Country Profile: Spain

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Country Profile: Spain

passports courier's opportunities for commentary in Spain are somewhat limited because they (you!) will have a local guide in most cities that you visit. However, there is generally plenty of free time and there are long drives during which the onus is on you to inform, entertain and flex your courier muscles. Familiarity is necessary with certain themes like bullfighting, flamenco dancing, Spanish food, art and architecture, and salient aspects of Spanish history like the influence of the Moors and the Spanish Civil War.

The following notes attempt a quick treatment of these themes as well as a description of the places visited and an "On the Road" section describing, where possible, the standard journeys undertaken.

Spain is a federal country made up of 18 states or autonomías. These are: Comunidad de Madrid, Castilla-la Mancha, Castilla y León, Aragón, Cataluña, Pais Vasco, la Rioja, Navarra, Costa Cantabrica, Asturias, Galicia, Extremedura, Andalucía, Murcia, Pais Valenciano, Islas Baleares and Islas Canarias. There are also two small overseas territories on the coast of North Africa called Ceuta and Melilla.

The population of the country is 49,000,000. The capital and biggest city is Madrid, followed by Barcelona, Seville and Valencia. Spain is the most mountainous country in Europe after Austria. At the time of writing (late 1999) the government is the right-wing Partido Popular (PP) under the presidency of José-María Aznar.


It is almost inevitable that you will be going to an evening of Flamenco music and dance during your time in Spain. This will undoubtedly be of the most touristic variety, spiced with the appropriate vulgarity and lack of atmosphere. Within these bounds, the performance can vary immensely in quality. The shows generally last about two hours. They tend to go down well. One drink is included. Do what you can to introduce the group to what they are about to see.

Origins  Flamenco was born in Andalucía, the "Kingdom of the Guitar." It is hard to pinpoint an exact place of origin but the hill of Sacromonte near Granada, where gypsies still live in caves, is a likely candidate. It is unknown for certain how flamenco was born but the role of gypsies in the development of flamenco styles of music and dance is certainly huge. The fact is that today it has become almost a gypsy monopoly. Other influences, however, are also notable, mostly Moorish.

The Flamenco song, which at times becomes a long-drawn-out cry, at the top of the lungs, resembles the Moorish muezzin, the cry-to-prayer from the top of a minaret.

The Spanish word flamenco means Flemish; i.e., from Flanders. This is as misleading as it is helpful. In the C16, when Spain was under the rule of the Emperor Carlos V, many of the senior figures in the Spanish court were of Flemish origin. These people were rich merchants who stood out from the traditional Spanish nobility by, among other things, their foreignness and the extravagant flamboyance of their dress. They incurred resentment and scorn among the Spanish upper classes. The term Flemish or flamenco became a general term of abuse, transferred to the much despised gypsy class in the south whose style of song and celebration, imported in large part from old Moorish traditions, was as foreign to the sophisticated Spanish upper classes as the Flemish upstarts at the Hapsburg court.

Elements of Flamenco  There are three of these: song, dance, and guitar.

Song: This was originally all of Flamenco: simple ballads sung in the home or at the tavern. These songs were not written by musicians and then sung. They were improvised spontaneously by the singer. They always described highly personal and profound emotions of the singer (cante jondo): sorrow, hope, lost loves, memories, etc. Usually, though, the prevailing emotion is one of sadness, and the tone of the song wistful, "a publication of the bad news of humanity." It's always serious things that are described — not light-hearted, carefree moon-in-June sentiments. There is a lot of dialect and antiquated poetic phrasing, and the accent is generally heavy. Beneath the wailing, it is very hard work to make the words out. Since the flamenco song is so personal, however, the words are very important. Originally, the song was simply spontaneous poetry, half-spoken, half- sung, with no accompaniment. There is nothing "literary" about flamenco.

The condition of the singer is important: his best singing is done in a trance-like state, induced partly by the intimate surroundings of the tablao (preferably a small room), and partly by the men and women in the audience. The cries of the onlookers, their clapping and shouting, contribute to the singer's inspiration. (Flamenco is very serious: only the tourists laugh.) The reciprocal relationship between singer and audience is immediate, intimate and strong, which is why flamenco could never reveal its power in a concert hall.

