The Islamic Warriors' Destruction of a Nascent Civilization: The Catholic Kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain (A.D. 589–711) - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

The Islamic Warriors’ Destruction of a Nascent Civilization: The Catholic Kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain (A.D. 589–711)


This essay appears in the Winter-Spring 2011 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.


The Spanish [Muslim] city of Cordova, in the tenth century, was very much like a modern city. Its streets were well paved and there were raised sidewalks for pedestrians. At night one could walk for ten miles by the light of lamps, flanked by an uninterrupted extent of buildings. This was hundreds of years before there was a paved street in Paris, France, or a street lamp in London, England. . . . The marvelous cities of Toledo, Seville, and Granada were rivals of Cordova in respect to grandeur and magnificence. . . . Education was universal in Moorish Spain, being given to the most humble, while in Christian Europe ninety-nine percent of the people were illiterate, and even kings could neither read nor write. You had Moorish women who were doctors and lawyers and professors.
John G. Jackson, “The Empire of the Moors,” in Ivan van Sertima, ed., Golden Age of the Moor (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1991), 86

We should think of the Muslims, in some way, as a migratory wave, just like the Visigoths, except two hundred [sic] years later.
—David Nirenberg, Johns Hopkins University, in the PBS documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, 2007

The Muslim conquest of the Spanish Visigoth kingdom during the early years of the eighth century interrupted the process of cultural and ethnic fusion of Hispano Romans and Visigoths, and therefore the emergence of a new Catholic Hispano-Visigoth civilization.1 But Islam’s destruction of Hispano-Visigoth Spain and of its lingering heritage (the “Mozarabs”) is often glossed over by today’s historians, in contrast to the abundant condemnations they bestow on the Christian West’s treatment of “Third World” peoples. Catholic Hispano-Visigoth civilization is caught between the double neglect of those who see the Muslim invasion as bringing enlightenment to a cultural wasteland—the European “Dark Ages”—and those who counter this false belief by insisting on how much more civilized were the indigenous Hispano-Romans compared to the “barbaric” Visigoths.

Never mind that the so-called European Dark Ages were less dark than is usually proclaimed,2 and certainly quite enlightened when compared to Muslim culture prior to the Arabs’ conquest of the Middle East and North African provinces of the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire (“Byzantine”) in the seventh and eighth centuries; or that the Germanic, or perhaps Baltic, Visigoths were the most Romanized of the nations that took over the Latin Roman Empire;3 or that Visigoth leaders knew Latin, after generations of service to Rome; or that Visigoth law was no more “brutal” than medieval Islamic sharia; or that Visigoth women enjoyed a political and social freedom impossible under Islam and that, in fact, the Visigoths had several women monarchs.4

Contrary to what some historians teach today, the Muslim invasion of Spain in the eighth century differed qualitatively from that of the Visigoths in the fifth century. By the time the Visigoths began to take over Spain from the Latin (or Western) Roman Empire in 415, they had been serving the empire for generations as soldiers, generals, and even political leaders, were culturally Romanized, and considered themselves the continuators of the empire, not its destroyers; this was not the case with the Muslim invaders, whose culture was very different from that of Hispano-Romans and Visigoths. The Visigoths did not make their faith the dominant religion of the land, but instead converted to the existing and prevalent religion, Catholicism; Islam did the opposite. Unlike Muslims, the Visigoths had not been motivated by their religious faith to make the land submit to their religion and make those who did not convert pay a particular tax specifically designated, as Maliki texts from the Middle Ages remind us (the Maliki school of Islamic law, second only to the Hanbali in its rigorous understanding of Islam, was the school of law prevalent in Islamic Spain), to humiliate them and remind them of their submission. The Visigoths initially professed a form of Christianity (Arianism) that, though considered a heresy by orthodox Christians, had been founded by a Christian bishop and was therefore closer to orthodox Christianity (Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy) than Islam. The Visigoths were linguistically close to the Hispano-Romans, since they spoke an Indo-European language, and their leaders and eventually the people at large adopted Latin; the Islamic invaders spoke a Semitic language and instead imposed it on the land. As Indo-Europeans, the Visigoths were ethnically close to the Hispano-Romans; the Arab and Berber invaders were not. All these factors made it easier for the Visigoths to undertake the cultural and ethnic unification of Spain once they abandoned Arianism in 589 and converted to the religion of the majority of the population, Catholicism.

“Filled with Treasures”

Despite the bubonic plague, locust plagues, drought, social problems, and civil wars that ravaged Spain and debilitated it economically and socially in the years prior to the Muslim conquest,5 at the beginning of the eighth century the Catholic kingdom of the Visigoths still presented itself as a wonderland to the rude Berber invaders. Medieval Muslim chronicles tell of the astonishment experienced by the Islamic warriors at the splendor of such Visigoth cities as Toledo, Seville, Córdoba, and Mérida.

In a chronicle attributed to Abu Jaafar al-Kortobi, it is said that the Visigoth traitor, Count “Ylian” (Julian), enticed Musa to conquer Spain by describing it as a land “filled with treasures of all kinds, whose inhabitants would make very handsome slaves, a country abounding in springs, gardens, rivers, and a land yielding every description of fruits and plants.”6 Count Julian’s words were proven true when the Muslim leader Tariq found near the Visigoth capital of Toledo “one and twenty copies of the Torah, the Gospels, and the Psalms, as well as a copy of the book of Abraham, and another of that of Moses [probably Deuteronomy]. . . . He found likewise five-and-twenty royal diadems, beautifully ornamented with jewels, one for each of the kings who had ruled over the country. . . . He found also . . . books treating of the manner of using plants, minerals, and animals, advantageous for man, besides many wonderful talismans, the work of ancient philosophers, and another work on the great art [which teaches the construction of talismans], and its roots and elixirs; all these precious objects, together with an immense quantity of rubies and other coloured gems, stored in golden and silver urns of beautiful workmanship, and ornamented with large pearls, were the fruits of Tarik’s conquest.”7

