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In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

posted on: Sep 27, 2017


In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

By Habeeb Salloum/Contrubuting Writer

“I hope that you will enjoy our fado.  A good number of tourists rarely appreciate this authentic Portuguese type of singing.”  Maria do Carmo Norqueria, a Portuguese tourist official, went on, waxing poetic about this most renowned of her country’s folkloric songs, ending with the words, “As for me, it brings out the deepest of my emotions.”

         I smiled, “You need not tell me about the fado.  I have heard it many times during my numerous trips to Portugal.  I love it!.  Do you know that it’s a replica of the songs in the eastern Arab lands?”  Maria looked at me, but did not comment.  Like a good number of her compatriots, she was only somewhat aware of the innumerable Arab/Muslim contributions to almost every facet of Portuguese life.

That evening, the Arab influences in Portuguese singing were very evident to me as we listened to one of Portugal’s top modern fadistas, pouring out her soul in song. Her melancholic vociferation penetrated my very being.  Her sultry voice wailing out a love song, filled with regret and passion, almost put me in a trance.

Now throwing back her head with half closed eyes; now clutching and twisting the ends of a black shawl, she poured out her feelings.  In the dimly lit Joâo da Praça Restaurant in the Alfama district of Lisbon, the voice of Maria Armanda, a heavy set middle-aged woman and one of Portugal’s modern fado singers, seduced, then hypnotized her audience.

In her motions and moving voice, the fadista appeared to be the twin of the late Umm Kalthum, one of the most famous singers of the Arab world.  In my mind there was no doubt that the fado had a strong connection with the traditional qaṣīdah and mawwāl of the Arab East.

This strain of the Orient in the fado is reflected in many other facets of Portuguese life.  The Arab/Muslim legacy was evident all around us as we walked through the narrow streets of Alfama – the heart of historic Portugal.  “This is the Arab part of Lisbon.  Its outline has not changed since the Moors built this section of the city.”  António, a native of Lisbon who was our guide, seemed to take it for granted that all the members of our group knew that the Arabs had once called Lisbon home.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

However, this is far from reality.  Unlike Spain, where most of the country’s inhabitants and a good number of visitors are somewhat familiar with its Arab/Muslim heritage, few travellers to Portugal or even some of the Portuguese themselves, know that this land was at one-time part of Al-Andalus – better known in the West as Moorish Spain.

According to Professor David Higgs, a University of Toronto historian of 18th and 19th century Portugal, traditional Portuguese historiography does not really say much about the Arabs in Portugal and their influence.  It has been only during the post 1974 era that the Portuguese have begun to reassess the Arab contributions to their way of life.

The Arabs conquered the country soon after their first sweep into the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D.  However, in the ensuing centuries, as Portugal was being formed, they were gradually pushed back by the indigenous Christian forces.  By the mid-13th century, Algarve, the last stronghold of the Moors, fell, defining the boundaries of the country, as we know it today.

Alfama is a testimony to the centuries of Muslim presence in the western-most part of the Iberian Peninsula.  This former stronghold of the Arabs, in the daily life of its people and their homes, still diffuses the aura of the long-gone Moors.  The narrow cobbled streets, whitewashed houses, many with colorful glazed tiling; wooden shuttered windows; balconies packed with potted plants; wrought-iron gratings; stone staircases, all invite memories of the Moorish age.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark
Alfama, Lisbon

Even more than Alfama and other parts of Portugal, the greatest Arab influences in the country are found in Algarve – the nation’s southern province.  This delightful part of the Iberian Peninsula was once the furthest western point of the Arab Empire that stretched, at its peak, from China to the heart of France, hence its name, Algarve, from the Arabic al-gharb (the west).

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

After the Arab army of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the son of Musa ibn Nusayr, in 711 A.D., occupied southern Portugal, the Yemenite contingent of his forces settled in this area of the Iberian Peninsula.  Their descendants turned the land into a verdant garden and took a significant role in the creation of the brilliant Muslim civilization that once flourished in Spain and Portugal.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark
Algarve-Albufeira-with its Moorish Aura Abd Beach

One of the elements that helped greatly in its formation was the tolerance and intellectual freedom practised by the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.  Dr. Benjamin Olshin, an historian of cartography who specializes in pre-Columbian maps, recognizes the great scholastic activity produced during Portugal’s Moorish age, adding that, among other minorities, the Jews took an active part in society during the Moorish era.  It was only when the Christians took over that the policies of tolerance and integration disappeared.