Dance: Today, dancing is the most conspicuous aspect of the flamenco performance. The vigor and rapidity of the floor-stamping originated in the attempt to express physically the intensity of feeling in the singer-composer. Hand-clapping, often of an immense rhythmic complexity, fulfils a similar function (though of a lesser importance). Typically, the dance rises to an emotional crescendo, echoed in changing rhythms and increasing speed, and echoed also in the sensuality, machismo, pride (touching arrogance), defiance and virtuosity of the movements.

(Incidentally, in flamenco, the fingers do not move. This action belongs to sevillana dancing, done with castanets or castañuelas, a related but distinct musical form.)

Guitar: The guitar keeps the melody going amid the floor-pounding of the dancers. A Spanish guitar is different from a typical acoustic guitar. It uses a classical guitar, generally nylon-stringed (as opposed to steel-stringed). No pick is used; rather, the strings are finger- picked, very quickly. The body of the guitar is also sometimes tapped rhythmically. In flamenco music, the guitar is not the leading element, but only an accompaniment. Occasionally the guitarist will perform solo while the singers are resting between songs.



Moorish Architecture  Structurally, the Moors brought with them to Spain numerous innovative traditions, notably that of the horseshoe arch (see, for example, some of the town gates of Toledo), the bell tower (eg. the Giralda in Seville) and that great outdoor invention, the patio (as in the Mezquita of Córdoba).The most visible contribution of the Moors to Spanish architecture is to be found in their use of dazzlingly decorative geometrical patterns. They were also geniuses in carving precious stones, alabaster, and in plating iron with gold and silver (a style known as damasquinado that is still practised in Toledo). Superb examples of this are to be found in the Mezquita in Córdoba and in the Alhambra in Granada. Ceramic tilework was perfected by the Moors, eg in the Alcázares Reales in Seville. Ceilings were another Moorish speciality: elaborately carved wood, often inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Moorish art exerted a continuing influence on Spain long after the Christian reconquest. Ceramic tiles, wrought-iron, and mosaic decoration can be seen in countless houses, especially in the south. A splendid modern example of Moorish-style architecture and decoration is to be seen in Madrid's Plaza de Toros de las Ventas, built in the 1920s.

Spanish Gothic  Most of the cathedrals in Spain belong to the Gothic style, though there are some earlier exceptions such as Santiago de Compostela, whose style is romanesque, and some later, such as the neo-classical cathedral of Granada. The principal Gothic features are held in common with the rest of Europe, originating as they do in France. Columns are tall and slender, there are large windows, flying buttresses, and pointed instead of rounded arches. There are many examples, such as the cathedrals of Seville, Toledo, Burgos, León and Barcelona. More specifically characteristic of Spanish cathedrals is their vast size and an extraordinary mélange of styles by which Gothic structures can sit, sometimes horribly uncomfortably, with renaissance or Baroque detailing, viz. the transparente in the cathedral of Toledo. In the C15 the Gothic style developed into its so-called "flamboyant" phase, which became very popular in Spain. Elaborate carving was done on stone walls, with stone filigree in the windows, and (inside) carved choir stalls and ornate ironwork. Another great distinguishing feature of the Spanish cathedral, more often than not considered a detriment, is the in-built choir, abruptly breaking off the view down the nave and the rhythm of the arches that is such a splendid aspect of French Gothic.

The Mudéjar Style  The increasing contact between Christians and Moors during the reconquest yielded a kind of hybrid architectural style. The name refers to the mudéjares, which is what those Moors were called who lived in areas of Spain re-Christianised, but who continued to practice Islam. Their skill in craftsmanship and the plastic arts meant that building was left largely to them. This style involves the use of brick and plaster instead of stone, and intricate decoration on the inside. In the Madrid area, the two most outstanding examples are the Alcázar in Segovia (especially inside: the outside is stone) and the Tránsito synagogue in Toledo (built by mudéjar craftsmen for the Jewish community). The synagogue's ceiling is pure Moorish: larchwood inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Plateresque Architecture  This is the name given to renaissance architecture in Spain. The style originated at the end of the C15, largely under Italian influence. Its character is an extreme opulence of decoration, with dazzling facades that suggested the image of a "silver plate" to viewers, hence the name. (A platero is a silversmith in Spanish.) The beautiful facade of the University of Salamanca is probably the best example; among others, the Hostal de San Marcos in León and the Capilla Real in Granada.