Al-Kortobi confirms that when Musa went to Damascus to pay homage to the Caliph, he brought with him “all the spoil . . . consisting of thirty skins full of gold and silver coin, necklaces of inestimable value, pearls, rubies, topazes, and emeralds, besides costly robes of all sorts; he was followed by eleven hundred prisoners, men, women and children, of whom four hundred were princes of the royal blood.”8 The craftsmanship of the bejeweled sandals of Visigoth king Rodrigo was such that when found after the Battle of Guadalete they were valued at one hundred thousand dinars.9 The earliest Muslim chronicler of Islamic Spain, Rasi, recounts the fate of a wonderful bridge over the Tagus river: “It was so well built that there was nothing like it in the whole of Spain,” and during the Islamic conquest of Toledo a Muslim leader ordered it destroyed.10 Rasi tells of the looting of Toledo: “There were no cities nor castles in Spain where Tariq found and took more jewels and a greater treasure than in Toledo.” Chronicler Al-Makkari gives further examples of the magnificence of the Hispano-Roman and Visigoth Spain pillaged by the Muslim conquerors: as late as 1145, a Muslim ruler pulled down and melted a great bronze statue that stood on top of the no longer extant tower of the city of Cádiz, thinking that the statue, deprecated by Muslims as an “idol,” was made of gold.11

Muslim chronicler Ibnu Bashkuwal described the former Visigoth royal palace in Córdoba as full of “wonderful remains of the Greeks, Romans, and Goths”; “the interior apartments were so magnificently decorated as to dazzle with the beauty of their ornaments the eyes of beholders.”12 The Muslim beholders were mostly Berbers, who formed the bulk of the invading armies, and who had never before contemplated such a degree of civilization. “This palace,” the chronicler continues, “the Khalifs of the house of Merwan chose for their residence.”

The sacking of Visigoth Spain was stupendous, to judge from the Arabic accounts, the corroborating Christian accounts (such as the Crónica mozárabe of 754 and the Crónica bizantina of 741), and the material evidence provided by the treasures that some Visigoths managed to hide from Muslim hands. A work attributed to Ibn Koteybah Ad-dinawari tells of the immense booty taken from Spain by the conqueror Musa: besides the children of the Gothic kings and thousands of male and female slaves, Musa took gold diadems, vases of gold and silver, jewels “beyond computation and all sorts of novelties,” and a stupendous “jeweled table,” the craftsmanship of which Muslims had never seen before, made of “pure gold and silver mixed,” ornamented “with three rows of inestimable jewels, one of large pearls, another of rubies, and a third of emeralds.”13 “Nothing,” the Muslim author concluded, “could be conceived more rich or beautiful.” What was this “table,” as the Islamic conquerors called it, which they carried away to the Umma after their colossal sacking of Visigoth Toledo? It was in fact part of the altar furnishings of the great cathedral of Toledo, and on it rested the Gospels while they were not being read at Mass.14 The fate of the most impressive Catholic monuments at the hands of the Islamic invaders is further revealed by chronicler Ibnu-l-faradhi: “I was told by Abu Mohammed Ath-thegri, that Karkashunah (Carcassone) is a city distant five-and-twenty miles from Barcelona, and that when the Muslims conquered it, they found a magnificent church, called by the Christians Santa Maria, wherein were seven pillars of massive silver; so beautifully wrought, that no human eye ever saw the like of them; so huge were their dimensions, that a man could hardly encompass one within his arms extended.”15 After the Muslim conquest, all this disappeared.

In Zaragoza, Musa found and took “incalculable wealth.”16 When Musa left Spain to go back to the Umma, he amazed “the inhabitants of the countries through which he passed with the immense treasures he carried, treasures the like of which no hearer ever heard of before, and no beholder ever saw before his eyes.” When questioned by his lord, Suleyman, on the nature of the “people of Ishban” (that is, Spain: Muslims had not yet rebaptized it as “al-Andalus”), Musa answered: “They are luxurious and dissolute lords, but knights who do not turn their faces from the enemy. . . . Among the nations just described there are men of honour and probity, there are also traitors and knaves.” Historian Manuel Rincón Álvarez has observed:

The North-African mass [that conquered Spain] was by and large Berber, war-like, hungry for booty, but with no or little capacity for absorbing culture and even less of interacting with the indigenous population. Within that mass, there was an Eastern, Arab minority, with greater cultural formation, but equally impelled by the explosion of the Jihad, or Holy War; all paths were correct to reach God, so it was convenient to tolerate the defeated because this facilitated the prosecution of the conquest of new territories. But whereas among these bedouins from the desert one could rarely find people who knew how to read and write, in the indigenous population rested the sediment of Roman civilization and the Isidorian flowering and, even if we recognize that this was the culture of an elite, it had already produced encyclopedias like the LiberGlossarum, and there remained still the fruits of the scientific schools of Seville and Toledo, among so many other cultural examples from that time. To underestimate the cultural level of pre-Islamic Spain in 711 is, at the same time, to ignore what came before it, namely the fusion of the Hispano-Roman element with the Visigoth component. It should be unnecessary to remember that indigenous Iberia had reached a high level of Romanization.17

Even after their conquest of Spain, the invading Berbers continued to lead a primitive, nomadic life, taking along wherever they went their wives and children: according to chronicler Ibnu-l-abbar, it was Abd-al-Rahman I (Emir of Córdoba in a.d. 755) who first managed to make them build villages and live a sedentary life.18