Along with the acceptance of new ideas, the Arabs, by way of their introduction of advanced technical agricultural methods and hard work made Algarve, and much of the remainder of Portugal, a rich and progressive land, hence the phrase `to work like a Moor’.  In Portuguese, the verb mourejar, derived from the name ‘Moor’, means ‘to work’ or ‘to labour’.

Today, traces of this dazzling culture are everywhere in the Algarve.  The 500 years of Arab domination has left an enduring aura of the orient on the land.  In the sparkling white homes with terracotta roofs standing like white burnouses amid lush orchards; patios drowsing in the shade of flowers; fretted lace-like Moorish type chimneys; the characteristics and vocabulary of the people; medicine and mathematics; the kitchen of the country; place names; and, above all, in the agricultural sector, one is reminded of how the Moors made southern Portugal the jewel of the Muslim West.

By their skills and toil, the Arabs created a luxuriant and productive countryside, introducing or expanding groves and fields of almonds, apricots, carobs, figs, lemons, olives, oranges, pomegranates, rice, palms, sugar, spices and a large number of vegetables. The 12th century Moroccan geographer al-Idrisi described the province of Algarve as a land of beautiful cities surrounded by irrigated gardens and orchards.


Today, a good number of these orchard and garden products which grace the tables of Portugal still carry their Arabic names.  Acelga – chard, is derived from the Arabic (al-silqah); açúcar – sugar (al-sukkar); albricoque – apricot (al-barqūq); alcachofra – artichoke (al-khurshūf); alface – lettuce (al-khass); alfarroba – carob (al-kharrūbah); arroz – rice (al-ruzz); azeitona – olives (al-zaytunah); beringela – eggplant (dhinjān); cenoura – carrot (sannarīyah); espinafre – spinach (isbanākh); laranja – orange (naranj); limão – lemon  (laymūn); and romã – pomegranate  (rummān). Within the vocabulary of spices: açafrão – saffron (al-za’cfarān); alcamonia – cumin (al-kammūn); alcaravia – caraway (al-karāwīyah); alecrim – rosemary (al-iklīl); estragâo – tarragon (al-ṭarkhūn); gengibre – ginger (zanjabīl); and sumagre – sumach (summāq).

The wide cultivation of food plants was greatly aided by the construction of an excellent irrigation system – parts of which are still in use today.  This watering network and the procedure for processing grain were firmly established by the introduction of the windmill and the azenha – water-mill (from the Arabic, al-sāniyah); and the nora – water-wheel (nacūrah).  It is said that these agricultural aids were the greatest gifts the Arabs gave to Spain and Portugal.

To complement and seemingly make perfect the silhouette of a rich green countryside, the Arabs brought from the east the art of constructing magnificent buildings. Their architectural techniques included glazed tiles used for exterior and interior decoration; the Moorish horseshoe arch; thick-walled white homes; windows with checkered panes; latticework; Venetian shades; and eastern type angles, cubes and domes.

All over modern Portugal, especially in Algarve and to a lesser extent in the neighbouring Alentejo province, Moorish arcades, arches, angular figures, fountains and above all, cool and clean eye-catching colored enamelled tiles, attractively decorate private homes, hotels, palaces and public edifices.

The tradition of utilizing these vivacious ornamental tiles, called  azulejos, derived from the Arabic name al-zulayj, which itself comes from Persian, can be traced to the presence of the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula.  The façades, thresholds and interiors of a good number of buildings are decoratively distinguished by azulejos.  On the walls of homes and churches, country mansions, train stations and countless other structures, these highly decorated tiles represent the very soul of the country and are a tribute to the Arab contribution to Portuguese life.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark
Azulejo- a form of Spanish and Portuguese painted tin-glazed ceramic tilework.

For visitors, a good sample of the range and variety of historic Portuguese azulejos is in Lisbon’s Azulejos Museum, in the tiled Madre de Deus Convent; the National Palace and the Pena Castle in Sintra and the Church of Nossa Senhora do Pópulo in Caldas da Rainha – a few of the many other structures found throughout the country, incorporating a fine selection of Portugal’s tilework.  According to José António Preto da Silva, once Portugal’s Tourism Commissioner in Canada, azulejos are one of the most important legacies of the Moors.

These elaborate tiles have come a long way from when the Arabs introduced them into the Iberian Peninsula.  Yet, even though most are now produced with new industrial techniques, they remain an integral part of Portugal’s national heritage – an everlasting contribution made by the Moors to that country’s pride.

