Spain is a country. But it is also an epic tale. A victim of various foreign invasions, it has seen leadership change hands multiple times in the past. From Muslim rulers to Christian reconquests, it has seen it all.
In addition to foreigners taking over their motherland, Spain has also been prey to civil wars and dictatorships. The transition to democracy hasn’t been easy. The tumultuous history of the country is remembered by the people and helped shape the nation into what it is today.
If you’re planning on taking a trip to this historic part of the Iberian peninsula, you’ll come across various museums and monuments that depict stories from the turbulent past. As well as some fascinating Spanish folklore.
Spain was founded in around the 15th century BC when the marriage between Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille led to the merger of two major kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula.
The unification of the country of Spain is marked from the date when the last Moorish kingdom of Granada fell to the Christians in 1492, although the Spanish kingdoms continued to exist for much longer.
The Iberian peninsula has been in existence for at least a million years. But it wasn’t always of interest from a historical point of view. It was only when foreign traders started arriving on its shores and capturing territory that the country entered the spotlight, some 3000 years ago.
Ancient Spain is characterized by a series of invasions from various civilizations, who eventually ended up fighting each other to maintain their control over the Iberians. Several positive outcomes came of these conquests and Spain owes a lot of its development to its uninvited guests.
The Phoenicians were people from what is known as today’s Lebanon. They were essentially traders and often set out on sea voyages in pursuit of trading opportunities. They reached the Spanish shores sometime in 1000 BC, in the hope of selling items such as jewelry, oil, perfumes, ivory, textile, and wine. In return, the Iberians gave them bronze and silver coins.
As the Phoenicians became more and more successful in their trade with the Iberians, they established settlements along the coasts at Cadiz, Huelva, Malaka, and Almunecar. The locals were increasingly influenced by the culture the traders had brought along with them.
In addition to the now widely adopted Spanish culture, the Phoenicians brought with them the know-how of using iron, the art of writing, poultry, and several other things that are considered to have originated in Spain. A lot of these intellectual gifts overlapped with the arrival of the Greek traders and it is uncertain as to which skill was passed on to the Iberians by which people.
The Greeks started arriving in Spain around the 7th century, BC. Just like their Phoenician counterparts, they too set up colonies along the coast of the Mediterranean sea, the most important one being in Catalonia at L’Escala. It was called the Emporion.
While the Phoenicians and Greeks were busy settling in the southern parts of the Iberian peninsula, the Celts were playing the same role in the north. They lived together with the northern people on the Meseta and gave them something that they were probably forever indebted to the Celts for – beer.
From among all the colonies set up by the Phoenicians, one colony, in particular, Carthage in Ibiza, became extremely powerful. It pushed the former colonizers out of the western Mediterranean region. However, it was defeated by the Romans in 241 BC.
But the Carthaginians were not ones to give up easily. They marched back in and founded New Carthage in 227 BC. Realizing that Rome was far too powerful, they made a pact to stop their expansion beyond River Ebro.
In 119 BC, breaching the terms of the pact, the Carthaginians attacked Roman Allies in Saguntum and captured the city. A second Punic war ensued and Rome emerged victorious, driving the Carthaginian General Hannibal and his army out of Spain by 206 BC.
The Iberian Peninsula remained under the rule of the Romans for 600 years. These centuries were considered to be a golden era for Spain. The Hispanics were given temples, amphitheatres, a road system, and many other intangible assets by the Romans. Christianity, under the influence of the Romans, became the new religion for the Hispanics.
The various different languages and dialects spoken all across the country today are versions of the Latin spoken by the colonists. The conquerors also began extensive deforestation resulting in mining and the use of timber, weapons, and fuel, giving a boost to industrialization.
The Romans were attacked by Germanic tribes like the Alans, Vandals, and Sueves in 409 AD. Another Germanic tribe, the Visigoth, allied itself to the Romans in 410 AD. By 476 AD, entire Spain had come under the rule of the Visigoths, who chose to preserve the Roman culture. So much so that they incorporated Roman values in their own way of life.
