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Volume 27, Number 5September/October 1976

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Notes on Al-Andalus

Written by Tor Eigeland
Photographed by Don Eiler

I set out on my trip to photograph the traces of Spain's Moorish past by driving south, down the coast from my home near Barcelona.


In Valencia and its satellite towns of Manises and Paterna I saw some interesting ruins, though in my opinion they are among the ugliest towns in Spain. One attractive aspect of Manises, however, is its ceramics, especially azulejos—tiles. The Spaniards have never tired of the tiles that the moros brought. The owner of one shop told me that in the little town of Manises alone there are still some 200 ceramics shops or factories. Some, unfortunately, make cheap souvenirs for the tourists, but others still make lovely traditional ware.

There are kilns called moruno, meaning "of the Moors," in narrow, ancient back alleys which reminded me of the oldest parts of Cairo. When I asked the owner of a moruno kiln whether it was the original Moorish one, he said: "Kilns don't last forever. But this one has been rebuilt exactly as the Moors built them, in the same place, and even with some of the same old materials." He added, "The Spanish way of making ceramics is based on the Arab way."

The most attractive ceramics of Manises still come out of the moruno kilns as far as I could see. Some of it is Islamic-style luster-ware, which has a metallic sheen, in traditional designs carefully painted on by hand. In one shop several old ladies made friendly conservation with me as they painted, but they absolutely refused to let me photograph them. Since they were not at all shy, I asked them why. One answered with a smile: "We're not modern. It is an old custom here." So we left it amiably at that as I had done so many times in the Middle East.

I inquired about the patterns they were painting. Where did they come from? Did they have anything to draw from? One of the old ladies raised her hand and tapped her index finger a couple of times on her head. "It comes from here."

Nearby Paterna, as far as I could discover, had only one traditional kiln, but I also spotted an interesting old Arab tower. Driving around the town in circles looking for a way to get to it, I came upon some whitewashed buildings where a narrow staircase seemed to lead up toward the tower between two houses. The view from the top was like looking at the surface of the moon.

Surrounding me over three or four acres of land were whitewashed, round chimneys and equally white walls about a yard high, some circular, some square, all jutting out of the ground. And next to the chimneys and walls TV antennas were also planted in the earth. On closer inspection, by leaning over the tower walls, I could see some big holes. Then I understood. There were underground caves and the walls on the surface were to prevent dirt, dust and water from dropping into these air holes. Whitewashed slopes led down from ground level to an open patio, from which gaily painted doors led into the caves.

I never hesitate to approach strangers in Spain and I asked one woman who was passing about the caves. "Oh, the Arabs made them," she said, "and that was the old watchtower right over there." She pointed to where I had been standing a few minutes before. The woman knew people who lived in one of the caves and she took me to meet them. The cave was spacious, spotlessly whitewashed and clean; it had two bedrooms, a dining room, a living room and a small kitchen as well as a battery-operated television and a record player. It was attractive and also, I learned, rent free. The owners told me that their family had lived there for as long as they knew, "probably since the time of the moros."

The Valencia region, as other areas in Spain, has a highly developed irrigation system based on the Arab acequias, or irrigation canals. And just over 1000 years ago in Valencia the Muslims started a Tribunal de las Aguas—a tribunal that judged and imposed penalties for any abuse of water rights. One such abuse, for example, would occur if a man were to sneak water from a canal on a day when it was his neighbor's day to water his fields. The tribunal still meets every Thursday about noon on the steps of the cathedral of Valencia, although the day I went they met elsewhere since the cathedral is in the process of being restored. Even with my knowledge of Spanish it was impossible for me to understand completely what was going on. The proceedings were held in Valenciano, which is close to the Catalan language. And the place names and irrigation terms, most of Arabic origin, were unintelligible to me. This is a region where almost all the place names are of Arabic origin.

