Who were the Moors and what did they do? Well, the simplest explanation is they were Muslims who invaded Spain and part of France in 711 AD. That was during the early days of Islam.
But not only did they invade Spain and occupied it for a few centuries, they completely changed Europe. The Moors also invaded Portugal, and helped shape architecture, technology, and science in the European countries.
Who were the Moors?
The term “moor” can be found throughout literature, art, history books, and more. But it does not actually describe a specific ethnicity or race. Instead, it has been used to describe alternatively the reign of Muslims in Spain, Europeans of African descent, and others for centuries.
The word is derived from the Latin word “Maurus”. The term was originally used to describe Berbers and other people from the ancient Roman province of Mauretania in what is now North Africa. Over time, the term was used to describe Muslims living in Europe.
During the Renaissance period, the terms moor and blackamoor were used to describe any person with dark skin.
The Moors initially were the indigenous Maghrebine Berbers.
Spreading to Europe
In AD 711, a group of North African Muslims led by the Berger General, Tariq ibn-Ziyad, captured the Iberian Peninsula, nowadays Portugal and Spain. At the time, the territory was known as al-Andalus, and it became a prosperous cultural and economic center during the reign of the Moors.
At its peak, the Classical Arabic state known as al-Andalus included most of modern-day Spain and Portugal. By 827, the Moors even invaded Mazara on Sicily, developing the city as a port. They eventually consolidate the rest of the island.
Because of the difference in religion and culture, the Moors had a centuries-long conflict with the Christian Kingdoms of Europe, which tried to reclaim control of Muslim areas.
Over time, the strength of the Muslim state diminished, creating inroads for Christians who resented their rule.
Today, historians refer to the conflict as Reconquista. It wasn’t until 1224 that they were expelled from Sicily to the settlement of Lucera. That place was destroyed by European Christians in 1300. And with the fall of Granada in 1492, the Muslim rule in Spain was ended.
How they Changed Spain?
Spain and Portugal were two countries mostly affected by Moorish rule in Europe. 1492 is a big date in history for Spain. That was the year Spanish Christian monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel, Queen of Castilla, finally defeated the Moors, forcing them to retreat back into Africa. It was also the year Christopher Columbus successfully crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the New World.
But more now on the Moors who invaded Spain, Portugal, and part of France. Their rules showed genius in absorbing the traditions of the natives they conquered. As a result, Moors became a multi-racial melting pot of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.
Because they came from Africa and the Sahara desert, they greatly understood the importance of water. When they invaded Spain and Portugal, they mastered the techniques of irrigation. As a result, they created landscapes and gardens that are oases of shade and heavenly perfection. For example, you can see the interior gardens of Cordoba to this day.
The city was the Moorish capital under the Umayyad dynasty in the 8th century. By the 10th century, Cordoba had half a million inhabitants and was the intellectual center of Europe. At the time, the mosque was the largest in the world.
Another capital, Granada, serving as capital of the Moorish Nazrid dynasty from 1232 to 1492, is fabously set in the midst of the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada. There, the gardens and fortress of the Alhambra sit on top of the seven steep hills.
These buildings completely changed architecture in Europe, but mostly in Spain. They are an amazing orchestration of light and space with no real boundary between the exterior and the interior. Running water reaches every single room. The Moors wanted to defeat the desert, and they strived to bring water to every corner.
Moors also introduced exotic plants and foods to Europe, including almonds, citrus fruits, sugarcane, cumin, saffron, pomegranates, and palm trees.
When you discuss the topic of Moorish influence in Europe, you have to be ready for a long list. Fun fact: in the 16th century, English playwright William Shakespeare used the word Moor as a synonym for African.
Besides architecture and foods, Moors brought intellectual achievement to Spain and Europe. And it has a lasting effect. During the Moorish reign, education was universal. Fun fact: during Christian Europe, 99% of the population in Spain was illiterate. Some kings couldn’t read or write.
At the time Christian Europe had only two universities. And Moorish Spain had 17, located in Almeria, Cordova, Granada, Malaga, Seville, Toledo, and Juen. Also, during the 10th and 11th century, public libraries in Europe were non-existent. But in Moorish Spain, there were more than 70, including the one in Cordova housing hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.
Fun fact: Universities in Paris and Oxford were established after visits by scholars to Moorish Spain.
And it wasn’t only Spain. Portugal benefited as well. Today, the Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon is one of the top tourist attractions in the country. While there was always a castle at that place, Moors changed the architecture and made it even harder to conquer.