Timothy H. Parsons is Professor of African History at Washington University. His new book, The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, and Why They Always Fail, illuminates the features common to all empires and lays bare the rationalization of imperialists and their apologists and exposes the true goals, and limits, of hard power. In the excerpt below, from the beginning of a chapter on Muslim Spain, we learn about the conquest of Spain.
According to myth, a looming tower built by Hercules lay on the outskirts of the Spanish capital of Toledo. It contained a powerful secret that kept the kingdom safe from invasion, and upon taking power each succeeding ruler added a lock to its gate. Twenty-six monarchs kept the tower secure until curiosity got the better of Roderic, the last Christian Visigothic ruler of Spain. Ignoring the pleas and warnings of his ministers, the king broke into the tower to find a bejeweled table belonging to Solomon sitting in a room decorated with paintings of Arab horsemen armed with swords and bows. A parchment on the table read: “Whenever this asylum is violated and the spell…broken, the people shown in the picture shall invade the land and overturn the throne of its kings. The rule of the Goths shall end and the whole country fall into the hands of…strangers.” Symbolically, the violation of the tower thus led to the invasion of Spain by a mighty Arab army that later Christian sources described as “more cruel and hurtful than the wolf that comes at night to the flock of sheep.”
Roderic was in fact the final Visigothic Spanish king, but the tower’s millenarian prophecy was an invention that helped succeeding generations of Christians explain the sudden trauma of imperial conquest. Indeed, the rapid annexation of the Iberian Peninsula by the Umayyad Caliphate must have seemed like the end of the world. Conversely, the story of Roderic’s rash actions gave the victorious Muslims, who had their own version of the myth, an excuse for empire building. The parchment on Solomon’s table suggested divine sanction for the conquest of Spain and the creation of Al-Andalus.
The name Iberia came from ancient Greek sources, and the Romans referred to the peninsula as Hispania. Muslim sources interpreted this as Isbania, while medieval Christians used Espania. The name Al-Andalus was an Arabic allusion to the Vandals and referred to the regions of the peninsula under Muslim rule. Contemporary Spain arose from the union of the medieval Christian kingdoms of Aragón and Castile. Although modern Portugal is a separate sovereign nation, for the purposes of this…the name Iberia refers to the entire peninsula south of the Pyrenees mountain range.
The first Muslim expedition to Iberia was a relatively small, speculative, and haphazard enterprise. Moreover, it was not really even Arab. Consisting primarily of approximately twelve thousand Muslim Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber governor of Umayyad Tangier, the invading army most likely sought plunder rather than empire. Tariq had probably noticed the impotent Visigothic response to earlier, smaller raids on the Spanish coast and was almost certainly acting on his own initiative. Although devout Muslims had an obligation to work for the political and cultural supremacy of Islam, the Berber governor also knew that expanding the Umayyad imperial frontiers paid direct dividends in treasure and prestige.
Interestingly, the ramshackle Visigothic state was much more vulnerable than the decentralized “tribal” Britons. Roderic had ruled Spain for only a single year at the time of invasion. He came to power by elbowing aside a more legitimate rival name Witiza, and it is possible that, like Verica’s appeal to Claudius, Witiza’s partisans may have asked Tariq for aid in reclaiming the Spanish throne. Landing on a rocky promontory that is now called Jabal Tariq (the Mountain of Tariq, or Gibraltar) in A.D. 711, Tariq found little opposition and pushed easily into the heart of the Iberian Peninsula. His forces defeated Roderic in a small but decisive battle in the Guadalquivir River valley that wiped out the knights of the royal household and court. Muslim accounts credit the victory in part to the defection of Witiza’s sons, who changed sides to reclaim their father’s estates. Roderic apparently died in the fighting, and the swift capture of Toledo prevented the Visigoths from selecting a replacement king.
Tariq was too successful for his own good. His lightning conquest of southern Iberia attracted the attention of his superior Musa ibn Nusayr, the Umayyad viceroy of western North Africa. Suspicious of his subordinate’s achievements and coveting a share of the spoils, he directed Tariq to wait in Toledo until he arrived to take command of the operations. The Berber general nonetheless continued his northern advance. When Musa landed with a rival Arab army the following year, the invasion degenerated into a race between the Berbers and Arabs to sack wealthy Iberian cities. Urban populations that surrendered were treated relatively well, but those who resisted faced massacre and wholesale enslavement.
By the end of 712, Muslim forces had overrun the most productive and fertile areas of lowland Iberia. Musa and Tariq became wealthy and powerful, but they had little chance to enjoy the fruits of their victory. Successful imperial generals can easily become Caesars, and Caliph al-Walid I prudently recalled his adventurous vassals to Damascus two years later. The anonymous Christian author of the Chronicle of 754 recorded that they returned with “some [Visigothic] noblemen who escaped the sword; gold and silver, assayed with zeal by the bankers; a large quantity of valuable ornaments, precious stones, and pearls; ointments to kindle a woman’s desire.” Yet these treasures did not appease the Umayyads, and Sulayman, who succeeded his brother as caliph in 715, convicted Musa of embezzling the state’s share of the spoils and “paraded [him] with a rope around his neck.” Musa and Tariq apparently died in disgrace and poverty, but Visigothic Spain became the westernmost possession of the Umayyad Caliphate…
As with the republican Romans, the Umayyads never set out to build an empire, nor did they admit to being a secular imperial power. The title caliph comes from khalifah, the Arabic word for successor. The Umayyad caliphs were a ruling dynasty that claimed to be the legitimate successors of the Prophet Muhammad. But they were temporal sovereigns rather than theocrats. They governed the caliphate, a vast Muslim state stretching from Iberia to India, as the secular protectors of the faith.