LAST UPDATED: APRIL 30, 2020
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I saw a lot of spectacular sights on my trip to Portugal but two of my favorites were those of Moorish Portugal, when Muslim inhabitants ruled the Iberian Peninsula (the countries of Spain and Portugal). When I studied abroad in Spain I learned a great deal about the period of Muslim rule there; however, even though the Moors had settled in both Spain and Portugal, I knew nothing about Moorish Portugal. While in Spain, the Moors most impressive settlements were in the region of Andalusia, far south of the capital of Madrid. In Portugal the Moors settled in what is today the metropolitan area of Lisbon, the capital city, and home to the Castelo de São Jorge, a former Moorish castle that was won back by the Portuguese from the Moors during the Christian reconquest, and the neighboring region of Sintra, home to the remains of a Moorish castle as well.
If you were to compare the Castelo de São Jorge with something like the Mezquita in Córdoba or the Alhambra in Granada, you would be highly disappointed. While many of Spain’s Moorish era buildings remain almost perfectly preserved, the two Moorish structures I visited in Portugal were in a ruined state. There were no visible traces of Muslim life-no minaret, no ablution patios, no Arabic script. From a traveling perspective, the Castelo de São Jorge and the Moorish Castle are best equated to the Coliseum in Rome-incredible to look at from the outside, slightly disappointing on the inside. However, that doesn’t mean that history is not oozing from the surface at these two sites.
The Moorish Castle was the last attraction we visited on the day we spent in Sintra. I knew from the scary bus ride up the mountain that I was at an incredibly tall height. However, after climbing up endless amounts of quasi-ancient stone steps to the castle’s look out towers where flags flew majestically in the wind (flags of Portugal, the coats of arms of former monarchs and even a green flag that has the word Sintra in Arabic script, an homage to the castle’s original founders and occupants), I could see how important the fortress was from a military standpoint. It was built between the 9th and 10th centuries as the central location in an area that was primarily agricultural and so the castle was vital in order to protect its population. However, when Crusaders recaptured Sintra from the Moors in the mid-12th century, much of the original fortress was destroyed in the conflict (only four of the original battlements remain). Before we arrived at the actual entrance to the castle, we passed through a deeply shrouded area that, had it not been during the day with natural light shining through the trees, I would have been slightly intimidated to walk through. It was a foresty area that appeared to not have changed for centuries. We even saw old Arab silos that were used to store food underground. While the idea of storing food underneath the earth seemed somewhat disconcerting to my 21st line of thinking, I suppose back in the 10th century it was logical.
The day we visited the Moorish castle, the winds were whipping at an immense intensity with temperatures I would describe as pleasant. When I visited the Castelo de São Jorge a few days later, the wind was non-existent, the temperature was the only thing that was immense and yet it was still incredible to stand on land that was occupied by humans since the 6th century BC and possibly earlier according to archaeological research. After walking around the perimeter of the castle’s walls we went into the archaeological museum. Although recovered artifacts including eating utensils and currencies were interesting to see, I was most enthralled with an interactive computer program that allowed you to see the origins of the castle in its developmental stages and what each section of the castle once functioned as.
When Muhammad XII, last ruler of the Kingdom of Granada, rode away from the Alhambra Palace for the last time after surrendering his kingdom to the victorious Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, he allegedly wept over having to leave such an ethereal place. I wondered if the Almoravid rulers (a Berber dynasty of Morocco) felt the same when they were driven from the castle following their surrender to Christian forces. (The Siege of Lisbon lasted for almost four months and resulted in Lisbon being returned to Portuguese control and the Moorish leaders expelled, as the leaders knew that there was widespread hunger in the castle area due to the siege.) We don’t have a personal sadness with events that took place so long ago as was the case with the Castelo. And yet, in a way I do. While the Moors were invaders to the Iberian Peninsula, they still erected incredible buildings, introduced wondrous innovations to Western society, and left a legacy and influence that is still present today. They created universities and public libraries, started the first silk industry, and constructed extensive irrigation systems, opening hundreds of public baths at a time when non-Moorish Europe considered cleanliness to be a sin. They arrived at a time when Europe was still a primitive society, entrenched in the throes of the Dark Ages, and then only slowly emerging in later centuries.
It’s easy to look at the Iberian Peninsula today and see nothing but modern innovation and development, yet one should never forget about the deep riches, in education, engineering, agriculture and more that the Moorish people gave to modern day Spain and Portugal. While a trip to North Africa or the Middle East would undoubtedly be unforgettable, so is seeing the Moors’ tangible legacies in today’s Iberia.