Apr 272018

On this date in 711 CE Moorish troops led by Tariq ibn Ziyad landed at Gibraltar to begin what turned into the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. (The name Gibraltar is the Spanish version of the Arabic name Jabal Ṭāriq meaning “Mountain of Tariq”which refers to the Rock of Gibraltar). One can make too much of single dates in history. July 4th 1776 gets celebrated in the US as Independence Day even though the war for independence had already started, and continued for a number years after. Dates get enshrined in history books because people like symbols to hang on to. The Umayyad conquest of Visigothic Hispania, the initial expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate over a large section of the Iberian peninsula, took from 711 to 788. The conquest resulted in the destruction of the Visigoth kingdom and the establishment of the independent Emirate of Córdoba under Abd ar-Rahman I, who completed the unification of Muslim-ruled Iberia, or al-Andalus. The conquest marks the westernmost expansion of both the Umayyad Caliphate and Muslim rule into Europe. One can peg the landing at Gibraltar as significant, but Muslim expansion into Iberia had begun earlier, and continued for many years after.

The historian al-Tabari transmits a tradition attributed to the Caliph Uthman (579 –  656) who stated that the road to Constantinople was through Hispania, “Only through Spain can Constantinople be conquered. If you conquer (Spain) you will share the reward of those who conquer (Constantinople).” The conquest of Hispania followed the conquest of North Africa.

Precisely what happened in Iberia in the early 8th century is uncertain. There is one contemporary Christian source, the Chronicle of 754 (which ends on that date), regarded as reliable but often vague. There are no contemporary Muslim accounts, and later Muslim compilations, such as that of Al-Maqqari from the 17th century, reflect later ideological influence. This paucity of early sources means that detailed specific claims need to be regarded with caution. Historical opinion about the initial nature of the expedition is divided into four directions (I favor #4):

(1) It was sent to aid one side in a civil war in the hope of plunder and future alliance.

(2) It was a reconnaissance force sent to test the military strength of the Visigoth kingdom.

(3) It was the first wave of a full–scale invasion.

(4) It was an unusually large raiding expedition with no direct strategic intentions.

The Visigoths who controlled Iberia from the 5th to the early 8th centuries were successors of the Western Roman empire. They, like other groups who swept over the Roman empire in the 5th century, are known to history as barbarians, because that is what the Romans called them. The word “barbarian” has changed meaning over time, unfortunately, and has corrupted our modern view of them. The Latin word from which the English word derives comes from the Greek βάρβαρος (barbaros), used by the ancient Greeks initially for certain Anatolians whose language sounded to them like, “bar bar bar bar . . .”  So, they were the “bar bar” people. We would say, “blah, blah people” these days. In other words, “barbarian” had no especially negative connotations, it just meant foreigners who spoke an incomprehensible language.

The Visigoths were barbarians in the ancient Roman sense (i.e. non-Romans), not in the modern sense. Therefore, saying that the Moorish conquest of the Visigoths in Iberia was a move that “civilized” a barbarian land is a stretch. This period in European history is often known as the Dark Ages, not because they were especially barbaric, but because we have few historical sources to judge them accurately, and archeology is of only limited help. There is no doubt that Islamic philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and astronomers of the period were more accomplished then European Christians and pagans, and we owe them a great debt because they preserved a great many texts from ancient Greece that Christians destroyed or lost.

Tariq ibn Ziyad was a Muslim Berber client of Musa bin Nusair, the governor of Islamic Africa (Ifriqiya), who invaded Iberia with a disputed number of Berber men (anywhere from 1,700 to 7,000) in 711, while Roderic, king of the Visigoths was in the north fighting the Basques. The tale that Julian, Count of Ceuta, facilitated the invasion, because one of his daughters had been dishonored by Roderic, is apocryphal. By late July, a battle took place at the Guadalete River in the province of Cádiz. Roderic was betrayed by his troops, who sided with his enemies, and the king was killed in battle. The Muslims then took much of southern Spain with little resistance, and went on to capture Toledo, where they executed several Visigothic nobles. In 712, Musa, arrived with another army of 18,000, with large Arab contingents. He took Mérida in 713 and invaded the north, taking Saragossa and León, which were still under king Ardo, in 714. After being recalled by the Caliph, Musa left his son Abd al-‘Aziz in command. By 716, most of the Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule, with Septimania taken between 721 and 725.

The first expedition led by Tariq was made up mainly of Berbers who had themselves only recently come under Muslim influence. It is probable that this army represented a continuation of an historic pattern of large-scale raids into Iberia dating to the pre–Islamic period, and hence some historians believe that actual conquest was not originally planned. Both the Chronicle of 754 and later Muslim sources speak of raiding activity in previous years, and Tariq’s army may have been present for some time before the decisive battle. This possibility is supported by the fact that the army was led by a Berber and that Musa, who was a major player in North Africa, only arrived the following year, because as a governor he had not stooped to lead a mere raid, but hurried across once the unexpected triumph by Tariq and the possibilities for further conquests became clear. Several Arab-Muslim writers mention the fact that Tariq had decided to cross the strait of Gibraltar without informing his superior and wali Musa as evidence that he had planned no more than a raid. The Chronicle of 754 states that many townspeople fled to the hills rather than defend their cities, which might support the view that this was expected to be a temporary raid rather than a permanent change of government.

