The Islamic invasion of Iberia

Roderick, the last Visigoth king. 

Over the centuries in Iberia, the fierce Visigoth tribesmen had become rich farmers and powerful noblemen, owning huge swathes of land. Provinces were established and inevitable rivalries grew amongst their rulers. After a string of attempted coups, a Duke named Roderick persuaded some of the other noble families and the Church to back his attempt to take control and unite all the provinces.

In 710 he made his move, by killing King Wittiza and taking control of the provinces of Lusitania and Carthaginensis. The King’s son, Achilla, held the rest of the country and mounted a counter attack. Many of the other provinces and their Dukes remained neutral during the battles between the warring rival Kings, and for a while control of Iberia swung between the two.

Meanwhile, on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, greedy eyes were watching the events in Iberia. Musa bin Nusayr, the governor of the Arab province of Ifriqiya comprising western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria had been receiving intelligence reports about the war between the Visigoth kings.

Musa was already a powerful leader amongst his own people. His parents had been slaves in Egypt, but had been given their freedom and returned to Syria where Musa was born. His father had risen to a position of power and his patron Abd al-Malik took a shine to Musa and guided his early career, making him co-governor of Iraq.

Around the year 700 the governor of Ifriqiya, Hasan ibn al-Nu’man, had been charged with expanding Arab control westward to take all of Morocco. Hasan was intolerant of the Berber Moroccans and had allowed his command to be weakened by constant attacks from the sea by Byzantine forces.  In 698 he was relieved of his command and replaced by Musa, who showed respect to the Berber tribes. They returned his respect with their trust, and many converted to Islam voluntarily to join his forces. Using a mix of generosity, force and guile, he extended his master’s realm to include Tangier and all the Maghreb. He became the first governor of Ifriqiya who was not subservient to Egypt.  Musa built a navy to defend his shoreline, which now extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Nile, but at this moment, like a cat stalking a mouse, he was carefully watching events unfold just across the straights from Tangier.   It was not long before he saw his chance. Julian, the Count of Ceuta, sent word to Musa asking for his help to fight the injustice caused to his people by Roderic. Julian claimed that his daughter had been raped by the evil King and promised rich pickings in Iberia if he would help him defeat the king. Musa sent a small party of men under the leadership of Tariq ibn Ziyad to Tarifa to scout the land. They returned with booty, and the news that the south of Iberia was undefended.

In 712 Musa supplied Tariq an army of some 7,000 men, composed of both Arab and Berber soldiers. Tariq was a Berber soldier, who had converted to Islam, and with the help of Julian, who lent him the ships and guides he needed, he landed on the southern coast of Spain in mid-June of 712. He soon occupied the defenseless coast, but before moving inland he secured his supply port at the old Roman town of Iulia Traducta built at the mouth of a small river known as the river of honey.

Tariq did not know the name of the port, so he re-named it the outpost, or al-Jazeera in Arabic. Across the bay from al-Jazeera, the huge outcrop of rock that was visible for twenty miles in any direction was the first place that he landed, and his men soon named this massif Jabal al-Tariq … Tariq’s mountain. He consolidated his forces around al-Jazeera and then moved inland, guided by Julian’s men.

Roderick received news of Tariq’s invasion whilst he was fighting in the north of Iberia and quickly disengaged his forces to turn them south and defend his rear. On the way, he dispatched riders to ask the local Dukes to provide fighting men and join him to repel the Moors. In his desperation, he sent a messenger to his arch enemy Achilla to send troops to help him.  Achilla demanded a levy for his assistance, but eventually sent troops to join Roderick’s army.

Three weeks after landing, and several indecisive skirmishes, Roderick confronted Tariq with an army of 20,000 men between the coast and a town called Assidonia (Now Medina Sidonia.) Tariq had been supplied with battle hardened troops by his master Musa, but Roderick had been fighting with farmers who had been hastily summoned and poorly equipped. Some of his Dukes turned traitor and offered Tariq bribes if they would spare them in the coming battle. In the event, it seems that one wing of his army fled during the battle, allowing Tariq to come close enough to unhorse Roderick. With their king down, the battle turned to a rout, and Tariq pursued the Visigoth army to the banks of the River Guadalete where many were drowned. Roderick’s body was never found.


Musa, learning of Tariq’s success at the Battle of Guadalete, followed him leading another 18,000 troops. The Muslim invasion gathered pace as Tariq besieged Córdoba which soon fell and he promptly turned it over to the Jewish population who had suffered terribly under the yoke of centuries of Visigoth rule. They held the city while Tariq moved on to Toledo. Meanwhile, Musa besieged Hispalis, (Sevilla) which fell after three weeks and then moved on to Lucitania to take Mérida its capitol. Over the next few years, the two leaders conquered all the lands as far north as the Bay of Biscay and the south eastern regions of Baetica and Carthaginensis.


Musa died naturally while on the Hajj pilgrimage with Sulayman around the year 715/716. He had been disgraced, and the misfortunes of his sons had brought him into disrepute. Some medieval historians now attribute his deeds to another general, but the Moroccan peak Jebel Musa is named after him, and is perhaps his only recognition for the conquest of Iberia.

The Abdulaziz Mosque, Gibralter, was opened in August 1997 at Europa Point on the end of the isthmus that is the Rock of Gibraltar. It faces across the straits towards Morocco and is one of the largest mosques in a non-Muslim country. It took two years to build and cost £5 million. When it opened there were over sixty limousines and tight security measures.

 The mosque was a gift from King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and has a school, library and lecture hall. It serves the small Muslim community of the area. The Saudi royal family have a strong connection with the area (Page 24) and the mosque is built in probably the same place that Tariq ibn Ziyad landed in 712 on his way to conquer Iberia.