When the Christians captured the town of Faro in 1249 A.D., they completed their occupation of Portugal.  With this loss, the Moorish kingdoms in the western part of the Iberian Peninsula were no more.  A glorious era had come to an end.  However, the destruction of the last Muslim army did not end the role of the Moors in Portugal.

For hundreds of years after their defeat they continued to live as a conquered people in the Christian kingdoms still working the land and constructing and decorating villas and palaces. Even as the vanquished, they carried on contributing to the development of society.  Eventually, when they were all forced to convert to Christianity, they were still able to maintain many of their Arab/Muslim traditions and influence.  The court of Manuel I  (1495-1521), the greatest of the Portuguese kings who laid the basis for Portugal’s `Age of Discovery’, featured Moorish clothing, dances, music and Arab-style harnesses for horses, while the royal palace at Sintra, with its twinned windows, turban capitals and extensive use of azulejos is an extraordinary imprint of the Arab presence.

The Portuguese language, which is saturated with words of Arabic origin, is a testimony to the Arab influences in the country’s daily life.  Almost all Portuguese words beginning with “al” are of Arab origin.  These few from among the thousands give one an insight into this Moorish legacy.  Relating to: animals, camelo – camel, is derived from the Arabic (jamal) and girafa – giraffe (zarāfah); chemicals, ácali – alkali (al-qily) and  bórax – borax (bawraq); commerce, cheque – cheque (ṣakk) and tarifa – tariff (tacrifah); heavens, azimute – azimuth (al-samt) and zénite – zenith (samt al-ra’s); fabrics, fustão – fustian (from the Egyptian city of Fusṭaṭ) and cetim – satin (zaytūnī);  home items, garrafa – carafe (gharāfah) and sofá – sofa (ṣuffah); mathematics, álgebra – algebra (al-jabr) and cifra – zero (ṣifr); navigation, almirante – admiral (amur al-bahr amīr al-baḥr) and monção – monsoon (mawsim); and to  personal adornment, âmbar –  amber (canbar) and hena – henna (hinnā’’).

Preto da Silva summed up the Arab influences in all facets of Portuguese life well when he said:

“A good number of our people, especially among the intellectuals, know quite well that the Moors were a part of their history.  They contributed a lot to our language, architecture and especially to our knowledge of navigation.  The lateen sail and the astrolabe, introduced by the Arabs, were instrumental in setting our nation on its age of discovery.”

Travelling through Algarve, I experienced a number of times the well-known tradition of Arab hospitality.  People in the countryside, when they learned that I was a visitor, invited me into their homes for refresh­ments or to pick fruit from their orchards.  The late Edgard dos Santos Silva, a Canadian of Portuguese origin who, after retirement, had returned to reside permanently in Algarve, pressed me to have a meal in his home before I left.  After I tried to politely refuse, he remarked, “You’re originally Arab!  Don’t you know we have the same customs?  How can you leave without dining with us?”

The inhabitants themselves still exhibit the characteristics of their Arab ancestors.  Even after centuries of intermarriage, the Arab-Yemenite element remains prominent in the blend of people who inhabit Algarve.  The beautiful lean and alert olive-skinned women with dark and piercing eyes are a living reminder of these Arabs who came, settled and took part in the creation of a splendid civilization in the Iberian Peninsula.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

Charles E. Wuerpel in The Algarve Province of Portugal when describing the Arab-Yemenite legacy writes:

“Its presence is evident in the physiognomy, culture, inclinations and abilities of the true Algarvío, who has been described as having fatalism, the superstitions and presentiments of the Arab, and a man of order and peace.  His heart is great and his dignity greater.  And a wound to his pride can put him into a blind rage.  Possibly, his greatest defect is egotism, as with all men.”


Inseparable from the picturesque towns, fields and people are the colors, aromas and taste of the Portuguese cuisine – a rich kitchen, much of which is inherited from the golden age of the Moors.  Portuguese words for food derived from Arabic tell their own story. Acepipe – hors d’oeuvres, comes from the Arabic (al-zabīb); aletria – vermicelli (iṭrīyah); almôndega – meatball (al-bunduqah);  azeite – olive oil (al-zayt); escabeche – pickles (al-sikbāj); sorvete – sherbet (sharbah); and xarope – syrup (sharāb).

Also, cataplana, a seafood and meat stew; and gaspacho, a cool summer bread and vegetable soup whose name is believed to come from the Arabic khubz  nāshif  (dry bread) or khubz mashrūb (soaked bread), were cooked in the Moorish kitchen.