Spanish Baroque  The identifying feature of Spanish Baroque is a constant search for movement, expressed in the most extravagant and exuberant detailing. To many eyes, it is simply excessive. It is a concatenation of twisting columns, oval shapes, raucous color, omnipresent sculptural decoration, leaving no space for the eye to rest. This style is commonly known as Churrigueresque, after the masters of this style, the Churriguera brothers and their disciples. Among the finest examples are the facade of the Museo Municipal in Madrid and the west front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Modernismo  This is the name given to the Spanish (or more accurately Catalan) version of Art Nouveau, from the late C19 to the early C20. Its characteristics are fluid shapes and a highly original, highly personal language of ornament and decoration. Among the masters of modernismo are Antoni Gaudí, Josep Puig i Cadafalch and Lluis Domenech i Montaner (see notably the Sagrada Familia and the Manzana de la Discordia in Barcelona).


Your contact with Spanish painting will focus on the Spanish school in the Prado. The major figures are El Greco, Velázquez and Goya, representing the C16, C17 and C18 respectively. You may also see some works of Ribera and Murillo. El Greco rears his head again in the cathedral of Toledo and at the Church of Santo Tomé. From the C20 the outstanding figures are Miró, Picasso and Dalí. You will come across them if you visit the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid or, in the case of the first two, during free time in their respective museums in Barcelona and, in the case of the last, if you take an excursion to his museum in Figueres near the Spanish-French border. Some of their works are also on display at the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art in Bilbao.

The following detail is far more than you will need, especially since you will be visiting the Prado and Toledo with a local guide, but you may find it interesting.

El Greco (1541-1614) 1n 1576, Domenikos Theotokopoulos came to Toledo from Venice, where he had been studying under Titian. He was born in Crete, where the main stylistic influences came from Byzantium, and his work combined traits of both Byzantine and Venetian painting. In his splendid use of colors he was profoundly influenced by the Venetian master Tintoretto. But seldom in the history of art has a man invented so radically unique a style as Theotocopoulous, whom the people of Toledo called El Greco (in a hybrid mix of Spanish and Italian). Once arrived in Toledo he remained there for the rest of his life. Many of his greatest paintings are still to be seen there, notably a superb series of religious works in the cathedral and the famous Burial of the Count of Orgaz in the Church of Santo Tomé. His subject matter varies from courtly portraiture (see the El Greco collection in the Prado) to profoundly personal and passionate religious visions. His paintings have an unreal, mystical quality that takes them beyond the mainstream of C16 art. His religious figures are elongated, bestowing upon them a saintly quality which distinguishes them from ordinary humanity. Shapes are often sharply geometrical, but grouped together to produce effects of swirling rhythm and movement. Characteristic of his painting are the extraordinary hands he gave his subjects, long, slender, feminine and often with the middle fingers close together in a much-discussed, controversial and unexplained gesture.

Ribera (1591-1652) The founder of the "Spanish School" of the C17. He studied in Naples, absorbing the chiaroscuro style developed by Caravaggio, and brought it back to Spain. Whereas most Italian painters at the time were painting fleshy nudes or portraits of noblemen, Ribera specialized in pictures of gruesome executions and martyrdoms, the harsh and sometimes sinister realities of Spanish asceticism and fanaticism. An outstanding example in the Prado is Ribera's Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew. The Roman executioners are depicted lifting St. Bartholomew's body to the stake, where he is about to be flayed alive. The scene is gripping and frighteningly realistic: note especially the haggard look on Bartholomew's face, his sunken chest and lifeless limbs.

Velázquez (1599-1660) Diego de Velázquez is Spain's most beloved painter, the master of Spanish Baroque. His greatest works are exhibited inside the Prado (with the exception of the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London). Though born in Seville, Velázquez quickly rose to prominence in Madrid, becoming court painter to Philip IV at the age of 24. He is perhaps one of the most naturally gifted painters in the history of art. His brushstrokes often seem effortless. He was a master of the effects of the effects of light and shade. His emotional range is unlimited, his subject matter immensely varied. His work is sensitive, delicate and profoundly realistic, whether in depictions of the kingly court, a drunken gathering, Christ on the cross, mythological stories or still life. He is said to have replied to criticism for not idealizing his subjects: "I would rather be the first in this coarse subject matter than the second in nicety."

