Why did we honeymoon in al-Andalus?

Over the next several posts, I will describe some of the remarkable places that Natasha and I visited during our three weeks in southern Spain. I believe it is a trip that I will always remember!

Posts in this series:

Both Natasha and I have substantial travels under our belts already, so when we began planning our honeymoon together, we faced quite the conundrum. In what place on Earth would we most like to spend two or more weeks? Which would have good availability and safety over the end-of-year holidays? Could we keep the total voyage cost affordable?

In the end, I suggested al-Andalus because southern Spain met almost all our criteria. Natasha loves places where different societies have come into contact. That explains our trip to Zanzibar at the close of 2017! Nowhere have the Muslim and Christian worlds intersected more interestingly than in Spain (I detail a timeline below). Neither Natasha nor I had ever visited the area (my closest brush was at Barcelona in 1994). Our earlier thought of visiting Turkey and Greece was scuttled by travel warnings at the U.S. State Department.

flight route visualized by the Great Circle Mapper, http://www.gcmap.com/

With our target fixed on Spain for late December, we began assembling our plan in earnest during September, when we purchased our flights on Iberia Airlines, the flag carrier for Spain. We were grateful that our flight course would require just two “legs.” We decided to enter Spain from Madrid rather than Malaga (which is on the southern coast) because Madrid had more places we hoped to visit, and Malaga gets a substantial number of holiday tourists from the U.K.

Once we knew our flights were December 18-19th and January 7-8th, we could allocate days to cities we wanted to visit. We decided to plan no travel during Christmas and New Year holidays; we did not yet realize that January 6th is Epiphany or the Three Kings’ Day, which is a big deal in Spain. Based on our reading ahead of time, we picked Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada as our destinations, leaving some room for an extra trip to Antequera along the way. We allocated six nights each at Cordoba and Granada and a further three nights at Sevilla (easily the largest of these three cities, but only a third the population of Madrid). With the benefit of hindsight, our trip followed the design shown in this map:

Madrid - Cordoba - Antequera - Sevilla - Granada

For once, I was able to travel without getting a visa! American citizens can enter Spain as tourists for up to 90 days without going through the visa process. Natasha, however, was not so lucky, and the “Shengen” visa process for South Africans was pretty intense. She was required to provide evidence of health insurance coverage, a roster of all the places we would stay, and bank statements among other elements. In the end, however, she was successful! I was saddened that her visa would rule out a visit to Gibraltar, which would count as another country on her visa application.

The Back-and-Forth of Muslim and Christian kingdoms in medieval Spain

Many people with whom we’ve spoken have been surprised to learn Spain was ever Muslim! The map above gives a big hint as to how that happened; Africa and Europe very nearly touch at Gibraltar. At the start of the 8th century, Spain was run by Visigoths, who had become the Christian inheritors of Roman civilization. In 711, however, North African Muslims (Arabs and Berbers) stormed across the narrow strait at Gibraltar. Within a year, they had subjugated almost all of the Iberian peninsula (the name “al-Andalus” comes from an Arabic term for the area, first appearing on coins in 716). For the first few decades of Muslim Spain, the area was ruled by the Umayyads from Damascus, but in 756, Abd al-Rahman I established an independent emirate ruled from Cordoba. The high water mark of this Muslim kingdom came during 929-1031, when Abd al-Rahman III declared himself Caliph at Cordoba. (As with “Pope,” the Muslim world ostensibly can have only one Caliph– this declaration led to battles with forces from others who called themselves Caliph). After the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, Muslim Spain was riven by the rule of a dictator, and it dissolved into taifas, or smaller principalities.

Muslim Spain regained much of its former power in 1086, when the Almoravids arrived from North Africa. The newcomers perceived the earlier Spanish Muslims as too cosmopolitan, and the Almoravid dynasty brought some degree of fundamentalism to the new Muslim kingdom. Ironically, much the same happened again in 1147, when the Almohads reconquered the peninsula from the Almoravids. In 1154, the Almoravids regained control of Granada.

In the 8th century, the Christian armies were almost entirely destroyed, and the remaining forces were driven into the mountains of the northwest and into the area surrounding Barcelona and the French Cote d’Azur. It was quite some time before they were able to reassemble themselves into functional kingdoms. Catalan, Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and Leon had emerged as autonomous kingdoms by the fall of the Caliphate in 1031. These Christian kingdoms, however, were quite prone to attacking each other and trying to seize the title “king of Christian Spain.” On many occasions, the Pope had to incentivize the Christians to attack the Muslims rather than each other by offering Crusader benefits.

People sometimes speak of the “Reconquista” as a single long war against the Muslims by the Christians in Spain, but this is actually a pretty wrong conception. The Reconquista spanned centuries, and its battles were sporadic and separated across time. Alfonso VI (king of both Leon and Castile) was able to retake Toledo in 1085 in the aftermath of the Caliphate’s fall. Around the same time, “El Cid” gained notoriety as an independently-minded soldier involved in an astonishing variety of battles (“El CID” was also the name of my first proteomics software!). A huge step forward for the Christians came in 1212, when the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa broke the forward momentum of the Almohads. When the attention of the Almohads drifted to a power struggle in North Africa, Ferdinand III recaptured Cordoba in 1236 and then formed a coalition with the other Christian kings plus the Almoravid king of Granada to recapture Sevilla (then the largest of the Muslim cities in Spain) in 1248. Isn’t it ironic that the Christian kings would complete the most ambitious parts of the Reconquista in coalition with a Muslim ruler?

Because the Muslim emirate of Granada paid tribute to Castile, the Reconquista went on hold for a very long time except for battles with the Almohads, based in North Africa. It wasn’t until the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella that the campaign to recapture Granada took place. In 1492, Muhammad XII surrendered Granada. In total, then, we see a period of more than 700 years in which a Muslim kingdom existed in the Iberian Peninsula. The major events of the Reconquista stretched for more than 400 years of that period.

I hope that this little history helps to set in context the following posts about our visit to al-Andalus!

20 thoughts on “Why did we honeymoon in al-Andalus?

    1. dtabb1973 Post author

      Good idea! I added in a sentence or two. He was mostly active further north, particularly in Valencia, I believe. I added a link to an old project summary I wrote in graduate school since it went by the same name!


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