The Cultural Influence of the Greeks

The years of Muslim semibarbarism in Spain are usually forgotten by those who focus on the brilliance of the Caliphate of Córdoba (a.d. 929–1031)—the result, on the one hand, of the increasing Islamization of the more cultured Hispano-Romans and Visigoths who remained under Muslim rule and, on the other hand, of Spanish Islam’s assimilation of Hispano-Roman, Visigoth, and Greek architecture, science, and medicine. A good example is medicine: the medical works of Dioscorides were translated from the Greek into Arabic by the Greek Orthodox monk Stephan; during the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba, the emperor of the Greeks, Armanius, gave the original Greek works to Abd-al-Rahman III as a present; since the Muslims in Córdoba did not have anyone who knew Greek, the emperor sent a Greek monk, who at the request of Abd al-Rahman instructed the Muslim ruler’s slaves in Greek.19 Before the works on logic of Arabs and Persians, eighth-century Christians in the Middle East had written commentaries on Aristotelian logic and introduced logic to the Arabs; those commentaries disappeared during the Muslim conquest. According to Ibn Khaldun, as late as the conquest of the Roman Greek Orthodox Empire province of Egypt in a.d. 641, Caliph Umar still forbade Muslims to navigate the sea because “the sea was a great pool, which some inconsiderate people furrow, looking like worms on logs of wood.”20

In fact, when Islam was born in Arabia among desert Bedouins, tents, sheep, and camels (horses entered the culture only when Arabs stole them during their raids on the Persian empire, and as late as the early twentieth century, T. E. Lawrence’s Arab forces still rode on camels, far superior to horses for desert warfare), there existed already in Spain a brilliant Hispano-Roman-Visigoth culture: there was a wealth of sacred music; there were learned men, such as Saint Leander (who lived in the Greek Roman Empire for a number of years and presided over the Third Toledan Council and the religious union of Hispano-Romans and Visigoths), Bishop Eugene of Toledo (expert in mathematics and astronomy), Conantius of Palencia (expert in music), and a poet-king, Sisebut (who wrote an astronomical poem in Latin); and in the city of Seville a Catholic archbishop, Saint Isidore (a.d. 560–636), wrote arithmetical works (De arithmetica), a musical treatise (De musica), linguistic studies (Differentiarum libri), natural science and cosmology studies (De natura rerum and De ordine creaturarum), and historical works and compendia of Greco-Roman civilization (Historia gothorum and Etymologiae).21 “The originality of Visigothic culture was reflected in the role of grammar and rhetoric,” writes Dag Norberg. “The ancient educational program had survived there; the learned bishops studied ancient poetry, for instance, without the repugnance felt by many other Christians studying a literature filled with pagan elements.”22 Only later, with Islam benefiting from the superior civilizations of the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire and Persia, did Arabs begin to raise their cultural level, while their destruction of the Visigoth kingdom and their domination of the Mediterranean Sea cut off Christian Spain, and indeed Christian Europe, from the previous direct contact with the science, medicine, art, and literature of the Greeks.23

The cultural influence of the Greeks on Visigoth Spain has been observed often. The latest topographic studies confirm even an imitation of Constantinople in the design of Visigoth Toledo. Archaeologist Pedro Marfil’s work on the church of Saint Vincent, destroyed to build the mosque of Córdoba, reveals the presence of Greek (“byzantine,” “oriental”) techniques and even materials in a renovation of the church that took place in the late seventh century. I believe that the “Mozarabic” Catholic ritual, which was nothing but the surviving “Hispanic rite” used in Visigoth Spain, echoed the ritual of the Greek Orthodox Church, which was its contemporary before the Gregorian reform of the rite made the Latin ritual noticeably different from the Greek. The sounds of the Mozarabic rite that some people associate with “Arabic” music are simply analogous to those of the Greek Orthodox Church.

In Visigoth Spain, as was the case in the rest of Christian Europe, the classics had been part of education since the early Middle Ages (the so-called Dark Ages) in the Trivium and the Quadrivium of liberal arts instruction. Islam, by contrast, remained inimical to classical art, drama, lyric poetry, narrative, and music, concentrating instead on the most practical or on the most abstract areas of the rich Greek civilization they had found in the Middle East and North Africa (Greek science, medicine, and technology, and the philosophy of Aristotle, all acquired by Islam thanks to their preservation in the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire).24 In Spain, as in the rest of Christian Europe, “monks and clerics were grounded in classical literature as part of their preparation for using biblical Latin, for chanting biblical and liturgical Latin, and for employing a half-living oral Latin that fused biblical and classical components with many others,” in addition to studying the classics in order to reconcile them with Christian doctrine.25

Medieval scholars had direct Latin translations of Aristotle available to them since as far back as Boethius and Marius Victorinus. As Sylvain Gouguenheim has shown, they did not need to translate Aristotle from Arabic into Latin, as is so often repeated. Saint Thomas Aquinas of course read Aristotle translated directly from the Greek (by William of Moerbeke, bishop of Corinth). This was not the case in Islamic lands, where even exceptionally learned men like the Persian Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and the Andalusian Ibn Rushd (Averroes) were not interested in classical art, drama, or narrative, and read Aristotle only in twice-removed Christian-made translations into Arabic from Syriac.

The great churches, the stupendous bridges, the colossal aqueducts—all the features of Hispano-Visigoth civilization astonished the rude Berbers, if not their Arab masters, some of whom might have been exposed already to a superior culture during their conquest of the Greek Orthodox Roman Middle East and North Africa in the seventh and eighth centuries. They marveled at the roads that still traversed Spain in all its length.26 They considered Visigoth Seville, where Saint Isidore had lived, “the abode of the sciences.”27 They marveled at engineering works they had never seen before, such as the Roman aqueduct of Cadiz, “which conveyed fresh water from a spring in the district of the idols to the island of Cadiz, crossing an arm of the Ocean,” or the Roman aqueduct of Tarragona, which “conveyed the water from the sea to the city by a gentle level, and in the most admirable order, and served to put in motion all the mill-stones in the town, the whole being one of the most solid, magnificent, and best contrived buildings that ever were erected.”28 They also marveled at the abundance of olive trees in the land.29

Erasing the Vestiges of a Nascent Civilization

Romanic art, which entered Spain during the early decades of the eleventh century, and eventually developed into a major medieval art form in the Catholic kingdoms, was influenced by the remains of the Hispano-Roman and Visigoth heritage.30 But the impact of this heritage on the Romanic was limited by the disappearance of monuments, which must have been massive over the years of Muslim rule and the fleeing, conversion, and expulsion of the Catholic population.

