Who were the moors, anyway?

Now that we have reached Granada, the last place to fall during the “reconquest”, it seems time to reflect upon one of our primary motivations for a trip to this part of the world. After traveling throughout many parts of Latin America, we have become increasingly aware of the so-called “moorish influence” in the Americas. We had some vague notion of “the Moors” occupying southern Spain for a period of time, so that their influence on the culture of Spain extended to the Americas after the conquistadores arrived there. What we attributed to moorish influence were box-like wooden windows, extensive tile decoration, and food such as chiles en nogada—chiles in nut sauce (the chiles are stuffed with dried fruit, covered with a walnut sauce, and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds). So we wondered—who were the moors, anyway? During this trip, we have learned A LOT—and have much more yet to learn. But if you’re interested, here is a very brief synopsis.

The Moors are usually presented as a uniform group from North Africa who invaded Spain and Portugal. In fact, it was a very diverse group. In the 7th century, following the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632, Arabs went east from Mecca and spread the Islamic religion to the areas that are now Morocco and Tunisia. They converted the tribes who had been living in the region for thousands of years. The Romans called these people “Berbers” (barbarians) because they lived in simple agricultural villages scattered throughout the mountainous region. The tribes were actually quite diverse, with different languages and ethnicities; some remain living in so-called “Berber villages” today.

In 711, a Muslim group consisting of Arabs and Berbers (and probably some remnant Romans and others) went across the strait of Gibraltar and captured Gibraltar and Tarifa. Within the year, they gained control of nearly all of Spain and Portugal. Clearly, the inhabitants didn’t put up much of a fight! The Visigothic kings were highly unpopular and the Jews, who were particularly ill treated, helped the Muslims gain control of some areas. This was one reason why the Jews lived mostly in peace throughout the time the Muslims were in control.

The Muslims were in control of southern Spain for nearly 800 years—a very long time. There was a succession of different Muslim groups and the center of power shifted from Córdoba to Seville to Granada (and probably some others in between). The Muslims lost control to the Catholic christians progressively from north to south—most of Portugal and northern Andalusia (Córdoba and Seville) fell first in the 13th centuries, after 5 centuries of Muslim control. Granada, in the south, was the last to fall, in 1492, a familiar date to many of us. Isabel and Ferdinand, the Spanish queen and king who financed Columbus’ voyages, also collaborated with the church to conquer the southernmost territories. It was from southern Spain that the explorers were forth to conquer the Americas and spread the Andalusian influence.

Unfortunately, the Catholics were highly intolerant; within a few years of the reconquest, they passed a law requiring all Muslims and Jews to leave, convert, or be killed. Even those who converted (the Jews were called Conversos and the Muslims were called Moriscos—moors) were not safe. The inquisition was designed to search out anyone who had converted but who might still be practicing their previous religion in secret. There is much more that could be said about that part of the story.

An interesting aspect of this history is that the Medieval period, to me, was all about the Dark Ages—illiterate people who did not develop art and culture until the Renaissance changed things. Not true! In Andalusia there was a flowering of arts and culture during the Medieval period—education was available to all and learning was celebrated and many libraries and universities were created. But the winners always write the history books, and in this case the Catholics won. They burned down the libraries, along with much of the historical record, trying their best to erase the artifacts of the previous culture. But they survive in many places…

Notably in Granada, where almost miraculously a rich collection of the art and architecture can still be seen today—attracting people from all over the world. Even here, there is considerable degradation. In the photo below (Alhambra view from the roof-top terrace of our Airbnb!) one can see the steeple of a church that changes the skyline and the large rectangular palace built by King Carlos V. This building seems an affront to the more graceful buildings from the Muslim period.


Below is an example of a building within the Alhambra. It looks airy and light in contrast to the heavy, blocky structure of the Carlos V palace.


Cleanliness is an important tenant of Islam, and the Muslims in Andalusia were masters of water engineering. Extensive plumbing features were created to provide running water to homes, irrigate gardens, create fountains and, most importantly, supply water for the baths. In Ronda one can find the best preserved Arabic bath (photo below), which was located at the entrance to the walled city. Could we revive this custom of welcoming tired travelers to our cities with a hot bath? These baths were improved versions of the Roman baths. They had hot, warm and cold rooms, and a reception area. One of my favorite parts is the ceiling which has star-like vents to imitate the night sky.


The decorative arts are well displayed in the Alhambra, where just about every inch of building surface is decorated in tile, carved plaster, or inlaid wood. Here is a series of Arabic (so-called horseshoe) arches that are decorated with intricately carved plaster.


Another example of the intricate plasterwork can be seen below, in this case with Arabic writing. Many inscriptions in the Alhambra say “there is no conqueror but God”. Most of the carved plaster would have also been painted; a little of the paint in preserved on this wall.


Each room is decorated with a different design. To me, the most fascinating designs are the geometric tiles. The more you look at the design, the more different patterns emerge. It’s a field of study to figure out how the artists created these complex geometries.


So all of those incredible designs we saw in Morocco were actually created in Andalusia and carried to Morocco in the exodus, when the Muslims were expelled. Our guides told us that the culture in Morocco advanced considerably when the Andalusians arrived with their higher levels of learning. Today in Morocco and Tunisia you will find Muslims of many ethnicities, including those who were originally European but whose ancestors converted to Islam during that period of Spanish history. No more will I talk about the Moorish influence in Mexico; as in Morocco, I will talk about the Andalusian influence, as that’s where the development occurred! I will also no longer talk about the Moorish period in Spain, but about the Islamic period, which is a more accurate description.

It’s interesting to see how much of the Islamic culture from the 8th–15th centuries still shines through in Andalusia. While walking through the streets of Granada, we came upon this house with its Arabic arches and graceful styling that someone is keeping alive (although ancestors of the original owners may still have the keys in Morocco, since people thought they might sometime be able to return to their homes).


Every city and town we’ve visited has had the narrow, winding streets of a past medina. We particularly enjoying seeing how the modern, commercial city of Málaga had converted their ancient medina into pedestrian-only streets that attract people in swarms—to enjoy shops, restaurants, and drinking establishments, just like they did in the Medieval past!


Don’t worry—there will be some geology in the next post!


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