Tuesday, July 25, 2017
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The Moors in Portugal

Much of the legacy of the Moors was supposed to be destroyed following their period of rule. Fortunately for us today, there are remains, such as the red sandstone walls of Silves castle.silves castle

On 19th July 711, despite being vastly outnumbered, Moorish forces led by Tariq ibn-Zayid defeated the armies of Roderic, Visigoth King of Iberia at the Battle of Guadalete; thus began the Moorish occupation of Iberia.

Os Mouros – The Moors

On 19th July 711, despite being vastly outnumbered, Moorish forces led by Tariq-ibn-Zayid defeated the armies of Roderic, Visigoth King of Iberia at the Battle of Guadalete; thus began the Moorish occupation of Iberia.


The Moorish regime, nevertheless, comprised many factions and suffered from political instability. As early as 750, the Umayyads were overthrown by Abbasids. This was followed in 756 by Abd-ar-Rahman, an exiled Umayyad, establishing himself as Emir of Cordoba, controlling al-Andalus. By 929, under Abd-ar-Rahman III, the emirate was promoted to the status of independent Caliphate. A century later, the Caliphate collapsed into smaller ‘taifas’, which were weak and subsequently conquered by Almoravids, Muslim leaders of the Maghreb (lands of North West Africa). These in turn were succeeded by the Almohads in the 12th century. Further internal divisions led to the re-establishment of independent states, taifas, until Muslim rule in Portugal eventually ended in 1249.

The political instabilities within this period, however, were outweighed by advances in social and cultural history.

Society and Culture

Initial observations, nevertheless, suggest the Moors to be barbarians. Following the Battle of Guadalete, legend tells us Tariq ibn-Zayid instructed that prisoners be boiled in cauldrons to demonstrate the Moorish threat. Further study, however, advocates that the Moors, under Arabic rule, were a civilising influence. Indeed, during the period of Moorish dominance, Iberia became celebrated as a centre of culture and intellectual excellence. Whilst the capital was Spanish Cordoba, a Portuguese equivalent was founded in Xelb (now Silves), famed throughout the Arabic empire for the linguistic clarity found therein.

Under Arab patronage, the sciences flourished. The study of mathematics led to calculations in architecture and the construction of the vaulted ceilings, ribbed domes and horseshoe arches typical of Moorish design. Geography and cartography advanced, particularly under al-Adrisi, who toured Portugal and elsewhere in Europe, using his findings to map the known world. In navigation, the baculus and the astrolabe were developed. These, together with the caravel,which appears to have been based on Moorish ship design, would be of pivotal importance during Portugal’s Voyages of Discovery.

Medicine was modernised. Pedro of Lisbon (later to be Pope John XXI) dismissed the theory of ‘madness’ being due to demons, advocating instead it was an illness. Empirical study and observation gained importance, and gynaecology, childcare and diet in particular benefited. Diet improved also due to advances in agriculture. New crops, such as rice, citrus fruits and cotton were introduced, existing products were developed, and a system of crop rotation pioneered. Crops thrived with new irrigation systems and the innovations of the watermill and waterwheel – a working replica of which can be seen in Tomar.

The arts prospered likewise, with translation of texts from Arabic into Latin, and the introduction of the works of Greek philosophers, previously un-encountered in Iberia. Studies from this period are still used in compulsory philosophy lessons in Portuguese secondary schools.

The Arabs opened schools and universities, leading to record levels of literacy, albeit in Arabic. Nevertheless, the participation of Jews and Christians in these schools and universities resulted in the above advances being achieved not just by Arabs, but also by Jews and Christians participating in a multi-cultural, intellectual society. This multi-cultural society was only possible due to the religious freedom allowed, with Jews and Christians sanctioned to practice their individual worship. Some became known as “Mozarabs”, retaining religious preference while adopting Arabic lifestyle, culture or language. The exemption of Moslems from many taxes may have encouraged others to convert. Furthermore, Moors encouraged the liberation of Christian owned slaves, who received freedom in return for living according to the Koran.

Moorish Legacy

Much of the physical legacy of the Moors was to be destroyed following their period of rule. Fortunately, there are remains, such as the red sandstone walls and square towers of Silves castle, site of the legendary Palace of Verandahs, where the Royal Court gathered for concerts, poetry readings and feasts. Here too, remains the Moorish vaulted water cistern which served the town. In the Alentejo, vestiges of architecture remain in Moura and in Mertola, whose museum houses a collection of Muslim art. Lisbon preserves part of the Moorish city walls, and the legacy of the Moors is awash in the Alfama district, with its tightly packed streets, reminiscent of a Kasbah. Where no physical remains exist, memories remain, e.g. Sintra National Palace, built in the 16th century, but echoing Moorish design.sintra palace

Portugal also boasts Moorish inheritance in music, with the songs and rhythms of fado deemed to derive from Arabic. The azulejo (Arabic al-zulayi), the painted tile prominent in Portugal, specifically those of geometric design, dates to Moorish occupation and daily we find reminders of Moorish heritage within the Portuguese language e.g. alface (lettuce), arroz (rice) and atum (tuna). Many Portuguese place names derive from Arabic predecessors, including the Algarve (from “Al-Gharb”, meaning the west) and Albufeira (from Al-uhera). Indeed, the most Catholic of sites, Fatima, derives its name from a Moorish beauty who won the heart of a Portuguese nobleman. And within the Algarve, the almond trees remind us of Prince al-Mu’tamid, who ordered their planting, the blossom serving to remind his bride of the snow she had known in her homeland.

Yet despite the romance, the religious tolerance and the intellectual and cultural blossoming of Iberia, the Christian Reconquista commenced almost immediately upon the Moors arrival, culminating in Portugal with the fall of the Algarve in 1249.

Written by Jackie Reed

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