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Arabs first landed in the Iberian Peninsula in what is now Spain in 710, shortly before the Umayyad caliphate was overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750. At the time the area was ruled by the Visigoths, an East Germanic tribe. The arrival of the Umayyad dynasty signalled the beginning of the end for Visigoth rule in that part of the world, and within a short time control of the majority of the Peninsula had been wrested away from them. The Arabs transformed the region into a province of the caliphate, which became known as al-Andalus.


After the Abbasid revolution the Umayyad dynasty collapsed, but a member of the Umayyad family found refuge in Spain, where eventually a new, smaller Umayyad dynasty was founded. This dynasty ruled the area for nearly three-hundred years; although only toward the very end of that period did the rulers of the dynasty take the title of caliph.


The capital city of this area was named Cordoba (or, in Arabic, Qurtuba). Today Cordoba is a sizeable city and a cultural centre in Andalusia. During Umayyad rule, however, it was (in relative terms) much larger; indeed, it was one of the largest cities in the world. The warm climate allowed for the cultivation of grain and olives and the pasturage of sheep and goats. It also had good river transport, and the city thrived as a result.


Although under Islamic rule Arabic was the dominant language, Cordoba's population was not uniformly Muslim by any means. In fact, it is not known with certainty if the region of al-Andalus ever had a Muslim majority population. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together in relative harmony. The situation was not perfect, certainly, but the dynasty for the most part took a tolerant approach to its minorities.


Over the three centuries of Umayyad rule a rich and textured culture emerged, with poetry, philosophy and architecture all contributing to Cordoba's vibrant mosaic. The Great Mosque of Cordoba brought into existence a new style of mosque, with its marble sculptures and pillars surmounted by a horseshoe arch. The area had a distinctive style of poetry too: a poetic form that rhymed lines between verses came to be favoured over the more usual Islamic rhyming couplets, and occasional uses of the local romantic colloquialisms gave Cordoban verse an unusually personal taint.


In the eleventh century the Umayyad caliphate broke up into a number of smaller dynasties and kingdoms, and the Iberian Peninsula fell increasingly under Christian rule. Cordoba initially was ruled by the Almohad dynasty, and it was whilst this dynasty was in power that Ibn Rushd, the last great Islamic philosopher of the age, lived there. Whilst residing in Cordoba he wrote his famous rebuttals to the forces that drove Greek thought out of the Eastern regions of the Islamic world. In time, however, even the rule of the Almohads broke up.


Nevertheless, much of Cordoba's architecture and art remains preserved today, and draws tourists from all over the world. Many literary and philosophical works were translated into Latin and later English, and it is partly because of these works that we today have a good knowledge of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Some of the poetry has been preserved too, so we can still read the words of, among others, the great Cordoban poet Ibn Zaydun. This elegiac tribute to the city is a fine example of Cordoba's literary heritage, and was written upon his return to it shortly after the Umayyad caliphate's break-up:


"God has sent showers upon the abandoned dwelling places of those we loved. He has woven upon them a striped, many coloured garment of flowers, and raised among them a flower like a star. How many girls like images trailed their garments among such flowers, when life was fresh and time was at our service.... How happy they were, those days that have passed, days of pleasure, when we lived with those who had black flowing hair and white shoulders.... Now say to Destiny whose favours have vanished - favours I have lamented as the nights have passed - how faintly its breeze has touched me in my evening. But for him who walks in the night the stars still shine: Greetings to you, Cordoba, with love and longing." [1]

[1] Zaydun quoted in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arabic Peoples. London: Faber and Faber, 2002, p. 193-194. Alongside Hourani's book further information about Cordoba and al-Andalus can be found in Roger Collins, Early Medieval Spain: Unity in Diversity, 400-1000. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995.

Picture 1: Yesería en Madina al-Zahra, by FerPer, Flickr

Picture2: Mezquita de Córdoba, by azizul hadi, Flickr

Picture 3: Moorish Statue in Cordoba Park, by austeneven, Flickr

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