In July 710 a Berber officer and some 400 soldiers stormed onto a beach in Spain, lighting the fuse that was to set off an historic explosion. Less than a century had passed since the flame of Islam had swept out of the faraway Arabian Peninsula. But now, as Tarif ibn Malik led his men on a reconnaissance raid across the narrow, eight-mile strait separating North Africa from the Iberian Peninsula, Islam had come to Europe.
In the year following that exploratory raid the Muslims crossed the strait again, but this time in force. Some 7,000 men led by Tariq ibn Ziyad landed at Gibraltar—Jabal Tariq in Arabic—and caught the Visigothic Christian rulers of Spain off guard. Their king, Roderick, fighting Basques in the north, quickly turned south with his army and, despite Muslim reinforcements from North Africa, soon gained the initiative and launched an attack near the present-day town of Algeciras. The battle was going well for the Christians when, according to Muslim sources, the two flanks of Roderick's army, commanded by Roderick's rivals, broke away and joined the invaders. The Muslims won the day.
Torn by rivalries and dissent at the time—as the invaders themselves would be in later centuries—the people of the Spanish Peninsula offered little further resistance. By 718 Muslim victory was complete, or very nearly. They controlled most of the peninsula except for a small nucleus of resistance behind the forbidding Cantabrian mountains in the cold northwest.
The Muslim advance into Europe essentially stopped in Spain. But raiding parties did cross the Pyrenees and, 21 years after they landed at Gibraltar, the Muslims in some force reached the Loire Valley about 120 miles south of Paris. There, in 732, the Frankish King Charles Martel decisively defeated them in a battle fought near the towns of Tours and Poitiers.
This battle—called the Battle of Tours in English histories and the Battle of Poitiers in French histories—was long considered a significant victory for Europe, but it seems more likely, as some historians say, that the century-long Muslim thrust from Arabia had simply spent itself.
The spark of Visigothic Christian resistance in northern Spain, left alone to smolder, provided the fire that centuries later led to reconquest. Had the spark been put out once and for all, as it probably could have been in 718, Spain might be an Arabic-speaking Muslim country today. As it turned out, the Muslims ruled over much of the peninsula for about three centuries and held on for nearly eight centuries in their last Andalusian stronghold, the Kingdom of Granada. The history of the entire epoch, however, is the story of a protracted series of often inconclusive battles between the north and south, interspersed with long periods of peaceful cultural and trade relations and others of intra-Christian and intra-Muslim feuding.
Spain had seen many foreign invaders before the Muslims stormed ashore in 711. The Phoenicians explored the coastal areas as early as 1100 B.C. and the Carthaginians established trading colonies about 650 B.C. The Romans conquered the entire Iberian Peninsula over a period of two centuries after taking Cadiz in the south in 206 B.C. Spanish literature, law, administration and language still show the Roman influence. They also built some 12,000 miles of highways, as well as aqueducts and bridges, and although many of the bridges still stand today, Rome's empire crumbled, and Spain was invaded by Germanic tribes from the north. First came the Vandals—from whom probably came the name Andalusia—and then, about AD 400, the Visigoths, who were also Germanic, but Christian.
Compared to the Romans, who came before them, and the Muslims, who came after, the Visigoths left hardly a mark on Spain. They came with their families to settle, adopted the highly developed law and administration system they found there and gradually were integrated. Though they ruled for nearly three centuries the Visigoths contributed only about 200 words to the Spanish language, most related to dress and warfare. The Muslims, by contrast, left some 6,500 words—during their domination Arabic became the language of Spain—and a civilization far in advance of medieval Europe.
Spaniards today frequently use the English expression, "Spain is different." They use it sarcastically to describe something they consider too folkloric for their taste or—until recently, at least—Spain's different political situation. But beyond that narrow context this magnificent country is different from the rest of Europe, and in my personal view, the proud centuries of Islamic rule in Spain are the main reason why. I see the history of Islamic Spain as centered around three Andalusian cities: Cordoba, Seville and Granada. And to me it is no coincidence that these are still the three most delightful cities in Spain.