After Muslim armies conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century, European forces began a campaign to retake the territory, which would ultimately last about 770 years.
Today, Spain and Portugal conjure up images of good wine, beautiful landscapes, and colorful food. These same nations were far less enjoyable in the Middle Ages, however, when a series of wars known as the Reconquista plagued the Iberian Peninsula for nearly 800 years.
The Reconquista (“reconquest”) was a series of military campaigns led by regional Christian kingdoms who fought to reclaim territories from the Muslim Moors who had conquered them. It became the longest-known war in recorded history and concerned not only land but politics and religion.
Not only did the Reconquista cost up to seven million lives before ending in 1492, but it also drastically transformed the makeup of the Iberian Peninsula. In the wake of the conflict, Jews were expelled, and Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity (and later expelled as well). Yet Moorish influence, in the form of bright colors and cuisine, remains to this day.
So, how did the Reconquista begin? It ultimately started like all wars do — with an invasion.
The Moorish Invasion Of Europe
The Iberian Peninsula, with its strategic access to the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Mediterranean Sea in the south, has always been an invaluable territory. Its appeal as a popular point of trade drew countless cultures — including Celts, Visigoths, Romans, and Moors — to the region for millennia.
The events that led to the Reconquista began in 711 C.E., during a period when the Visigoths controlled Iberia. That year, some 12,000 Arabs and Berbers led by Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. They triumphed over a force of Visigoths led by King Roderick (who was either killed or fled) during the Battle of Guadalete and then pressed on to Córdoba and Toledo.
Additional forces, led by Musa ibn Nusayr, continued their momentum and soldiered on to take Medina-Sidonia, Seville, Mérida, and Zaragoza. By 718 C.E., the Moors — so named by Europeans after Mauretania, the Roman name for North Africa — controlled nearly all of Iberia. They hoped to continue to advance into Western Europe, but they failed to break through.
Indeed, though the Moors had quickly overwhelmed any resistance, Europeans soon started to fight back. In 718, the Reconquista began in earnest at the Battle of Covadonga.
The Centuries-Long Reconquista Begins
The Battle of Covadonga, in which Christian Asturians led by Visigoth King Pelayo triumphed over the Moors, marked the beginning of the Reconquista, or the “reconquest” of Iberia.
But the struggle for Iberia would not come to a quick conclusion. In fact, it would endure for the next eight centuries as both the Moors and Europeans struggled to establish control. Cities like Barcelona, for example, would fall to the Europeans one century only to be sacked by the Moors decades later.
While the Moors won many battles against these reclamations, the Christians would slowly win the war. By the 11th century, their European kingdoms grew more and more united — while their Muslim counterparts splintered into disparate caliphates. As the Córdoba Caliphate struggled through several stifling civil wars, for example, the Spanish states of Aragon, Catalonia, Castile, León, and Navarre began to fight the Moors in a renewed and organized fashion.
This united front ultimately helped Christians reclaim these disputed territories for good.
But the Reconquista, which ultimately endured until 1492, was anything but simple. This battle for the Iberian Peninsula was about more than just land. It was also about honor, money, power, and religion.
The Complex Motivations Behind The Reconquista
Those who fought in the Reconquista did so for a variety of reasons. There were even figures like Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, or El Cid, who conquered Valencia on behalf of the Europeans in 1094 — but also spent time fighting for the Moors. Likewise, King Alfonso IX of Léon decided to ally himself with Muslim forces for financial reasons.
Indeed, different people found different reasons to fight. Some were motivated by religion. Across eight centuries of war, disparate popes preached about the Reconquista during mass, funded armies through church taxes, and promised that anyone who died during battle would go directly to Heaven. The backing of Pope Innocent in 1212 was especially galvanizing to many Christian warriors.
Others went to fight for money, land, or power. The Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar, for example, were given sizable estates by Alfonso I of Aragon after respectively agreeing in 1148 and 1143 to fight in the Reconquista. Numerous military orders would also later be formed, including the Order of Calatrava in 1158, the Order of Santiago in 1170, the Order of Mountjoy in Aragon in 1173, and the Order of Alcántara in 1176, all in Spain, while Portugal established the Order of Évora in 1178.
Financial rewards that proliferated across Europe drew even uninvolved parties to the reconquest, including warriors and adventurers from France and Norman Sicily. In 1147, 160 to 200 ships sailed to Lisbon to help King Afonso Henriques of Portugal reclaim the city.
This siege included enormous catapults that purportedly fired up to 500 stones against the Muslim-held city per hour. The effort began in June and concluded victoriously in October. That same month, King Alfonso VII of León and Castille recaptured the Spanish city of Almería.
Over the next century, Muslim caliphates in Spain and Portugal continued to disintegrate. Christian forces were able to retake Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, and Seville in 1248.
At that point, only Granada in present-day Andalusia remained under Muslim control.
The End Of The Reconquista At Granada
In 1492, the Reconquista came to an end when Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, also known as Boabdil, surrendered Granada to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife, Queen Isabella I of Castile.
As he handed over the keys to his city, Boabdil reportedly told Ferdinand: “God loves you greatly. Sir, these are the keys of this paradise. I and those inside it are yours.”
Boabdil then left the city — and the legacy of Moorish Spain — behind him. As the story goes, he paused and took one last look at Granada as he crossed the Sierra Nevada. As he shed a tear, his mother chastised him, saying: “You do well to weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man!”
To this day, the mountain pass where Boabdil allegedly shed a tear for Granada is known as Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh).
But though the Reconquista ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada, the conflict would have a long-reaching impact for people living in Spain. Jews were expelled, Muslims were forced to convert to Christianity, and the Spanish Inquisition infamously tortured non-believers to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in the region.
In 1609, even the Moriscos — Muslims who had converted to Christianity — were forced to leave the country.
Indeed, the impact of the Reconquista can still be felt today. On the one hand, the very term “Reconquista” is controversial, as the Moors had controlled Spain for 800 years. Can you “reconquer” something that was controlled for centuries? And why is the Moorish control of Spain often called an occupation when the Roman invasion of Iberia, which lasted six centuries, is not?
At the same time, some on the far right in Spain have embraced the Reconquista as an important part of their legacy, and they draw a direct link between eight centuries of war between Christians and Moors to present-day attitudes about Islam and immigration.
In the end, the Reconquista was an incredibly complex, incredibly long period in European history with an impact that can still be felt to this day. Not only is the Moorish influence in Spain clear in the country’s architecture and cuisine, but questions raised during the conflict about religion, power, and society remain potent.
After reading about the Reconquista, learn about Tomás de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor who was responsible for more than 2,000 deaths during the Spanish Inquisition. Or, go inside the life of Mehmed II, the Ottoman ruler who conquered Constantinople.