moors a sound thrashing at Covadonga in Asturias.The Reconquest has begun. The Christians are fighting back.

If Covadonga was a bit of a setback for the Moors and the battle that set the limits of Al Andalus, the Moorish Kingdom in Spain the Battle at Tours in France (just 490 miles from London) was the one that put paid to Moorish hopes of the total domination of Europe. There, in 732, Charles Martel, some King or other, stopped the Moors dead in their tracks and sent them scurrying back to the Iberian Peninsula.

From then on in it all gets really complicated. It isn't really right to think of Muslims versus Christians though it does make the story easier to tell. It would be more accurate to think of local rulers struggling for more land, more taxes and the booty of battle. The two cultures, Christian and Muslim or three if you count the sizeable Jewish contingent, intermingled. Warriors and politicians on all sides making and breaking deals to suit their own purposes. In the 11th Century Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, El Cid, became a Spanish folk hero, big enough for Hollywood to make a film about him a few years later. In reality El Cid didn't worry too much about who he was fighting for as long as the price was right.

Nor is it right to think of the Christians moving slowly but relentlessly from North to South pushing the Moors before them. Sometimes the Moors moved back North and often the border was stable long enough to build defensive castles. That's why there are lines of castles like the ones in Sax, Petrer and Castalla. Finally though, Ferdinand and Isabella, Los Reyes Catolicos, took the last Moorish stronghold of Granada in 1492 and it was all over. With Spain finally secured those same Catholic Kings broadened their horizons and paid for Cristóbal Colón's (Christopher Columbus to you and me) adventure to find a new route to the spice rich Indies. It was in 1492, the year that Granada fell, that Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue and bumped into the island of Hispaniola just a little off the American coastline. But that's another story.

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