And there were lots of good ones in fact. Thanks to that eight-century long occupation (711-1492), we have the guitar, which evolved from their four-string lyre. Without them, we could well be adding up in Roman numerals and we might still be in the dark ages believing that the universe revolved around the Earth. Fortunately, their much superior knowledge not only of astronomy but also of mathematics, botany, geography, philosophy and medicine created an oasis of light in what was otherwise a world plunged into darkness after the fall of the Roman Empire in 476. Another good thing they left behind was their architectural style – known as Spanish Colonial – which can be seen as far away as California, the Philippines and throughout South America – where the building skills the Spaniards inherited from the Moors are very much in evidence.
Spain under the Moors was a perfect example of the multicultural pluralism that we hear so much of today. Jews, Arabs and Spanish Christians – themselves a mixture of the survivors of the Roman occupation and the Visigoths – lived, prayed and dreamed alongside each other under the more benign Moorish rulers. However, some were not so benign so there were also periods of racial or religious strife.
The Moors also had an enormous impact on the Spanish language – all words beginning with al- as in alcachofa (artichoke), many words beginning with a-, aduana (customs), azucar (sugar), and the names of many fruits, among them oranges and lemons – are of Moorish origin. The English language also benefited – alcohol, almanac, coffee, cotton, elixir, jasmine, nadir, saffron, zenith and zero are just a few examples of the words they gave us.
But their impact on agriculture was even more far-reaching. They converted the arid parts of southern Spain into a paradise on earth by repairing and improving the Roman irrigation schemes they found here, and adding a few inventions of their own – which made Spain the major agricultural producer that she is today.
One of the many useful things they imported was paper, which was invented in China. It took centuries to travel west via Samarkand and Baghdad. The Moors brought it with them to Spain from whence it made its way to the rest of Europe. They also brought their incredibly fast and beautiful horses, which the English especially and the Spaniards eventually developed into the thoroughbreds that are so prized today, especially on race courses.
One of Spain’s most famous – and outspoken – historians, America Castro (1885-1972) said Spain owes its character as a nation to three peoples – the Moors, Jews and Christians – and the expulsion of the two former by the latter, in 1492, did incalculable harm to Spain, especially in agriculture and finance. The Spaniards in those days took great pride in having “clean hands” – that is, hands that never came into contact with soil or money. But while the Catholic Monarchs physically expelled the Moors and the Jews, they could not expel their influence, especially in Andalucia, the last part of the country to be taken back from the Moors. The Andalucians’ need for human contact, their flowery language and flamboyance, their ability to live each moment intensely and their cavalier attitude towards time which sets them apart from the rest of Spain all go back to the Moors.
On the downside, so does their taste for intrigue and envy, their tendency to talk instead of doing and their macho attitudes which not all the well-meaning legislation in the world can wipe out overnight.
A lot of present-day corruption can be blamed on the Moors and their personal form of government, which is still the custom throughout most of the Arab world. All you had to do was whisper a few words into the ear of the Sultan or Vizier or some person who had direct contact with those in power, give them a nice present, and voila! – your problem was solved. Sounds familiar?
Wherever we look in Andalucia, the Moorish influence is there. You don’t have to go further than the nearest pottery shop to see it. Who hasn’t got a brightly coloured plant pot in their garden or on their windowsill? Yes, the Moors are still with us, in many more ways than one.
But more on that next week, when I’ll take a closer look at the darker side of Andalucia’s Moorish inheritance.
By Muriel Pilkington, The Local Voice