The 8th century marked the beginning of the break-up of the Hispano-Visigoth culture across the Iberian Peninsula. The arrival of peoples and armies from the the Near East and North Africa brought about several far-reaching changes to society that would affect government, language, religion, the economy and so on.
A new state - Al-Andalus - would arise from these changes and a large swath of what is today Catalonia would be located in the area between the boundaries of the new state and the French counties: it was called the Upper March, al-Tagr al-A’là.
The people who inhabited these lands prior to the arrival of the Muslims were the so-called Hispano-Visigoths, who were clustered around small villages, such as El Bovalar (Seròs, El Segrià), which had a Christian basilica. Life revolved around farming, in particular, livestock herding, with large herds of sheep, but also cattle and oxen, which wintered in these lowlands.
El Bovalar was founded at the end of the 4th century and was destroyed by fire in the beginning of the 8th century, coinciding with the arrival of the Arabs and Berbers.
With the conquest of Hispania, the new country of Al-Andalus, a dependency of the Caliphate of Damascus, established its capital in Cordoba and would become for a time the leading political, cultural and economic power in the West. The newcomers, expert farmers, would improve upon the irrigation systems left from the Roman period and introduced new crops such as rice, saffron, sugar cane, oranges, aubergines and others, and new products began arriving in the city markets, such as incense, pepper, ivory, mercury, and silk, to name but a few...
The new state of Al-Andalus was made up of many diverse communities: there was a minority of Arabs and Berbers that constituted the ruling class,converts to Islam known as the Muladi, the native population remaining loyal to Christianity called Mozarabs, and finally Jews, who saw for the first time they were not persecuted and could form stable and influential aljamas.
The establishment of a border in this land meant the confrontation of two opposing cultures. The Franks, in the north, organised their territory into "counties". The Andalusi, in the south, organised themselves into districts, which were ruled under a wali, or governor, who in turn was answerable to the Qaid, the military commander of the border land, which in our case was the Upper March of Al-Andalús. The capital was in Zaragoza, and it included the districts of Tortosa, Tarragona, Lleida, Barbitaniya, Osca, Zaragoza, Calataiud and Barusa.
With the break-up of the Caliphate of Cordoba (1008), and the emergence of a series of independent kingdoms called taifas, the Upper March disappeared as a territorial division and became one of the largest and most important of these kingdoms, governed by the Banu Hud dynasty, whose capital was Zaragoza. The fighting between family members would eventually convert Lleida into the centre of the opposition and capital of a small taifa between 1041 and 1081, a time of great economic, social and cultural prosperity.
The weakness of Al-Andalus in the early 11th century led the counties to resume their conquest of the territory, which would result in the area of what is today Catalonia by the mid-12th century. The conquest and colonisation of the Pallers and Noguera is attributed to the knight Arnau Mir de Tost (1000-1072) and his wife Arsenda, who were vassals to the counts of Urgell.
Balaguer was fully conquered in 1105, after three sieges and eleven years of intermittent fighting. The population was expelled. The city of Lleida would not fall until forty-four years later, and the counts of Barcelona and Urgell would allow the population to continue living in the city.
The Prophet Mohammed proposed transforming a society divided by tribes into a community of believers, giving it universal relevance. This mission had its physical and spiritual centre in Medina, a city which would then become a model of community life for the generations to come. In Al-Andalus and the Upper March, there is a distinction between Islamicized cities such as Lleida and Tortosa, and new cities, such as Balaguer, which was founded with a markedly military character.
Starting in the 10th century, however, it would become the centre of a region full of castles and rural settlements under its direct domain.
One of the pious acts of grace in the eyes of God and one that brought benefits in the after- life was the foundation of cemeteries. In Balaguer there are two archaeologically documented cemeteries, located within the Almatà plain. The tombs are simple: the dead were laid on their side in a grave dug into the earth, with their faces looking in the direction of the holy city of Mecca.