The Visigoth kingdom of Spain slowly suffered cracks from within. The top leaders didn’t see eye to eye. As a result, Spain fell prey to the Moors.
It wasn’t just the Christians that set foot on Spanish soil with the intention of conquering. The Muslims came after the Romans and spread their influence throughout the country, making it culturally different from the rest of Europe.
So many Moorish monuments can be found across Spain now, such as the Granada Palace.
The Visigoth kingdom was vulnerable to attacks and the Muslims took advantage. After spreading their religion in the Middle East, by 682 AD they had set their eyes on Spain. The Visigoth king, Roderic, was defeated by the Muslim Governor of Tangier and his men, all Berbers, in 711 AD.
The Berber tribes were called the Moors and they captured the entire Iberian peninsula within a few years. With the exception of the extreme north-west region, behind the Cordillera Cantabrica mountains. Mountains are, after all, famously difficult to conquer!
The Islamic people that ruled over the Iberians were called the Al-Andalus. The initial years of the rule were crucial and volatile. But in 756 AD, Abd-er-Rahman became the Emir of Al-Andalus and Spain became more powerful than ever, with Cordoba as its capital.
The country flourished under Moorish rule. The irrigation systems installed by the Romans were improved, establishing a strong agricultural sector. Some of the main products grown in Spain today were introduced back then, such as apricots, oranges, lemon, saffron, silk, cotton, and rice.
Jews and Christians lived in harmony with the Muslims, as they were given the freedom to follow their religion. Although there was a small tax on practising Christianity, leading to many conversions to Islam. New structures were built, from parks and mosques to universities.
Advanced fields like medicine, astronomy, and mathematics were at their peak and Cordoba found itself on the intellectual map of Europe.
In the 10th century AD, general Al-Mansur came into the picture and started raiding Christian territories in the north.
After the death of Al-Mansur, chaos ensued in the region. By 1031, a civil war had caused the caliphate of Cordoba to split into various smaller kingdoms, known as taifas. The north that had been captured by the now-deceased general was back under the influence of the Christians.
In 1091, the Almoravids, another Muslim sect invaded Spain and neutralizedm internal conflicts. Eventually, the Christians took over Seville in 1248 AD. The only region that now remained with the Moors was the Emirate of Granada.
The Medieval era in Spain started when the Visigoths arrived, overthrowing the Germans, and continued all the way up to the early 16th century. It saw the Muslims take over the Spanish world until it was reconquered by the Christians.
In 722 AD, Christians under the leadership of Pelayo had started their battle against the Muslims in Covadonga. By 757, they had reconquered three-fourths of Iberia.
The patron Saint of Spain Santiago’s tomb was discovered in Galicia in 820 AD. As a result, it was extremely significant for the Christians and became one of their most popular pilgrimage sites, second only to Rome and Jerusalem.
The Christians had started foraying into Spain in 722 AD, almost a year prior to this historical find. But their resolve was strengthened further with the blessings of the holy saint from his tomb.
In the 10th century AD, general Al-Mansur launched an offensive against the Christians. Castilla became the new fighting ground for the latter and they captured Toledo in 1085. The Almoravids were then called in by the Seville Muslims as reinforcements.
But the Christians were determined. Their victory was inevitable. Armies from different kingdoms united and collectively attacked the Moors. In 1230, the towns of Extremadura and Valencia fell into the hands of the Christians. Cordoba and Seville fell in 1236 and 1248 respectively. The sole surviving Moorish state was now Granada.
In 1476, the Emir of Granada, Abu-al-Hasan, refused to bow down before Castilla. This galvanized the Catholic queen and her husband, Isabella and Ferdinand II (or Fernando) into attacking the last Moorish town. By 1492, the emirate surrendered and the Moors were completely wiped out from Spain.
Under the new rulers, the subjects were not free to practice the religion of their choice. The Spanish Inquisition was formed under the command of Tomas De Torquemada to enforce the supremacy of the Catholic Church.
