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Arab Contributions To Rural Life In Spain

posted on: Feb 24, 2016


by Habeeb Salloum

 No one who has been so fortunate to be invited to an Andalusian farmer’s home will ever forget the hospitality of their hosts. More than any other country in Europe, in this part of Spain, a stranger is always made to feel welcome. Why this is so has a historical foundation. Its roots go back to the 900 years the Arabs remained in the Iberian Peninsula first as conquerors, then as conquered. During these centuries, they contributed immensely to all facets of life in the Iberian Peninsula, especially to the agricultural sector.

When a Spanish host smiles and makes his guest feel at home with the phrase esta casa es su casa, he is only translating the words of his Arab ancestors, al-bayt baytak (this home is your home), or when he toasts his visitors saying, de salud sirva (may it be your health), he is repeating the Arab expression sahtayn (may it aid your health).

As the visitor, who has been treated to the best the host has to offer, departs with the phrase hasta mañana, si Dios quiere, (hasta from the Arabic hatta (until)), he is echoing the ila al-liqa’ insha’ Allah (until we meet again, if God wills), or when the guest answers with ojala (may God will that), he is repeating the Arabic insha’ Allah (if God wills).

These and other Arab-inherited phrases in the Spanish way of life are a testimony to the influences the Arabs left on the culture of the Iberian Peninsula. There is little doubt that from the first decades after they had conquered Spain and Portugal until their final expulsion in 1609, their impact on all facets of life in these lands was enormous.

When, after the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D., the Arabs poured out of the Arabian Peninsula, not many historians would have predicted that they would leave their mark in the annals of world civilization. With hardly any learning, they would in a few decades conquer the lands between China and France – the home of ancient wisdom and cultures. In the ensuing years they absorbed these refinements of man and from them developed one of the most brilliant civilizations the world had ever known. For about 500 years, from 800 to 1300 A. D., Arab/Muslim learning and way of life was the most advanced in the world.

From the heart of China to the borders of France, Arabic became the language of intellectual and scientific expression. This is attested to by the countless Arabic words which were borrowed by other languages in all fields of human activities. These words, some originally Arabic and others transferred through the medium of Arabic, are an affirmation of the contributions the Arabs made to humankind.

This Arab impact is best exemplified in the Iberian Peninsula where the sons of Arabia built a dazzling civilization that bequeathed to Europe the basis of its future development. According to W.J. Entwistle in The Spanish Language, the Mozarabs (Arabized Spanish Christians under Muslim rule) were responsible for the easy passage into Spanish of a considerable Arabic vocabulary. The administrative, intellectual and scientific tongue in Spain was Arabic and, hence, a large number of words dealing with administration, agriculture, architecture, crafts, commerce, industry, science and place names are today of Arabic origin. The Spanish Christians in turn gave some of these words along with the associated technology to the other countries in Europe.

Even in our times, the influences of this Muslim Spanish state, called by the Arabs Al-Andalus, still permeates all aspects of Spanish life – best reflected in the agriculture sector, the pillar of Arab Spain. In its days of glory, farmers in Muslim Andalusia produced more, and were more prosperous than most of the other Islamic countries who, in their turn, were the most advanced in the medieval world. In his book The Splendour of Moorish Spain Joseph McCabe states that the Arabs described Al-Andalus as a glorious garden of terraced hills where every acre of cultivable land was tilled.

Arab Spain reached its apogee in the 10th century when Ibn Hawqal wrote that the major part of Al-Andalus was fertile and was watered by many rivers, the cost of living was inexpensive and the people lived a happy and prosperous life. It is said that during its golden age in the 10th and 11th centuries Al-Andalus had 12,000 towns and villages along the banks of the Guadalquiver alone – a density unknown, at that time, in any other part of the world.

What made this westernmost country in the Muslim world flourish was the hard work of the peasants, rendering fertile the countryside. Estates tilled by slaves were very few. The land was almost all owned by small landowners. Tilling the soil was a proud profession and a person was not looked down upon if he was a farmer – working was a moral duty.

Agriculture was greatly developed by this attachment to the soil, which led to the introduction of new crops, advanced techniques of cultivation, preservation of fruits and vegetables and the use of fertilizers. These were complemented by an excellent irrigation system with a tight government control of inspection and enforcement – still followed in parts of the Iberian Peninsula, similar to that found around Valencia.