In Every Facet Of Portuguese Life - The Arabs Have Left Their Mark

In the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs also became great consumers of seafood.  The Portuguese names for a number of fish like almȇijoa – clams (al-majjah); atum – tuna, from the Arabic (al-tūn); and sável – shad (shābal), attest to the wide use of fish in the Moorish kitchen.

Gilberto Freyre in The Masters and The Slaves writes:

“The old Portuguese cook-books such as Arte de Cozinha of Domingos Rodriques, master cook to His Majesty (Lisbon 1962) is filled with Moorish recipes: `Moorish lamb,’ `Moorish sausage,’ `Moorish hen,’ ‘Moorish fish,’ `Moorish broth.'”

Portuguese candied fruits and pastries using almonds, egg yolks, honey and rosewater are of pure Moorish origin.  No one knows why, but the credit for their preservation is attributed to the nuns who have prepared them in their religious institutions since Muslim times.

The Arab legacy in Portugal reached those areas in the New World conquered and then settled by the Portuguese.  A few years back when I visited Brazil, I was walking one evening with a Brazilian friend in Recife when I heard what I thought was zajal, a type of Arab folk-singing invented in Moorish Spain and still sung in the Arab East.  “It’s Arabic!”  I was excited, not believing my ears.  My friend smiled, “We inherited this type of singing from our Portuguese ancestors.”

When I described to Preto da Silva this experience in Brazil, he said:  “What you heard was the  `desgarrada’.  A number of our historians attribute its origin to the Arabs.”  Dr. Benjamin Olshin who, besides being an historian is also a musician, explained the Arab influences in the fado.  “You can clearly hear this in the music itself.  There is actually other Portuguese music which is clearly Arab-inspired.  Listen, for example, to the modern flautists, Rao Kyao.”

Reinforcing the Moorish aura throughout Portugal but especially in the southern provinces, are the Arabic place names which are scattered throughout the land.  Travellers with some knowledge of Arabic, roaming this former Muslim domain, will think they are journeying in the Arab world as they pass town after town carrying Arabic appellations.

From the hundreds of these names, Albufeira, is derived from the Arabic al-buḥayrah – the castle by the sea or little lake; Alcantarilha (al-qanṭarah – the bridge); Alcaria  (al-qariyah  – the village); Aldeia (al-daycah – the village); Alfambras (al-ḥamrā’ – the red); Alferce (al-fā’s – the pickaxe); Algoz (al-ghuzz – an Arab tribe); Aljezur, with its ruins of an impressive Moorish castle, (al-juzur – the islands); Almadena (al-madīnah – the city); Almansil (al-manzil – the resthouse); Almodôvar (al-mudawwar – the round); Alvor (al-būr – the port); Faro (fāruh – an Arab word for lighthouse); Salema (salām – peace); Odemira (wadi  al-amīrah – river of the princess); and all other names such as: Odeleite, Odelouca and Odiáxere beginning with Ode or Odi, derived from the Arabic (wādī ).

Numerous towns in Algarve, if not in their names, have other connections with their Moorish past. Loulé managed to preserve its oriental flavour with its folklore, cherished as it was in the days of the Arabs; the older sections of Olhâo and Tavira have kasbah-style architecture with neat-looking white houses, topped with charming Moorish chimneys; and Tavira is a beautiful and picturesque rather Arab-looking town with delightful gardens and North African type rooftops.

Crowning all of Algarve’s urban centers with their connections to the Moors is Silves – deriving its name from the Arabic Shalb.  It was the capital of Algarve and, during Muslim rule, was larger and more important than Lisbon.  Today, it is a simple provincial outpost, less than one third the size it was when the Arabs ruled the land.  Only the impressive Moorish castle known as Alcazaba, from the Arabic al-qaṣabah (the fortress), the nearby Cathedral containing remnants of a former mosque, and a gate in the Arab walls, remain.

The Arab impact on Portugal is all encompassing, Dr. Olshin, in his analysis of their influence, explains:

“The long presence of the Moors in Iberia gave that area a distinctly different `feel’ to it, as compared to other areas in Europe.  I think that many Portuguese have a less xenophobic and hostile attitude towards Arabs than most other Europeans, because the Moors are so much a part of Portuguese history.”

For me there is no better indication of the Arab contribution to Portuguese life than the folkloric fado of the countryside.  At night when a village woman dressed in black pours out her soul in a sad-piercing voice, singing of a lost past and casting a spell over her audience, she reminds me of the gripping songs of the Arabian desert.  Coming from the heart’s depth, stark and untamed, it takes the listener back to the days of Moorish splendour.