Las Meninas (a Portuguese word meaning Maids of Honour) is his most famous work and the great single attraction of the Prado. The painting shows the young Infanta (princess) surrounded by maids; all the figures are real-life personalities from the court of Philip IV. Subtleties abound: there is a reflection of Philip IV and his wife in a mirror; a painting by Rubens hangs on the wall; Velázquez himself stands behind his huge canvas (the painter shows himself painting this scene). The picture is a triumph of space and perspective, reflections, angles and the play of light. There is more to it, though, than just this rather brilliant intellectual game. The painting is immensely sympathetic and succeeds in drawing in the viewer to participate in the life of the Spanish court seemingly captured in an informal off-camera moment in all its fullness. The handling of the paint, as ever with Velázquez, is superbly delicate and exhibits this apparently paradoxical quality of casual meticulousness that is his hallmark.

Murillo (1618-1682) Like his great contemporary Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo was born in Seville, but unlike the former he never set out to establish himself outside that city. He is best known for his religious pictures, as well as for a series of humane and angelic portraits of little beggar children. Murillo imbues all his subjects with a warmth and empathy that is very touching, at times crossing the barrier into the cloyingly sentimental. His Madonnas, painted from idealized and romanticized versions of local Sevillian women, are among the loveliest in the history of art. His Immaculate Conception is probably the finest example in the Prado; it was painted at a time when the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin was being hotly debated in the schools and streets. She is shown ascending to heaven on a carpet of cherubs, surrounded by warm clouds and sunbeams. Her countenance displays a mystical gaze which puts her out of human reach. In the early C19 Murillo was so famous and considered so great that his very name was commonly used to mean a painting, so that, for example, you could talk of "a murillo by Velázquez" or "a murillo by Rubens." A generation later disagreed and dismissed him as being too "vaporous" in style. Vaporosness is certainly a feature of some of his work, especially his later works, but it is scarcely a criticism, at least in the eyes of modern critics who are busily restoring his reputation as one of the greats. (This is a re-evaluation based more on his beautiful brushwork than on his approach to his subject matter.) There is also a superb collection of Murillo's work in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville.

Goya (1746-1828) Francisco de Goya y Lucientes was a man of genius, staggeringly versatile in his emotional range and subject matter. He moved as a young man from his native Fuendetodos near Saragossa to Madrid where he grew in stature to become court painter to King Carlos IV, at the age of 53. His paintings of the court depict real people, utterly unflattering and with all their foibles apparent. In the famous family portrait in the Prado, the ineffectual figure of Carlos IV is portrayed off to the side as an awkward, plump, undistinguished and rather formless man while his haughty, arrogant wife stands dominant and fat-armed at the center of the painting. In a kind of homage to Velázquez, his greatest predecessor as court painter, Goya includes a self-portrait. Among the other masterpieces of this versatile genius: the Maja Desnuda and the Maja Vestida and the dramatic war pictures the Dos de Mayo and Tres de Mayo.

Goya's Pinturas Negras or "Black Paintings." The artist was in his 70's, living in retirement in Madrid. He had gone stone deaf and fallen into a state of deep and nihilistic depression. People without voices became absurd and grotesque creatures in his eyes, objects of horror, madness and despair. He covered the walls of his Madrid home with a series of morbid paintings, in black and shades of grey, describing with gruesome fury his own internal distress. His pictures of the Romería de San Isidro, populated by hordes of hunched, misshapen figures with hollow eyes contrast strikingly with his earlier depictions of the same occasion, filled with light and joy and laughter. The horrific painting of Saturn shows the god of Time and Old Age devouring his sons, his mouth and chin dripping with blood. The paintings were removed from the walls of Goya's house when the place was demolished, and transferred to canvas. They are now in the Prado.

Picasso (1881-1973) Pablo Picasso was born in Málaga but lived much of his life elsewhere, particularly in Barcelona, Paris and Vallauris on the French Riviera. He is without doubt the single most influential and dominant figure in C20 art (painting and sculpture). His oeuvre spans just about every significant movement in modern art, from his early naturalist phase through Cubism to Surrealism and Expressionism. His later work defies categorization. Among his signal productions are the Cubist milestone Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and the anti-war painting Guernica, the definitive work of C20 painting (for details on the latter, see the section of notes on the Reina Sofía in Madrid). As well as in the aforementioned museum, you can find an interesting collection from his early "Blue" and "Rose" periods in the Museo Picasso in Barcelona, along with a fine selection of his ceramics from the 1950's.