Over time, this process of pillaging, destruction, and abandonment erased almost completely the cultural vestiges of a nascent civilization. We have very few literary records of Visigoth Spain: “the debacle caused by the Arabic invasion carried away all official documents.”31 We have mentions of beautiful churches that have disappeared. Today, the remains of even small “Mozarabic” churches can be found only outside the former “al-Andalus,” and none of them in major urban centers. Moreover, freestanding public Roman and Hispano-Roman decorative sculpture and painting disappeared, as was to be expected of art under a religion that forbade physical representation and considered sculpture a manifestation of idolatry.32

This architectural, literary, and iconographic disaster cannot be attributed to the Visigoths. Already highly Romanized by the time they entered Spain, they were interested in preserving the symbols of Roman power, because they considered themselves its inheritors. Thus we have records of the Visigoths’ practice of sculpture and a great artistic center in Mérida, of which little remains because of the centuries of iconoclastic Islamic domination. The Visigoths’ assimilation and adaptation of the preexisting Roman and Hispano-Roman Christian art, and especially of the immensely rich Greek Roman Empire’s art, were ruptured by the Muslim conquest, as was the Visigoth kingdom’s assimilation and adaptation of Greek science.33

On the other hand, Muslim chroniclers attest to the iconoclastic zeal of early Muslim rulers, such as the celebrated Abd-al-Rhaman I, founder of the Umayyad Emirate of Córdoba. “He would take all the bodies which Christians honor and call saints [probably a reference to relics], and he would burn them; and he would burn their beautiful churches; and in Spain there were many and very magnificent churches, some built by the Greeks and some by the Romans. Seeing this, the Christians, when they could, would take their sacred things, and would flee to the mountains.”34 This familiar Islamic animosity toward images is still evident today in the Muslim Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s Buddha statues.

The changing of prominent Christian churches into mosques was a standard feature of Muslim conquests. Many of the Greek Orthodox churches in the Middle East and North Africa were transformed into mosques in the seventh and eighth centuries, or torn down so that their superior construction materials, marble columns, gold, and silver could be cannibalized to build mosques (traditional Arabic architecture used poor construction materials, such as plaster, wood, and brick).35 The procedure was repeated in Spain. The episcopal basilica of Saint Vincent in Córdoba was torn down to build the famous “mosque of Córdoba,” after Catholics were made an offer they could not refuse by the gracious Abd-al-Rahman I, ruler of this reputedly tolerant Muslim city.36 They were given money and sent to build another church, but outside the city. Archaeologists consider a prior “sharing” of the church itself unlikely, since Muslims would not pray in front of icons, statues of saints, and the cross, which they considered “idols.” (An exception would be a church that had once been a mosque: just as Muslims consider a land that was once part of Islam still part of Islam, so they would consider a church that was once a mosque still a mosque.) Rather, Muslims probably took over a building that was part of the Saint Vincent complex, a sacristy perhaps, rather than the church itself, before demolishing the church. The other churches of Córdoba, such as Santa Catalina, were also turned into mosques.37

The takeover of Christian churches could be very swift if the infidels resisted instead of submitting. The Greek Orthodox basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the most extraordinary building of the early Middle Ages (the “Dark Ages”), was turned into a mosque, along with all the other Greek churches of the city, right after the three-day sack and rape of Constantinople in 1453. Hagia Sophia was desecrated theologically and aesthetically: exquisite icons and mosaics inside the church were destroyed, erased, and painted over, and four flanking minarets were installed outside the church; they stand to this day, looking like rocket ships about to be launched. In Spain, the first mosque was built upon a Catholic church shortly after Muslim troops disembarked.38 Muslim chronicles frequently make reference to Catholic churches in order to exalt Islam’s victory by pointing out their destruction, sacking, abandonment, and the construction of mosques upon their ruins.39 As late as 1195, Muslims on the offensive were still turning Catholic churches into mosques, as a sign, Muslim chroniclers gleefully remind us, of the defeat and submission of the “polytheists.”40

Significantly, no remains of churches built prior to the Catholic Reconquest can be found today in southern Spain. As Jacques Fontaine observed, the destruction of the Catholic heritage was the result not merely of the religious teachings of Islam but also of a conscious policy of systematically erasing all Christian “power signs” from “al-Andalus”—as the Muslim writers of chronicles had conveniently renamed Spain.41 According to ninth-century Muslim chronicler Al-Tabari, the Arabs first referred to Spain as “al-Andalus” when plotting the conquest of Constantinople: the city would have to be conquered “via” al-Andalus. I believe that this referred to the strategic need to secure control of the Mediterranean before attacking the Greek city directly.

