Arab Memories in Portugal

Category: Europe, Featured, Life & Society Topics: Al-Andalus, History, Muslim Spain Views: 38559

George Sawa, who holds a doctorate in historical Arab musicology from the University of Toronto, explains fado's links to Arab music. The plucking of the strings on the mandolin and guitar, he says, is similar to the strumming style Arab musicians use on the fretless 'ud, the ancestor of the lute of the European Renaissance. Fado's switches between minor and Phrygian modes parallels the Arab use of nahawand and kurd. Some fado forms, Sawa adds, are repetitive, like early Arab muwashshaat, where a phrase is repeated over and over.

Musician and historian of cartography Benjamin Olshin says of the similarity that "you can hear this in the music." Similarly, the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians locates fado's roots in the Arab musical tradition. Olshin adds that "There is also other Portuguese music which is clearly Arab inspired. Listen, for example, to the modern flautist Rao Kao."

The next morning, Antonio, a native of Lisbon guided our group into the capital city's Alfama district, the heart of historic Portugal. "We are walking through the Arab part of  Lisbon. Its outline has not changed since the Moors built this section of the city," he said, apparently taking for granted that all in our group would know that Arabs had once called Lisbon, Lishbuna home.

In Spain, most of the country's inhabitants and a good number of its visitors are at least passingly, familiar with its Arab heritage. But it is less well known that Portugal, too, was at one time part of al-Andalus the land known in the West as Moorish Spain. Cordoba was the capital of al-Andalus its counterpart in southern Portugal was Silves,

The market in Loule Algarve, shows Arab influences in its arches and dome.

"A good number of our people, especially educated people, know quite well that the Arabs were part of our history," says Jose Antonio Preto d a Silva, a former Portuguese tourism commissioner in Canada. "They contributed to our language, our architecture and especially to our knowledge of navigation. The lateen sail and the astrolabe, introduced by the Arabs, were instrumental in launching our nation into its Age of Discovery."

Alfama bustling beneath its hilltop Arab castle, is today a testimony to the Arabs' brilliant legacy of convivencia  peaceful cohabitation of learning, innovation and culture that shaped the European Renaissance. Though it was founded by the Phoenicians and later embellished by Romans and Visigoths, the Arabs gave it its name, which comes from al-hammah "hot spring." Amid narrow, cobbled streets that follow the Arab platting, and among the complexity of close‑quartered whitewashed houses, the aura of the long gone Muslim city still lingers. Climbing plants and stone vases still sprout flowers in courtyards, and all appear to have more in common with North Africa than Europe.

It was in 711, soon after the first Arab probe across the Strait of  Gibraltar, that the Iberian Peninsula  came under Arab rule. In the western portion of the peninsula, this rule con tinned until the end of the 10th century, when the northern provinces of what is today Portugal fell to Bermudo II Christian king of Leon who called the newly acquired lands Portucalia. Over the next 250 years, the Christian reconquista continued to push the Arabs south. In 1139, emboldened by a brilliant victory over the Arabs at Ourique, Afonso Henriques declared himself independent of the rule of Castile and declared Portugal independent under his own crown. From that date, Portugual began to develop a national identity distinct from that of the Galicians, Leonese Catalonians, Castilians and others in the Iberian which later United to become the nation of Spain.  

In the mid 13th century, Afonso III conquered Faro, the last stronghold of the Arabs, the city that is today the capital of Algarve, the southernmost province of the country. With its fall, five centuries of Arab rule in Portugal ended. (In what would become Spain, it would be 240 years more before the last Arab kingdom was extinguished in 1492.) But the Arab legacy enriched and shaped Portugal indelibly. 