A wide variety of foods of which the people in the remainder of Europe had no conception were cultivated. Among the important crops, many in Spanish still carrying their Arabic names, which were introduced or immensely expanded by the Arabs were: acelga – chard, derived from the Arabic (al-silq – the chard); albaricoque – apricot, (al-barquq – the apricot); albérchigo – peach, (al-firsiq – the peach); alcachofa – artichoke, (al-khurshuf – the artichoke); alfoncigo – pistachio) (al-fustaq – the pistachio); algarroba – carob, (al-kharrub – the carob); alubia – kidney bean, (a1-lubiya – the bean); arroz – rice, (a1-ruz the rice); atramuz – lupine bean, (al-turmus – the lupine bean); azafran – saffron, (al-zafaran – the saffron); azúcar – sugar, (al-sukkar – the sugar); banana, (banan – fingers); berenjena – eggplant, (badhinjan – eggplant); chiriviá – parsnip, (jiriwiya – bishop’s weed); espinaca – spinach, (isbanakh – spinach); garbanzo – chickpea, (kharrub – carob); limón – lemon, (laymun – lemon); naranja – orange, (naranj – bitter orange); toronja – grapefruit, (turunj – citron); zanahoria – carrot, (isfariniya – carrot); two types of melons: Palestino, from Palestine and sindía, from Sind in the Indian sub-continent; and two types of pomegranates: Murcian, from the name of the city of Murcia whose name is the Arabic Misriya – Egypt, and zafarí, introduced into Spain by a Syrian named Safar.

In addition, the Arabs increased on a large scale the production of almonds, asparagus, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries wheat and olives – still called in Spanish by their Arabic name aceitunas, from al-zaytun and their oil aceite, from al-zayt. The Arab-planted olive orchards have only been slightly expanded in our times, yet today Spain produces half the world supply of olive oil.

Besides the food crops, the Arabs brought to the Iberian Peninsula the cotton plant which in Spanish is called algodon, from the Arabic al-qutn. They also developed the silk industry to make Al-Andalus one of the major silk manufacturing countries of the medieval world. The fine fabrics of which, Europe was to be proud in later centuries had their origin in this land of the Moors.

The wealth generated by agriculture would have been insig­nificant were it not for the excellent irrigation system the Arabs constructed throughout Al-Andalus. When the Arabs first came to the Iberian Peninsula, they found a primitive form of a Roman irrigation network. After making scientific studies of the land, they greatly improved this network, constructing many hydraulic arrangements for irrigating the whole of their domain.   

Rivers and wells were exploited and underground sources of water were discovered. Channels were cut, even in solid rock, dams built and the windmill introduced from the East. The waterwheel, noria, from the Arabic na’ura, still used in parts of Spain, was also brought from the eastern lands. With ingenious feats of engineering they provided water everywhere. This life- giving commodity was conserved and utilized with such skill that until the present day much of what was once a flourishing Moorish countryside remains.

There is little doubt that the intricate canal networks that supplied the needed water were responsible for producing the thriving crops in the Muslim era. The lush huerta surrounding Valencia has fascinated engineers and historians for centuries. The Moorish irrigation system, which made possible today’s orchards and rice-fields, is still regulated by a more than thousand year old tribunal established by the Moorish Caliph al-Hakam II. Every Thursday at midday it holds its sessions to adjudicate land disputes among the farmers. The code laid down by the Moors is still the basis of this judicial decision-making by this Tribunal of the Waters.

The Valenican huerta was only one area in Spain which benefited from the agricultural techniques of the Arabs. In the southern part of the country the Moors created, what some historians have called, ‘an earthly paradise’. M. Defourneaux in his book, Daily Life in Spain in the Golden Age, writes:

“The most admirable area is around Granada where the Moors for a long time occupied the kingdom. They brought water from the snow- capped Sierras, by means of canals and tunnels, to fertilize the plains and the blossoming hills which surround them to make it one of the most beautiful sights in the world”.