ALMASORA, ALMENAR, ALCORA, BENAFIGOS, ADZANETA, ALBUCÁZZAR: I am rattling off some of the road signs in Castellon Province as I head north from Valencia, taking a roundabout route to Toledo. Place names beginning with "guad," as in Guadalquivir, are also Arabic; Wadi al-Kabir, from wadi, a river valley, and al-kabir, the big one.

There are an estimated 6,500 words of Arabic origin in the Spanish language (See introduction). Olé!, the most Spanish of Spanish words is derived from Wallah! For God's sake!

In Spanish, most words beginning with "al" are from Arabic: alcalde (mayor), albanil (builder, constructor), alberca (water reservoir or swimming pool), alcatraz (gannet, a large sea bird), which passed into English as albatross and then, incidentally, passed back into Spanish as albatros.

Arabic was full of technical words for subjects unknown in Europe and for which there was no Latin or Spanish equivalent, words having to do with crafts such as carpentry, botanical words and just about the entire vocabulary dealing with irrigation. Unaltered or altered, these words passed into Spanish and other European languages. Saffron, sesame, coffee, alcohol, alkali, almanac, algebra, zenith and zero are a few examples.


Toledo is not an Arabic name, but the city is full of mementoes of the Moorish presence. Mudéjar architecture dominates the city, though it coexists with Gothic, Renaissance, baroque, and neo-classic styles. I saw a small mosque built in the year 1000 and the old Gate of Bisagra (Bib Sagra—Gate to the region of Sagra), and I photographed a group of Christian worshippers who still call themselves Mozarabs and who celebrate mass on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

Explained Don Jaime Colomina Tomer, secretary of the First International Congress of Mozarab Studies: "People even here in the home of the Mozarabs know very little about them. They consider them a little mysterious and exotic, and many think they are descendants of the Arabs when in fact almost the opposite is the case. The word Mozarab is Arabic, of course. It means literally adopting the customs of Arabs, becoming Arabized. So it refers to those who stayed in their places and lived with the Arabs, mixed with the Arabs and became like Arabs in many things including using their language. Except for one important thing. Mozarabs remained Christian and their liturgy and rites were never in Arabic. These people predate the Arab invasion, which suggests how very tolerant the Arabs generally were of Christianity." He added, "Of course there were pressures to convert, and even times of persecutions, but many Christians left their faith and became Muslims completely voluntarily."

"How many Mozarabs are there today?" I asked.

"Probably about 4,000 persons, of whom some 1,000 reside here in Toledo. The communities have some trouble in developing since Mozarabs only pass their faith on from father to son. Of daughters only the eldest has the option of founding a Mozarab home. Younger women, unless they stay single or marry a Mozarab, lose their status." I went to the charming little Mozarab church of Santa Eulalia. I found it simple, lovely, warm and with a certain Oriental feeling. It had Moorish keyhole arches, and to me, some of the feeling of a mosque.

South from Toledo

As I drove on I felt myself getting what I call "the Andalusia feeling." To me, it is always a good feeling. I saw more and more whitewashed houses with red tiles. The whole atmosphere is different in Andalusia, more exciting. The people are attractive, but darker complexioned; I noticed more Arabic names. The countryside is gently rolling plains and hills, with abrupt, sometimes snow-clad mountains as a backdrop. I saw grapevines, olive trees and a train of gypsies on muleback with their slim-waisted dogs that reminded me of the graceful salukis I'd seen in the Middle East. I saw the ruins of Arab watchtowers on almost every strategic hilltop, and always within sight of another one. Few are the villages or towns that do not have an Arab castle perched on the highest peak, usually, today, right next to the village church.


In Cordoba the Christians put a cathedral inside the mosque. The styles clash totally, yet I still find the interior of the building one of the few places in the world that overwhelms me so much I have had goose bumps on my arms when standing in the cathedral section listening to music or chant and looking beyond through the cool, silent forest of columns and arches of the Great Mosque. There is a magnificent mihrab, or prayer niche, with intricately ornamented arches and mosaics of gold-flecked glass. The antechamber has a high vaulted dome with a subtly colorful leaf-patterned mosaic.

