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By Pete Wolstencroft

Contemporary observers will, if they have their wits about them, be aware of the influence of the Arab world on Spain and Portugal. 

Let us start with that all-important sense of taste. Modern Spanish gastronomy rests on two pillars: ingredients like tomatoes and potatoes, which left the New World from the fifteenth century onwards, and those other, earlier fundamentals such as almonds, citrus fruits, saffron and pomegranates, which crossed the Straits of Gibraltar at the time of the Moorish Conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. (Not quite all of it, I know.) 

The famously sweet tooth of the Arab world – thought by many to compensate for the prohibition of alcohol under Islam – made itself felt in the cuisine of Muslim Spain. However, if you go to a southern city such as Córdoba today, you can still sample both meat and vegetable dishes which feature such sweet elements as honey and dried fruits: dishes that can be ordered in any restaurant in the Maghreb. Modern favourites like ajo blanco: a cold, white soup whose principal ingredient is the humble almond, would have cooled the Caliphs in the pitiless heat of a Córdoban summer. 

Roughly 10% of the current Spanish lexicon derives directly from Arabic.

Although alcohol was banned to Muslims under Koranic law, the Caliphate of Córdoba was, at the height of its power in the tenth century, a famously liberal place. The three main communities: Muslim, Christian and Jewish lived cheek by jowl in peaceful harmony. The Christians and Jews, as: ‘People of The Book’ were left to their own devices and this would certainly have included the consumption of alcohol. It was also clear at the time that certain Muslim princes were not averse to the temptations of the sweet wine for which Córdoba was famous.

With regard to architecture, the Islamic world left its imprimatur on the Iberian Peninsula, not only in Córdoba, where the Mezquita complex is one of Spain’s cultural jewels, but also places like Granada, where the Alhambra – the red fort in Arabic – dominates the city to this day. Arab architects, familiar with the brutal heat of their desert homes, also knew how to assuage that heat, and in the Patio de Los Leones, the fountains that splash both tiles and visitors alike send water vapour into the air to cooling effect. The same technology was used when Sevilla hosted the Expo in 1992, when water features were scattered about the site to bring some relief from the leaden heat of summer in Sevilla. 

The famous white villages of Andalucía with those typical sugar cube houses clustered around a hillside are not just a feature of southern Spain, but also of the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. If you look carefully, you will see that some of them have a round dome on the roof. Examine the structure further still and you will see slits cut into the base of the dome. These gaps ensure that a convection current pulls air in from the outside: this cooling upward flow of air is a forbear of the air conditioning units that make life bearable in most of the hotter parts of today’s world.   

“If you worry, you die. If you don’t worry, you die. So, why worry?”

In much of southern Iberia, in cities like Málaga and Mérida, castles and defensive fortresses will show Roman foundations – often with the distinctive wafer bricks the Romans were so keen on – topped off by the massive granite and sandstone blocks favoured by Arab architects. The fact that these edifices are still standing and still bring in the tourists gives the lie to the old maxim about an Arab past. 

With regard to things you might hear, roughly 10% of the current Spanish lexicon derives directly from Arabic. In all honesty, I am not sure if the same thing applies to the Portuguese language but, if you say the word: “Algarve” aloud and don’t immediately think of souks and medinas, well, let’s just say, I would find that puzzling. 

Two of Spain’s most important rivers, the Gualalquivir and the Guadiana, clearly owe their names to an Arab past. Just about every word that begins with al comes from Arabic. If you lay your head on a pillow – almohada – or snack on some almonds – almendras – you are acknowledging 781 years of North African linguistic input. 

Another Islamic aspect of contemporary Spanish life is that singular fatalism through the lens of which future events are contemplated. A Spanish colleague of mine once told me: “If you worry, you die. If you don’t worry, you die. So, why worry?” This has more than an echo of the Muslim belief system that says that on the day you are born, the date of your death is written down on the opposite page of the ledger by some divine power. As we are clearly just flotsam tossed about by the fates, what point is there to worrying? Have another drink, have another cigarette. To put it another way – eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  

When the Arab conquerors were finally and definitively expelled from Spain in 1492, the country embarked upon its journey towards becoming the world’s first superpower. It is true that gold and silver flooded in from the New World, filling Spain’s coffers and funding further exploratory raids on such places as the Philippines. Yet there was already a home-grown product that contributed at least as much – and possibly much more – to those coffers: the fine wool from the Merino sheep. These hardy sheep were introduced to Spain – and I think you might be able to guess where I am going with this – from North Africa.

The mestas – guilds that traded in wool were some of the most powerful people in Spain. To this day, the symbol of the city of Sevilla is a skein of wool. From the various municipal images, you can’t tell if that wool is from a Merino sheep, but I would not bet against it.  

What the Moors conquered was not a country called Spain, but a series of warring Visigothic fiefdoms, still scrabbling in a power vacuum for the spoils left over from the collapse of the Roman Empire. Granada fell to the Christian forces in 1492. The intervening 529 years have really done very little to shake off an identity that should not be a source of shame, but of enduring pride. 

(Note: The word Moor was derived from a word originally used to describe people from Mauretania – Morus/Maurus. To stick solely to the word Arab is to deny the fact that much of the fighting was done by Berber mercenaries, whose ethnic lineage differs from that of purely Arab people. Some of the Berbers were nominally Muslim, but had probably not properly renounced their earlier, animist tendencies.)

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