Moorish Spain—A Remarkable Legacy
By Awake! correspondent in Spain
SPAIN—land of flamenco, Moorish castles, and proud caballeros—is host to a yearly influx of more than 40 million tourists. From all parts of Europe and beyond they come, not only to enjoy the peninsula’s innumerable sun-drenched beaches but also to soak up Spanish culture.
When listening to the haunting music of flamenco, admiring the Andalusian stallions in local fiestas, or surveying the views from a Moorish embattlement, discerning visitors perceive something different in Spanish culture. Their senses have not deceived them. They have been captivated by the sights and sounds of Moorish Spain.
Expelled from Spain some 500 years ago, the Moors left behind a lasting heritage still observed in the buildings, the music, and even the animals of Spain. But who exactly were the Moors? How did they come to influence Spain to such a large extent? What happened to them?
The Moors—Where Did They Come From?
The seventh and eighth centuries were a time of enormous political and religious upheavals in the Middle East and in the Mediterranean region. During the hundred years that followed the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., his ardent followers created an Islamic empire that stretched from the Indus River in the East to the Pyrenees in the west. Spain itself was invaded in 711 C.E. and was gradually conquered by Muslim armies composed of Berbers, or North African tribesmen, and Arabs who later formed the ruling class. The invaders are generally called “Moors,” irrespective of their country of origin.a
This vast Muslim empire, equaling its Roman counterpart in extent, was religious as well as political. Although the Islamic conquerors usually did not propagate their religion by force, the new faith gradually won over not only the pagans but most of those claiming to be Christian in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as many in Spain.
The Golden Age of Córdoba
Known in Arabic as al-Andalus, which is the origin of “Andalusia,” Spain was ruled at first from Damascus, but in the tenth century it became independent when the emir of Córdoba pronounced himself caliph, or head of state. It was at this time that the Moorish caliphate reached its zenith and Córdoba, in southern Spain, became a thriving metropolis, rivaling Damascus as a center of Islamic culture.
With the possible exception of Constantinople, tenth-century Córdoba, with some 500,000 inhabitants, was the most populous city of Europe. As the capital of Islamic Spain, it enjoyed enormous revenues, largely derived from agriculture, trade, and industry, all of which flourished under the Umayyad ruling dynasty.
The university was a celebrated center of learning, and the city boasted a public library containing 400,000 volumes. Twenty-seven free schools were provided to teach poor children, and there was a high standard of literacy among both girls and boys. Young noblemen from Christendom’s feudal kingdoms to the north received their education at the Moorish courts, and wealthy women from France sent to Córdoba for their most elegant attire.
The huge influx of wealth was also reflected in the general appearance of the city, described by a contemporary German nun as “the world’s ornament.” The streets were paved and lighted. Gardens, waterfalls, and ornamental lakes adorned the city, while an aqueduct brought fresh water in abundance to supply the fountains and public baths, which numbered as many as 700 according to one Muslim chronicler. Scattered throughout the city stood sumptuous palaces, one of which, Al-Zahra, on the outskirts of Córdoba, took 25 years and the toil of 10,000 workers to complete. Its ruins still testify to its grandeur.
Also during the tenth century, the Great Mosque of Córdoba was finally completed. Professing to preserve the arm of Muhammad, it became an important center for Muslim pilgrims. One source says: “It was second in holiness only to Mecca and . . . a visit to it absolved the faithful from the obligation to make the Arabian pilgrimage.” Visitors today still marvel at its magnificent forest of marble columns (there are about 850) and ornate arches. It has been described as the “most beautiful Moslem temple in the world.”
However, the golden age of Córdoba was to be short-lived. Early in the eleventh century, the Umayyad dynasty came to an end, and there began a series of assassinations, uprisings, and feuds. Soon Moorish Spain disintegrated into 23 city-states or taifas, which over the following centuries were gradually absorbed by the feudal kingdoms of Spanish Christendom from the north. Granada, the last Moorish kingdom, was conquered in 1492, and the Moors were expelled from the peninsula.
But the impact of Moorish culture was to remain. Even the language of Spain still reflects a marked Moorish influence; scholars calculate that 8 percent of modern Spanish words are derived from Arabic. Visitors can hear Spaniards unwittingly invoke Allah, using the common idiomatic expression, “ojalá,” which originally was wa-sa Alláh, or “would to Allah.”
Islam—‘Transmission Belt for Technology’
The Moorish occupation of Spain was to have enduring consequences for the rest of Europe as well. Especially during the period when Christendom’s kingdoms in northern Spain were gradually incorporating the Muslim states to the south, Moorish Spain served as an intermediary between East and West, facilitating the diffusion of Oriental culture, science, and technology throughout Europe and beyond. (See box, page 27.)
Explaining this process, the Encyclopædia Britannica states: “The importance of Islām lay in the Arab assimilation of the scientific and technological achievements of Hellenic civilization, to which it made significant additions, and the whole became available to the West through the Moors in Spain.
“Islām also provided a transmission belt for some of the technology of the ancient civilizations of East and South Asia, especially those of India and China.”
The considerable impact of Moorish culture on Western Europe can readily be seen by the many words from diverse fields in English (and other European languages) that are derived from Arabic: algebra, zero, alcohol, alkali, lemon, orange, sugar, adobe, alcove, tariff, magazine, jar, mattress, sofa.
Islamic scholars literally heeded the admonition of their prophet, “Look for wisdom, albeit found in China.” Some of the new technology did indeed come from China.
Toledo’s School of Translators
At first all this knowledge circulated in Arabic, a language unknown to most European scholars. But this linguistic barrier was soon overcome. The recovery of Toledo from the Moors by Catholic King Alfonso VI of León in 1085 was crucial in this respect.
By the following century a school of translators had been established in Toledo, and gradually the vast majority of Islamic works were translated into Latin and later into other European languages. Because of the labors of these translators, Arabic works such as Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine became standard textbooks, sometimes for centuries, in many European universities.
The Moorish Legacy Remains
The Moorish legacy can still be seen in modern Spain. Passed on to each succeeding generation, Moorish architecture, science, and technology influenced Spanish builders, farmers, and scientists alike. Moorish music was later incorporated in flamenco, and Moorish craftsmanship also survived and can be readily discerned in many a souvenir that entices the modern-day tourist. Meanwhile, many of its imposing castles still stand vigil as mute witnesses of a grandeur that is no more.
So it is that, wherever the tourist may wander, the sights and sounds of modern Spain may well be the echoes of this bygone civilization whose glory has passed but whose legacy to Spain and, indeed, to the world is remarkable.
a The term “Moor” comes from the Latin word Maurus, which referred to the people who inhabited northwestern Africa.
[Box on page 27]
The Arabs—A Bridge Between East and West
Silk and Paper. When the Arabs conquered a large part of Asia Minor, they found that the silk-making process had already been developed there on a limited scale because of previous contact with China. It subsequently spread throughout the Islamic world, by the ninth century probably reaching Spain, which became the first European country to make silk.
Even more important was the discovery of how to produce paper. Reportedly, a Chinese prisoner captured by the Arabs taught them the art of making paper from rags. Manufactured in Damascus by the end of the eighth century, it swiftly replaced papyrus throughout the Islamic empire. Before long, it was being produced in Spain, and thanks to this new process, there was a great increase in book production in Córdoba and other Spanish cities.
The technology spread from Spain to other parts of Europe, and indeed the use of paper facilitated the development of the printing press in the 15th century.
Other Oriental innovations such as the windmill and the use of gunpowder also found their way into Europe, apparently by means of this Islamic “transmission belt.”
Agriculture. The efficient Moorish system of irrigation canals is still in use in many parts of Spain, watering orange and lemon groves first planted by Arab horticulturists. Under the direction of the Moors, rice, sugarcane, pomegranates, cotton, bananas, oranges, lemons, dates, and figs were cultivated. Many of these crops would later be taken to the Americas by Spanish and Portuguese settlers.
The leisurely ox was replaced by the mule, the ass, and the horse. North African horses were crossed with the Iberian steeds to produce what has been called the oldest recorded breed in the world, the magnificent Andalusian.
Medicine. The hospital of Córdoba was a renowned medical school, the first of its kind in Europe, and its surgeons enjoyed international repute. Surgical instruments were surprisingly similar to ones in use today. Wine, hashish, and other drugs were reportedly used as anesthetics.
Much emphasis was given to curative medicine and the use of herbal remedies. In Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, a medical encyclopedia of the 11th century, we find the following sound advice: “Experience shows that nursing at the mother’s breast is an important protective factor against diseases.”
Astronomy, Geography, and Mathematics. A notable geographical and astronomical work, written by al-Idrisi who studied in Córdoba, appeared in the 12th century. Entitled “Roger’s Book,” it divided the known world into climatic zones and included some 70 detailed maps that have been termed “the crowning achievement of medieval cartography.” Like most Islamic scholars, al-Idrisi took for granted that the earth was spherical.
Another Moor, a citizen of Toledo, published astronomical tables and invented what is known as the universal astrolabe (a device for determining latitude), the forerunner of the sextant. These advances, together with the adoption of the triangular sail used for generations by Arab dhows, were to be important contributions to the great voyages of discovery in the 15th century.
Our numerical system also owes much to Islamic mathematicians who, by the eighth century, were employing what are today known as Arabic numerals, together with the zero and the decimal point, all of which were a considerable improvement on the former Roman system of numerals by letters (I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, M=1,000). As an example, compare MCMLXXXVIII with the Arabic-based system—1988!
[Picture on page 23]
Patio de los Leones, the Alhambra palace, Granada
[Picture on page 24]
Intricate Moorish ornamentation in the Alhambra palace, Granada
[Pictures on page 25]
An ornamented dome ceiling in the Mosque (Mezquita) of Córdoba
Some of the more than 800 marble columns in the Mosque of Córdoba