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3.6 out of 5 stars
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Arab Conquest Spain 710-797 (A History of Spain)
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on 19 September 2016
This is an unusual book in that it covers the first century of the Arab conquest and occupation of Spain (8th Century) and draws on both Christian and Arab sources.

It leans to the academic side with the advantage that the reader can have confidence in the events, but the disadvantage that progress can be slow, as the author balances the different sources and assesses their reliability. The general picture is that Arab sources considerably distorted facts in favour of good storytelling/propaganda and Christian sources are very few and far between since the Peninsula was under Arab domination - although there is the valuable Visigothic Chronicle 754.

An astonishing fact is that what started as little more than Arab raids in 711 (after their rapid subjugation of Christian North Africa) turned into an invasion, and 12 years later the occupation of the whole of Spain apart from the Basque country and Asturias in the mountainous north. In fact 10 years after their arrival, most of their campaigns were on the other side of the Pyrenees in southern Aquitaine and Provence, with a small force estimated at not more than 15.000 men (Syrians & Berbers).

The book shows that after their first defeats, in what is now the south of France, the Christian-Islamic border stabilized on the Pyrenees and the Arabs turned to organizing their new territories. They used the North African model and Al-Andalus became politically a dependency of Ifriqiya (North Africa) and was ruled from Kairouan (Cairo).

Taxes were not levied on Arabs, but Christians were obliged to provide an annual per capita quantity of produce such as grains, olives, honey etc. and a gold coin, but interestingly Christianity and Latin were not eliminated from the Peninsula in the way they had been in North Africa. Collins suggests that this may have been because of the initial small number of Arabs and Berbers, and because they only instituted direct rule by governors in some towns while leaving the Christian leadership in place in others while exacting tribute.

In any event, they settled on a fortress system particularly in the south and centre of the country manned by Arabs and Berbers and without the assimilation with the local population that had been a characteristic of the Visigothic rulers.

The author interestingly shows that the course of the following centuries of Arab occupation was set in 750 with far away events in Syria, at the centre of the Islamic Empire. The Umayyad dynasty was successfully challenged by the Abbasids. Most of the Umayyads were killed but the grandson of Caliph Hirsham escaped ( in a much repeated romantic story), to North Africa where he was sheltered by Berber tribesmen. By 756 he was in Spain and gained support from Syrian troops in the South-East provinces who were sympathetic to the Umayyads.

To cut a long story short his revolt was successful and Spain became an Umayyad anomaly in an Abbasid Empire - breaking links with North Africa and Syria and becoming a de facto independent Arab state. Collins shows Abd ar-Rahman gradually extending his power throughout the Peninsula and as he says, "On the other hand, there also takes place a genuine tidying up of the participants. Some of the losers in the game of the 8th century disappear. Messianic Berbers, Arab factions deriving from ever more distant rivalries in the vanished Syria of the Umayyad Caliphate, the partisans of Yusuf al-Fihri, and secret Abbasid governors all vanish or cease to loom large in the record of events. The reader may regret their passing, but their contemporaries probably did not."
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on 31 March 2015
A little dry ... but well worth the effort.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 14 October 2012
This is a superb and meticulously researched piece of scholarship, in addition to being a piece of detective work, as another customer mentioned years ago. The main merit of this book is not only to explain how Visigoth Spain fell to the "Arabs". It is also to show who the invaders were and how initial raids turned into an invasion and a military occupation, before the conquerors settled. The book has several further merits. One is to show both the changes and the continuities with the previous Visigoth rule, illustrating in particular that, just as elsewhere during the Moslem Conquests, local elites were allowed to submit by treaty and keep most of their power and governing structures, for a price: the payment of tribute.

Another merit is to explain why the initial conquest was so swift. Contrary to traditional views, the author does not believe that the Visigoth Kingdom was in decline. However, the attack took place just as a new and contested King had violently seized power and was confronted with two other contenders. The King was defeated and killed and the one of the two Arab armies quickly seized Toledo, the centre of royal and religious power, something which allegedly paralyzed further resistance. More generally, the author makes the case for a Kingdom caught off-guard, at the worst possible moment, rather than the "Visigoth Twilight" that has traditionally been offered to explain the swiftness of the fall. While interesting, I was not entirely convinced, especially after also reading another book in the same collection by the same author, but this time on the Visigothic Kingdom. The case for decline or moral decadence may be dismissed convincingly by the author. However, it is hard to avoid the feeling that a kingdom not organized for war, where the king is elected by two dozen nobles and bishops and where this king has to spend the first years of his reign putting down rebellions is rather at a disadvantage, if not ill-equipped, when having to face foreign invasions.

A further merit of this book is to describe and explain the causes and the numerous conflicts and divisions that raked the conquerors and led to several bouts of civil war, once the onslaught over the Pyrenees had been abandoned. Related to this are the detailed explanations for the long and difficult, but ultimately successful rise of Abd ar-Ruhman, the first of the Ummayad Kings of Muslim Spain, who took over twenty years to impose his domination over the peninsula. Here again, the author presents the most likely events, showing much of the latter stories told by much latter Arab and Christian Chroniclers to be embroideries and embellishments that fitted particular agendas.

A further example of these investigative methods is provided by Collins' presentation of the story of Pelagius, the founder of the little kingdom of the Asturias and who was a Visigoth noble with no relations whatsoever with any previous royal family. He did found an independent kingdom and defeat a punitive Arab expedition against him. His successors would develop and expand this kingdom considerably, at the expense of the Galicians and the Basques, and not only against the Moslems. However, the author also shows that this was largely made possible by the civil wars among the conquerors during the 740s and that the Berber garrisons pulled out of the northern mountains and moved into more clement lands to the south.

Also to be praised is the author's treatment and in-depth discussion of all the sources, although this may put off some readers. This, however, is a scholarly history book, and it has never pretended to be anything else. Also, in his eagerness to "get the record straight" and address a number of received ideas about an Arab Conquest of Spain that changed everything, Roger Collins may sometimes give the impression of becoming controversial when showing elements of continuity. The effort is nevertheless a valuable on, and so is this book.
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on 12 September 2000
This is an absorbing and thorough account of a period in history that marked Spain forever. The evidence for what happened is notoriously difficult to assess, but Collins avoids rushing to hasty conclusions. A great virtue of the book is that it keeps putting developments in Spain in their wider European and North African context. An excellent contribution to the Blackwell History of Spain series.
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on 24 July 1999
Collins appears to be an expert on this topic. However I wish he would share more histroy with us. I understand that not much is known but the reader deserves more information. Unfortunately this is a 200 page bibliography which left me clueless on what happened in Spain during this period. This book should be titled "A List of Chronicles" I want my money back!
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on 28 February 1998
This is a really wonderful book; Collins writes well and he has a very clear idea of what happened in Spain in the 7-8th century, which is not called the Dark Ages for nothing. Anybody with an interest in the period will love it.
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