 The excellent land watering system constructed by the Arabs throughout Al-Andalus is attested to by the Spanish language that is rich in Arabic loanwords in the field of irrigation. Acequia or cequia – channel, is derived from the Arabic (al-saqiya – irrigation ditch); açena, acenia or sinia – waterwheel driven by animal power (saniya – waterwheel); açut, çut and azut, azud – diversion dam (al-sudd – dam or barrier); albellon – drain or sewer (al-ballaa – the drain); ( alberca – pool, (al-birka – the pool); albufera – lagoon, (al-buhayra – the small lake); alcantarilla – culvert, (al-qantara – the bridge); aljibe or aljup – cistern, (al-jubb – the well); almenára -channel, (al-manhar – the channel of the river); atarjea – small drain, (al- tarhiyya – the small drain); atanor – water pipe, (al-tannur – the baking oven); arcaduz or alcaduf – bucket, (al-qadus – the water trough); zubia – small channel, (shu’ba – branch); safareij – cistern (sahrij – large water tank); sequiaje or cequiaje – channel cleaning tax, (saqiya – irrigation ditch); tarquim – silt (tarkim – to pile up); and alfarda or farda – irrigating duty, (al-farda – the duty).

More than the pen of any historian, these words tell the story of the Arab impact on the irrigation system in Spain. They are a living testimony to the Moorish technical achievement in the field of agriculture.

The introduction of new crops with the accompanying irrigation generated a great deal of wealth. This gave rise to an affluent society that appreciated the beauty of nature and that created by man. The forests were protected, new types of trees and flowers were cultivated and a number of wild flowers, grasses and shrubs were identified and named. These, in many cases, still carry their Arabic-derived Spanish names.

Acebuche – wild rose, is derived from the Arabic, (al-zanbaq – the lily); adelfa – laurel, (al-diflà – the oleander); alazor – safflower, (al-‘asfur – the safflower); alerce – sandarac tree, (al-arz – the cedar); alfalfa, in both Spanish and English, (al-fasfasa – the alfalfa); alhelí – gilly­flower, (al-khiri – the gilly flower); alhucema – lavender, (al-khuzamà – the lavender); almez – the hackberry, (al-mais – the hackberry); almoradux – sweet marjoram, (al-mardaqush – the marjoram); arrayan – myrtle, (al-rihan – the myrtle); azahar – blossom of citrus fruit, (al-azhar – the flowers); azucena – madonna lily, (al-susana – the iris); bellota – acorn, (balluta – the evergreen oak); daza – panic grass, (dugsa – type of millet); jara – rock rose or thicket, (sha’rà – bush); and retama – Spanish broom, (ratama – broom plant).

The famous botanists of Arab Spain, Ibn Bassal, Ibn al­-Wafid, Ibn al- Hajjaj and Ibn al-‘Awwam, have left us a great deal of material on the productivity and fertility of plants and about general agricultural practices. Ibn al-‘Awwam, in the 12th century, wrote a treatise on agriculture that was translated into the Romance languages of the Middle Ages. It lists some 584 species of plants and gives precise instructions regarding their cultivation and use. He also wrote about methods for grafting trees and how to produce hybrids, stop the blight of insects and create floral essences of perfume.

With flowers, shrubs and trees, the Moors created gardens to a grand artistic perfection. The passion for gardens and flower-filled courtyards was a deep love in the heart of every Arab. This is reflected in the words of chroniclers who have left us a first-hand and precise knowledge about the Moorish courtyards during the Muslim era. As a result of this legacy Spain today has some of the most charming homes and gardens in the world. Flowers pouring down from window boxes against white walls, which beautify the streets and plazas, are a true reminder from the days when the sons of Arabia ruled.

Next of importance to the produce of the land in the Muslim age was sheep raising and the wool industry it generated. The rabadán – head shepherd, from the Arabic, (rabb al-da’n – master of the herd); rehala – a flock of sheep of different owners, (rahala – the flock); res – head of cattle, (ra’s – head); and zagal – young shepherd, (zaghlul – child), playing his albogue flute, (al-buq – the horn ) are Spanish words which point to the influences of the Arabs in the sheep raising industry.