Joaquín Vallvé believes the word “al-Andalus” is an Arabic corruption of the Greek Atlantida. But chroniclers continued to vacillate between “Spania” and “al-Andalus,” and in 716 a Muslim coin was stamped on one side with the word “Spania” and on the other with “al-Andalus.” Afterward, Muslim intellectuals increasingly used “al-Andalus” over “Spania,” in an obvious effort to erase a name associated with a pre-Islamic past, a political power maneuver echoed in many other areas, such as the change of the name of cities and geographical sites, and the turning of churches into mosques. The few examples that we have of Visigoth craftsmanship have survived largely in treasures kept hidden from Muslim pillaging. These buried treasures give only a faint idea of the exquisiteness of this art, and they make the Arabic accounts of the Visigoth king Rodrigo’s riding into battle in a bejeweled armor more plausible.42

A Feeble Echo

Eventually, Muslims took advantage of the nonrepresentational aspects of Hispano-Roman-Visigoth art. Notoriously, they adopted the Visigoth horseshoe arch, as they had earlier in the Middle East and North Africa imitated the architecture of the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire.43 Celebrated “Muslim” crafts, for example that of leather, existed before the invasion, with pre-Islamic Córdoba being an exporter to Europe.44 Popular lyric poetry (evident in the famous jarchas) was so common among the Hispano-Visigoths living as dhimmi under Muslim rule (“Mozarabs”) as to be incorporated into the classic Arabic poetry of the muwassahah (muwashshah), a poetic form invented by a Mozarab, Muccadam de Cabra, in the ninth century.45 Even what was noticeable in Spain of “Muslim music” (an oxymoron, given the medieval Maliki school of Islamic law’s prohibition of music) owed its existence to the conquered civilization.46 The famous “mosque of Córdoba,” a Catholic church since 1236, is a particularly good example of all this: the main facade is built out of the main facade of the torn-down church of Saint Vincent; columns and other building materials are cannibalized from Hispano-Roman and Visigoth churches; the alternation of red brick and white stone in the arches is a Roman technique (the opus vittatum mixtum); the horseshoe arches imitate Roman arches and the Visigoth horseshoe arch; and the mosaics are of Greek manufacture.47 This recurring Islamic assimilation of the nonrepresentational features of the art of conquered civilizations supports art historian Basilio Pavón Maldonado’s studies showing that “Spanish-Muslim art . . . derives in large part from Roman, paleo-Christian, Byzantine, and Visigoth art.”48 Likewise, art historian Isidro Bango Torviso has pointed out that the art of Islamic Spain was the result of the “inertia of a late antiquity art carried out under an Islamic hegemony.”49

Unlike the colder climates of northern Spain and central Europe, southern Spain had a Mediterranean climate that allowed for the Greek-Roman culture of water and baths to exist. This culture was part of the Hispano-Roman life of southern Spain, inherited by the Visigoths. It was this culture that the Muslims from the arid North Africa encountered and happily took over. Thus the “bath culture” of southern Spain was not a Muslim invention, as is often repeated, but a feature of Hispano-Roman-Visigoth life adopted by the invaders.50

Under the Visigoths, Toledo was an artistic center, as indicated by the remnants of exquisite marble fragments.51 But under Islam, the art of the Visigoth capital decayed, as the conquerors wiped out the traces of Catholic grandeur, while focusing their interests on their new capital, Córdoba. Toledo, however, continued to be a focus of resistance. In 761 it sided with the Fhiries against the Umayyads; in 797 a Spanish convert to Islam, the poet Garbid, led a revolt; in 829 another convert, Haxim, led another revolt; and in 852 there was a Mozarab revolt, eventually crushed, provoked by the oppression of the Catholics under Umayyad emir Muhammad.52

The splendor of the Visigoth royal court in Toledo, which tried to imitate that of the Greek Roman Empire in Constantinople, has reached us only as a feeble echo in the Muslim chronicles and the material evidence of buried treasures and archaeological sites.53 Since the Reformation, and especially since the Enlightenment, anachronistic condemnations of the Catholic Hispano-Roman-Visigoth kingdom as “socially unjust” and plagued with “ignorance” have accompanied the dismissal of its culture and art, as the culture and art of Islamic Spain have been correspondingly exalted.54

With the fleeing of large numbers of Hispano-Romans and Visigoths from “al-Andalus,” their fusion with many of the inhabitants of the rest of Spain continued variously over the centuries, and produced the great flowering of the Spanish Middle Ages. So the at times precarious union of the Spanish population under the banner of Catholicism was interrupted and delayed, but ultimately not stopped, by the Muslim conquest. ♦


Dario Fernandez-Morera is associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of comparative literature at Northwestern University. He is a former member of the National Council on the Humanities.

