Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, 756-1492
A single member of the Umayyad family, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape the bloody conflict that ensued after the Abbasids seized power. He fled to Spain, the Islamic empire’s westernmost province, which the Muslims called al-Andalus. This is where he established the Spanish Umayyad Emirate in 756, with its capital in Cordoba. The city soon grew into western Europe’s largest, with more than 500,000 inhabitants. It became a center of Islamic culture, and its schools and libraries attracted Muslim, Christian, and Jewish intellectuals. The Spanish Umayyads reached their political and cultural culmination in the 10th century, when Abd al-Rahman III (912-961) assumed the titles of caliph and “Prince of the Believers” to show that the realm was autonomous in relation to the Abbasids and Fatimids. Art was an important tool in emphasizing the caliph’s status, and a great many resources went into creating refined works of art, frequently with naturalistic depictions of plants, animals, and people. Abd al-Rahman III’s palace-city outside Cordoba, Madinat al-Zahra, set a new standard with its wealth of carved marble, and the mosque in Cordoba was expanded and embellished with palace-like magnificence.
At the beginning of the 11th century, the caliphate of the Spanish Umayyads was dissolved into many little states, called the Taifa kingdoms, which fought one another and also came under increasing pressure from the minor Christian kingdoms that had survived in northern Spain. An appeal for help from abroad led to the North African Almoravids and later the Almohads seizing power. At the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the Almohads were decisively defeated by the combined forces of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. The Iberian Peninsula then fell into Christian hands, apart from a small region in the southeast, where the Nasrids were able to hold their own for a few more centuries.
The Nasrid Sultanate was founded in 1232 in the mountainous area around Granada, Malaga, and Almeria. The realm was under constant pressure, and from 1243 was obliged to pay tribute to the Christian kingdom of Castile and Leon. Many expelled Muslims sought refuge with the Nasrids, whose capital of Granada, in particular, developed into the last flourishing stronghold of Islamic culture in Spain, financed among other things by silk manufacture. A unique complex of palaces, watercourses, and gardens was created in the sultans’ palace-city, the Alhambra, which was surrendered intact when the sultanate fell in 1492.
Muslim culture survived on the Iberian Peninsula through Muslim craftsmen, whose production of inlaid woodwork, polychrome tiles, and luster-decorated ceramics remained in demand among the Christian ruling elite.