Miró (1893-1983) Joan Miró was a Catalan painter and sculptor of immense originality. He was born in Barcelona but moved to Paris at the age of 27, where he came into contact with all the major strains of the avant-garde. His works are among the most appealing and likeable of C20 art. He was a Surrealist (he was also the man who introduced Slavador Dalí to Surrealism). His oeuvre is characterized by childlike and dreamlike images, humorous, whimsical, playful, bright, colorful, tactile, spontaneous, rhythmic, full of magical symbols etc. The titles he gave to his paintings are a constant source of delight, eg Dawn Perfumed by a Shower of Gold, Dog Barking at the Moon, Woman with Hairdo Destroyed by the Wind before the Eclipse. The Fundació Miró in Barcelona has a superb collection of his painting and sculpture. There is also a large and representative Miró collection in the Reina Sofía.

Dalí (1904-1989) Salvador Dalí, also Catalan, in his youth flirted with all the major movements of the avant-garde, then became after 1929 a major figure in the Surrealist movement, embracing all its comic, dreamlike and fantastical aspects. Both as an artist and as a man he was very idiosyncratic, a ceaseless self-publicist, a populist, some say a charlatan. He called his work "paranoic critical," whatever that's supposed to mean. His draughtsmanship is flawless and he constantly displays an extraordinary attention to detail, which allows the viewer to see more in his paintings and sculptures with every viewing. Nonetheless, imagination is his strength, not artistic talent. He was fascinated by the subconscious, the world of dreams. Much of his work is dominated by repetitive themes culled from his own private dream world (his obsession with clocks is typical in this regard), The Dalí Museum in Figueras, the town where he was born and where he died, is highly entertaining, though it contains none of his major works. The large and important collection in the Reina Sofía is of equal interest and appeal.


To Americans and northern Europeans, Spanish food and the Spanish way of eating can be very unfamiliar. It can also be exceedingly appealing. Spanish food is distinctly Mediterranean (everything with garlic and olive oil) but also very varied, as you would expect in a country of such regional diversity: from the mariscadas (seafood platters) of Galicia to the pescaitos fritos of Andalucía; from the cordero asado (roast lamb) of the Castilian plains to paella valenciana; from the migas of Extremadura (fried bread crumbs) to the the big roasts of beef in Navarre or the Basque Country.

Most unfamiliar of all - and most delightful - is the tradition of tapas, to which you should try and introduce the group at some stage during the tour. These are appetizers which you can find lining the counter of most bars (especially in Madrid and Seville). They come in tapas (small saucers, just enough to taste) or raciones (slightly more substantial). Often, in Madrid especially, one small tapa (of olives or patatas ali-oli, for example) is served free with a drink. They are perfect for a snack lunch, and they are also cheap. You can get just one for a short hunger stop or a selection to make a fine meal with a beer or a glass of coke. They can serve to fill in the long gap between lunch and dinner, as most restaurants not catering specifically to a tourist clientele generally open late in the evening (9.00pm in Madrid, 8.00pm at the earliest).

The following is a fairly typical tapas menu which you are likely to see in a Madrid bar:

Tortilla (the famous Spanish omelette, made with eggs, potatoes and olive oil)
Chorizo (a kind of spicy sausage)
Patatas bravas (fried potato wedges smothered in a hot sauce)
Calamares (batter-covered squid deep-fried in olive oil)
Ensalada rusa (a mixed vegetable salad in mayonnaise)
Chipirones en su tinta (baby squid cooked in their own ink)
Aceitunas (olives: you are, of course, in Spain)
Albóndigas (meatballs)
Gambas al ajillo (shrimp deep-fried in olive oil with lots of garlic, served sizzling hot)
Morcilla (blood sausage, made with garlic and rice, the speciality of Burgos)
Pulpo gallego (octopus, in olive oil with onions and sea salt)
Jamón Serrano (delicious lean cured ham)
Queso Manchego (Spain's most famous cheese)

¡Buen provecho!

Did you know? Madrileños, in spite of living nowhere near the sea, eat more seafood than any other people in the world, with the exception of the Japanese.


To recount a long and detailed history of Spain would be inconceivable, irrelevant and desperately dull. It is enough to concentrate on two or three of the most salient aspects, eg. Moorish Spain and the Reconquest, the "golden age" of Christian Spain (from Ferdinand and Isabella to Philip II) and the Spanish Civil War. A cursory mention of Roman and Visigothic Spain or the centuries of decline after Philip II should be enough.

