The Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) was the greatest kingdom in Islamic Spain. It covered most of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) save for the independent Christian states of the far north. The Caliphate was originally the Emirate of Cordoba (756-929), which was the same government by a different name. When the rest of Europe was sunk in the Dark Ages, Cordoba was a cultural capital of the world.
The Umayyad Dynasty first conquered Christian Spain in AD 711. Then barely a century old, the Muslim world still belonged to one government, the Caliphate of Damascus. In 750 the Abbasids of Baghdad overthrew the Ummayads. Only a single prince escaped the slaughter by swimming across the Euphrates River. Assisted by a Greek freedman, Abdal Rahman escaped to Egypt and crossed North Africa in secrecy to the furthest corner of the empire.
On arriving in Al-Andalus, as Iberia was known in Arabic, Abdal Rahman mustered an army. By 756 he had defeated the local emir. Lacking a banner, he unravelled a green turban and tied it to his spear. This was the emblem of the Cordoban Ummayads ever since.
Unfortunately Abdul Rahman’s dreams of revenge were never realised. He spent his remaining years suppressing rebellions by dissatisfied Arab and Berber vassals, some of whom Charlemagne backed in the northwest.
The Frankish King’s retreat through the Pyranees is immortalised in the Chanson de Rolande, the oldest piece of French literature. The Frankish rear-guard, commanded by the paladin Roland, were annihilated in an ambush. The epic records the assailants as Moors when they were in fact Christian Basques.
Abdal Rahman III, the seventh Emir of Cordoba declared a caliphate in 929. This made him one of three: alongside the Abbasids in Bagdhad and the Shi’ite Fatimids in Cairo.
The Ummayads were tolerant rulers who intermarried with their Spanish subjects. Abdal Rahman’s mother was a Christian princess and he had blue eyes, though dyed his beard black. His son, the blonde haired Al-Hakam II, was openly homosexual and kept a male harem. The mother of his children, a Basque concubine, first seduced the caliph by dressing as a male bodyguard!
Wider society was strictly heirarchical. Ethnic Arabs formed the top strata, followed by Berbers and native converts. Sephardi Jews, who formed 10% of the population, were integrated into Muslim society and served as businessmen, officials, scholars and poets. The wider Catholic population were denied full rights, but granted protection and freedom of religion so long as they, like the Jews, paid a special tax. Cordoba itself was roughly split between Muslims and Jews.
The Ummayads introduced rice, bananas, watermelons, toothpaste and deodorant to Iberia. The ideal of courtly love began with the Arabic poets of Cordoba, from where it spread to the troubadours of southern France.
Cordoba was built with the opulent splendour of Moorish architecture. The ‘historical centre’ is now a UNESCO world heritage site. The Great Mosque, with its marble columns and red and white striped arches, is a marvel.
Under the Ummayads, Cordoba became the largest, and most advanced city in Europe. The library of Al-Hakam contained up to 400,000 texts. Headed by Al-Hakam’s secretary Lubna, a team of Muslim and Catholic scholars translated Ancient Greek works into Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Cordoba’s university was the largest of its time, attracting students from not only Al-Andalus and the Maghreb but across Western Europe. Unfortunately the library was destroyed by Al-Hakam’s de facto successor, the pernicious vizier Almanzor.
After Almanzor, the caliphate crumbled into petty kingdoms. The Moorish Almoravid and Almohad dynasties who followed were puritanical and heavily persecuted both Christians and Jews. The Catholic Spaniards of the Reconquista were even worse; the 1492 Alhambra Decree expelled all non-Catholics from Spain. Remaining converts were left to face the Inquisition.