History tells us little about Tarif ibn Malik, the Berber officer who landed in Spain in the early months of AD 710, heading a reconnaissance mission of 100 cavalry and 400 foot soldiers. But the place where he landed is named Tarifa in his honor, and Ibn Malik, as the first Muslim to enter Spain, takes pride of place in the long list of names - verbal historical markers - that testify to 800 years of Muslim civilization in al-Andalus.
Hard on Tarif's heels came that remarkable horseman Tariq ibn Ziyad, who stepped ashore in Algeciras Bay, a name derived from the Arabic al-Jazirah al-Khadra' - Green Island - which is probably how those desert warriors viewed fertile Spain. Tariq, at the head of his light cavalry, swept right up through the Iberian Peninsula to the Bay of Biscay. His name is perpetuated where his campaign began, at Gibraltar, Jabal Tariq, or Tariq's Mountain.
The spread of Arabic place names across the peninsula tells us a lot about the ebb and flow of Arab conquest and settlement in what is today Spain and Portugal, and provides a tantalizing insight into the minds of the soldiers, geographers, poets and simple folk who came, made Spain their home and - in creating a unique culture - gave the land so much in return. Like the blue ceramic disks that mark historic buildings in London, or the cast-aluminum plaques that identify battlefields in Texas, the names on the land in Spain remind us of those past events that made the present.
Arabic place names are most common around Valencia (called Balansiyah in Arabic) and in the vicinity of Malaga (Malaqah), Granada (Gharnatah) and Seville (Ishbiliyah), despite the many changes imposed by Ferdinand and Isabella after the reconquista. There's little trace of the Arab presence, however, in Galicia, Asturias and parts of Navarre, Aragon and Catalunya, which are mountainous, inhospitable and were more easily defended against invaders. Besides, we know historically how the Muslim advance was checked in Cantabria around 718 and in Aragon about the same time. This helps explain why only 30 percent of Spain's Arabic place names are found north of the Tagus River, while over 65 percent occur south of that line.
We can only guess at the identity of the geographers, chieftains, soldiers or settlers who named the various places and natural features they discovered as they moved across the land. But they faithfully recorded the imagery that their minds conjured up, and it's clear that the incidence of streams, rivers and high land struck them most. The syllable guad-, from wadi, meaning river or valley, is found frequently: Consider Guadalquivir (al-Wadi al-Kabir, great river), Guadalcázar (Wadi al-Qasr, river of the palace), Guadalhorra (Wadi al-Ghar, cave river), Guadarranque (Wadi al-Ramakah, mare river), Guadalquitton (Wadi al-Qitt, cat river), Guadalajara (Wadi al-Hijarah, stony river), Guadalbacar (Wadi al-Baqar, cattle river), Guarroman (Wadi al-Rumman, pomegranate river), Guadalaviar (al-Wadi al-Abyad, white river) and Guadalimar (al-Wadi al-Ahmar, red river). Some rivers have Arabic-sounding names whose derivations are nonetheless uncertain - for example, Guadalertin, believed by some scholars to derive from Wadi al-Tin, meaning mud or fig river, or Guadalbanar, which comes, just perhaps, from Wadi al Harb, river of war, or from Wadi al-Fanar, river of the lighthouse.
Other place names give us visual images as well: Alhambra (al-Hamra', the red [fortress]), Arrecife (al-Rasif,the paved road), Almazara (al-Ma'sarah, the oil press), Aldea (al-Dai'ah, the small village), Alquería (al-Qariyah, the village), Alcantara (al-Qantarah, the bridge) and Trafalgar, derived from the name of the cape, Taraf al-Ghar, meaning Cave Point.
The Arabic word madinah, or city, is found occasionally in Spanish place names - for example, Medinaceli (Madinat Salim, the city of Salim), Medina-Sidonia and Medina del Campo - while the descriptive qal'ah, meaning fortress or castle, is found in Aragón at Calatayud, or Ayyub's Castle, referring to one of the key leaders during the early years of al-Andalus, as well as in old Castile at Calahorra (from Qal'at al-Hajar, stone castle, or perhaps al-Qal'ah al-Hurrah, free castle) and in new Castile at Calatrava (Qal'at al-Rabah, Rabah's castle). All in all, the word qal'ah is found imbedded in at least another half-dozen place names.
We get a glimpse, too, of some of the first Muslim families settling in Spain from use of the prefix ben- or beni-, from the Arabic ibn, son of, or bani, sons of, in the names of towns and other settlements. Witness such localities as Benevites, Beniajar, Benanata, Benicalaf, Bentarique and Benadid.
Natural features and manmade structures also figure prominently among place names with Arabic origins: Alborg (al-Burj, the tower), Albufera (al-Buhayrah, the lake), Almeida (al-Ma'idah, the dining table), Alpujarras (probably from al-Bajra', the highland), Almería (al-Mirayah, the mirror), Alqezar (al-Qasr, the palace), Almansil (al-Manzil, the stopping place or house), Almenara (al-Manarah, the lighthouse or mosque tower, whence, via Turkish, comes our English word/Minaret) and Almadén (al-Maydan, the field).
Although various 19th- and early 20th-century writers - among them Gayangos, Weston, Taylor, Pihan, Perceval and de Sousa - have recorded these derivations, an exhaustive study of Arabic-origin names in Spain has yet to be done. The same is true of lands beyond Spain's borders: In France, not far from Pau - on what must have been an important route. across the... Pyrenees - there is a fountain still called La Houn, from Arabic al-'Ain, the well or spring. And it may be worthwhile searching for Arabic names in mainland Italy, where Arab columns probed during the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, in Sicily, and even in Switzerland, where legends of lost Arab warriors settling in remote valleys persist to this day. There, as well as across southern Spain, the names on the land record history.
Ian Meadows, veteran journalist and author, lives in Languedoc, France, where he is at work on a historical novel set during the crusades in Palestine and Occitania.