The anti-semitic sentiment was strong and Jews were targeted. They were accused of secretly practising Judaism despite having converted to Christianity. Their properties were seized and they were forced to walk across town in nothing but a yellow shirt, exposing their genitals.
Eventually, they were whipped and burned alive. This was one of the darkest periods under the rule of Isabella and Fernando.
In 1492, those Jews who did not want to adopt Christianity were expelled from the region.
Commander Tomas De Torquemada’s successor turned his focus to the Muslims, who were eventually expelled in the period 1609 to 1614.
Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of America, was entrusted with the responsibility of finding new trade routes by the Spanish Monarchy in 1492. Having set out in the quest for Asia, he died in 1506, under the delusion that he had, in fact, reached his intended destination.
Before reaching America, Columbus had also discovered Jamaica and a few other islands in the Caribbean. By 1600, the Spanish rulers had under their belt Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico. The riches found in these regions were sent back home, where the crown enjoyed a major share in the trade revenues.
The successors of Isabella and Fernando were less content than their ancestors. Seeking more wealth, they ended up making greedy choices that led to their downfall. The state’s wealth bore the brunt of their affluent lifestyles and the country was pushed into poverty.
The growing conflict for the succession to the throne added to the monarchy’s problems. In 1793, Spain attacked the French who were reeling under the after-effects of the French Revolution. Only to form a coalition with them a couple of years later.
In 1807, the French used Spain as a rest-stop en route to Portugal but ended up colonizing the area.
The Spaniards took up arms and defeated the French in 1913. But this victory against the foreigners could not keep them united. Internal conflicts tore up the country and eventually led to its decline.
When the world was involved in the cataclysmic World War I, Spain remained neutral. But that didn’t ensure that peace was prevalent in the country. Socialism was on the rise and in direct conflict with anarchism. Thousands of soldiers were killed by the Berbers in 1921. In 1931, the then king Alphanso III was forced into exile.
The ever-growing conflict between the left-wing and the right-wing groups had engulfed Spain. The country was split. Everyone picked sides. In 1934, Catalonia declared independence, and violence was at its peak. Around 350 000 people from both sides lost their lives in this power struggle.
By 1939, the second World War had grabbed the planet. But just as Hitler was launching the offensive, the Nationalist groups in Spain found support from his troops against the Republicans.
The Civil war was declared over when Nationalist General Francisco Franco captured Madrid in March 1939.
During the Second World War, Spain was not directly involved and this irked the Allied powers. They boycotted trade with the country in the years that followed but eventually made peace during the Cold War. In 1955, the country found itself a seat in the UN.
Under the leadership of Franco, Spain flourished. The economy was booming and development remained a priority. But when he died in 1975, chaos ensued. People wanted democracy.
In 1978, Spain became a parliamentary monarchy. The government became more liberal and people were free to live as they pleased.
Spain is an intriguing country. There’s so much to know that you’ll be left wondering as to where to start. Below are a few interesting Spain facts.
The official name of Spain is actually the Kingdom of Spain
There are 47 World Heritage sites in Spain
The stapler, that is so widely used today, was invented in Spain in the 18th century
A Spanish sailor, Gabriel de Castilla, was the first-ever man to see Antarctica, in 1603
There are no words in the national anthem of Spain
You can cross over from Spain into Portugal in under 60 seconds, through a zipline
Spain is the second-largest country in Europe, after France
In 2005, Spain passed a law to legalize same-sex marriage
The bucket and the mop is Spain’s gift to the world
Spain has four official and three unofficial languages, and seven additional dialects
The spacesuit used by the first astronauts was first made in Spain, in 1935
With such a vast history, Spain is a fantastic destination for tourists interested in knowing the story behind every structure.
In addition to being historically rich, the country is endowed with a colourful and multifaceted culture. It bears influences from various different rulers belonging to various different religions. This is evident in the way of life of the people.
With great emphasis on family values and a liberal outlook towards life, the Spaniards are an interesting bunch to interact with. And hearing first-hand stories from the historical archives makes for the most memorable experiences.
If you’re interested in Spanish culture, check out these traditional Spanish festivals, held throughout the year!