The Story of Spain: Introduction

"Africa begins at the Pyrenees," wrote Alexandre Dumas. Even though the author meant to praise Spain's romantically rustic, hence "African" qualities in the mid-19th century, the phrase stuck. And stung, especially coming from a Frenchman. It also touched a central theme of Spanish history: the peninsula's uncertain relationship with the rest of Europe.

Spaniards have historically looked beyond the Pyrenees with mixed emotions-admiring their neighbors, but fearing the loss of their own identity should the European influence gain the upper hand. Spain is obviously a part of Europe both geographically and culturally. But it is a highly distinctive part, with the ability to confound even those foreigners who think they know it well. The Duke of Wellington remarked, "In Spain, two times two does not always equal four." More recently, noted British anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers added, "Every country and society is different, but Spain is a bit more different." It is this difference that makes The Story of Spain so intriguing.

During most of antiquity Iberia lay directly in the path of classical ancient civilizations, much more a part of the glories that were Phoenicia, Carthage, Greece, and Rome than most of its northern neighbors. Another distinctive event of seminal importance occurred in the year 711, when the Moors crossed the strait from North Africa and began several centuries of occupation. Moorish culture would reach dizzying heights and profoundly affect Spain's history. It can even be argued that for centuries civilization ended at the Pyrenees, that is, the "barbarians" lived to the north.

Equally important to Spain's difference was the Reconquest, which created a militant brand of Christianity to deal with the Moorish infidels. Spain began to go its own way, paying only grudging notice to such fundamental European developments as feudalism and the Renaissance. Under monarchs such as Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, and Philip II, the newly united nation had other concerns, namely launching the greatest colonial venture in history. The Spanish Empire.

That first voyage of Columbus in the year 1492 marked the birth of a new world and a "new man," but it also helped push a somewhat bewildered young nation to the pinnacle of power. In a few decades Spain emerged from behind the Pyrenees like a colossus to loom over the European stage for more than a century. It would conquer and colonize most of the Americas, bringing its distinctive language and culture to untold generations. A unique Spanish brand of genius would fully blossom during the breathtaking Golden Century with Cervantes, Velazquez, and other cultural giants.
Las Meninas
Yet within 150 years after 1492 Spain was already in an advanced state of decay. Political and economic greatness were long gone, and the last embers of the Golden Century were growing cool. Each stunning triumph had been followed by an equally dramatic catastrophe, and in most forms of endevour Spain's present seemed forever dwarfed by its past. This sudden rise and equally rapid decline have puzzled historians ever since. Many, especially Spaniards, have concluded that the original achievements were more illusion than reality. For others, the period from Ferdinand and Isabella to Philip II represents an era to which they will forever aspire to return.

This decline and the centuries of floundering that appeared to follow is the central enigma of Spain's modern history. When faced with other major European movements (the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, Liberalism) Spain's unshakable role was to stand fast against all change. This posture inevitably pushed it ever further into a kind of intellectual, political, and economic backwater from which it could never seem to emerge.

Most Spaniards would prefer to forget much of their violent modern history, but no nation can ever really escape the dark shadows of its past. The philosopher George Santayana, born in Avila, Spain, but raised in the United States (where he became an eminent Harvard scholar), once remarked: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." If there is one place where history does repeat itself, it is Spain.

Indeed "Spain is Different" (as tourist posters used to proclaim), and its story at times seems to lie beyond the European mainstream. Yet Dumas had it wrong: Africa does not begin at the Pyrenees, but the unique land called Spain most certainly does.