The only effective resistance to Muslim conquest was in Asturias, where a Visigothic nobleman, Pelagius (Pelayo), revolted in 718, allied with the Basques and defeated the Muslims at the battle of Covadonga. Resistance also continued in the regions around the Pyrenees with the establishment of the Marca Hispanica from 760 to 785. The Berbers settled in the south and the Meseta Central in Castile. Initially, the Muslims generally left Christians alone to practice their religion, although non-Muslims were subject to Islamic law and treated as second-class citizens. The northern areas of Iberia drew little attention to the conquerors and were hard to defend when taken. The high western and central sub-Pyrenean valleys remained unconquered.

The resistance of 1718 eventually evolved into the Reconquista (the Reconquest) which dragged on for 700 years. The Muslims were generically called Moors even though most were Arabs, and the battle to oust them spawned a series of traditional dances and dramas, including Moros y Cristianos, which I researched for over 30 years. The final act of the Reconquista, the Fall of Granada at the beginning of 1492 https://www.bookofdaystales.com/fall-of-granada/  led almost seamlessly to Columbus’ voyage of discovery and the Spanish conquest of much of the Americas.

Islamic Iberia was known at the time as al-Andalus (الأنْدَلُس ), which eventually metamorphosed into “Andalusia” the shrunken vestige of al-Andalus as the Reconquista progressed. Cooking in al-Andalus is represented by an anonymous MS of the 13th century, brimming with recipe ideas which show how Spanish cooking evolved over the centuries, and how much it owes to Arab influence. Many of the recipes from the MS are translated here: http://www.daviddfriedman.com/Medieval/Cookbooks/Andalusian/andalusian1.htm#Heading34 Worth a browse.

This little snippet gives the sense, and also reveals a few problems in actually recreating the recipe which is for a type of lamb sausage. The translator notes that the Arabic for “meatball,” “al-bunduqa,” became the Spanish “albondiga,” but the Arabic is derived from the word “hazelnut,” suggesting that the meatballs of the day were small. Here I will add the necessary caution that etymological reasoning of this sort can trip you up.  The ingredient that baffles most cooks is murri naqî’ It is apparently an ingredient unique to al-Andalus and means “infused” or “marinated” murri. There is a great deal of disagreement about what murri is, although food historians favor the idea that it was a fermented sauce made from barley flour that vaguely resembles soy sauce, and was used as a salt substitute.

Recipe for Mirkâs

It is as nutritious as meatballs and quick to digest, since the pounding ripens its and makes it quick to digest, and it is good nutrition. First get some meat from the leg or shoulder of a lamb and pound it until it becomes like meatballs. Knead it in a bowl, mixing in some oil and some murri naqî’, pepper, coriander seed, lavender, and cinnamon. Then add three quarters as much of fat, which should not be pounded, as it would melt while frying, but chopped up with a knife or beaten on a cutting board. Using the instrument made for stuffing, stuff it in the washed gut, tied with thread to make sausages, small or large. Then fry them with some fresh oil, and when it is done and browned, make a sauce of vinegar and oil and use it while hot. Some people make the sauce with the juice of cilantro and mint and some pounded onion. Some cook it in a pot with oil and vinegar, some make it râhibi with onion and lots of oil until it is fried and browned. It is good whichever of these methods you use.

Sep 102016


Today is National Day in Gibraltar, a national holiday in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar. The day commemorates Gibraltar’s first sovereignty referendum of 1967, in which voters were asked whether they wished to pass to Spanish sovereignty, or remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government. Frankly I find such referenda by the British absurdly cynical and self serving. They did the same in the Malvinas. How about asking New Zealand voters if they wish to remain in the British Commonwealth or have their land returned to the Maori?

It’s the same the world over – legally, semi-legally, or by sheer force, commandeer land from its rightful owners, bring in a raft of British colonists, then years later ask if they want to remain British. How do you think they will vote? Fortunately in places like India, the British were overwhelmed in numbers and got slung out eventually. For centuries the British kept up the absurd pretense that they were developing colonies for the benefit of the local people (who usually fought to keep them out), and would only grant the colonies independence when they could prove they were “civilized” enough to warrant it, whereas the truth was that Britain would grant independence when there wasn’t anything left to steal (and local cultures had been irreparably damaged). In a couple of cases, notably North America and Northern Rhodesia, colonial governments didn’t wait for British approval.