One sentence is enough to devote to the pre-classical inhabitants of Spain. The indigenous peoples were Celts and Iberians, the principal traders and colonizers were Greeks and Carthaginians from North Africa. Now for the Romans. Their process of colonization, beginning with the expulsion of Hannibal's Carthaginians, took 200 years. By 19 B.C., under Augustus, colonization and incorporation into the Pax Romana was complete. At this time, Spain's soil was so fertile that it produced all the grain needed by the empire: it became, along with Egypt, the granary of Rome.

Remnants of Roman Spain are to be found all over the country. Some examples: the ruins of Italica near Seville (a kind of Spanish Pompeii); the Roman aqueduct in Segovia; the theatre and amphitheatre of Mérida; the Spanish language.

Some famous Spanish Romans:

Trajan (AD53-117 b. Italica, near Seville) first Roman Emperor born outside Italy, best known for his military campaigns and for his column.

Hadrian (AD76-138 also b. Italica) the emperor instrumental in unifying Rome's vast and disparate empire. He of the wall.

Seneca (4BC-65AD, b. Córdoba) philosopher and statesman, in his day the most powerful politician in Rome.

Quintilian (AD35-96, b. near Tarragona) teacher and rhetorician, important and influential in the fields of education and literary criticism.

Martial (AD38-103, b. Bilbilis??) satiric poet, biting critic of society's mores.

With the decline of the Roman Empire came the arrival of the "barbarian" tribes from the north, most importantly the Visigoths who arrived in the Iberian Peninsula in the early C5. They made their capital Toledo. In faith, the Visigoths were "Arians"— adherents of a Christian sect condemned by Rome for denying the divinity of Jesus. At the Third Council of Toledo in 589 the Visigoths renounced Arianism and embraced Roman Christianity. This marks the rise of Toledo as a religious as well as political center. The Visigothic kingdom was highly disparate, held together by a loose military aristocracy and with none of the smooth bureaucracy of the Roman Empire. This lack of cohesion prepared the way for the invasion of the Moors.

A Chronology of Moorish Spain and the Reconquest
711 Invasion of the Moors at Tarifa near Gibraltar. Visigoths under King Roderic defeated by Tariq and 7,000 troops at Battle of Guadalete.
718 Completion of the Muslim invasions. All Spain now in Moorish hands.
722 Victory of Pelayo at Covadonga, the beginning of the Reconquest.
756 Abd-al-Rahman I makes Córdoba his capital, the foundation of an independent emirate.
C10 Córdoba's golden age, raised to the status of a caliphate under Abd-al-Rahman III.
1031 Disintegration of Córdoba caliphate into 20 smaller so-called reinos de taifa.
1085-6  1094 Reconquest of Valencia by El Cid.
C12 Reinos de taifa call for asistance of Almoravid Muslims from the Sahara, later superseded by the Almohades. Northern and central Spain now in Christian hands. Only the Muslim heartlands of Andalucía (Al Andalus) and southern Extremadura resist the Reconquest.

Seville's golden age:
1212 Christian victory at Las Navas de Tolosa marks the beginning of the end for Muslim Spain.
1236 Reconquest of Córdoba.
1248 Reconquest of Seville.
This leaves only the Kingdom of Granada (incorporating the modern provinces of Granada, Málaga and Almería) in Muslim hands.
1492 Reconquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella. All Spain united under Christianity.
The most striking fact discernible from the above is that the Moorish invasion of Spain took just 7 years from start to finish. The Christians took over 700 years to win it all back.

The Arrival of the Moors  The real reason for the Moorish invasions was the attraction of the rich agricultural possibilities on the Iberian Peninsula, at least by comparison with the dry desert lands of North Africa. Legend, however, is more colorful. (Some teachers balk at the telling of this story.) It is said that Roderic, the last Visigothic king of Spain, was particularly struck by the beauty of the daughter of one of his friends. He would watch in secret as she bathed in the River Tagus at Toledo. One day he lost control and raped her. His friend, her father, in outrage and in a spirit of vengeance, fled to North Africa to muster support against Roderic and instigate an invasion. The year was 711. The invasion was successful. The age of Moorish Spain began.

As mentioned above, the Moors quickly conquered all of Spain, but in some far northern regions their hold was slight and they soon ceded these lands back to the Christians. Their great center of power was further south in Andalucía, and the great centre of Andalucía was Córdoba.