The Arab introduction of new agricultural technology, and the Arabs' plain hard work, made Arab Portugal prosper. To this day, the common Portuguese verb mourejar means "to work like a Moor," and it implies unusual diligence and tenacity. The Arabs introduced and expanded groves and fields, some of which dated from Roman times, of almonds, apricots, carobs, figs, lemons, olives, oranges, pomegranates, rice, palms, sugar, spices and numerous vegetables. Today, many of the orchard and garden products that grace the tables of Portugal carry modified Arabic names.  

This nora, or waterwheel, in Algarve is a descendant of the Arab waterwheel that helped revolutionize agriculture in Portugal as in Spain.

Throughout al-Andalus, Arab agriculture thrived with the construction of irrigation systems, parts of which are still in use today. Sometimes built on Roman foundations, this watering network was made more useful still by the introduction from Arab lands of the windmill, the watermill (Portuguese azenha, from the Arabic al-saniyah and the water wheel (Portuguese nora, from the Arabic na'urah). These innovations may have been the greatest gifts the Arabs gave to Spain and Portugal, for thanks to them Iberian fields were for centuries better developed than those in the rest of Europe. The 12th century Moroccan geographer al-ldrisi described Algarve as a land of beautiful cities surrounded by irrigated gardens and orchards. 

After 1249, although their western Iberian kingdoms were no more, Arabs continued to live in the Christian ruled kingdoms, working the land, constructing  and decorating homes, villas and palaces. The 1492 expulsion of Muslims from Spain led to a similar expulsion from Portugal in 1497, but even after this, the cultural legacy lived on. The early 16th century court of Manuel I, for example, the ruler who patronized the first Portuguese voyages to India around the Horn of Africa, featured Arab clothing, Arab dances and music, and Arab style harnesses for horses.

One Arab decorative tradition that has endured to become part of modern Portuguese identity is the love of vivacious ornamental tiles, called azulejos. (The word comes from Arabic al-zulayi, "polished stone.") On the walls of homes, churches, country mansions, train stations and countless other structures, these colorful, often geometrically patterned tiles seem to bring out the beauty of every building they adorn. Tiled walls in every  city and village harmonize with Portugal's baroque and Manueline architecture  the latter developed largely by Francisco Arruda an admirer of Arab artistry and one of Portugal's finest architects in the period after the Age of Discovery.

A 1997 tile mural overlooking a park in Monchique Algarve has artistic roots in the Arab geometric, decorative tile tradition known as azulejos, which was later also influenced by Dutch pictorialism.

During the 18th Century which  the Portuguese regard as the "golden age" of azulejos the Dutch influence brought pictorial tiles featuring animals, castles, ships, flowers, people and religious scenes and blue-on-white monochrome tiles. But it is the early, geometric styles of azulejos that show the clearest stylistic tics to the Arabs Outside Lisbon, intricately patterned tiles on the walls and floors of the National palace and the Pena Castle in Sintra, the Church of Nossa Senhora do Populo in Caldas daRainha, the Church of the Misericordiain Vita do Conde and many other structures throughout the country incorporate a fine selection of Arab and Arab‑inspired tile work.

The colors, aromas and flavors of the Portuguese kitchen are another important inheritance from the Arabs. In the days of al-Andalus, basic meats included lamb, goat, some beef and much seafood. Many of the Portuguese names for fish Such as atum  (tuna, from Arabic al-tun) savel (shad, from shabal) Mid even alineilon (clams, from al-majjah) attest to the origins of Portugal's seafood habit. The Arab sweet tooth was passed on, too, as Portugal's candied fruits and its many pastries made of almonds, egg yolks, honey and rose water demonstrate. Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre noted in his book The Masters and the Slaves ( 1933) that old Portuguese cook books are filled with Arab recipes often simply called "Moorish lamb," "Moorish sausage," "Moorish hen," "Moorish fish," "Moorish broth" and so on.

Besides the fields, the tiles, the kitchens, the Arab architecture of castles, gates and city walls and the audibly Arabic names of towns and geographical features, there is the less definable but very persuasive Arab look and feel of Portugal's landscape, especially in Algarve, to remind the visitor of this important part of the country's history. The sparkling white houses with red terracotta roofs, set in lush orchards, the courtyard patios drowsing in their flowery shade, and the fretted chimneys unique to Southern Portugal all these are evidence of a kind.

Alfama is the oldest of the city's many colorful districts, and in Arab times, it was the heart of Lisbon.

Loule' parts of whose 12th century ramparts remain, is a city whose houses are adorned with attractive terraces and colorful minaret like chimneys, situated in one of the loveliest parts of Algarve. Likewise, the older sections of Olhao and Tavira with their narrow streets, kasbah style town architecture and, again, the "Moorish" chimneys also appear more North African than European. And crowning all these towns is Silves, known as Shalb when it was the Arab capital of Algarve, vying with Cordoba to be the intellectual center of the western Islamic world. The mystic Ibn Qasi, the poet king of Seville, al-Mu'tamid, and the poet Ibn 'Ammar were all born in Shalb. Devastated in the reconquista, the city never again reached its former size or glory, and today it is a modest place whose economy relies heavily on tourism. Only the Arab castle, the Alcazaba (from al-qasabah, the fortress), the nearby cathedral (which retains vestiges of tile mosque it was built on) and a gate in the Arab city walls remain.

Despite all these visible traces, for me there is still no better indication of the Arab contribution to Portuguese life than what can be heard in a long and heartfelt fado. Although its modern form is urban and it developed, as we know it, only in the 19th century, it is increasingly performed throughout the towns of Algarve, albeit largely for tourists.

Fado is perhaps most appropriately performed at night. Then, when a fadista pours out her soul to remind us of all we cannot know, cannot control, cannot understand our love, our histories inevitably recalls for me the gripping, expansive longs of the Arabs who once called this land home, and whose influences remain today.

Habeeb Salloum is the author of five books and numerous articles on Canadian, Arab and Latin American history, travel and culinary arts.

Free lance photographer and writer Tor Eigeland began contributing to this magazine from Beirut in the late 1960's, after which he lived in Spain. Visit his website at

This page was incorporated from March/April 2001 issue of Saudi Aramco World

  Category: Europe, Featured, Life & Society
  Topics: Al-Andalus, History, Muslim Spain
Views: 38559

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Older Comments:
V said:
Thank you. Your report has helped me a lot in writing a paper on the Moors in Portugal

I once spent eight weeks in Andalucia and more recently three weks in Portugal. I regret I had not seen your article before going there - it would have enriched my visit e.g. to St George's Castle. The article packs a lot of most interesting information into a small and very readable compass, whetting the appetite for more. Here in Tanzania I teach History and Philosophy of Education (among other things). I try to give a very sympathetic (though of necessity condensed)
of Islamic education. www.islamicity is a great source and an inspiration to world understanding and peace. "Racism is ignorance" (Kipling). I will continue to recommend the websitein general and in particular to my several friends who go to Portugal for vacation and/or pilgrimage to (Fatima). Congratulations and thanks.

That's one thing that makes me proud to be portuguese, our Arab Heritage. I just love everything attached to it. :)

Where would the world be without Islam, Arabs, Moors, and Muslims in general? We owe everything to Islam! Since Portugal and Spain have prior Islamic roots, it stands to reason that both countries belong to the "Realm of Peace." We Muslims must reclaim them once and for all. All kaifers must leave these Islamic lands!

Hello. Great article! It is important for all to understand the history and recognize the Muslim contributions in Europe. Thank you.

When Muslims disconnect themselves from the true connection to Allah, and stop working to please him. They attach themselves to music, culture, buildings, and clothings. This makes them loose both connections. Their world will be destroyed, and they will go to Hell for not following the order of their creater.
Your article is a very nice memory of our lost connection to that part of the world. I do pray to Allah to bring us all to his true way, for us to acheive this glory again.
May Allah bless all those who are working to please Him.