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Who Were the Moors?

written by: Andrea Campbell • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 6/23/2015

The Berber inhabitants of North Africa were many things. To the ancient Romans, they were the Mauri, Latin for "tending their herds" and living in the Roman territory Mauritania, now known as Algeria and Morocco. Learn more about these people who lived in various regions in times past.

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    Who Were the Moors Umayyad Arabs who had wrested control of the Islamic form of government (called a caliphate) soon after the Prophet Muhammad’s death influenced the Arabian Peninsula in 634, and maintained unbroken power ruling first from Mecca, later from Damascus and, over time, converted the Berbers and urban populations to Islam.

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    Conflict and Movement

    After an overthrow by the first Abbasid Caliphate, some 10,000 Moors (black Arab-Berbers of Muslim faith) crossed North Africa and traversed the Straits of Gibraltar into southern Spain in the year 711, taking advantage of the collapse of the Christian Visigoth kingdom—descendants of Germanic nomads. The Muslim usurpers had a stunning conquest against 5 million inhabitants on the Iberian Peninsula and stayed for 800 years.

    Hispania/Iberia (Spain and Portugal) became part of the Caliph of Damascus, which was the capital of the Muslim world—the first dynasty of Arab Islamic leaders—and was renamed “Al-Andalus." It included all of the Iberian Peninsula, (except for small Christian strongholds in the north) and began to shape Spain differently from the rest of Europe with a new language, religion, tolerance, culture and enterprise. Every dimension of Western life would be affected by innovation.

    Medieval Spain’s poets, historians and chroniclers peered through the colored glasses of their own sacred books and beliefs. They established that the emirate of Córdoba lasted until 1031. A Moorish culture developed over eight centuries, leaving a lasting mark on both Spain and Islam. This period would be referred to as Spain’s golden age—a time of enlightenment.

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    Conquest and Adaptation

    Medieval Spaniards were tossed by the Muslim conquest into an ocean of clashing religious cultures of Muslims, Christians and Jews, and were utterly ill equipped to pilot such uncharted waters. For 40 years, the Moorish rule was volatile.

    In 756, a prince named Abd-ar-Rahman of the deposed Umayyad royal family escaped the Abbasid bloodletting of his family; he refused to recognize the authority of the Abbasid caliph in Damascus, fled to Córdoba, Spain and seized power to become an independent emir. His reign marked a critical turn for Spanish Muslims and he literally transformed the land during his 32-year reign into the “cultural light" of Europe.

    In the years of 784-86, he erected the Great Mosque, which was originally a Catholic Christian Church, and rebuilt the fixture to hold the entire Muslim community of the city. His architecture at its height created the most modern city in Europe. As that community grew, so did the mosque, enlarged by several of his successors. In contrast to Muslim Spain’s earlier chronic instability, the first four Umayyads ruled for a combined eighty years.

    It seemed that Jews, Christians, and other non-Orthodox adherents were offered the independence from Moorish Spain in which to navigate their own future even while cultural and commercial links with the Islamic world held out. Pilgrimages to Mecca eventually allowed access to scholarly advances and business opportunities.

    Córdoba at its pinnacle became a centralized city; this was a modern concept and the Muslims fostered laws, banking and civil services. The introduction of paper manufacture by Spaniards now held the Hindu-Arabic numerals—0 through 9—that superseded the Roman number system. Spanish scholars translated what became Europe’s standard medical sourcebook.

    The transformation took place in infrastructure as well and Córdoba boasted streets that were paved and lit by lamps. Because of the unique navigation of the water systems by their engineers, there were public bathhouses!

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    Can You Imagine?

    What would you think about a world where one person could know everything worth knowing? In 7th century Seville (Spain), an archbishop wrote an encyclopedia of everything worth knowing!

    Spain before Islam was a vast land with paltry population. Only a fraction of its inhabitants could read because organized education was nonexistent. They were living in a Dark Age but most did not know it. Europeans in general knew little of the world save the village next door. Nothing much of the past was recorded. Devastating plagues had ravaged much of Europe’s population and barbarian hordes strained the original Roman borders and disrupted trade. Peasants scratched out paltry livelihoods just hoping to make it through winter. The outside world was seldom visited and surviving to 40 years of age was an achievement. The people’s horizons were as it had been for their parents, bound in by a village and the curse of illiteracy.

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    Building and Architecture

    In addition to the mosque built by Abd-al-Raman, Abd-al-Raman III in the 10th century, built the magnificent palace-city of Caliph Madinat al-Zahra, which translates to The Radiant. Despite the fact that columns in the mosque and palaces were crafted using marble and onyx, ceilings dressed with ornamental tile and elaborate carpets were underfoot, amenities such as roof terraces and courtyards came to adorn even the regular citizen’s domestic life.

    The palace was erected over a section of the old Roman aqueduct, which was diverted and converted into a main sewer for a highly complex system of small channels carrying away rain and wastewater. Because of this, Spanish agricultural and water terminology studded with Arab word introductions are still in use today, such as acequias (irrigation canals), azudes (sluices or floodgates) and acenas (water mills).

    Much later, Al-Hakim (985–1021) built one of the greatest libraries in the Islamic world housing 600,000 manuscripts; and that, with the 27 free schools he founded, soon had scholars throughout Europe coming to Spain for education and an exchange of information and the sciences.

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    Jealous rivals exiled a one-time slave and talented musician named Ziryab from the caliph’s court in Baghdad. In about 822, he reached Córdoba and organized a music conservatory where other artists came to study song, dance and poetry. He became famous for creating the “Córdoba sound" while striking his lute with a pick fashioned from an eagle’s talon.

    Not only did his music impress but many city dwellers also followed his style, wearing their hair with fashionable bangs, while others imitated his family who wore their hair parted in the middle, the long ends fastened behind the ears.

    His other surprising contributions to society were:

    • Wild asparagus used as deodorant
    • A concoction of primitive bleach (salts, water and garden flowers) to whiten
    • Changes of clothing according to the seasons
    • Breaking meals into courses
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    The Moors improved on the Roman irrigation system and although Andalusian farmers always prayed for rain, they learned how to hoard the moisture that fell by abandoning water-thirsty crops like grain and, instead, planted lemons, oranges, apricots, figs, pomegranates and other crops introduced from the Islamic East.

    The desert was coaxed into life as well with sugar cane, cotton and rice in addition to cultivating spices such as saffron. Elaborate wheels lifted water from wells, reservoirs and rivers filtered through water clocks, a judicious way to redirect water from one farmer’s canals to another to manage the growing season and acreage under cultivation. Soon the cultivated land fed more people and produced surplus along with manufactured crafts, which became the engine of foreign trade.

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    There were numerous schools and places of learning in Moorish Al-Andalus. Great institutions were located in Córdoba, Seville, Valencia and Granada. Literacy was more widespread than in many other nations in the West. The Umayyads wanted to be seen as intellectual rivals to the Abbasids and consequently, Córdoba had libraries and educational institutions to rival Baghdad's. Many schools were free and universities flourished. Publishing was an enterprise as the Moors translated great works from the ancients, Greeks, Romans, Chinese into Arabic. Spain’s Islamic religious scholars, Christians and Jews included penned works that could have only been written in the Golden Age.