What Was the Reconquista and Why Did It Last so Long?

History Hit

3 mins

09 Jan 2017

1492 is a year that rings throughout history. Across the world, people remember Columbus, his reaching of the Americas and the dawn of a new, global age.

However, an event of almost equal importance occurred nine months before Columbus sighted land in the Caribbean, as the influence of Islam was finally pushed out of western Europe by a unified Spain following the siege of Granada.

Conquerors from the Maghreb

Muslim invaders first came to Spain in 711, and for the next 750 years ruled over the majority of the Iberian peninsular as the territory of al-Andalus.

Though they were defeated and their advance halted in 732 in south-western France at the Battle of Tours, the countries that are now Spain and Portugal remained in Islamic hands.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Spain had been ruled by Christian Visigothic Kings, but the ferocious onslaught from the south ensured that the Visigoths were quickly crushed and the Iberian peninsula subdued at Moorish hands.

The influence of Spain’s Muslim rulers can still be seen in their architectural legacy. Credit: El Confidencial

Humble beginnings

The period in Iberian history known as the Reconquista, or re-conquest, began in 722 at Covadonga, where a rebel Christian army defeated the Muslim armies in northern Spain, before forming the kingdom of Asturias in the northern mountains.

This small impudent kingdom in the north would prove to be the launchpad for centuries of bitter fighting against Muslim Spain.

Over the next few centuries, the Kingdom of Asturias survived and began to slowly expand southwards against a foe who were beginning to weaken from their 8th century pomp, but remained formidable. In 924 Asturian forces won their first major victory, capturing the city of León in Spain’s north west region.

After the capture of the city, however, Christian fortunes plummeted, as the Emirate of Cordóba in the south gathered strength.  The Christians were also blighted by rebellions, and internal intrigues prevented effective resistance.

Inexorable progress

Despite all this however, the kingdom clung on to life and by the dawn of the new millennium the Reconquista was ready to be resumed. In 1085, the old Visigoth capital of Toledo fell to Christian forces.

The capture of Toledo was a major milestone of the Reconquista. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This symbolic morale boost ensured that the Reconquista earned recognition across Christendom, and the Kings of León and Castille, another emergent kingdom, began to expand their domains.

Alarmed by these developments, the Moorish rulers of southern Spain invited the Almoravids, tough Islamic warriors from Africa, to fight for them.

The fact that the Reconquista took almost 800 years is testament to the strength of Almoravid resistance, even after Islamic power began to wane after c.1200. The years after the capture of Toledo were made famous by the general El Cid, who took Valencia from the Muslims but also changed sides frequently and forged his own personal fiefdom.

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After the death of El Cid in 1099 the advance continued, slow but unrelenting, and by 1238 more than half of the Iberian peninsula was in Christian hands. During this time, in 1143, the independent Kingdom of Portugal was founded in the west of Iberia.

Final victory

Throughout the middle ages, a succession of bloody battles and sieges were fought, until, in 1492, only the Almoravid fortress of Granada remained. By this time, political pressure and dynastic marriages had unified Spain and turned it into a formidable European power.

The Alhambra in Granada was the final seat of Muslim power in Spain. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On the 2 January Emir Mohamed XII of Granada, faced with overwhelming enemy strength, surrendered his kingdom and its beautiful Alhambra palace to the Christians after a ten-year war. The Reconquista was complete.

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