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Overview of Spain history


Barcelona street picture
Barcelona street picture

Spain began the 21st century as a wealthy, urbanized, industrial, and democratic European country. Spain’s path to modernity differed in many ways from other parts of Europe. Located at the far southwestern corner of Europe and geographically isolated by steep mountains and seas, Spain has often appeared distant from European cultural developments. The Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain during the late 18th century, spread slowly to Spain. In the 20th century the brutal Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the ensuing dictatorship of Francisco Franco seemed to set Spain apart from a prosperous, democratic, and modern Europe.

For much of its history, however, Spain has been a historical crossroads. The Strait of Gibraltar, at the tip of Spain, permits easy travel between Spain and Africa. Since prehistory peoples have entered Spain from other parts of Europe and Africa. The Iberian Peninsula, with its many seaports, made it easy for seafaring Mediterranean peoples to land in search of natural resources. Spain’s earliest written history tells of a long sequence of migrations and cultural mingling. Home to Iberians in prehistory, Spain was colonized by Celtic and Phoenician settlers by the 8th century bc.

The name Spain (Hispania) owes its origins to the Phoenicians, who called the Iberian Peninsula “Span,” which meant hidden or remote land. Celtic and Phoenician settlers were followed by Greeks and Carthaginians and then by Romans. It took Roman soldiers 200 years to conquer all of Spain, a process completed in the 1st century bc.

Roman Empire


As a part of the Roman Empire, most of Spain’s population became Christian and began to speak languages based on Latin. Romans were followed by Germanic peoples who came overland from Europe and entered Spain in the 5th century ad. These ancient tribes included Vandals, who passed through and settled in Africa, and Visigoths, who settled in Spain to build a kingdom. Persistent conflict among Visigothic nobles weakened the monarchy, and in 711 Spain was invaded again, this time by Muslims from Africa. For centuries the Muslim conquerors would control much of the Iberian Peninsula. The high point of Islamic culture in Spain occurred in the 10th century. Muslim rulers introduced new crops and efficient irrigation systems, trading and commerce thrived, and mathematics, medicine, and philosophy flourished. Muslim power declined after 1000 as Christian kingdoms in northern Spain, supplemented by migrants from Europe, gradually moved southward to take control of the peninsula. That process was completed in 1492 with the Christian conquest of Granada, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain.

Barcelona church
Barcelona church

The most important Christian kingdoms were Castile, Aragón, and Portugal. Castile emerged as the largest and strongest of these monarchies, and it was central to the construction of the Catholic, Castilian-speaking society of medieval Spain. By 1500 the migrations were over, but Spain remained an important crossroads. Spain was well located for seaborne trade between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. In the late 15th century navigators in the service of Spain began to explore the Americas, and they discovered great quantities of silver. American silver made Spain central to Europe’s expanding world trade. At the same time, dynastic marriages and diplomacy gave Spain control of a huge European empire. Spain’s American and European empires lasted in various forms until the early 19th century, when they largely disappeared in the wake of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).

Throughout the 19th century Spaniards fought and argued about their government and the appropriate amount of popular participation in politics. During this time, Spain gradually entered the Industrial Revolution, and the expanding economy created new political forces. Still, no single faction succeeded in commanding a political majority. Many Spaniards looked to the army to bring order out of chaos, and it became another powerful faction.

By the early 20th century Spain’s government was democratic on paper but it was controlled by an oligarchy that refused to share power. Political groups increasingly resorted to anarchy and violence, and in 1923 General Miguel Primo de Rivera became dictator. Primo de Rivera’s dictatorship was followed by a remarkable experiment with democracy in the 1930s that was suppressed by the Spanish Civil War. The war cost Spain more than 500,000 lives and resulted in the long dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain began the rapid transition to the dynamic, modern, and democratic European nation it is today. "Spain" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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