The Rise of Córdoba  In 756 Abd-al-Rahman, a Syrian noble whose family was overthrown in Damascus, fled to North Africa and then crossed to Spain, where he established an independent emirate at the old Roman city of Córdoba in the Guadalquivir valley. Under his patronage and that of his successors, Córdoba soon became one of the greatest cities of the Mediterranean world. For over 200 years it remained the dominant power in Al Andalus. At its height, Córdoba had a population numbering one million (compared with only 240,000 today). It had some 300 mosques, splendid public baths, about 8,000 shops, and a library containing over 400,000 books. The great central mosque was the largest in the world. The university was one of the finest centres of learning in early medieval Europe. Córdoba was equal in political and cultural importance to Baghdad and Cairo.

The Reconquest  This began slowly, and took about 700 years. We mentioned that a stand was made by Christian forces in the Asturian mountains. Out of this emerged a small Christian kingdom of Asturias, which soon expanded to include León. There was internal strife among Christian leaders. But strife also broke out among the Moors; they were divided into two sects, the Almoravides and Almohades. By this time the Arabs had died out and the Moorish population was mainly Berber.

The Christian king Alfonso VIII defeated a Moorish army at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, and this marks the beginning of the end of real Moorish power in Spain. From that time on, the Moors could fight only a defensive, rear-guard action against the onslaught of the Christian Reconquest. Nevertheless it took another 300 years before the last Moorish stronghold of Granada actually fell.

El Cid, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, nicknamed "El Cid Campeador", a knight from Burgos, was the symbol of his era: brave, loyal, independent, and a fierce fighter. His conquest of Moorish cities made him the national hero of Spain. (But it should be mentioned that when he disagreed with his fellow Christians, he didn't hesitate to join the Moors out of self-interest. Thus, one must distinguish between popular symbol and historical fact in speaking of El Cid.)

Reconquest of Toledo took place in 1085-86. Thus, the former Visigothic capital was now back in Christian hands, and it became the political and spiritual capital once again.

Significance of the Reconquest  This long, 600-year crusade shaped the Spanish character. The Spanish came to identify their own unity as a nation with the Catholic faith. The Reconquest took on a symbolic meaning comparable to the Western frontier in the U. S. Example: St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. In the C9 the body of St. James was "discovered" in Galicia, and then entombed at Compostela. A great cult of Santiago de Compostela (St. James of Compostela) spread from Galicia as the Reconquest took it farther south. The feast day of Santiago, July 25, is the national holiday. All through the Reconquest, visions of Santiago were reported: before a battle, he once appeared to the Christian forces riding on a white horse. Christian armies used his name as a war cry against the Moors. In view of this background, one can well understand such later phenomena as the Inquisition, saints with their visions, St. Teresa, Spanish asceticism, monasticism, and fanaticism.

1492 and all that came thereafter...  The great pivotal date in Spanish history, probably the most famous 'date' there is and the only one that no group can fail to remember, is 1492. This was the year of the conquest of Granada, the last Islamic kingdom in Spain (presaging the later expulsion of the Moors), the year of the expulsion of the Jews and, of course, the year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The driving force behind all these events were the "Reyes Católicos" Ferdinand and Isabella. A few years earlier they had married, uniting the two great Christian kingdoms of Spain, Castile (Isabella) and Aragon (Ferdinand). With the conquest of Granada, all Spain became unified under Christianity for the first time in its history. With the expulsion of the Jews and later of the Moors, Spain lost the glittering society of three cultures that had been its finest hallmark. With the discovery of the Americas, the age of exploration sparked a series of Spanish (and other) expeditions, notably Cortés to Mexico and Pisarro to Peru, that changed the world. The impetus behind these expeditions was threefold: the joy of discovery, the spread of Christianity, and the wondrous abundance of gold. Spain was soon to become the richest and most powerful nation on earth, the first great international superpower since the Roman Empire over 1,000 years before.

