If you were to travel Spain today, something you would likely say to yourself along your journey is “wow, that’s a lot of churches!”
Like much of Europe, Spanish towns are almost all built around what was once considered the most important building of any European settlement: the church.
But if you travel a bit more in Spain, especially in its southern region of Andalusia, you’ll find lots of churches that look very different from other churches in Europe. This is because they were originally built as mosques, the place of worship for practitioners of Islam, also known as Muslims. In the case of Medieval Spain, these Muslim groups are often referred to collectively as “Moors.”
These mosques-turned-churches are all over Spain, including the world-famous one in Cordoba that is known for its elaborate architecture and ornate decoration.
The presence of these buildings are the remnants from an important part of Medieval Spanish history, known today as the Moorish Occupation or the Reconquista.
Seven Centuries of Reconquest Defines a Modern Nation
The reconquista, which means reconquest in Spanish, was a period of cultural transformation and near-constant religious war that started in the 8th century AD.
It all began when the Umayyad dynasty, the leaders of the Arab Caliphate (Muslim kingdom), based in Damascus, Syria, invaded and conquered the Iberian Peninsula in its quest to spread Islam to the rest of the world.
This conquest led to the formation of an imperial province and then an independent kingdom that dominated the Iberian peninsula and its culture for nearly eight centuries.
As the Umayyad armies moved across the Middle East, North Africa, and then the Iberian Peninsula, people converted to Islam in droves. Islamic culture and customs mixed and mingled with those of Christian Spain, creating a brand new culture unlike any other.
But what could have been a story of peace and harmony quickly turned bloody.
The Invasion of the Moors: The Spread of Islam as a Threat to Christianity
The Umayyad armies crashed the coasts of southern Spain in 711 AD and tore across the peninsula like wildfire.
The previous rulers of Spain, the Visigoths and others, weren’t too happy about being driven out of their native lands by people who looked and acted so differently and who, perhaps more importantly, practiced a religion they saw as a threat to their own. But there was little they could do to stop such a powerful force.
The Visigothic Kingdom, the primary rulers of the Iberian fell within a year of the initial invasion and the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula who did not surrender for peace were forced on the run.
This victory meant the Umayyad Empire, the leader of the Muslim world, stretched from Spain in the West to Pakistan in the East.
At this point one of the largest empires in history, the Umayyads seemed unbeatable. And their success had become an existential threat to Christian Europe.
Battles of Covadonga and Tours: Stopping the Moorish Advance
Empowered by their victories, the Umayyad forces continued past the Pyrenees and into France. But there they finally met their match.
Their first defeat came at the hand of the Visigoths at the Battle at Covadonga, a city on the northern coast of Spain.
Led by a man named Pelagius, the battle took place in either 718 or 722 AD depending on the source.
This success opened a crack in the window for the Christians of Europe, and Pelagius entered it by declaring himself king of a new realm.
Just like that, the Kingdom of Asturias, the first Christian kingdom of the reconquista was born.
Despite their loss at Covadonga, the Umayyads were no quitters. They rallied from this defeat and marched further into France. But this time they ran into a brick wall: the Frankish empire led by Charles Martel, the founder of the powerful Carolingian dynasty.
These soon-to-be emperors of Europe stopped the Umayyad advance by delivering a crushing blow to their army at the Battle of Tours.
The Umayyads turned and ran back towards Spain. But instead of continuing the fight into Spain, Martel stopped in his tracks and secured his lines. He actually drew a boundary on the map right through the Pyrnees and fortified his French territory.
The Christians of Europe could take a deep breath. But this victory in France meant letting go of Spain.
At least for a time.
Motivated by their victories at Covadonga and Tours, the fleeing Christians began organizing the “reconquest” of the land they saw as rightfully theirs.
The New Christian Kingdoms of Spain
Although quite small, the Kingdom of Asturias took on symbolic meaning for the Christian leaders in the Iberian peninsula. Both the Pope and Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, recognized it as legitimate.
This was a big deal because these two guys were the dual heads of the Christian faith. Recognizing the Kingdom of Asturias was a way of saying, “Hey, fellow Christians, we got your back.”
