Ted Thornton
History of the Middle East Database
Umayyad Spain ( al-Andalus )

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click here for larger photo
House garden, Cordoba La Mezquita, Cordoba (photo by Patter Field)

See also Abbasid Baghdad

The caliphate of al-Hakam II (961-976) marked the high point of Islamic civilization in Muslim Spain (initiated by the exiled Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman in 756). The Umayyad capital from 929 to 1031 was Cordoba.  On the banks of the Guadalqavir River, Cordoba rose to become the most cultured city in Europe, and, with Constantinople and Baghdad, took its place as one of the three cultural centers of the medieval world. Cordoba at its height boasted a population of perhaps half a million living in 113,000 houses scattered among 21 suburbs (by comparison, there were only 40,000 living in Paris at this time).  The city housed 70 libraries. The library of al-Hakam II, a bibliophile of the first rank and perhaps the most scholarly of all Muslim caliphs, contained some 400,000 volumes (while the Swiss abbey of St. Gall had only about 600 books). There were 1,600 mosques, 900 public baths, and more than 80,000 shops. (Peter N. Stearns (ed.), The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth Edition (Boston:  Houghton-Mifflin, 2001), 179).

Construction on Cordoba's most famous surviving monument, La Mezquita ("the Mosque") was begun by Abd al-Rahman I in 786 on the sight of a Roman temple and Visigothic church and continued in stages up to the times of Hisham II in the eleventh century.  (see more below)

Mihrab ("niche") indicating qibla ("direction" to face Mecca for prayer), La Mezquita, Cordoba

The University of Cordoba, founded by al-Hakam's father, Abd al-Rahman III, grew to preeminence throughout the medieval world, attracting scholars from all over.  The height of Muslim learning in Andalus reached its peak during the time of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), 1126-98, philosopher, commentator on Plato and Aristotle, and physician.  However, his sojourns in Andalus were not entirely smooth:  in 1195, the al-Mohad ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (1184-1199) ordered Ibn Rushd into exile and further ordered that his books be burned.  Two years later, however, Ibn Rushd was restored to favor.

Another high point in the twelfth century was the collaboration of two scholars, one Christian and the other Muslim, on a series of translations of dozens of works from Arabic into Latin (by way of Spanish).  The works included texts in astronomy, medicine, mathematics and philosophy.  The Christian was Gerard of Cremona, and his good friend and colleague was the Muslim Ghalib the Mozarab.

Andalusian Arabs looked down the ends of their noses at their northern European neighbors whom they deemed uncivilized and boorish. The Toledan judge, Said (died 1070), wrote that the temperament of the Northerners, like their climate, was, "cold and their humours rude, while their bodies have grown large, their complexion light and their hair long. They lack withal sharpness of wit and penetration of intellect, while stupidity and folly prevail among them." ( Philip Hitti, A History of the Arabs, tenth edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 526)

Andalusian Arabs introduced agricultural methods from Western Asia into Europe. Canals were dug. Grapes were cultivated. Among the plants and fruits they introduced into the region were: rice (ar-ruzz ), apricots (al-barquq ), peaches, pomegranates, Seville (bitter) oranges (the Portuguese later introduced sweet oranges from India), sugar cane (al-sukkar ), cotton (al-qutn ), and saffron (al-za'faraan). Through Alexandria and Constantinople, Andalusian products found markets as far away as India and Central Asia. Trade with Baghdad, Damascus, and Mecca was especially active. The international nautical vocabulary of the modern world contains many words that echo Arab supremacy on the high seas in the Middle Ages: admiral, arsenal, average (from al-'awariyah, a duty leveled upon transported goods), cable, corvette (ghuraab, a war vessel, the Spanish corbeta), shallop (sloop, from Arabic jalbah, and Spanish chalupa), and tariff.

The process of manufacturing crystal was invented in Cordoba during this time, and Cordobans developed new methods of manufacturing paper (initially from China) in huge paper mills.