Public and private life are strictly separate in Islamic society and even inside the home various degrees of privacy are demarcated. The ideal expression of this principle is the house and patio. Behind an austere façade and vestibule, the inner patio was the place where the family worked and enjoyed themselves. Located around it were the various rooms, with further separation for guests, those outside the family.
The exploitation of the Segre as a gold-bearing river is well-documented in the times of Al-Andalus, as it is mentioned by many of its geographers and chroniclers. The gold extracted from the river was partly used by the state for its coins. It seems this activity stopped in the era of the counts, and was not resumed until the 16th century. Today we can teach you how to pan for gold by visiting our Gold of the Segre Interpretive Centre.
In the 11th century, a district was founded in the city of Balaguer dedicated to pottery making, where several kilns and workshops have been excavated. We have documented the production of at least 18 different pieces, all intended for domestic use, and these have been found throughout the territory controlled by the city. The kitchenware, tableware and storage crockery give us an idea of the customs and ways of cooking, bringing us a little closer to learning what daily life was like a thousand years ago.
Arab historians and chroniclers define the castle of Balaguer as a fortification located at the edge of the District of Lleida that fulfilled two functions: on the one hand, it reinforced the border against the attacks of the counts, and on the other, it exercised fiscal control over the area's population.
The explanation as to its origin is provided by the historian Ibn Hayyan, found in his work Al-Rasi. It is a surprising tale that we can directly link to the legend of the birth of Catalonia.
The castle would turn from a purely defensive and strategic outpost into a place of noble residence. The name suda (governor's residence) derives from the construction of a palace in its interior during the first half of the 11th century. Blue, red, black, yellow... these were the colours that brought to life the flowers, pineapples, pomegranates, palms, stalks, birds and other fantastic creatures. The word of God was emblazoned on the friezes carved in plaster that decorated the walls: it was a reflection of the power of the Lord of the castle, a reminder destined to perpetuate a culture that was on the brink of extinction...
Who built the palace of the Suda of Balaguer? There are several theories that link it to important figures of that time in history. For the moment, however, the question remains unresolved, and it seems that only future archaeologists will be able to reveal it...
What we do know is that a workshop related to the court of Zaragoza was commissioned to build it, which would explain the remarkable similarity of the Palace of Balaguer to the Aljaferia Palace of Zaragoza from the same period.
The final conquest of Madina Balaghí took place in the autumn of 1105. The Count of Urgell, Ermengol VI, was still a boy, and it was his maternal grandfather Pedro Ansúrez, Lord of Valladolid, who conquered the city in his name.
The entire population was expelled, the houses abandoned, the mosques Christianised and devoted to the patron saints of the County of Urgell: Saint Mary, the Holy Saviour and Saint Michael, the greatest fighters against Satan himself.
With the annexation of Madina Balaghí by the County of Urgell, the Castle of La Suda became one of the Count's residences. But it would not be until the coming of the House of Barcelona beginning in 1314 that great changes would come to the former palace. The ties of this family with the caste that governed the Crown of Aragon brought new life to the courtly class of the city and castle, which had a library with over four hundred volumes and a permanent group of jugglers and troubadours at the service of the counts of Urgell.
The renovation begun by the counts of Urgell maintained the Eastern character of the former palace, due to the hiring of Moorish craftsmen from Aragon and Valencia, commissioned with the decoration of the rooms and gardens.
Unfortunately, the works would never be completed due to the fall of the Urgell dynasty in the war against King Ferdinand I of Antequera: In 1413, the Castle of Balaguer was partially destroyed and the family of the count dispersed and imprisoned.
Balaguer's long epoch of splendour drew to a close, but it lives on in the collective memory of those times in the popular name given to the fortification of the city: Castell Formós or the Beautiful Castle.
Our Andalusian past has long lain hidden in our history books. Names such as Lubb b. Ahmat al-Qasi still sound strange to us, despite the fact he was a key warlord in the history of what we know today as the New Catalonia. Thus, we must not forget the influence that four hundred years of history have left on our culture. Our gastronomy, techniques and science still conserve remarkable traces of it. But where it is most evident is in our language...