It also helped the Spanish nobility frame their fight as a religious one. While their primary motivation was to get their land back, religion allowed them to claim they were doing the work of God.
The Kingdom of Castile
Another kingdom to emerge in this period was the Kingdom of Castile. Originally a buffer region between the Kingdom of Asturias (which later became the Kingdom of Leon) and Moorish-controlled territory, it was full of castles and other fortifications meant to help fight back the advancing Muslim armies.
Its name may come from the number of castles found in the area.
Over time, Castile became increasingly independent and broke free from Leon to form its own kingdom. It eventually spread its influence to become one of the two most powerful kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Kingdom of Aragon
The other major player on the Iberian Peninsula during the reconquista was the Kingdom of Aragon. Originally a Frankish county, Aragon broke from the Carolingian dynasty in the 10th century and went its own way.
By the end of the reconquista Aragon and Castile became closely connected. In 1469, their alliance was cemented in history with the marriage of Isabelle of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon. Known as the “Catholic kings,” these two monarchs are considered the first rulers of the modern Kingdom of Spain.
The Kingdoms of Spain Expand
The Reconquista is ultimately the story of the various Christian kingdoms expanding and combining forces to drive out the Moors and reestablish Christian dominance throughout the Iberian peninsula.
The Aragonese spread south along the coast, and Castile moved through the central plateau of the Iberian Peninsula. It eventually merged with Leon to form a super-kingdom that dominated much of the Peninsula.
The Aragonese also expanded out into the Mediterranean, creating a small empire for themselves that touched the southern coast of France as well as the western coast of Italy.
These two kingdoms were some of the most powerful in all of Europe. And thanks to the religious nature of their wars of expansion, they had close relations with the Pope and other important leaders of the Catholic church.
All of this Christian and Spanish expansion came at the expense of the Umayyad Caliphate, which eventually became known as Al-Andalus.
But this was a slow process. And by slow, we mean like molasses on a cold day.
The whole thing took around 700 years.
By the 14th century, all that remained of Al-Andalus was a small section of territory in what is now Southern Spain. It was centered around the city of Granada, which was home to the impressive Umayyad castle known as the Alhambra.
The Fall of Granda
It took nearly 10 years for Granada to fall, but it finally did in 1492. This officially expelled Muslim rulers from the Iberian Peninsula and ended the “reconquest.”
The Iberian Peninsula was once again entirely in the hands of Christian rulers.
This 700-year period of war in which the many Christian kingdoms of Spain were forming and fighting their way south is today known as the reconquista, or reconquest.
Framing it like this makes the Moors sound like thieves. Like they came in and took this land, which then had to be reconquered.
This isn’t totally correct. But it isn’t totally incorrect, either.
Sure, the Christians had been living there. But they weren’t born there. The Visigoths, the culture that dominated the peninsula before the arrival of the Moors, invaded and conquered it after the fall of the Roman Empire.
So what belonged to who really remains a mystery. Can anyone really ever own land?
In fact, it wasn’t until the wars against the Muslim Ummayyads were over or nearly over did the name reconquista appear. It implied that these lands were “rightfully” Christian and had to be retaken in the name of God.
In other words, it made these wars “holy.”
The Only “Successful” Crusade
Around the time of the Spanish reconquista, a number of other holy wars were being fought throughout the Medieval world.
Known as the Crusades, these military expeditions featured Christians from Europe traveling to the Middle East, mainly Jerusalem, to “take back” lands that were supposed to be Christian but that had been conquered by Muslims.
These wars, both in the Iberian Peninsula and the Middle East, were sanctioned by the Catholic Church and the Pope. This idea that Christian lands were in danger and needed to be rescued was immensely popular amongst the people of Medieval Europe. And it was also a lucrative affair for the Church. They could call upon kings for not only soldiers and weapons but also money to fund the Crusades and their quest for power.
However, the reconquista was the only one of these religious wars to actually achieve its aim. Its success gave the Church and its followers a cause to keep fighting for, which helped elevate the Church’s position in Medieval society to one of supreme power, redefining Medieval history along the way.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao