by Dr. Raymond Fenech

“The reins of their horses were as fire, their faces black as pitch, their eyes shone like burning candles, their horses were swift as leopards and the riders fiercer than a wolf in a sheepfold at night. . .The noble Goths, the German rulers of Spain to whom Roderick belonged were broken in an hour, quicker than tongue can tell. Oh luckless Spain!” [i]

The Moors occupied Spain in 711 AD, when what was described as an African army crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from Northern Africa. The Moors led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Andalus when Spain was still under the rule of the Visigoths.

The Moorish occupation lasted for almost 800 years, affecting the Spanish language, and even the music scenario with the introduction of flamenco. Health and hygiene were among a list of the Moors’ priorities, with the invention of the toothbrush, followed by an incredible wealth of new medical knowledge about diseases and diagnoses, as well as curing these with medicines, surgery, and other scientific interventions. But this was not all, the Moors also brought with them new knowledge on agriculture such as the cultivation of various fruits including lemons, almonds, oranges, bananas, coffee and eggplants and taught the Spanish farmers how to cultivate cotton as well as silk. They also introduced highly sophisticated irrigation systems, some of which had been installed by the Romans in the 4th century and which the Moors restored and extended. These brought water into the more urbanized areas through complex well networks, pools and fountains. Private homes and their gardens, public squares, including the public baths, all benefitted from this water supply system, some of which can still be found in Andalusia.

Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970 CE), was a famous Jewish physician who served Abdul Rahman III (912-961 CE) at Córdoba. Using his knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin, he translated an important work on pharmacy. But he was not the only one, because there were other famous Muslim physicians in Al-Andalus, such as Ibn Juljul (Córdoba, b. 943 CE) who wrote on Dioscorides’ work of pharmacology, De Materia Medica about the history of medicine, from the Greeks to his time in Categories of Physicians.

Famous surgeon, who served al-Hakam II as court physician was Abul Qasim al-Zahrawi (Córdoba, d. 1013 CE), who wrote about several diseases and treatments in Tasrif, a renowned medical studies soon to be found in all European universities. The book had become famous after its translation into Latin in Toledo, when al-Zahrawi was given the name of, Albucacis.

Through the translations of Ptolemy, or better known in Latin as Claudius Ptolemaeus (ca. 90 – ca. 168 C.E), Archimedes and Pythagoras, and the introduction of a new numbering system, the Arabic and Moorish society altered the modern understanding of medicine, mathematics and astronomy.

Ptolemy, a renowned mathematician, philosopher, geographer, map-maker, astronomer, theologian, and astrologer lived in Alexandria, Egypt. Most of all, he is remembered for his development of the Earth-centered cosmological system, known as the Ptolemaic system, or Ptolemaic cosmology, one of the most influential and long-lasting, scientific discoveries in human history.

Paper and Arabic numerals, which replaced the existing Roman system were brought into Europe by the Moors, as well as the most recent wealth of new discoveries and knowledge of India, china and Arabia such as the Compass.

The most modern European City of that period was Cordoba, the very centre of Moorish territory in Spain. In this city, there were commodities that are not always available even in some cities of this Third Millennium, such as cobblestoned streets, pedestrian pavements, street lighting, and even public baths, which were supplied with running water from a plumbing system that also fed huge reservoirs and majestic fountains. All of these 900 baths, private homes and mosques had toilets.

Cordoba boasted of the Great Mosque, Medina Azahara Palace and Al-Hakam’s library, which attracted visitors from all over Spain and other European countries.  According to renowned historian Basil Davidson, there were no countries in the 8th century, more admired by their neighbours, or more comfortable to live in, than the rich African civilization which took shape in Spain.

Today, my country Malta boasts of free education and medical services for all its citizens, but this was already a standard procedure in Spain, under the Moors. In fact, people from all walks of life and faiths benefited from their concepts of giving free education and medical services to all, even the poor. In June 1367, the hospital of Granada became a renowned symbol of this Moorish policy offering medical care and asylum to all its residents. The building project of this hospital was given the go-ahead by the Nasrid ruler, Sultan Muhammad V, who ordered its construction in 1365. The interior of the hospital was tiled in glazed mosaic, marble and stucco lined the interior. The bricked façade of the two storied building was plaster encased. Recessed galleries and square rooms surrounded the courtyard in which a long pool with two fountains, decorated by lions was installed. At the end of the 15th century, Granada was finally conquered by the Christians and the last Nasrid ruler, Boabdil, was exiled briefly and finally left for Fez in Morocco.

Andalusia was ruled by the Moors for 800 years from the 8th to the late 15th century. The evidence of this is clearly demonstrated in the legacy they left behind. These included the two most visited monuments, the Alhambra and the Mezquita, which were later both acclaimed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The influence of the Moors’ culture extended far beyond the Spanish borders, with the mighty cities of Sevilla, Córdoba, Granada and Cádiz being recognized throughout Europe and North Africa as great learning centres. These also became renowned for their magnificent art and rich architecture, and became the homes to some of the most eminent scientists and philosophers of that period.

The Moors were men with a variety of talents and the Spanish country side boasted of sophisticated irrigation systems, clear proof of their agriculture prowess, not to mention the beautiful effect created by the famous white-painted hillside villages, which the Spanish call, Pueblos blancos.

To eliminate the problem of long distance travelling from one city to another, the Moors designed these white painted multiple towns and villages along the popular paths, most travelers used to pass from to travel from one city to the other. These brought about the erection of citadels and fortresses, where many Moorish sultans settled with their families and servants. Most of these fortresses and citadels are now in ruins, but there are still a good number left which are still intact.  

The Moors were clearly much more advanced than the Europeans, so much so that whilst over 90% of the European population was illiterate, education was open to all under Moorish rule, no matter where they established their universities. There were only two major universities in Europe, yet the Moors could boast of 17, all of which were found in Seville, Cordoba, Malaga, Almeira, Granada, Toledo and Juen. All of these were extremely reputable educational institutions. There were no public libraries in Europe, yet in Spain there were seventy, the largest in Cordoba, which consisted of six hundred thousand books.

Perhaps those who do not know the history of Spain, or speak Spanish would not realize that the Spanish language consists of over 4,000 Arabic words and phrases and all the words starting with ‘Al’ are actually derived from the Arabic language.

The music scene in Spain was also influenced by the Moors and it all started with the arrival of Ziryab, which means, ‘The Blackbird’, a musician in 822. Instruments such as the Lute (El oud), the Lyre and the guitar (Kithara) were all introduced by the Moors. Ziryab doesn’t seem to have been solely known for his music, but was also a sort of food connoisseur who invented the new style of eating that divided a meal into courses, starting as we do today with a soup and ending the meal with a dessert.

However, it does beggar belief how a Roman Catholic country like Spain was indeed once a flourishing land in which three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam coexisted for so many decades in peace and harmony, learning and exchanging their wisdom without ever having to seek bloody confrontations. Today, the world seems to be going backward instead of forward and unfortunately some of the current Muslim communities seem to prefer to segregate themselves from European societies because of extremists like the Jihad or Isis, all pooling in to create a situation of terror in the Western World with systematic terroristic attacks, and the incessant persecution of their own Muslim brothers, those who do not share their same extreme policies within their own lands.

The Moorish Influence on Spanish Cuisine

Especially in Andalusia, the presence of Moorish culture can be seen in every corner. One of the biggest legacies left by the Moors during their reign was undoubtedly the cuisine, which continues to be enjoyed today by the Spanish people and tourists alike.

The installation of irrigation systems by the Moors opened up harvesting in arid areas, and not only improved the cultivation of vegetables, but also improved the quality of the produce. This was supported by the introduction of Asian vegetable products, which until then were totally unknown in Spain. Today’s Spanish cuisine continues to use these products, which include, fruits, vegetables and spices such as, saffron, apricots, carrots, coriander, artichokes, carob, aubergines, sugar, grapefruits, and rice. Because of the success of the cultivation of these products, Spain today is one of the leading producers of saffron and along with Iran, produces eighty percent of the crop worldwide. The above vegetables, fruits and spices are found to date in Spanish and Andalusian recipes, such as Pinchito Moruno Andaluz. This dish consists of chicken, and includes the spices, saffron, cumin and coriander. Also a very strong ambassador of the best Spanish cuisine is Paella, which is based on the main ingredients of rice and saffron.