  1. The ethnic union began with the laws of King Leovigildus (569–586), known as Codex Revisus, allowing the intermarriage of Visigoths and Hispano-Romans. The religious union started with the Third Council of Toledo (589) and the conversion of King Recared and his people from Arianism (589), the heresy practiced by the Visigoths, to Catholicism, which was the religion of most of the Hispano-Romans. Saint Isidore embodies this union: he eulogized Visigoth Spain, but his father was Hispano-Roman (and some medieval biographies suggest that his mother was Visigoth). Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger praised the Third Council of Toledo as a milestone in the union of Europe through the strength of the Christian Spirit; it represented the union of the citizens of the former Roman Empire with the Northern nations that had taken it over: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Perspectivas y tareas del catolicismo en la actualidad y de cara al futuro,” A.A. and V.V. eds. El Concilio III the Toledo. XIV Centenario 589–1989 (Toledo: Arzobispado de Toledo, 1991), 107. On the importance of the Visigothic tradition for the idea of the Reconquest, see J. I. Ruiz de la Peña “La monarquía asturiana (718–918),” El reino de León en le Alta Edad Media. III: La monarquía astur-leonesa. De Pelayo a Alfonso VI (718–1109) (León: Centro de Estudios e Investigación “San Isidoro,” 1995), 120–127. Spain was under Roman control and cultural influence longer than any Western land outside of Italy and produced more Latin writers and emperors than any other province. The Latin word for Spain, Hispania, evolves into Spania and then España. For the concept “Spain” originating in Visigoth Spain see among many José Antonio Maravall, El concepto de España en la Edad Media (1954; rpt. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Constitucionales, 1997), 299–337; Adeline Rucquoi, “Les Wisigoths fondement de la ‘nation Espagne,’;” L’Europe Héritière de l’Espagne Wisogothique, ed. Jacques Fontaine and Christine Pellistrandi (Madrid: Rencontres de la Casa de Velázquez, 1992), 341–352.
  2. Peter S. Wells, Barbarians to Angels (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008). The technical innovations of the “dark ages” are no less impressive than its preservation of a great deal of the classical heritage by the monks in their monasteries.
  3. Traditionally, the Visigoths have been considered a Germanic people; see, among many works on the subject, Peter Heather, The Goths (London: Blackwell, 1998). For the Baltic rather than Germanic origin of the Visigoths, see Jurate Rosales, Los Godos (Barcelona: Ariel, 2004), trans. Goths and Balts (Chicago: Vydino Fondas, 2004); “El idioma que hablaron los godos,” La Torre del Virrey, n. 3, Serie 6 (February 2010), 1–12 at; “Las cuatro mentiras sobre los godos,” Pre-print of Universidad de los Andes, Facultad de Letras y Educación (2 July 2009), 1–28 at; “Cultura goda,” La Torre del Virrey, n. 5 (Summer 2008), 61–66 at; and Javier Albert,
  4. The Visigoths’ love of freedom was also their weakness: their monarchy was elective, not hereditary. Like the Barons who imposed the Magna Carta on King John in England centuries later, Visigoth nobles were suspicious of royal power and contributed to the instability of the monarchy. But they went beyond English barons, to the point of supporting not just usurpers but even foreign invaders (in which unruliness some ecclesiastics participated, such as Oppas and Elipando). Among the best English language studies on Visigoth Spain, Roger Collins’s Visigothic Spain, 409–711 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004) exemplifies the tendency of English scholarship to downplay Visigoth culture and overlook making a favorable comparison with contemporary Arabs. The best books on Visigoth Spain are José Orlandis, La vida en España en tiempo de los godos (Madrid: Rialp. 1991), and his Historia del reino visigodo español (Madrid: Rialp, 2003). For the Visigoths’ effort to present themselves as inheritors and defenders of the empire, see Federico-Mario Beltrán Torreira, “El concepto de barbarie en la hispania visigoda,” Antigüedad y cristianismo, III (1986), 56–57; Salvador Caramunt, Historia de la Edad Media (Barcelona: Ariel, 1995), 19; and María R. Valverde Castro, Ideología, simbolismo y ejercicio del poder real en la monarquía visigoda (Salamanca: Universidad de Salamanca, 2000), 155–156. Visigoth monarchs even adopted the purple vestments and the crown of the Roman emperors, and as late as 578, coins issued by King Leovigildo had on one side the king’s name and on the other the name of the emperor of the Greek Roman Empire in Constantinople (the only surviving Roman empire): Jesús Vico and María Cruz Cors, “La moneda visigoda,” Gaceta numismática n. 169 (June 2008), 25–26.
  5. Orlandis, Historia, 194–95.
  6. Al-Makkari in The History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain by Ahmed Ibn Mohammed al-Makkari, trans. Pascual de Gayangos (1840; rpt. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1964), vol. 1, Appendix D, xlv.
  7. Ibid., xviii–xlix.
  8. Ibid., l.
  9. Ibid., xlviii.
  10. Crónica del moro Rasis, ed. Diego Catalán and María Soledad de Andrés (Madrid: Gredos, 1975), 64; for what follows, see 354–57.
  11. Al-Makkari, 1, 79.
  12. Ibid., 207.
  13. Ibid., Appendix E, lxxviii–lxxix.
  14. Jaime Cobreros, Guía del prerománico en España. Visigodo. Asturiano. Mozárabe (Madrid: Anaya, 2005), 39.
  15. Al-Makkari, 2, 6.
  16. Ibn Idhari in Al-Bayano’l-Mogrib, trans. and annotated by Edmond Fagnan (Algiers: Imprimérie Orientale Pierre Fonatana, 1904), 25.
  17. Manuel Rincón Álvarez, Mozárabes y mozarabías (Salamanca: Ediciones universidad de Salamanca, 2006), 192. For the ethnic impact of the Visigoths, played down by many scholars, see historian Javier Albert’s plausible calculations, which increase their number to a million in the midst of a Hispano-Roman population of four to five million:
  18. Ibn Idhari in Al-Bayano’l-Mogrib, 25.
  19. For this and the following, see Al-Makkari, 1, Appendix A, xxiv–xxv. For the general phenomenon of scientific knowledge passing from the Christian Greeks to the Muslims, see Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries) (London: Routledge, 1998); De Lacy O’Leary, How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1949); F. Rosenthal, The Classical Heritage in Islam (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1975); and “History of Logic,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online, September 25, 2009, at
  20. Al-Makkari, 1, Appendix B, xxxiv.
  21. Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville et la culture classique dans l’Espagne wisigothique (Paris: Études augustiniennes, 1959); Manuel C. Díaz y Díaz, “Les arts libéraux d’après les écrivains espagnols et insulaires au VIIe et VIIIe siécles,” Arts Libéraux et Philosophie au Moyen Áges. Actes du Quatriéme Congrés International de Philosophie Médievale (Montreal: Institut D’Études Médievales, 1969), 37–46; “Noticias históricas en dos himnos litúrgicos visigóticos,” Antigüedad y cristianismo, n. III (1986), 443–56. Scholars who insist on calling Isidore “naive,” “ignorant,” and even “stupid” show a lack of historical perspective.
  22. Dag Norberg, Manuel pratique de latin médiéval (Paris: Picard, 1968), trans. online by R. H. Johnson, at
  23. For this and the following, see Jesús Carrobles Santos, Rafael Barroso Cabrera, Jorge Morín de Pablos, and Fernando Valdés Fernández, Regia Sedes Toledana: La topografía de la ciudad de Toledo en la antigüedad tardía y alta edad media (Toledo: Real Fundación de Toledo, 2007), 217; Pedro Marfil, “La sede episcopal de San Vicente en la Santa Iglesia Catedral de Córdoba,” Al-Mulk: anuario de estudios arabistas (2006), n. 6, 35–58.
  24. “The great writings of the classical era, particularly those of Greece, were never completely lost to the Western world. They were always available to the Byzantines, and to those Western peoples in cultural and diplomatic contact with the Eastern Empire. . . . Of the Greek classics known today, at least seventy-five percent are known through Byzantine copies”: Michael H. Harris, History of Libraries in the Western World (Metuchen, NJ, and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1995), 75, 76–77. “Much of what we know about antiquity—especially Hellenic and Roman literature and Roman law—would have been lost forever if it weren’t for the scholars and scribes of Constantinople”: John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (New York: Vintage, 1999), xli. C. Barber and D. Jenkins, Hellenism in Byzantium: The Transformation of Greek Identity and the Reception of the Classical Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Anthony Caldellis, The Christian Parthenon: Classicism and Pilgrimage in Byzantine Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Demetrios Constantelos, Christian Hellenism: Essays and Studies in Continuity and Change (New Rochelle, NY, and Athens. Aristide D. Caratzas summarized in his “The Formation of the Hellenic Christian Mind” (1999), at
  25. Jan Ziolkowski, Nota Bene: Reading Classics and Writing Melodies in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007), 199; Columbia History of Western Philosophy, ed. Richard Henry Popkin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 230–44. For the continuing reception of Greek texts in Europe, independently of their mediation through Spain’s Arabic writings, see the important Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristote au mont Saint-Michel: Les racines grecques de l’Europe chrétienne (Paris: Seuil, 2008). This book so rattled the academic establishment that Gouguenheim was attacked by one hundred experts in an open letter in the Communist journal Libération.
  26. Al-Makkari, 1, 77. The cultural superiority of Spain over a North Africa sacked by the Islamic conquests and the pull it exerted over the miserable lives of the Berbers would actually help the otherwise absurd theory of University of Seville professor Emilio González Ferrín, who claims that there was no Muslim conquest, but some sort of peaceful immigration from North Africa: Historia general de Al-Andalus (Córdoba: Almuzara, 2006). He follows the teachings of Ignacio Olague, Les arabes n’ont jamais envahi l’Espagne (Paris: Flammarion, 1960). Olague had earlier been refuted by Charles-Emanuel Dufourcq, La vie quotidienne dans l’europe médiévale sous la domination arabe (Biarritz: Cino del Luca, 1981).
  27. Al-Makkari, 1, 26; Ibn Idhari, Al-Bayano’l-Mogrib, 21.
  28. Al-Makkari, 1, 77. The aqueduct of Tarragona, built by the Romans probably in the first century a.d., is said to have been “repaired” by Abd-al-Rahman III, and this is usually taken to mean that it had been in ruins before the Muslim conquest. But between 711 and Abd-al-Rhaman III (891–961) a long time had passed, and the aqueduct could have deteriorated after the Muslim conquest. There is no indication that it was not working under the Visigoths.
  29. Al-Makkari, 1, 81.
  30. Isidro Bango Torviso, Alta Edad Media. De la tradición hispanogoda al románico (Madrid: Silex, 1989); María de los Angeles Utrero Agudo, Iglesias tardoantiguas y altomedievales en la península ibérica. Análisis arqueológico y sistemas de abovedamiento (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2007); Javier Sainz Saiz, Arte prerrománico en Castilla y León (León: Lancia, 1997).
  31. Antonio Domínguez Ortiz, España: Tres Milenios de Historia (Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2007), 40. There are some inscriptions left, and documents which included the church and were of sufficient importance to have copies abroad, such as the Councils.
  32. For what remains of pre-Islamic sculpture, found in crumbling walls in bridges and towers, see Luis Caballero Zoreda and Pedro Mateos Cruz, eds., Escultura decorativa tardorromana y altomedieval en la Península Ibérica (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2007); Luis Caballero Zoreda, ed., El siglo vii frente al siglo vii. Arquitectura (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2009); Orlandis, Historia del reino visigodo español, p. 243; Maria Cruz Villalón, “La escultura visigoda: Mérida, centro creador,” Visigoti e lombardi eds. Javier Arce and Paolo Delugo (Florence: Edizioni all’insegna del Giglio, 2001), 161–84.
  33. Orlandis, Historia del reino visigodo español, 243, 244, 249–50; on Europe in general, see Henri Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne (1935; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1956). For refinements of his thesis, see R. S. Lopez, “Mohammed and Charlemagne: A Revision,” Speculum, 18 (1943), 14–38; even a scholar who questioned Pirenne’s assertion that Islam slowed down economic development in Europe accepted the role of Islam as an interrupter of the direct cultural flow from the Greek Roman Empire to the West: see Anne Riising, “The Fate of Henri Pirenne’s Theses on the Consequence of the Islamic invasion,” in Problems in European Civilization: The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, and Revision, ed. Alfred F. Havighurst (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1958), 105. The least affected was probably Venice, which was in closest contact with the empire of the Greeks. I thank the Liberty Fund’s colloquium on “Medieval Cities,” Tucson, Arizona, January 10–13, 2010, for making me aware of the importance of Pirenne’s thesis.
  34. Crónica del moro Rasis, ed. Diego Catalán and María Soledad de Andrés (Madrid: Gredos, 1975), 281–82.
  35. Notable was the “Great Mosque of the Umayyads” in Damascus, built upon and with materials cannibalized from the Greek basilica of Saint John the Baptist: Philip Khuri Hitti, History of Syria: Including Lebanon and Palestine (New York: Macmillan, 1951), 511; Ali Wigdan, The Arab Contribution to Islamic Art: From the Seventh to the Fifteenth Centuries (Cairo: Cairo American University in Cairo Press, 1999), 21; Atlas of World Art, ed. John Onians (London: Laurence King, 2004), 128; E. J. Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam, ed. M. Th. Houtsma et al. (1913–1936; rpt. Leiden: Brill, 1987), 333, 338, 381. Upon the Muslim defeat of the Crusader kingdom in Palestine, the procedure was repeated: Daniella Talman-Heller, Islamic Piety in Medieval Syria: Mosques, Cemeteries, and Sermons under the Zangids and Ayyubids (1146–1260) (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 36.
  36. For this and the following, see Al-Makkari, vol. 1, 217–18; Manuel Ocaña Jiménez, “Precisiones sobre la historia de la mezquita de Córdoba,” Cuadernos de estudios medievales IV–V (1976–77), 275–82; Pedro Marfil Ruiz, “Córdoba de Teodosio a Abd al-Rhamán III (Anejos de AespA, 2000), 117–41, and e-mail communication with me. The mosque of Córdoba was turned back into a Catholic cathedral during the Reconquista by King Ferdinand III in 1236, but tourist guides, and many Spaniards, still call it “the mosque of Córdoba.” The city authorities give it the oxymoronic name of “mosque-cathedral.” Mentioning that the “mosque of Córdoba” was built upon a church demolished by Muslim authorities is avoided very interestingly by the University of Córdoba site: “Abd al-Rahman I (756–788) began construction of the Mosque on the site of the former Visigothic Basilica of San Vicente dating c. 584.” And that is all the university has to say about it. See
  37. Antonio Arjona Castro, “Aúxyt: hacia una nueva visión histórica de la Córdoba Islámica,” Arbor CLXVI, 654 (2000), 177.
  38. Joaquín Vallvé, “Sobre algunos problemas de la invasión musulmana,” Anuario de estudios medievales, 4 (1967), 367.
  39. Susana Calvo Capilla, “Las primeras mezquitas de al-Andalus a través de las fuentes àrabes (92/711–170/785),” Al-Qantara XXVIII 1 (January–July 2007), 159–60.
  40. Thus the church of Calatrava in 1195: Kitab al-muyib fi talljis ajbar al-magrib by Abu Muhammad Abd Al-Wahid Al-Marrakusi, trans. Ambrosio Huici Miranda (Tetuán: Instituto General Franco de Estudios e Investigación Hispano-Árabe, 1955), 236.
  41. Jacques Fontaine, El mozárabe (Madrid: Encuentro, 1978), 61–80; Joaquín Vallvé, “Sobre algunos problemas de la invasión musulmana,” 361.
  42. Alicia Parea, El tesoro visigodo de Guarrazar (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2001) and El tesoro visigodo de Torredonjimeno (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 2009).
  43. That Muslim conquerors adopted the Visigoth arch is common knowledge among Spanish art historians: Antonio E. Momplet Miguez, El arte hispanomusulmán (Madrid: Ediciones encuentro, 2008), 22. For the remaining examples of the Visigoth horseshoe arch, see, among others, the church of San Juan de Baños at, and for a discussion of the arch, see No one has pointed out that Visigoths may have taken the arch from the Greek Roman Empire, and no one seems to have noticed the horseshoe arches on the second floor of Hagia Sophia (see “Hagia Sophia Virtual Tour,”
  44. Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, “Espagne pré-islamique et Espagne musulmane,” Revue Historique CCXXXVII (1967), 316.
  45. Richard Eugene Chandler and Kessel Schwartz, A New History of Spanish Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 200.
  46. Malik b. Anas, founder of Malikism, forbade music. A Persian, Ziryab (d. 857) brought music to the Umayyad court, to be played by slaves. Even earlier in Arabia, music comes into being upon the onset of Islam because of the Arabs’ conquests; all extant sources point to foreign influence, from the Greek Orthodox Roman Empire (“Byzantine”) to Persia: Irfan Shahid, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1995), vol. 2, part 2, 184. “Music being a science almost unknown to the Arabs before their conquests, they necessarily borrowed from the subdued nations their knowledge of it, as well as the names of almost all their instruments”: Pascual de Gayangos, in his translation of al-Makkari, History of the Mohammedan Dynasties in Spain, I, 365 n. 17 (see 58–59).
  47. Manuel Gómez Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes: Arte español de los siglos IX a XI (Madrid: Junta para ampliación de estudios, Centro de estudios históricos, 1919), 6; Pedro Marfil, “La basílica de San Vicente: En la Catedral de Córdoba,” Arte, arqueología e historia (2007), n. 14, 185–96; “Córdoba de Teodosio a Abd al-Rahman III,” Anejos de AespA xxiiii, 2000, 127–29. Almanzor further expanded the mosque of Córdoba using Catholic slaves and materials captured in his raids on Christian territory.
  48. Basilio Pavón Maldonado, “Influjos occidentales en el califato de Córdoba,” Al-Andalus 33:1 (1968), 206.
  49. Bango Torviso, Alta Edad Media, 12. As early as 687, the famous Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem replicated Greek and Roman techniques.
  50. Just as the first Muslim conquerors, emerging from the desert, in the Middle East had adopted the bath culture of the Greek Roman Empire. In Spain, the legend of the Cava, the young woman who “caused” the loss of Spain, depicts her taking a bath in the river and inflaming the passion of Visigoth king Rodrigo as voyeur.
  51. Manuel García Moreno, Iglesias mozárabes, 1, 9.
  52. Ibid., 10–11.
  53. José Orlandis, La vida en España en tiempo de los godos, 93–97; for the size of Toledo and its imitation of Constantinople, see Jesús Carrobles Santos, Rafael Barroso Cabrera, Jorge Morín de Pablos, and Fernando Valdés Fernández, Regia Sedes Toletana: La topografía de la ciudad de Toledo en la antigüedad tardía y alta edad media (Toledo: Real Fundación de Toledo, 2007), 217.
  54. Thus Montesquieu wrote in De l’esprit des lois that Visigoth laws were “puerile and idiotic.” See José Orlandis, Historia del reino visigodo español, 152.

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