Andalus became the center for translating Arabic works into Latin.  Poetry thrived, and works in the "courtly love" tradition made their way into Proven├žal culture (Southern France) from Andalus on the tongues of "troubadours" (from an Arabic root ta-ra-ba meaning "to be transported with joy and delight"). Cordoba's Ibn Hazm (died 1064) was a leading example.  (see J. R. Hayes (et al. eds.), The Genius of Arab Civilization, Second Edition (United Kingdom:  Westerham Press, Ltd., 1983), 37)  Starting with the famous musician Zaryab (died ca. 850), Andalus became a center for innovation in music.

Physician Abbas az-Zahrawi ("Albucasis" or "Abulcasis" ca. 940-1013) wrote his medical encyclopedia at-Tasrif which emphasized the nurturing of good doctor-patient relations and contained a wealth of clinical information.  The Moroccan born geographer al-Idrisi (1100-1166) trained at Cordoba.

Finally, Abu-Imran Musa Ibn-Maymun, "Maimonides" (1135-1204), preeminent Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages was born in Cordoba. Maimonides wrote his most famous work, Dalalat al-Ha’ireen ("Guide of the Perplexed") in Arabic, an attempt to reconcile Jewish theology with Muslim Aristotelianism. Maimonides has been touted as one of the best examples of the mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews, and Christians that led to the cultural flowering in Andalus in the medieval period. However, the fact is he was forced out of Cordoba during a purge by the puritanical Muslim al-Mohads about 1165 after which he moved to Cairo where he served as court physician to Salah al-Din (Saladin) and where he died.

After 1031, The Caliphate of Cordoba split up into a number of smaller taifas (kingdoms).  Cordoba itself fell first into the hands of the al-Moravids in 1094, then came under control of the al-Mohads in 1149.  The city fell to the Christians in 1236 after which it went into steep decline.  The Mezquita was gradually converted into a church.  The most severe changes took place under Charles V in 1523, who, as he inspected the renovations, was said to have remarked to the priests in charge, "You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world."


The most prominent taifas to emerge in Muslim Spain after Cordoba's political power began to wane were Sevilla and Granada.  Construction on Sevilla's Alcazar ("fortress"), pictured below, began in 712.  It became a palace for Abd al-Rahman II in the ninth century.

Alcazar Gardens, Sevilla

Granada (Arabic Karnatta, both words mean "pomegranate") reached its pinnacle during the reigns of Yusef I (1334-54) and Muhammad V (1354-91).  These rulers were principally responsible for the construction of the Alhambra Palace (from Arabic al-Hamra, "the Red").

The Qur'an depicts the heavenly paradise as a garden "beneath which rivers flow"  (s.3:15).  In their buildings, Muslim architects strove to represent this paradise.  Arrangements of gardens, fountains, and water channels conveyed the feeling that the buildings themselves floated upon the life giving rivers flowing beneath.  

Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada


Alhambra, Granada


View from the Alhambra, Granada


Generalife Gardens, Alhambra, Granada

Gardens beneath which rivers flow.  --  Holy Qur'an, s.3:15

In 1212, Muslim forces were crushed in a battle with Christian armies at Navas de Tolosa. Of all the major Muslim Andalusian cities, only Granada held on until it, too, was captured by Christians in 1492. This was the turning point marking the final phase of Muslim rule in Spain.


Benchmarks in the History of Andalus:

710: Conquest.

711: Christian decrees against Jews reversed.

756-788: Umayyad Caliphate in Andalus.

778: "Chanson Roland."

11th Century: Al-Moravid conquests in Andalus.

1085: Muslims lose Toledo to Christian forces.

1147: Al-Mohads secure southern Andalus.

1212: Battle of Navas de Tolosa.

1469: Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella unites Spain under Christian rulers.

1492: Fall of Granada.

Cultural splendor of Muslim Spain

Additional Resource:

Virtual Walking Tour of the Alhambra


Principal sources:

John Esposito (ed.). The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World , four vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

John R. Hayes (ed), The Genius of Arab Civilization (Cairo: American University of Cairo Press, 1983), originally published by MIT Press in the USA and Westerham Press in the United Kingdom

Philip Hitti, History of the Arabs, Tenth Edition (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1970), 526ff.

Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, second edition (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2002)

Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World:  How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Little, Brown, 2002)

Edward Rothstein, "Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?," New York Times, Sept. 27, 2003


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Last Revised: July 17, 2009