These spices and aromatic herbs so popular in Spain, along with the culinary methods associated with them were among the cultural wealth left by the Moors. Spanish dishes still found today, such as salt crusted baked fish originated from the Moorish cuisine. For example coating fish in flour and frying it in oil in Andalusian gastronomy, actually came from the Moors. This method of cooking fish is maintained to this day and can be found in Andalusian festivities. Fish and vegetable preservation by mixing in salt, or soaking in vinegar for a very long time were techniques introduced by Muslims and still used today, such as the anchovies in vinegar and olives in brine.

But the most Moorish influence on Spanish cuisine is in the desserts and sweets. In Andalusia this is very evident. Pastry making was completely revolutionized by the Moorish introduction of almonds, now so prominent in Spanish gastronomy – such as the Torta de Almendras (Almond Cake). Many of these desserts have since then been given Christian names: the Torta Real from Motril, Torrijas de Semana Santa, which consists of deep fried toast in honey, and Tocinos de Cielo from Guadix. Some of these desserts are made in convents or Christian institutions and have been given names associated with the Christian religion such as, Angel’s Hair (Cabello de Angel) Nuns’ Sighs (Suspiros de Monja) and Bones of a Saint (Huesos de Santo).

Despite all this legacy, those eight centuries of Moorish rule in Spain have passed into its historic records more asbeautiful legends than historic facts. So much so, in the end these were not even considered important enough to study, or remember. But then, this attitude is a typical reaction, which did not happen only in Spain after the Moorish occupation, but also in Turkey, where for example, there are no historic records of the bloodiest epic battle of the great siege of Malta of 1565. At that time, Malta had become a great hindrance to the Turkish pirates because they were often being intercepted by the ships of the Knights of St. John and ruining their slave trade. This was when a decision was made to invade the Maltese islands and put a stop to the activity of the Christian knights once and for all.

The Turkish Armada consisting of 48,000 men came to Malta with the aim of annihilating it, but the small army of 9,000, defenders of the Christian faith had other ideas. The reason for Turkish historians to have left out this historic event was not all about the battle they lost, but more likely about the important significance of their loss, which eventually led to the demise of the Turkish Empire and their rule over many European countries. I’m quite sure the Turkish historians of that time did not want this devastating defeat to go down in the annals of their history and preferred to forget all about it, just like Spain wanted to forget about the invasion of the Moors.

Any nation that is occupied forcefully by another cannot be expected to rejoice, or highlight that period for future generations, even if such an invasion would have brought a wealth of culture, prosperity and wisdom. People would prefer to go hungry, sick, illiterate and poor, but free to run their own country as they please. It’s happened so many times to conquering empires throughout history and nothing will ever change. When people come to choose between their precious freedom and living under the rule of an alien country, the former will always be their preferred choice.

[i] Edward Scobie, The Moors and Portugal’s Global Expansion, in The Golden Age of the Moor, ed Ivan Van Sertima, US, Transaction Publishers, 1992, p.336
Five Fascinating Facts about Moorish Spain (Lisa J. Yarde
The Moors in Adalucia 8th to 15th Centuries (Robin Lambert Lowry & Fiona Flores Watson
 The Moorish Invasion of Spain and the Christian Reconquest (Daniel Medley
The Great Siege of Malta (Dr. Peter Hammond – Reformation Society, Cape Town, South Africa)

About the Author:

ray fenech

Raymond Fenech embarked on his writing career as a freelance journalist at 18 and worked for the leading newspapers, The Times and Sunday Times of Malta.  He edited two nation-wide distributed magazines and his poems, articles, essays and short stories have featured in several publications in 12 countries. His research on ghosts has appeared in The International Directory of the Most Haunted Places, published by Penguin Books, USA. In 2009, Ray graduated with BA first class honours in creative writing and later obtained his PHD. In the same year, he was awarded a scholarship in writing therapy by the Creative “Righting” Center, Hofstra University of New York. He is a visiting professor (creative writing and parapsychology) for an online university and conducts creative writing classes for both adults and children.