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Malaga:The Playground of Moors and Spaniards

posted on: Aug 11, 2021

Malaga:The Playground of Moors and Spaniards

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

For many years the playground of tourists from Europe and the Americas, Malaga, capital of Spain’s Costa del Sol, has only in the last few years been on the vacation itinerary of the Arabs. Yet, once when their ancestors ruled the Iberian Peninsula, they made Malaga an earthly paradise.  In poems and songs, they praised and glorified its very name. The sons of Arabia enjoyed their Garden of Eden for at least eight centuries, then were defeated and had to depart. Now their descendants come as tourists to experience the pleasure of its gardens and orchards – first introduced or expanded by their forefathers.  Hence, it is not strange that today, in Malaga and other Andalusian cities, visitors from the Arab world feel more at home than in any other place in the West.  The memories of their civilization which made this possible still linger on in this their former land.

It is thought the city gets its name from the Arabic word malqa (a meeting place) or from the Phoenician word malac (to salt).  The latter is perhaps most plausible since the town was first known as a Phoenician port, noted for the export of salt fish.

The Arabs occupied Malaga in 711 A.D. during their first sweep through the Iberian Peninsula, and after its conquest and settlement it became one of their major strongholds in Andalusia.  In later centuries when Moorish Spain broke up into petty states, the city, after being independent for a period, was absorbed by Granada -the last Arab kingdom in Spain.

Spain – Malaga – Gibralfaro Paradores Hotel – exterior

In l487, after a heroic defense, the city fell to the Spanish armies.  Although, as terms of surrender, the inhabitants were promised safety of life and possession, they were enslaved and lost all their property.  Stanley Lane-Poole, in his book The Story of the Moors in Spain, quotes eyewitnesses who describe the women being led away into captivity smiting their breasts and raising their weeping eyes to heaven in anguish saying:

“0h Malaga, city so renowned and beautiful, where now is the strength of thy castle, where are the grandeur of thy towers?  Of what avail have been the mighty walls for the protection of thy children?”  

Spain – Malaga – Old City – bakery

The oppressed inhabitants were later forcibly converted, as were all the conquered Muslims of al-Andalus, to Christianity.  However, many retained the Islamic faith in secret.  In 1609, these former Muslims, now known as Moriscos, were expelled en mass from Spain.  After the expulsion, the city, as did the remainder of southern Spain, lost much of its prosperity.  It was to be many centuries before Malaga would again reach its Moorish days of splendour.

After their occupation the Arabs brought in, not only to southern Spain but into the whole of the Iberian Peninsula, many new varieties of plants.  The fertile land surrounding Malaga became rich with fields of almonds, cotton, dates, ginger, grapes, lemons, oranges, pomegranates, saffron, sugarcane and, above all, figs for which the city became famous.  Malaga figs were known for their quality in all the countries of the East and were exported even as far away as China.  Being so famous, it was only natural that poets praised them in their verses.  The bard Abū al-Ḥajjāj Yūsuf wrote:

“Malaga by its figs is given life, 

But they also cause death and strife, 

When sick, my doctor forbade me to eat, 

These figs. Did he care for my life?”    

The city was also well-known for its grapes, and the raisins.  These were in great demand in Spain and the neighbouring countries. Historians have stated that by way of this garden-city the Arabs first introduced the production of raisins into Europe.

Al-Maqqarī, an Arab historian, quotes al-Shakandī who wrote when describing Malaga with its flourishing countryside:

“…its environs are so covered with vines and orchards as to make it almost impossible for a traveller to discover a piece of ground which is not cultivated. Its towers, which I have seen, are like the stars in the sky – as numerous, and shining as bright. …But what ranks Malaga far above any other country in the world are the figs called al-rayi.” 

Spain-Malaga-Ibn Gibra’il statue.

Besides its setting and luxuriant outskirts, Malaga was also an important industrial city. Its artisans produced beautiful silk fabrics, pottery, articles of glass, excellent swords and inlaid daggers.  The products of both its land and industry made the city one of the most flourishing and busy seaports in Arab Spain.  Its products were to be found in every country around the Mediterranean basin and beyond.

