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Visiting Algarve's Moorish Capitals – The Old and the New

posted on: Jan 26, 2022

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

For a week, Albufeira’s gleaming Moorish-style white houses with their minaret-like chimneys set in the hillside cascading down to the clear waters of the Atlantic had us captivated. Like the thousands of tourists who visit the resort every year, we were entrapped in the town’s Moorish charm. In the same fashion as many other visitors, we had come not only to enjoy its mild climate and fine sandy beaches but, perhaps, more so, to relax in its modern abodes with their appealing Moorish-inspired architecture, and to stroll in its labyrinthine narrow streets edged by attractive structures with an oriental aura. 

A once picturesque fishing town with sandstone cliffs rimming a roomy beach, it has been developed in the last few decades into the tourist capital of Algarve – Portugal’s leading resort area. Its North African-style buildings and lush countryside, first developed by the Moors, complement its soothing sun and sand. They add romance and intrigue to the pleasures of a sojourn in this modern southern Portuguese resort impregnated with the atmosphere of the East. 

The Moorish silhouettes of Albufeira seen from its upper heights has inspired painters, photographers and poets. One of the last cities to fall to the Portuguese Reconquista, it has retained much of its original charms. In the picturesque Algarve, only the neighboring historic town of Silves surpasses it in conjuring up the Moors and their legends.  To this city associated with conquering desert men and the capital of southern Portugal during the Moorish era, we drove from modern Albufeira to re-live the past. 

From the distance as we traversed a fertile plain, we could see on the hilltop beyond the town the majestic red sandstone Moorish castle towering above and dominating the city of Silves. With its splendid parapets sparkling in the sunlight, it seemed to jump out of the tales of ‘Sindabad the Sailor’ and brought to mind the haughty Muslim lords who once ruled from within its walls. Nearing its impressive ramparts, a strange feeling that we were entering the Moorish world of long ago overwhelmed our very souls. We could almost visualize the romantic Moors guarding the walls of what was once considered an invulnerable citadel. 

As happens to all impregnable fortresses, one day it fell. In 1242 A.D. it was occupied by the conquering Portuguese armies aided by the Crusaders from northern Europe. Today in the Iberian Peninsula, it is considered one of the most notable works of military architecture inherited from the Moors. 

In the Muslim epoch, this citadel built in the 9th century dominated the magnificent city of Shalb from which the town’s present-day name of Silves is derived. Originally established by the Phoenicians on the north bank of the Arade River, it was expanded by the Muslims and became their capital of Algarve. The people most responsible for its flowering were the sons of the Yemeni contingent of the Arab armies who settled in and around Shalb after the Arabs occupied southern Portugal in 711 A.D. 

These descendants of the land where once the Queen of Sheba ruled spoke the purest of Arabic and, hence, were eloquent in their speech. Travelers who visited Arab Spain in its days of glory have written that more than in all the cities of Muslim Andalusia, the inhabitants of Shalb were refined in their conversation and manner – inherited, no doubt, from the ancient civilizations of southern Arabia. 

In its golden years, sailing ships carried treasures from the four corners of the world up the Arade River, which today is silted, to this town of wealth and refinement. In the 12th century al-Idrisi described Shalb as a beautiful metropolis filled with handsome buildings and markets providing a great abundance of merchandise. At the height of its splendour the city had a population of 30,000. It was considered the strongest outpost in the westernmost Muslim part of the Iberian Peninsula and was larger and more important than Lisbon. As a center of Arab culture, it ranked only second to Cordova – the capital of Moorish Spain. 

The cities and enchanting atmosphere and renown inspired the poetic abilities of its Yemenite population whose forefathers in the Arabian Peninsula had produced a great number of famous poets. Shalb and its neighbouring towns became a paradise of Moorish bards. They sang of its fairy tale-like beauty, vying in verse with elegance that surpassed the stories of The Thousand and one Nights. Its most famous poet son was Ibn Badran whose verse became renowned throughout the Muslim world. In our times, the inhabitants of modern Silves still carry on the poetic tradition of their Arab past – the only difference being, the lyrics are no longer composed in the Arabic tongue. 

When Shalb fell so did the empire of the Moors in Portugal.  After the Christians occupied the city, they destroyed much of the town and massacred almost all the inhabitants. One Portuguese historian has written that the blood of Muslims staging their last stand in Shalb flowed like red wine. After this destruction, the city never again reached its former size or glory. In the 16th century the population had dwindled to a mere 140. 

Today, it is a simple provincial outpost with a population only one third of what it was when the Arabs ruled the land and its beautiful Moorish structures are no more.  Only the impressive Arab castle, now known as Alcazaba (from the Arabic qaṣabah – the fortress), the nearby Cathedral built in the 13th century containing remnants of a former mosque, and a gate from the Arab walls remain.

The dark red silhouette of the castle crowning the hill, without words, tells the visitor the tale of its once proud history.  Now only a restored tourist site, it still retains two enormous underground cisterns and storehouses which were used in times of sieges to store food and water. At night when the citadel is floodlit it is truly a majestic and breathtaking sight. Inside, jacaranda and oleander soften the atmosphere creating an alluring air of contentment. From its walls and turrets there is a magnificent view of the surrounding orchards and the tiled roofs of Silves spreading down the hillside to the river. 

Unlike any other city or village in Algarve, Silves lives to some extent in the bygone centuries when it was the seat of Islamic culture. Lying in the shadow of its Muslim fortress, it is filled with echoes of the Arab past. Its Moorish inspired architecture and ways of its people, still carrying much Arab flavour, are impressions conveyed back by almost all visitors. 

We loathed to depart from this enchanting town, but one cannot live in a world of fantasy. Albufeira and its modern tourist facilities were the reality of life.

Our road wound its way through orchards of grapefruit, lemons, oranges, and pomegranates. All around us the deep green foliage of the orange trees in the fertile valley made a perfect background to the immaculately white farmhouses surrounded by almonds and carob trees. The honey-sweet scent of rosemary and rockrose intoxicated our senses on that delightful drive from the haunting past of Silves to the pleasures of Albufeira’s present.

That afternoon as we sat on our balcony overlooking a modern swimming pool surrounded by minaret-type chimneys atop sparkling whitewashed structures, I thought of Silves and its glorious past, and how all this had faded into history. Yet, as I gazed beyond on the modern Moorish-like city below with its tourist-crowded beaches, I reflected on how much Portugal had inherited from the romantic Moors. In architecture, agriculture, place names and the daily lives of the people, traces from these men of the East impregnate the whole of Algarve. This mystical aura added to a perfect climate and beaches of golden sand helps to draw tourists by the thousands.