Spain's Golden Age  The children of Ferdinand and Isabella had married into the House of Habsburg, the ruling dynasty of Austria and for centuries the almost exclusive rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. Their grandson was Carlos V, who inherited that Austrian Empire as well as Spain, the Low Countries and the vast swathes of land and potential wealth in the New World. When Carlos V came to Spain, it marked the beginning of the "Golden Age." Carlos' reign, though, was largely taken up with subduing the German Protestants, defending Vienna, his capital, from the Turks, and maintaining order in the Low Countries. His son, Felipe II, born in Spain (Valladolid), brought the Spanish Golden Age to its zenith. His religious zeal was without bounds. His military success was huge. He defeated the Turks at the great battle of Lepanto (1571), he added Portugal to his domains, though it became independent again in 1640, and crushed rebellions among Protestants in the Low Countries. (The one signal exception to this success was the shattering defeat of the Spanish Armada by the forces of Queen Elizabeth I of England.) The profits of gold began to show in the extravagant splendors of the Spanish Renaissance (El Escorial, the enormous golden altarpiece of Seville's cathedral etc, there are many examples). This cultural flowering is exemplified in the great figures of Cervantes and El Greco.

"All is not gold that glitters"  ("No es todo oro que reluce") Ironically, gold was also almost directly responsible for the gradual economic collapse of Spain. With this precious metal available in the New World, there was little incentive to develop native industry. The barrenness of Spain today (or at least until very recently) is a direct consequence of American gold. The Romans had developed agriculture in Spain, irrigated farms, and turned the land green. This was a process continued with enormous success under the Moors. But when gold arrived, it was sold to other European states in exchange for basic commodities, so native agriculture and industry alike languished in Spain.

Carlos V, seeing gold coming into Spain and then promptly leaving it, tried to develop a local industry in the form of sheep raising. But this only served to aggravate the economic problem. At the time, silk was the cloth worn by the rich (imported from the Orient), along with wool and furs. Linen was the poor man's fabric. The softest, most sought-after wool was the wool of the Merino sheep, which flourished only in Spain. A law was passed imposing the death penalty for anyone exporting Merino sheep from Spain. The intention was to keep the Merino wool in the country, thus increasing demand. The privileged position of sheep meant that fences had to be taken down to promote sheep raising. Crop harvests were trampled down, and other fields of agriculture declined. Green grazing areas became fewer and fewer in Spain. With foliage gone, there was nothing to hold the soil; wind and erosion transformed central Spain into a wasteland. It is only in the last few generations that central Spain, particularly the plains of La Mancha, have re-emerged from this state of semi-desert.

This was not the whole story. Within Europe, France began to grow in power and influence, to the detriment of Spain. More and more Spaniards left their country in the C16 and C17 in search of adventure and success in the New World. In addition, something like 20% of the population, an enormous figure, was in monastic orders, making for a declining birthrate, unique in Europe. Interminable wars decimated the population further. Inherent in Spain's Golden Age were the very seeds of her downfall. Under Felipe II's successors, his namesakes Felipe III and IV, Spain's decline really set in. The last Habsburg ruler was Carlos II, a rather unfortunate character who was both mentally unbalanced and impotent. Lacking an heir, Spain's throne was prey to outside forces, as all of Europe awaited Charles' death.

The Bourbon Dynasty and thereafter  After the pan-European tumult of the War of the Spanish Succession, Spain got a new king, the grandson of France's Louis XIV, Philip V. The Bourbon family now ruled both France and Spain, though the two countries remained politically separate. The history of the Bourbon dynasty is not within the compass of these notes. There were some inspired and enlightened rulers among the Bourbon kings, but the essential theme of this age is one of decadence and further decline on the world stage. Spain reached its nadir at the time of Napoleon in the late C18, who made his brother Joseph King of Spain. During this period of humiliation, the Spanish rallied and fought a desperate behind-the-lines war with the French conquerors. Goya's drawings of French atrocities in Spain illustrate both the growing despair and the growing nationalism of the Spanish.

In the C19 the Spanish weren't able to hold on to their American colonies, which one by one broke away. All through the century, though the Spanish had their land back again in the aftermath of Napoleon, they were preoccupied with internal political squabbles among different contenders to the throne. A war with the U.S. in 1898 cost them Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. The Spanish Empire was now well and truly over. The country suddenly found itself light years behind the new powers of the industrialized world, Germany, England and the United States.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-39) This was the bloodiest conflict in Spanish history, a tragedy for the country, and, because of the ideological nature of the conflict and the modern methods of warfare, a horrific preface to the horrors of World War II. It began with a revolt of the Spanish troops in the colony of Morocco, led by General Franco, who crossed to the mainland of Spain. The pro- and anti-Republican forces were about equally divided in popular support, in arms, and in talent. The ensuing conflict took over half a million lives, and the memory of this tragedy is by no means erased.

After Franco (this for the reader to provide) La Movida; Democracy; King Juan Carlos.


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