Cool, shady and spacious, with orange trees and a fountain, the patio of the Great Mosque, now as in Moorish times, is a place for children to play, grown-ups to sit, talk, read, walk, contemplate or rest. Groups of tourists hustle through but no one pays much attention to them.

In the old quarter of Cordoba where the Great Mosque stands, an infinite number of things reminded me of the Moorish past. Narrow streets, glimpses of lovely patios, tiny little workshops and cafés, and the people of Cordoba themselves. To me they are gentle, fine, soft-spoken people. They still dress well and have excellent manners, characteristics which I suppose date right back to the days of the caliphate. Even the young people of Cordoba do not conform to the present rage throughout the rest of Spain and Europe of wearing jeans on absolutely all occasions.

But if I wanted to retain the romantic mood, I shouldn't have walked outside the Arab city walls. Just a few steps away I came across the usual nondescript apartment block, automobile-exhaust style of modern living with its plastic bars, discotheques and supermarkets.

Cordoba and other Andalusian downtown areas, clogged and increasingly smog-filled, did inherit one great gift from the Arabs, and the Spanish have shown their appreciation by taking good care of it. I refer to the big gardens of the Moorish alcazares, or royal palaces. Today, where it is most needed, there is another world of water, air, space, shade from magnificent tall trees and a profusion of plants and flowers. And no cars.

I found that pride in the Moorish heritage seemed to increase as I got closer to the source. A Cordoban craftsman told me: "Many people here appreciate their Arab heritage. And frankly, that is what sells Cordoba to the tourists. As for myself, I wouldn't be doing what I am doing if the Arabs hadn't been here. Cordovan leather was once famous all over the world. Embossed leather, I think you say in English. The whole process of making it is still basically as it was when the Moors made huge leather cordovans to cover entire walls. They used wooden molds and a press. Today we mostly make small things such as family crests for the Americans."


As in Cordoba, it is the Moorish past that sells Granada to its visitors. The director of the Alhambra told me that in 1975 for the first time the palace had more visitors than Madrid's famous Prado Museum, more than one million. The tourists in Granada are whisked around the Alhambra, one tour pushing another out of the way; then they are taken to the Corral del Carbón, an old Arab funduk, or inn, which has now been adapted for use by artisans. Then the tour groups forge on across the main street to two narrow lanes called the Zacatin and the Alcaiceria where some of the Muslim bazaars used to be. The quarter has been reconstructed in the old style and is still a bazaar where handicrafts are sold. The guided tour of Granada is climaxed with a trip to the Sacromonte, the old gypsy quarter where visitors can drink and shout "Olé" to their hearts' desire as they watch third-rate entertainers stamping their feet and clapping their hands. But to me, Granada is so special that even if I had to visit it as part of a guided tour and stick to the itinerary it would still be worth it.

Fortunately, I didn't have to. And given the luxury of a little more time to wander around quietly, Granada becomes something else. At dusk the downtown Bibarrambla Square (from Arabic—Gate of the Sand) is a good place to sit for awhile. The Moors fought bulls on horseback there, and held all sorts of contests. I didn't have to wait long before someone appeared with a guitar, that all-pervasive Spanish instrument that was introduced in Moorish times. Softly, tentatively at first, an onlooker began to clap a rhythm to the music. Then another person, I think a complete stranger, started to sing. For brief periods, when the mood was not crushed by the curse of modern Spain, muffler-less motorcycles ridden by ferocious youngsters, I felt transported into another, gentler, dreamier age.