Perhaps, even more interesting are the names and words derived from Arabic which permeate Spanish rural life. These tell their own story of how great the imprints the Arabs have left in the land of El Cid – the Arabic al-sayyid. From the some 8,000 basic Spanish words derived from Arabic, a large number relate to farming and the countryside. Aldea – village, is the Arabic, (al-day’a – the village); alfolí – granary, (al-huri– the granary); almazara – oil press, (al-ma’sara – the oil press); almocrebe – muleteer (al-mukari – the donkey driver); almunia – orchard or country house, (al-muniya – the garden); alquería – a small farm, (al-qarya – the village); arré – giddy-up for mules, (harr! – an expression used by Arabs to urge camels forward); arriate – edge of a garden, (al-riyad – the garden); maquila – multure, (makila – measure of capacity); and tahona flour mill, is the Arabic (tahuna – flour mill).

Of all the facets of country life in which one sees the mark of the Arabs, the home and its activities is the place where they left their greatest imprint. The beauty and comfort of the Andalusian abode of today is no different than that of the Muslim home in Arab Spain. A Spanish housewife going about her tarea – task, (tarihah – task) trying to ahorrar – to save, (al-waffara – to save) time, is suddenly surprised by the albañiles – masons, (al-banna’ – the builder) and alarife – architect, (al-‘arif – the architect) who came early. They have come to build a new home of adobe – sun dried bricks, (al-tub – the brick) surrounded by zulaque – waterproof paving, (zulaqa – bitumen) and adorned with azulejos – tiles, (al-zulayj – the tile). The plans call for a small azotea – roof terrace, (al-sutayha – the little roof); a decorated zaguán – portico, (usatuwan – vestibule); a courtyard with alfeizar – flared opening, (al-fasaha- the hallway) and a baldosa – fine tile, (balat – paving stone) floor; three alcobas – bedrooms, (al-qubba – the dome) with ajimez – twin window (al-shams – the sun) windows; four alacenas – cupboards, (al-khazana – the cupboard); an alcobo – alcove, (al-qubba – the alcove) painted in azul – blue, (lazuward – blue); a large brass aldaba – door knocker, (al-dabba – the door knocker); and a zaquizami – attic, (saqf shami – Syrian roof).

As the masons toiled, they drank from a jarra – water jug, (jarrah – water jug) by allowing a stream from the spout to fall through the air into their mouths – a method of drinking brought from the Middle East into Spain by the Arabs.

While the men worked, the housewife prepared for their dinner: albóndiga – meatballs, (al-bunduq – the filbert) and alboronía – vegetable stew, (al-buraniya – the eggplant stew) with which she would serve escabeches – pickles, (al-sikbaj – the pickling brine). She decided to end the meal with alajú – honey sweet, (al-hashu– the stuffing) accompanied by almibar – a sweet drink, (al-miba – a quince drink) and/or café – coffee, (qahwa – coffee).

These Spanish words of Arabic origin relating to rural life and the home are only one side of the coin. The countryside, especially in southern and eastern Spain is dotted with place names of Arab origin. The vast majority of the Guads, from the Arabic, (wadi – valley); Medinas, (madina – city); Alcalás, (al-qal’a – the fort); and Alcázars, (al-qasr – the palace) have become as Spanish as bull­fighting, which itself is believed to have been initiated by the Moors. There are well over 2,300 place names of Arab origin found in every part of the country.

The expulsion from Spain of the Moors with their farming skills deprived the land of its prosperity and led to a great plunge in agrarian production. This was especially true in the Valencia region and the last Moorish heartland of the Alpujarras Mountains edging Granada. According to A. Boyd in The Road from Ronda, when Philip II expelled the Moriscos (Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) from the Alpujarras, and repopulated them with Christians from the North, he ordered that two Morisco families must stay in each village to show the newcomers how to irrigate the land. In the Valencian huerta, after the expulsion of the Moors, the cultivation of sugar-cane was almost extinguished and the production of citrus fruits declined drastically.

Arab Spain which covered a little more than 50 percent of the Iberian Peninsula, by its advanced farming techniques, supported a population of 30 million – more than the inhabitants of all the European countries in that era. It was to be many years before the remainder of Europe would reach the affluence once found in Al-Andalus.

In that earthly paradise, the Arabs had created the throbbing heart of the medieval world. Today, the vestiges that remain tell their own story. Not only the flourishing and rich Spanish countryside of our times, but the magnificent Mosque of Cordova, the Alcazar of Seville, and the majestic Alhambra of Granada still stand – an obvious visual evidence to the greatness of the Arab civilization in Spain.

                                                                                                                 Habeeb Salloum



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