Art, Algebra, and Asparagus: All You Need To Know About the Impact of the Moors in Europe


photo of an old mosque main

“Moors” were Muslims who controlled parts of Europe for almost eight hundred years. The tragic hero of Shakespeare’s play Othello was a Moor. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who sponsored Columbus to sail the ocean blue, first kicked out all the remaining Moors in Spain. They influenced Europe in diverse ways, including bringing new foods, architecture, an education renaissance, and bathing practices. Christian Europe saw the Moors as a threat while benefiting from them in ways that continue until today.

Who Were The Moors? 

The word “Moor” arises from the ancient Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa. In time, the word applied to all Muslims in Europe and even all people with dark skin. 

In 711, a group of North African Muslims led by the Berber general Tariq ibn-Ziyad captured the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal).  It was part of a golden age of Islam.  

Muslim control weakened over time. Christian Europe began an attempt to reconquer (Reconquista) the area. Muslims retained control of parts of this area until 1492. 

Muslims also later invaded parts of Europe, including Sicily and Malta. The character of Othello, for instance, is a Moorish military commander who was serving as a general of the Venetian army in defense of Cyprus against invasion by Ottoman Turks. 

Moors were not a single ethnic group. The term applied to different Muslim and African groups, who controlled it for almost eight hundred years. Their culture continues to impact us today.  

Education 

The new Muslim territory (al-Andalus) continued for over three hundred years. It became a prosperous cultural and economic center where education and the arts and sciences flourished. Meanwhile, Christian-controlled Western Europe was still in the Dark Ages.  

The golden age of Islam was a period of education renaissance. Ancient knowledge, including works of Greek philosophers, was rediscovered via Arabic translations. Mathematics (including algebra) and the sciences thrived. Universities flourished.

Many English words have Arabic (the language of the Moors) origins, including alcohol, coffee, and sugar. Arabic is the source of thousands of Spanish words.  

The spread of learning during the golden age of Muslim control of the Iberian peninsula helped influence the growth of universities in Christian Europe and the Renaissance.  

Culture 

Muslims brought their cultural traditions. Their ways were strange but fascinating to Christian Europe. Christian Europe adopted many Muslim traditions.  

Flamenco music, involving playing the guitar and dancing, was heavily influenced by Moorish traditions. The word appears to arise from the Arabic term “rural wanderer.” 

Moors wore beards and turbans. Christians did not. Moors stood up while eating while Christians sat down. Moors used bathhouses. Nonetheless, it is not true that they taught Europeans how to bathe. Europeans had bathhouses from ancient times.  

Muslims also brought new forms of art and architecture, including the pointed arch, gardens, and Arabic calligraphy (fancy writing).   

Food and Farming 

Islamic water management systems made agriculture possible in previously arid environments. 

New delicacies like almonds, artichokes, asparagus, chickpeas, eggplants, lemons, pomegranates, spinach, quince, walnuts, and watermelon could be grown and enjoyed.

The Moors influenced modern Spanish dishes. For instance, paella is a yellow rice dish that gains its unique flavor from saffron, a Moorish spice. Spices such as saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cumin were crucial in the age before refrigeration. 

A taste for foods from the East promoted trade and the age of exploration.  

Religion 

Cultural interaction benefited from liberal policies at the beginning of Muslim rule

Islam accepted Jews and Christians as “people of the book.” They were allowed to worship peacefully as long as they paid a tax. Christian Europe often was not as laissez-faire as non-Christians. Certain later Muslim rulers were more fundamentalist about religion.

Religious diversity brought a cosmopolitan flavor. It also was the source of conflict. Muslims and Christians had different beliefs that helped to divide them. 

Christian Europe believed the Moors were infidels. Religion and race were ways to demonize Moors as “the other.”  Some Muslim leaders also did not trust Christians and Jews.  

The play Othello, where a Moor was a general for an Italian city, demonstrated the possibility of living together. Nonetheless, the play also highlights stereotypes used against “foreign” non-white people. The term “Moor” grew to have a tinge of exotic mixed with dangerous.  

End of Moor Control 

The great French king Charlemagne stopped the Muslims from expanding into France. 

The original Muslim kingdom in Spain and Portugal declined after a few hundred years. The territory broke into smaller kingdoms, which were more vulnerable to attack from Christian Europe. Christians expelled the Muslims from Sicily in the 13th Century.

Granada (Southern Iberia) was the last stronghold of Muslim rule. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered Granada in 1492. Boabdil the Unlucky was the final leader of the Moors. 

Jews and Muslims were required to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Many fled the country. Nonetheless, the Muslim’s influence continued.

QUESTIONS

  1. What was the historical significance of the term “Moor,” and how did its meaning evolve over time?
  2. How did the Moors contribute to the cultural and intellectual development of al-Andalus during their rule in Spain and Portugal?
  3. In what ways did the Moors influence the growth of education and the Renaissance in Europe?
  4. What cultural traditions and practices did the Moors introduce to Christian Europe, and how were these traditions received and adopted?
  5. How did Islamic water management systems impact agriculture in regions previously considered arid, and what crops were introduced to Europe as a result?
  6. Explain the religious dynamics between Muslims, Christians, and Jews during the Moorish rule in the Iberian Peninsula and how it influenced society.
  7. Describe the events leading to the end of Moorish control in Spain, particularly the conquest of Granada in 1492, and its consequences for religious minorities.
  8. Analyze the portrayal of Moors in literature and theater, with a specific focus on Shakespeare’s play “Othello,” and discuss how these portrayals contributed to stereotypes and perceptions of “the other.”

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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