True Andalusian music without motorcycle accompaniment is not easily available to a casual visitor on a guided tour. But in Granada I know a place called Peña la Platería. It is a private club for professionals and amateurs dedicated to flamenco music and dance, but one or two strangers will not be turned away. Nothing much happens at the Peña till after midnight, but then great events sometimes occur. Nobody danced the night I went, but some of the singers and guitar players seemed to catch on fire. Tarab was there. The deep, insistent monotony of the cante jondo, coupled with a strange guttural intonation and a quavering in the voice produce a strange, almost hypnotic effect. I felt a strong Middle Eastern influence in the music, though its exact origins lie in the obscure past.

Granada's Albaicín quarter, greatly changed as it may be, retains much of the old flavor. It is like a village within Granada, and a good place for a leisurely stroll. Narrow, cobblestoned streets and stairways that run up and down, twisting and turning, may lead to a dead end, to a magnificent view of the Alhambra across the gorge, to a Morisco or Mudéjar house or even to an old minaret. In this quarter people quietly continue the crafts of the old Nasrid kingdom. I saw craftsmen making marquetry (inlaid wood), brass and copperware, Nasrid-style lamps and wrought iron. Others were weaving the traditional Alpujarra cloth, and still others were making fajalauza and cuerda seca ceramics, styles which have been handed down from the moros.

In one ceramics workshop I watched an old, illiterate man hauling in clay for the day's work. When he signed his name to the bill it was a barely legible scrawl. His name was José but he signed it in the Arabic fashion, Yussef. Later, strolling into a sweets shop I asked the owner which sweets he thought might have had a Moorish origin. "That's an interesting question," he answered. "In the first place the Arabs brought sugarcane to Spain and thus sugar. Then they planted almond trees. So it follows that most of our traditional Andalusian sweets, certainly all that contain almonds, must have an Arab ancestor. We really inherited a great sweet tooth from the Moors. Have you noticed how sweet everything is here compared to northern countries?"

Heading Home

Everywhere on my drive through Spain, but mostly in Andalusia, I found traces of the Moor's beloved al-Andalus. And even though I had set out to find the traces I had some surprises.

In the Marismas, a marshy area south of Seville, I saw men wearing red-checked head cloths which resembled the ghutra, the Arab headdress. In a little village called Montejaque in the mountains near Ronda, an old woman immediately covered her face with a shawl up to her eyes when I glanced at her. A young boy told me, when I asked the reason why, "Oh, she is my grandmother. She is nearly 100 years old and she keeps the Arab custom." Near Murcia I came across a huge noria, waterwheel, churning away, irrigating some nearby fields. A caretaker who was cleaning the wheel told me he really didn't know how old it was, but everyone knew it was built by the moros.

I know that cultural stereotypes tend to oversimplify and I am treading on dangerous : ground, but I can't help mentioning how many similarities I have noticed in the character of the Arabs I've met in previous travels and many Spaniards I've come to know.

Every true Arab feels himself to be a king. He many be nobody of importance, but he has self-esteem and thus has the respect of others. He is proud and highly individualistic. The Arab responds to his emotions and doesn't care as much about tomorrow as so many Europeans or Americans do. He is polite and hospitable and has a streak of fatalism. Religion is of supreme importance to him. I think I have also just described a Spaniard.

Of course centuries of cultural interaction leave traces, some clear and visible, others vague and imponderable. The Moors came from differing cultural backgrounds and the influences on them in Spain were varied and complex. Moorish Spain was an integral part of the Islamic" world, even though it had a unique flavor. The bright torch of civilization and knowledge blazed in Muslim Spain while much of Europe slumbered. But the light shone beyond its frontiers and it became an important meeting ground for East and West, a transmitter of classical Greek learning as well as innovative Muslim thought.

As I headed back north toward Barcelona to begin writing the story to accompany my photographs I thought about what I'd seen. The history of al-Andalus may seem today to have happened a long time ago and to have lasted all too briefly. But I couldn't help reflecting—in the year Americans were proudly celebrating a mere Bicentennial—that the Muslim civilization in Spain had, after all, endured for nearly eight centuries.

This article appeared on pages 4-11 of the September/October 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1976 images.