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Free Spain Travel Guide

History of Spain

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Spain’s History - Free Spain Travel Guidebook

Looking back to the Past, Spain's History

Dolmen Cova d'en daina (Romanyà de la Selva, Catalonia)

From prehistory on, many different peoples -- from the Mediterranean’s shores, Northern Africa and Europe – have invaded and inhabited Spain.

Early inhabitants, Paleolithic hunters (15,000 B.C.) of Altamira, painted nearly life-sized deer and bison on cave walls. Isolated by the mountain ridges of the Pyrenees, a race of mysterious origins, the Basques, has continued to preserve its unique customs and language for thousands of years.

Around 3,000 B.C., tribal groups, Iberians after whom the peninsula was named, began arriving from the eastern Mediterranean. Later, fair-skinned Celtic tribesmen migrated across the Pyrenees and fused with the Iberians to form a distinct group of farmers and herders, the Celtiberians.

Also from around the Mediterranean came Phoenician traders who founded Cádiz, the oldest city in Western Europe. Subsequently, the Greeks brought their culture to colonies on the eastern and southern coasts, and heirs of the Phoenicians, Carthaginians in search of mineral resources, founded the outposts of Barcelona and Cartagena.

Of all the invaders, only the Romans were able to conquer most of the peninsula, which they named Hispania. In the second century B.C., Rome began a lengthy colonization that transformed local laws, politics and language and established Christianity as the dominant religion. Six hundred years of Romanization ended when the monarchs of the semi civilized Visigoths founded a kingdom ruled from Toledo.

Roman Bridge, Alava

In 711, invaders from North Africa, the Moors of mixed Syrian, Egyptian and Berber blood, sailed across the straits and pushed Visigoth warriors north to the Cantabrian Mountains. During the period the Moors ruled from Córdoba, the great medieval civilization of Islamic Spain, Al Andalus, was unmatched in its knowledge of arts, letters and sciences. The Arab transmitters of classical cultures to Western Europe were also skilled farmers who introduced the cultivation of oranges, sugar cane and rice to the peninsula.

Efforts to drive out the Moors, known as the Reconquest, were unified after more than 700 years when, in the thirteenth century, the Catholic kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand. Ruling side-by-side, they directed their armies in the capture of the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, in 1492, the same year in which Christopher Columbus, sailing under Isabella’s sponsorship, discovered America.

By the sixteenth century, Spain, exercising the might of the Hapsburg Empire, was the most powerful nation in Europe. Along with that power came the great exploratory expeditions into the New World and the Pacific. The conquistadores’ claims for most of South and Central America created immense wealth in precious metals and profits in trade, but no true economic growth. In 1588, less than a century after the discovery of America, violent storms and British galleons swept the supposedly invincible Spanish Armada from the seas.

By the seventeenth century, plagues and unceasing military campaigns had drained Castile’s treasury. In 1700, the death of Charles II, last of the Hapsburg rulers, brought about the War of Spanish Succession in which the House of Bourbon eventually came to Madrid from France. It was during this dynastic change that Spain lost nearly all her European possessions.

Statue of El Cid, hero of the Reconquest, Burgos. (Detail)

A century later Spain became embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars, and Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, was placed on the Spanish throne (1808-1814). The Bourbon monarchy was restored only after the long campaign of the Peninsular War. This century also saw the revolt and independence of the American colonies; three Carlist Wars waged over the issue of succession; the brief ousting of the monarchy and the establishment of the short-lived First Republic; economic stagnation; and finally the Spanish-American War (1898), in which Spain lost Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines to the United States.

Neutral in World War I, Spain subsequently suffered from economic, political and social crises attributed to lack of governmental authority. The Second Republic , dominated by increasing left-right polarization, culminated in the leftist Popular Front electoral victory in 1936.

Internal pressures coupled with unchecked violence led to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Following the victory of this Nationalist forces, General Francisco Franco ruled a nation exhausted politically and economically. Spain’s economy did not begin to recover until the late 1940’s. In the early 1950’s, the Spanish nation opened up a new model of economic progress by agreeing to establish U.S. military bases. Massive modernization and development were postponed until the 1960’s.

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