The wealth of Malaga and its countryside supported a universal education system and a refined way of life.  Large libraries were established and books on agriculture, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, music and poetry were published by its sons in great numbers.  The most brilliant of these authors was cAbd Allāh ibn Aḥmad ibn al-Biṭār, an outstanding physician and botanist who wrote a complete alphabetical dictionary on food and medicine. This work, which was translated into French in1881, listed 1,300 kinds of medicines, 300 of which had not been previously known.  He was so respected and well-known that many Arab historians have labeled Malaga as ‘the city of Ibn Biṭār’,

Spain-Malaga-El Pimpi Restaurant with author

Another distinguished Arab writer in Malaga’s golden age is the poet Sulaiman ibn Jibra’īl.  Known as the Jewish Plato, he wrote numerous books relating to varied subjects.  Two of his most famous works are the Royal Crown and the Fountain of Life. The latter was translated into Latin and was much read throughout Europe in medieval times.  He glorified the city in a number of his poems and, hence, became known as the poet laureate of Malaga.  Today, in a small park a statue has been erected in his honour.

Two other Malaguenan Arab authors who have left their mark in history are: Ghānim ibn al-Walīd who was learned in grammar, law and medicine, and who is noted for the dictionaries he compiled; and Abū al-Ḥanān al-Mālaqī, who is celebrated for his treatise about the important women in Islam.

Spain-Malaga-old section.

As befitting an affluent society, the inhabitants of Malaga in the centuries during Muslim rule loved music and song.  It is said that the rich and poor alike took part in musical festivals and nights of merriment.  In The Heritage of Spain, Nicholson B. Adams cites an interesting story relating to this music-loving city.  He quotes Muḥammad al-Yamanī, an 11th century writer who describes a musical experience he had while recuperating from an illness:

“…The girl who was singing sat apart from the others, and held her listeners spellbound. She sang and sang, and I, hidden above, could watch without being seen.  As she sang a verse, I learned it, until I knew quite a number.  Finally I withdrew to my room, thanking God, as though I had come out of a great trouble and were no longer ill or suffering.” 

This musical heritage of the Arab past has not been lost even in our present time.  Edwyn Hole in his book, Andalus: Spain Under the Muslims, writes:

“Malaga then as now, was the home of song: the poet Manuel Machado, calling the roll of the towns of Andalusia, labels Malaga as cantaora, which is ‘singer’ in the local dialect.  Even today a charwoman washing the floor or polishing the silver enlivens the work with oriental cadences.”

From the Moorish centuries, Malaga’ s most important memento is the citadel of Gibralfaro, from the Arabic, Jabal al-Faru (Mountain of the Lighthouse).  Situated on a 426 foot high hill, overlooking the town and port, its setting is spectacular.  The ramparts were constructed under the Nasrid king of Granada Yūsuf I (1333-1354) on a Phoenician foundation, and for many years they guarded the citadel – one of the longest-held strongholds in Arab Spain.  Inside its walls the last Muslims in Malaga were forced to surrender a few years before the fall of’ Granada.  Some travellers have suggested that Gibralfaro, on a much smaller scale is similar to Granada’s Alhambra.  Nevertheless, it is not of the same delicate construction and it has not been restored to the same extent.  Only here and there among its battlements and towers have some renovations been made.  Today, added to its historic aura, a park of flower gardens dotted with cypress and pine trees is a playground for Malaguenans and tourists alike. 

Halfway down the hill leading toward the city from the Gibralfaro are remains of fortifications which connect with the fortress of Alcazaba, from the Arabic al-qaṣba (the fort).  After the city had been captured from the Moors, Alcazaba was allowed to fall into ruin and was forgotten.  A few decades ago, a Spaniard who either appreciated Moorish culture or was proud of Spain’s Arab legacy, rebuilt the palace.  This has returned some of its atmosphere from the Muslim age.  The sound of running water, so loved by the Arabs, is again heard in its flower gardens of jasmine honey-suckle, ivy, lavender and marigold.  Its museum containing relics of Muslim art, fits neatly into the ambience of this, once the home of kings.  From its picturesque patios one can enjoy a breathtaking view of the city with its port below.