Gibraltar has been a strategically vital port for the United Kingdom since the early 18th century. An Anglo-Dutch force captured Gibraltar from Spain in 1704 during the War of the Spanish Succession on behalf of the Habsburg pretender to the Spanish throne. The territory was subsequently ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. During World War II it was an important base for the Royal Navy as it controlled the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea, which is only eight miles (13 km) wide at this point. Today Gibraltar’s economy is based largely on tourism, online gambling, financial services, and shipping.

The sovereignty of Gibraltar is a major point of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations as Spain asserts a claim to the territory. Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty in a 1967 referendum and again in 2002. Under the Gibraltar constitution of 2006, Gibraltar governs its own affairs, though some powers, such as defense and foreign relations, remain the responsibility of the Government of the United Kingdom.


During the campaign leading up to the United Kingdom’s national referendum on whether to leave the European Union (known as ‘Brexit’) the Spanish government warned that if the UK chose to leave, Spain would push to reclaim control over Gibraltar ‘the very next day’.

The Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo warned the UK that if Brexit went ahead Spain could “pounce on us” also stating that “it is safer and more secure for Gibraltar to remain in the EU.” On 23 June 2016 Gibraltar voted with the rest of the United Kingdom on whether the UK should remain in, or leave the European Union. Although the final decision saw the UK decide to leave, Gibraltar overwhelmingly voted to remain in the Union. There was a strong voter turnout of 82% resulting in 19,322 votes to remain and only 872 to leave.

The very day after the result of the Brexit vote, Spain’s acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, as promised, renewed calls for joint Spanish/British control of the peninsula. He labeled the British people’s decision to leave the EU as “a complete change of outlook that opens up new possibilities on Gibraltar not seen for a very long time” speculating that “the Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before.”


I have visited Gibraltar once, in 1956, when my family was emigrating from England to Australia. We anchored in the harbor in the night and when I awoke and went out on deck there was the celebrated Rock before me whilst a flotilla of small boats gathered around the ship’s port side. Some of the ship’s crew had rigged up ropes to the deck rails so that passengers could buy souvenirs from the boats via baskets that were hauled up and down. On some of the boats were boys, stripped to their shorts, who dived for coins tossed into the sea by passengers. It was my first glimpse of worlds beyond humdrum British middle-class life and a welcome, sunny change from the grey London winter and storms in the Bay of Biscay. From there, on our travels, I saw Vesuvius in the Bay of Naples, the Greek islands, Suez and Port Said, Aden in Yemen, with Arabs, camels and the magic of the gilly-gilly man, snake dancers in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon),all before the long haul across the equator to Australia. Is it any wonder that I have spent my life traveling the world?

My papa bought a cigarette lighter with a parrot painted on it from a trader on one of the boats. No idea why.  He had been a Royal Navy officer from 1935 to 1944 and must have seen this kind of scene all over the world a dozen times. What I didn’t know until we left Gib was that we had taken on a troupe of flamenco dancers as passengers bound for a tour of Australia, but next day there was no doubt. Tour posters of dancers in severe poses appeared throughout the ship declaring that celebrities were on board.


Gibraltar cuisine is synthesis of elements, primarily British and Spanish, of course, but with a general Mediterranean eclectic mix to it. Fideos al horno (oven noodles) is a popular Gibraltar dish that has analogs throughout the Mediterranean and the Italian community of the eastern United States (baked ziti).  The basics are that you cook some kind of pasta, mix it with a tomato-based meat sauce, add cheese, and bake. My recipe here is something of a modification of the one found at http://deliciousmartha.com/2015/10/05/fideos-al-horno-receta-tradicional/ . The original is in Spanish and seems a bit bland to me. But I’ll give it more or less as is. It calls for canned or dried mushrooms from the Pyrenees which may be a little hard to obtain. Any strong dried mushrooms will work.

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Start the day before by soaking the mushrooms. The recipe calls for moixernons o senderillas secas (mushrooms from the mountains). Dried porcini will work fine. Put about 2 cups of warm water in a bowl and soak 100 to 200 grams (¼ to ½ lb) of mushrooms overnight.

Take about 4 very ripe medium-size tomatoes and grate them into the mushroom water, discarding the skins. If this is too much trouble, add a can of crushed tomatoes. That’s what I usually do. Add oregano and salt to taste, place in a non-reactive saucepan and simmer gently for about an hour, until the sauce is reduced and thick. Meanwhile cook your pasta. This can be any type of thick spaghetti, linguine, or noodles broken into short pieces. Cook about 500 grams (1 lb) of pasta in rapidly boiling water until barely al dente. Drain and rinse in hot water. In other parts of the Mediterranean and the U.S. cooks use all kinds of pasta — ziti, macaroni,

Mix together the sauce and pasta in a deep casserole. Generously cover the top with grated cheese and bake in a hot oven (200°C/400°F) until the cheese is melted and bubbling – about 10 minutes.