Moorish Influences in Spain

The lasting imprint of Moorish traditions on Spanish language and culture
Spain is a land of great cultural richness. Part of its diversity finds its origin in the different groups of people who have called the Iberian Peninsula home at some point in history. One of these groups is the Moors, the Arab and Berber Muslims who conquered parts of present-day Spain in the 8th century and lived there for almost 800 years.

The Moorish culture has left a mark not only on the Spanish language, but also on the customs, art, and culture found across the Iberian Peninsula. This influence is still visible in many ways. Let us show you parts of the Moorish legacy that live on in modern Spain.

The history of the Muslim people in Spain

In 711, when Spain was nothing but a bunch of independent kingdoms, the first groups of Muslims started to arrive in the Iberian Peninsula. They entered Spain through the Strait of Gibraltar and continued all the way up until they were stopped in Poitiers, in present-day France.

Around 722, Christian military forces led by the nobleman Pelayo claimed the first victory of la Reconquista, a centuries-long period of warfare between Christians and Muslims as the Christian kingdoms fought to reconquer the peninsula after centuries of Muslim rule. La Reconquista ended in 1491 when the last Arab stronghold, the Emirate of Granada, fell.

Arabic and the Spanish language

If there is something that differentiates Spanish from the other romance languages, like French or Italian, it is the abundance of elements that come from Arabic. Besides the uncountable place names that exist, all the languages in Spain have been influenced by Arabic.

Since the Muslims did not have as great an influence over the northern part of the country, the Catalan and Basque languages have fewer Arabic lexical elements. However, there are about 4,000 words in Spanish that come from Arabic, and their use is more frequent as we head down to the south.

Among toponyms, or place names, this influence is most obvious. If we leave Algeciras, near Gibraltar, and we travel to the north, we will cross the Guadalquivir river and walk over La Mancha towards Guadalajara. All these names have their origin in Arabic.
From the linguistic point of view, Arabic words are found in very specific categories in Spanish. Most of them are nouns and toponyms. There are very few adjectives and verbs. Regarding prepositions, there is just one: hasta.

An interesting phenomenon that occurs in Spanish is linguistic doublets. We often find pairs of words, one of Arabic origin and the other of Latin origin, that mean the same thing. For example, aceituna and oliva for “olive,” alacrán and escorpión for “scorpion,” or aceite and óleo for “oil.” Both jaqueca and migraña mean “headache” as well.

Influence on Spanish culture

Other than the linguistic changes that were introduced in Spain, Muslims brought innumerable cultural innovations. Alchemy, which is the origin of our chemistry, is just one of them.

Other examples include algebra, the use of Arabic numerals, the concept of zero, the game of chess, and the Aristotelian philosophy. This last one had been lost to the rest of Europe until the Muslims, who had assimilated it in Mesopotamia, reintroduced it.

Music was also affected by the Muslim presence. New instruments and melodies emerged in the territory, such as the guitar and flamenco. For this reason, Spanish traditional music has a lot of structural elements in common with the sounds of northern Africa.

When it comes to Spanish food, Moorish customs have played a key role as well. The use of herbs and spices gained importance and one ingredient was introduced: chickpeas. While in the rest of Europe they are not a common element in stews, in Spain they constitute a very important component of the diet.

Many architectural wonders from this time are still standing. Some of the most emblematic buildings from the Moors are Cordoba’s Mosque, the Alhambra of Granada and Seville’s Giralda.

Undoubtedly, the Moors played a fundamental role in the creation of the Spanish national identity. Knowing more about them will help you better understand the multicultural profile of this unique country.