Spain is a western European country. The origins of its name (España) are disputed; the ancient Romans called Iberia Hispania, which is related to Hesperia, a western land—but there are several other theories, including a relationship with the Basque word Ezpanna meaning “edge” or “border,” and the Punic word Ispanihad meaning “land of rabbits.” No one knows for sure.
Archeologists believe that the Iberian peninsula, which comprises the lands now known as Spain and Portugal, have been inhabited by hominids as far back as 1.2 million years ago. Modern humans first arrived there on foot from the north about 32 thousand years ago; the famous Altamira cave paintings in northern Iberia were made about 15,000 B.C. by Cro-Magnons.
At the beginning of recorded history, the Iberian peninsula, which comprises the lands now known as Spain and Portugal, was occupied by three main tribal peoples: the Iberians, the Basques and the Celts. The Iberians were coastal people who had some contact with (and thus cultural influences from) Greeks and Phoenicians; they engaged in agriculture and metalwork. The Basques, an ancient tribe that appears to have come from more of a French-speaking background, lived in the northern area, near the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay—in fact there are still Basques in the region today.
The peninsula came under Roman rule, then Germanic rule, then in the 8th century was conquered by Moorish invaders who held power for centuries. This was a golden age of architecture, intellectual development and the arts, much of which can still be seen through most of the country. The capital of the caliphate was Córdoba, which became the biggest and most successful city in western Europe. By the 11th century, Iberia’s Christian kingdoms had grown considerably and began to capture control of the northern areas, including the holy site of Santiago de Compostela and the strategically crucial city of Toledo. Finally in the 13th century the great Muslim outposts at Córdoba and Seville had fallen to Christian Spain, though the Muslim enclave at Granada (where the Alhambra is) remained as a tributary state. It was around this time that some of Spain’s greatest universities, including the one at Salamanca, were established. The 14th century was a difficult time for all of Europe; the Black Death devastated many populations, including that of Spain.
During the 15th century the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon (the latter established by the Franks) were united via the marriage of the Castilian Isabella and the Aragonian Ferdinand II. Power was consolidated and centralized, with astounding results. The united people conquered the Canary Islands, overthrew Granada (ending all Islamic rule in Iberia), sent Christopher Columbus on his fateful journey and launched the Spanish Inquisition, whereby Jews and then Muslims were forced to convert or face expulsion. Spain emerged as a world power.
The Spanish empire expanded to include much of the Americas and areas around Europe and along the coastal regions of the Mediterranean Sea. It controlled important trade routes and sent explorers far and wide. Spain was a leading European powerhouse through the 16th and most of the 17th century, participating fully in the intellectual and political life of Europe—it even produced several Spanish Habsburgs.
Eventually Spain began to decline, beset by piracy on the high seas, plagues, scuffles with the Turks and the French, and the Protestant Reformation which undermined Catholic power. All the while France was rising. In 1793 Spain went to war with France—and lost. A 1795 peace treaty resulted in Spain becoming a “client state” of France under Napoleon. These were dark days for Spain; they struggled against French rule well into the 19th century, lost most of their colonies and ended up divided and unstable. When the Spanish-American war came along at the end of the century, it did not last long; it became known as El Desastre in Spain.
The 20th century continued to be turbulent, through all of Europe of course but Spain saw an extraordinary amount of political upheaval including a bloody civil war and a long period of military rule under Francisco Franco. Franco’s death in 1975 marked a turning point for Spain.
Today Spain is a member of NATO as well as the European Union and the Eurozone. After its long period of economic and political instability the country has become a democratic constitutional monarchy with both a king and a prime minister, and has experienced significant economic growth. There has been sporadic political unrest, some of it from Basque separatist factions, but in general the country is more peaceful than it has been for a long time. The role of women in Spain is strong, with gender equality laws and many women playing prominent rôles in national government.
The Spanish population is composed mostly of native Spaniards and immigrants from former Spanish colonies. The population is heavily Roman Catholic but most Spaniards do not attend religious services regularly. Due to immigration the Muslim population is increasing but, five centuries after their expulsion, there are still few Jews living in Spain.
Today Spain is an extremely desirable tourist destination. It offers historical monuments, natural beauty, a temperate climate and world-famous cuisine and wines. The country’s cultural heritage is very rich with all of the arts represented, from painting and sculpture to music, dance and cinematic works by directors like Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar and Carlos Saura. The country boasts great architecture, from the palaces of Andalusia to the groundbreaking work of Antoni Gaudí in Catalonia (the region of which Barcelona is the capital). Musical traditions are equally diverse from classical to folk, often featuring the guitar. And visitors to Spain will want to be sure they see a flamenco show and experience the Spanish tradition of dining late in the evening on small plates called tapas. Another must-try is a rice-based dish called paella (pie-AY-uh), which comes in many varieties with seafood being perhaps the best-known; paella is considered to be the national dish of Spain (at least by non-Spaniards).