11 Apr 08


In search of a great power whose sun has long since set behind these hills.

Illuminated by the sunlight of southernmost Spain are the last traces of a great state whose grandeur and importance seem disproportionate to its lack of prominence in European history.

Perhaps the footnote status of Al-Andalus is partly due to being sandwiched between Roman civilisation and the discovery of the “New” World. Still more likely is that this near-mythical tale of a golden era of Muslim rule might otherwise take the polish off the Catholic resurgence that brought about the former’s end.

The coming of the Ummayads


Inspired by the example of the prophet Muhammad, the Ummayad Caliphs rapidly expanded into territories far beyond their native Syria. In April 711, an Ummayad army under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad landed at Gibraltar (“Rock of Tariq” = “Gibel al Tariq” = “Gibraltar”). Within eight years, the Ummayad army had taken possession of lands beyond the Pyrennees, after which its progress was finally checked.

There followed half a millenium of Muslim rule. It was a time of enlightenment, of civilised life and – to some extent at least – of cultural and religious tolerance.

However, the course of empire never runs smoothly, and whilst the Ummayads gained Al-Andalus, they would quickly lose every other territory in their power. A revolt by the rival Abbasid family unseated them from their Syrian seat in 750, leaving surviving exile Abd ar-Rahman I to fight his way to pre-eminence in Al-Andalus.


Behind him, the Abbasids of Baghdad now planned his downfall from newly-won Africa, but the emboldened Ummayad routed the force sent to defeat him and planned to take Baghdad. Revolts preoccupied Abd ar-Rahman I and his plans were never realised. In later generations, the Ummayad Emirs and Caliphs of Córdoba sought to outdo Baghdad’s splendour instead.

From Córdoba to Granada

While Abd ar-Rahman I was concerned with consolidating the strength of the nascent Emirate at Córdoba, it would be a further two centuries before successor Abd ar-Rahman III could expand it. Swelled by victories against the Abbasids and Fatimids in North Africa, and in open defiance of a weakened Baghdad, he declared himself Caliph of Córdoba in 929.

The Caliphate dwarfed its neighbours, a collection of struggling, minor Catholic kingdoms, but spared by diplomacy and allowed to thrive on trade relations these kingdoms would not remain feeble for long. In the meantime, the threat of civil war had begun to loom over the Caliphate.


In the early decades of the 11th century, the disastrous outcome of this internal strife was the division of the Caliphate’s lands into a series of smaller states, each of which were more manageable targets for the increasingly boisterous and ideologically united Christian crowns. To defend themselves, these taifa kingdoms turned to their Muslim neighbours in North Africa for assistance. Inevitably they paid with their sovereignty and the taifas were briefly reunited under Berber rule.

Despite initial successes, however, the Berber newcomers could not stem the tide of Spanish kingdoms that resented their presence. In a cataclysmic battle at Las Navas de Tolosa near Jaén, the kings of Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Navarre defeated the Caliph al-Nasir and the map of Al-Andalus began inexorably to shrink into the southeastern corner of the Iberian peninsula.

Dissent among the Spanish permitted the continuation of Muslim rule from 1232 under the Nasrid dynasty for another quarter of a millenium, albeit confined to Granada and its environs. Yet it was only a matter of time before the Christians would return. When the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella (of Aragon and Castile respectively) effectively united Spain, for the Nasrids there was nowhere left to turn but the sea.

The new invasion

In the Middle Ages, the tracks and trails of Western Europe filled with pilgrims headed for Lourdes, Santiago de Compostela, Jerusalem and other holy sites. As Chaucer makes plain in The Canterbury Tales, it wasn’t long before the leisured and the curious swelled the ranks of the pious. These fakers were the original tourists and their dust had barely settled when the Grand Tourers and the Baedeker devotees followed on to discover the beaux arts of Europe.

In 1967, the Spanish peseta was devalued and the drop in cost of living drew people from all classes to seek their own stories of sun, sea, sand and sundries in the high-rise hotels of Benidorm and the Torremolinos. When the Costas filled with foul-mouthed, heavy drinking sunburners, the British seaside turned quiet, then desolate.

For some folks, two weeks in Lloret was never enough. And if we consider the history of humanity, where there is demand, there will be supply. So from Alpine ski slopes like bottled spring water gushed forth that peculiarly un-British form of contract known as “timeshare”. Poolside holidaymakers were encouraged by a limitless supply of slickback shirtsleeves fresh out of the Essex College of Selling to take the plunge. In they dived and their trunks of money would be embarassingly lost.

In the present era, we have the Internet and people prefer to go direct. To a British enclave, using a British estate agent abroad and the foreign limb of a British bank. Old habits die hard.

Andalusia today is cosmopolitan in a way that the Caliphs would never have imagined. Visitors to the ancient pueblos blancos of the high Alpujarras are just as likely to find an English academic grabbing a few days’ peace between Trinity and Michaelmas, or a retired German hikenut in precariously short shorts following the goat trails.

El Poniente Granadino

Reasonably distant from bent builders, crooked councillors and false profits is the Poniente Granadino, the last border of Al-Andalus, where steep slopes are occupied by rows of olive trees or higher up, by thick snow.

The Poniente borders the provinces of Córdoba, Málaga and Jaén and produces some of the world’s finest olive oil. J and I stayed in a small converted stable about ten miles north of Loja, near Ventorros de San José.



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