Visit Portugal and you cannot help but marvel at its Moorish past. Stroll through any of its towns or cities, sit down to eat in one of its traditional restaurants or explore one of its tourist attractions and, chances are, you’ll be able to spot the considerable legacy left by the occupation of the Moors.
After 600 years of Roman rule, barbarian invaders from beyond the Pyrenees finally succeeded in gaining the advantage. But infighting among the Arian Christian Visigoths smoothed a clear path for the next influx of invaders, the Moors, who swept across large swathes of Portugal’s southern coast from 711.
A new capital
While the Romans had established a capital at Olisipo, now Lisbon, the Moors’ capital was Xelb – modern day Silves. Today, Silves is still one of the best places in Portugal to visit to truly understand the influence of the Moors.
The importance of Silves lay in the fact it was the main access route to the inland areas of the Algarve, because of its river location. But while the banks of the river are now perfect for picnicking, it is the town’s castle which is its star attraction. Built by the Almoravid Arabs in the 11th century, Silves Castle is the best preserved and most significant castle in the Algarve.
But, it is not just the physical monuments which make Portugal’s Moorish past startlingly evident, but also the country’s language and culture. Southern Portugal enjoyed a time of relative peace and productivity during Moorish rule, with farmers shown new methods and encouraged to plant different crops including citrus fruits and rice. This legacy can be spotted in the orange trees liberally sprinkled around the countryside surrounding Silves.
It was a period of calm which led to Arabic words permeating the Portuguese language, including Arroz for rice and El-Gharb, meaning the west, for what is now called the Algarve. Portugal’s most popular holiday spot. Albufeira, also owes its name to the Moors, having then been called Al-uhera.
And, although an earthquake in 1755 destroyed much of the town, there’s still a Moorish feel to part of central Albufeira. Just a few minutes stroll down the Pinhal do Concelho, past the Luna Alpinus, and you reach a highly picturesque tangle of narrow twisting lanes and whitewashed houses.
Not everyone was happy with the Moorish occupation, however, with Christian forces marching as far as Porto in the north in 868. In the 11th century, the movement known as the Reconquista, or Re-conquest, gained fresh momentum with Alfonso VI claiming victory over the Moors in Spain in 1085.
His win didn’t last for long however as Alfonso’s men were driven out just a year later, until crusading knights from every part of Europe came to help in the battle. It was a conflict which was to rumble on for generations until, in 1139, Alfonso VI’s grandson, Afonso Henriques, scored such a decisive victory in the Alentejo that he was named Dom – King of Portugal.
When he died in 1185, he had succeeded in driving the Moors out to what is now called the Tagus River. It took until well into the next century, however, for the south to finally be free from the Moors with Muslim rule ending completely in 1249.
In 1297, the boundaries of the Portuguese kingdom were formalised with neighbouring Castile. Those boundaries remain very much the same today. But, whether marvelling at Silves’ Moorish gates, eating Moorish-inspired couvert, or listening to the melancholic sounds of Fado music, Portugal’s Moorish past is ever present.
Katie is a UK based blogger who writes about her travels and (mis)adventures in food at delightso.me.