There is no doubt that Gibralfaro and Alcazaba are the two most important leftovers from the Moors.  However, there are others which should not be overlooked.  The Museo of Bellas Artes, a former 14th century Moorish palace, is a worthwhile stop.  It’s tiled patio-garden and staircase, and spacious courtyard filled with tropical plants, retains for the structure a flavour of its Arab past.  

Nearby to the Museo is the Church of Santiago el Mayor with its 16th century Mudejar tower.  It was constructed by the conquered Muslim artisans who built so many of Spain’s historic buildings.  Also, the neighbouring Cathedral has a link with the Moors having been built on the site of the Great Mosque.

Another reminder of the Muslim past is to be found in the Malaga market. Situated on Atarazana Street, a name taken from the Arabic dār al-ṣināah (house of industry), it is built on the site of a former Moorish arsenal.  From this armory is preserved a beautiful horseshoe gateway in white marble built by Yūsuf I.  On each side is a plaque bearing in Arabic the motto of the kings of Granada: “There is no conqueror but God”.

Spain-Malaga-Arab Baths – El Hammam.

Nestled between limestone hills and the Mediterranean Sea, modern Malaga, as it was in the days of the Arabs, is encompassed by luxuriant subtropical vegetation and fruit-laden orchards which seem to creep into the town itself.  With at least 300 days of sunshine a year, a temperate and healthy climate and a pleasant seacoast, this former abode of the Moors is a mecca for tourists.

Spain – Malaga – outdoor cafe in old Malaga

To see this metropolis, which is the goal of travellers seeking the sun in all its glory, Gibralfaro is the spot.  From here one can see in the distance Guadalmedina from the Arabic wādī al-madīnah (River of the City) which divides the town into two parts.  At the foot of the hill the eyes will linger on a park filled with shrubs and trees with enticing promenades – one of the most charming parks in the whole of Spain.  This wooded shady part of the city stretches to Avenida del Generalisimo or Paseo de la Alameda, the main traffic artery of Malaga.

The town is lively, prosperous and is crammed with flower, fish and vegetable markets. Tiny shops located on Moorish type streets, sidewalk cafes and charming homes hidden behind exotic shrubs, all add to the seductiveness of Spain’s mistress of the tourist south.

As queen of the Costa del Sol and second largest city in Andalusia with a population of half a million, Malaga draws thousands of visitors. Although many of these travellers come seeking sun and beaches, others come to walk in its parks and gardens and explore the orchards of the countryside.  However, a great number come to see the monuments of its Moorish past. Without these relics from a glorious age, the Malaga of today would not have an aura of mystery and history.  Writers have often mentioned this when describing the city. In her book, Malaga, Mary Fitton writes:

“…it is agreeable to see that Malaga still lives under the Gibralfaro and goes to market through the Atarazanas gate.”

Habeeb Salloum M.S.M.


The most pleasant way to visit this former habitat of the Moors is by air.  Malaga has an excellent international airport with connections to numerous cities.  Being only 336 miles from Madrid, 136 miles from Seville and 80 miles from Granada, it is easily reached by bus or train.   For the travelers coming in by sea, there is a large port to facilitate their embarkation.

Where to Stay

Málaga Palacio:  A five star hotel in the centre of the city.  Cortina del Muelle 1.  Tel: 215185.  Cost $47 U.S., double.

Parador Nacional De Gibralfaro:  Within the grounds of the Gibralfaro fortress with a fantastic view of the city and sea.  Tel: 221902.  Cost $38 U.S., double.

Hostel Derby:  Situated in the heart of Malaga.  San Juan de Dios.  Tel: 231301.  Cost $15 U.S., double.

For more Information, Contact:

Tourist Office of Spain, 2 Bloor St. W., 34th Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4W 3E2.  Tel: 416/961-3131.  Fax: 416/961-1992.  E-Mail:  Website:; or The Spanish Tourist Office, 60 East 42nd Street – Suite 5300 (53rd Floor), New York, NY 10165-0039 New York, U.S.A. Tel.: +1-212-265-8822. 

Fax.: +1-212-265-8864. E-Mail:  Website: