Iberian Peninsula

Iberian Peninsula

Iberian Peninsula, c.230,400 sq mi (596,740 sq km), SW Europe, separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees. Comprising Spain and Portugal, it is washed on the N and W by the Atlantic Ocean and on the S and E by the Mediterranean Sea; the Strait of Gibraltar separates it from Africa. The Iberian Peninsula is dominated by the Meseta (central plateau), a great uplifted fault block (average elevation 2,000 ft/610 m) ringed and crossed by mountain ranges. It covers about two thirds of the peninsula. Coastal lowlands, the site of the major industrial cities, surround the primarily agrarian-oriented Meseta. Climatically, the Iberian Peninsula has hot summers, cold winters, and limited precipitation. Five major rivers drain the peninsula.

The Iberian Peninsula, or Iberia, is located in the extreme southwest of Europe, and includes modern day Spain, Portugal, Andorra and Gibraltar and a very small part of France. It is the westernmost of the three southern European peninsulas (the Iberian, Italian, and Balkan peninsulas). It is bordered on the south-east and east by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the north, west and south-west by the Atlantic Ocean. The Pyrenees form the northeast edge of the peninsula, separating it from the rest of Europe. In the south, it approaches the northern coast of Africa. It is the second largest peninsula in Europe, with an area of 582 860 km². The name "Iberia" was also used since the times of Ancient Greece and Rome for another territory at the opposite corner of Europe, Caucasian Iberia, in modern day Georgia.


The term Iberia is the Greek equivalent of Latin Hispania. Surviving Roman texts always use Hispania for the peninsula (first mentioned in 200 BC by the poet Quintus Ennius) while Greek texts employ Iberia. It is believed that the root Iber is of Iberian origin, and could relate to the word ancient Iberians used to say river (which may have survived in the modern name or the Ebro river, which was named by the Romans Iberus Flumen, or River Iber).

Substituting Spanish for Iberian or Spain for the Iberian Peninsula can be anachronistic and potentially misleading, since the peninsula also includes Portugal, Andorra, Gibraltar, and a tiny French territory in the Pyrenees, and has not been under unified rule since the short-lived Iberian Union (1580-1640).

The modern usage of Hispanic, if not used in a specific historical meaning, mostly refers to Spain or the Spanish speaking world. The equivalent term for Portugal or the Portuguese speaking world is Lusitanic (derived from the Roman Province of Hispania Lusitania). Iberian, in modern usage, refers to the whole of the peninsula, that is, Portugal and Spain and to a lesser extent Gibraltar and Andorra.

Modern countries and territories

Political divisions of the Iberian Peninsula sorted by area:
Country/Territory Peninsular area (km²) Share Description
Spain 493,519 85% occupying most of the peninsula
Portugal 89,261 15% occupying most of the west of the peninsula
French Cerdagne 540 0% a small French territory in the Pyrenees Mountains technically on the Iberian peninsula
Andorra 468 0% a northern edge of the peninsula in the Pyrenees between Spain and France
Gibraltar 7 0% a tiny British overseas territory near the southernmost tip of the peninsula.


Further information: Prehistoric Iberia, Pre-Roman peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, Hispania, Visigothic Kingdom, Spania, Al Andalus, Reconquista, History of Portugal and History of Spain.
The Iberian Peninsula has been inhabited for at least 1,000,000 years as remains found in the sites at Atapuerca demonstrate. Among these sites is the cave of Gran Dolina, where six hominin skeletons, dated between 780,000 and one million years ago, were found in 1994. Experts have debated whether these skeletons belong to the species Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, or a new species called Homo antecessor.

Around 200,000 BC, during the Lower Paleolithic period, Neanderthals first entered the Iberian Peninsula. Around 70,000 BC, during the Middle Paleolithic period, the last ice age began and the Neanderthal Mousterian culture was established. Around 35,000 BC, during the Upper Paleolithic, the Neanderthal Châtelperronian cultural period began. Emanating from Southern France this culture extended into Northern Iberia. This culture continued to exist until around 28,000 BC when Neanderthal man faced extinction, their final refuge being present-day Portugal.

At about the 40th millennium BC Modern Humans make way into the Iberian peninsula, coming from Southern France. Here, this genetically homogeneous population (characterized by the M173 mutation in the Y chromosome), developed the M343 mutation, giving rise to the R1b Haplogroup, still the most common in modern Portuguese and Spanish males. In Iberia, Modern Humans will develop a series of different cultures, such as the Aurignacian, Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian cultures, some of then characterized by complex forms of Paleolithic art.

During the Neolithic expansion, various megalithic cultures had developed in Iberia. An open seas navigation culture from the east Mediterranean, called the Cardium culture, had also extended their influence to the eastern coasts of Iberia, possibly as early as the 5th millennium B.C. These people may have had some relation to the subsequent development of the Iberian civilization.

In the Chalcolithic or Copper Age (c. 3000 BC in Iberia) a series of complex cultures developed, that would give rise of the first civilizations in Iberia and of extensive exchange networks that would reach to the Baltic, the Middle East and North Africa. Since c. 2150 BC the Bell Beaker culture intrudes in Chalcolithic Iberia, of quite clear Central European origin. Bronze Age cultures eventually developed since c.1800 BC, where the civilization of Los Millares was followed by that of El Argar - from this center, bronze technology spread to other areas, such as those of the Bronze of Levante, South-Western Iberian Bronze and Cogotas I. In the Late Bronze Age the clearly urban civilization of Tartessos would develop in the area of modern western Andalusia, characterized by Phoenician influence and Tartessian script of its Tartessian language, a language isolate not related to the Iberian language.

Early in the first millennium BC, several waves of Pre-Celts and Celts migrated from central Europe, thus partially changing the ethnic landscape of Iberia into a clearly Indo-European space in its northern and western regions.

By the Iron Age, starting in the 7th century BC, the global panorama in Iberia was one of complex agrarian and urban civilizations, either Pre-Celtic or Celtic (such as the Lusitanians, the Celtiberians, the Gallaeci, the Astur, or the Celtici, amongst others), the cultures of the Iberians in the eastern and southern zones of Iberia and the cultures of the Aquitanian in the western portion of the Pyrenees. The seafaring Phoenicians, Greeks and Carthaginians successively settled along the Mediterranean coast and founded trading colonies there over a period of several centuries. Around 1100 BCE Phoenician merchants founded the trading colony of Gadir or Gades (modern day Cádiz) near Tartessos. In the 8th century BCE the first Greek colonies, such as Emporion (modern Empúries), were founded along the Mediterranean coast on the East, leaving the south coast to the Phoenicians. The Greeks are responsible for the name Iberia, after the river Iber (Ebro). In the 6th century BCE the Carthaginians arrived in Iberia while struggling with the Greeks for control of the Western Mediterranean. Their most important colony was Carthago Nova (Latin name of modern day Cartagena).

In 219 BCE, the first Roman troops invaded the Iberian Peninsula, during the Second Punic war against the Carthaginians, and annexed it under Augustus after two centuries of war with the Celtic and Iberian tribes and the Phoenician, Greek and Carthaginian colonies, resulting in the creation of the province of Hispania. It was divided into Hispania Ulterior and Hispania Citerior during the late Roman Republic, and during the Roman Empire, it was divided into Hispania Taraconensis in the northeast, Hispania Baetica in the south and Lusitania in the southwest.

Hispania supplied the Roman Empire with food, olive oil, wine and metal. The emperors Trajan, Hadrian and Theodosius I, the philosopher Seneca and the poets Martial and Lucan were born from families living in Iberia.

In the early 5th century, Germanic tribes invaded the peninsula, namely the Suevi, the Vandals (Silingi and Hasdingi) and their allies, the Sarmatian Alans. Only the kingdom of the Suevi (Quadi and Marcomanni) would endure after the arrival of another wave of Germanic invaders, the Visigoths, who conquered all of the Iberian peninsula and expelled or partially integrated the Vandals and the Alans. The Visigoths eventually conquered the Suevi kingdom and its capital city Bracara (modern day Braga) in 584-585. They would also conquer the province of the Byzantine Empire (552-624) of Spania in the south of the peninsula and the Balearic Islands.

In 711 CE, a North African Moorish Umayyad army invaded Visigothic Christian Hispania. Under their leader Tariq ibn-Ziyad, they landed at Gibraltar and brought most of the Iberian Peninsula under Islamic rule in an eight-year campaign. Al-ʾAndalūs (Arabic الإندلس : Land of the Vandals) is the Arabic name given the Iberian Peninsula by its Muslim conquerors and its subsesquent inhabitants.

From the 8th to the 15th centuries, parts of the Iberian peninsula were ruled by the Moors (mainly Berber with some Arab) who had crossed over from North Africa. Many of the ousted Gothic nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors: this war of reconquest is known as the Reconquista. Christian and Muslim kingdoms fought and allied among themselves. The Muslim taifa kings competed in patronage of the arts, the Way of Saint James attracted pilgrims from all Western Europe and the Jewish population of Iberia set the basis of Sephardic culture.

In medieval times the peninsula housed many small states including Castile, Aragon, Navarre, León and Portugal. The peninsula was part of the Islamic Almohad empire until they were finally uprooted. The last major Muslim stronghold was Granada which was eliminated by a combined Castilian and Aragonese force in 1492. The small states gradually amalgamated over time, with the exception of Portugal, even if for a brief period (1580-1640) the whole peninsula was united politically under the Iberian Union. After that point the modern position was reached and the peninsula now consists of the countries of Spain and Portugal (excluding their islands - the Portuguese Azores and Madeira Islands and the Spanish Canary Islands and Balearic Islands; and the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla), Andorra, French Cerdagne and Gibraltar.

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