This is episode 2 called Geographical conditions of the Iberian Peninsula and in this episode you will learn the following:
- How the geography of Spain has influenced its history
- Why geography is very relevant to understand history
- The main rivers and mountain ranges of Spain
- The climate and terrain of Spain
- The diversity in terms of climate between regions
- Features like the lack of natural disasters or mineral resources
- The political map of Spain
- List of pros and cons of the geography of the Iberian Peninsula
I’m David Cot, host of The History of Spain Podcast, and this is episode 2, called Geographical conditions of the Iberian Peninsula. In this episode you will learn how the geography of Spain has influenced its history. Subscribe to the podcast to not miss an episode!
Geography is sometimes forgotten while we study history, even though it’s an important determinant of culture, demographics, economic development and more, so it obviously influences history too. Why has Afghanistan been so difficult to conquer? Why is Bangladesh so densely populated? Why were the ancient civilizations born along rivers? Why has Great Britain always developed more its navy than its army? All these questions are largely explained by geography. The connection between geography and history is very strong. Knowing that, how did geography influence Spanish history?
The first essential thing to know about Spain or Portugal is that they are not landlocked states, most of their boundaries are in fact water. The wide access to the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean is great for overseas trade and cultural and technological exchanges. Being the westernmost region of Europe helped in the discovery of America, and the narrow Strait of Gibraltar is strategically important and helps to connect Europe with Africa.
The second most important thing to consider is how mountainous the peninsula is. Spain is one of the most mountainous countries of Europe, with an average height of 660 meters or 2,165 feet, it’s only surpassed by Switzerland, Austria and the microstates of Liechtenstein and Andorra. In the heart of Spain we have this big plateau called Meseta Central, which occupies most of the peninsula and is surrounded by mountains ranges, the Cantabrian Mountains to the north, the Iberian System to the east, Sierra Morena to the south and the Galician Massif to the northwest. The Meseta Central is split in two parts by the Central System, which is a mountain range that stretches from Portugal to the Iberian System of Aragon. As it’s surrounded by many mountains and the average elevation is 600 meters, the climate is Mediterranean with Continental characteristics. That means that there’s a sharp contrast of temperatures between day and night, summers are short and warm, and winters are long and cold. In addition to that, rains are not very frequent, so the climate is even more dry than the Mediterranean climate and the terrain is arid. Think about the climate and lands of California and that’s how most of Spain is. What does all of this imply? To start with, agriculture is quite difficult and water is a bit scarce, so that is a limitation to develop economically and to sustain a large population. The mountains complicate communications like building roads and railways, as well as trade and migrations within the peninsula, which partly explains why there are strong regional identities in Spain.
Then you got the Baetic Depression where the Guadalquivir River flows, between Sierra Morena and the Baetic System, and the Ebro Valley where the Ebro River flows, between the Iberian System and the Pyrenees. These regions are very fertile and suitable for agriculture. The highest mountain of the Iberian Peninsula, the Mulhacén, can be found in the Baetic System, with an altitude of 3,478 m, or 11,413 ft, and the system actually continues underwater until it emerges again in the Balearic Islands. On the other hand, the Pyrenees form the natural border between Spain and France, that extends from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean Sea. Again, the Pyrenees have made trade and other kinds of exchanges more difficult, but at the same time the mountains of Spain have prevented invasions or at least made them more difficult. It’s all about pros and cons, Spain has a defensive advantage and a privileged strategic location to control the Mediterranean and Atlantic access, but at the same time the orography makes trade, communications and cultural unification more difficult and expensive.
A good thing about the Iberian Peninsula is that natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes or floods are extremely rare. But water scarcity and desertification are a very serious threat in many regions of Spain, and climate change can only aggravate the problem. Most rivers in Spain are short and carry small volumes of water on an irregular basis. The south-eastern region of the Iberian Peninsula always has problems of water shortages, and other Mediterranean areas are being affected by saltwater intrusion due to the overuse of aquifers. Northern Spain has an Oceanic climate with regular rains, the problem is that the mountains are too close to the ocean and it’s impossible to make use of that rain. The current water consumption, especially in agriculture, is unsustainable but it’s incentivized by the funds of the European Union.
The lack of mineral resources is a prominent feature of the geography of the Iberian Peninsula. At the time of Roman Hispania, the peninsula was the major source of silver and cooper, and it was only behind Dacia, modern-day Romania, in the extraction of gold. But after that the extraction of mineral resources hasn’t been very profitable. In the 19th century the mines of Asturias extracted coal to provide energy to the factories. Problem was that, compared to Great Britain, coal was difficult to extract and of a lower quality. Then fuel and natural gas became indispensable and Spain completely lacks these resources, so more energy that the country has to import. Nowadays the mines are exhausted and the mining industry is not enough profitable considering the labor costs and the quality and quantity of mineral resources. All the hopes are placed upon renewable energies, especially solar energy since Spain has plenty of that. Hydroelectric power produces a considerable amount of electricity, but there is little room to grow that, and no new nuclear plant has been built since the 80s due to the protests against nuclear energy.
With a size of 500,000 square km or 195,000 square miles, which is between the size of California and Texas, it’s the fourth largest country of Europe by area. This is, of course, including the North African possessions, the Balearic Islands and the volcanic Canary Islands, which has the highest peak of Spain with the 3,718 m or 12,198 ft of the Mount Teide. Spain has very diverse landscapes, fauna and flora due to the orography and the influences of both the Mediterranean and Atlantic and Europe and Africa. There are deserts, dense forests, snowy mountains and beautiful beaches. All in one country.
As for the political map, we have Catalonia in the east, Valencia and Murcia in the south-east, and Andalusia with Granada, Córdoba, Málaga, Cádiz or Seville in the south. Then we got the region of Extremadura in the south-west, bordering Portugal, Galicia in the north-west, Asturias, Cantabria, Basque Country, Navarre and Aragon in the north and north-east, and finally in the center we got cities like Madrid, Toledo, Valladolid or Salamanca. To understand much better Spanish political and non-political geography I strongly encourage you to check out the maps in Google or the website thehistoryofspain.com
To end this episode, let’s quickly make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of the geography of the Iberian Peninsula.
- Orography that complicates economic development and cultural and linguistic unity
- Lack of hydrocarbons and mineral resources
- Agriculture is sometimes difficult due to the quality of the soil and the little rainfalls
- Threat of water scarcity and desertification
- Control over the access of the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean
- The fact that being the westernmost region of Europe with access to the Atlantic Ocean encouraged the exploration of America and other trade routes by sea
- Defensive advantage with the Pyrenees in the north acting as a natural border and with the mountains that can be found all over the peninsula
- It would be easy to use solar energy to power the country
- Natural disasters are very rare
- Diversity of landscapes, fauna and flora
I think I have mentioned all the relevant geographical aspects that had and still have a strong impact on the history of Spain. I hope you liked the perspective I gave today, because I think it’s indispensable to know the geography of a country before getting into the history of any country. I built a website, thehistoryofspain.com, where you can find the scripts of the episodes and a list of books about Spanish history available on Amazon, and you can also subscribe to the weekly newsletter. Please subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube and more, review the podcast, and follow and give feedback in the social media accounts of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode and thanks for listening!
NOTE: Credit for the intro and outro music to Jeris and Clarence Simpsons, the song is called ‘Conquistador’and it’s under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license