Portuguese history

The Moors in Portugal: A Brief History

Alhambra Castle in Spain, image by DenisDoukhan from Pixabay

Who were the Moors in Portugal and how did they get there? How long did they rule Portugal? Who expelled them? These, and other, questions will be answered in this post.

During the Dark Ages and early Medieval period, Europeans considered Portugal “to be the end of the world, as it was the westernmost point of the known world at the time.” (study.com) Prior to Moorish rule, the Iberian Peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal) was ruled by the Visigoths.

The Moors, under Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Muslim ruler of Tangier, invaded Portugal and Spain in the year 711 CE. Troops “mostly formed by Moors from northern Africa led the Umayyad conquest” of the Iberian Peninsula. (Wikipedia) The peninsula then came to be known in Classical Arabic as “al-Andalus” (“land of the vandals”).

What Did the Moors Bring to Portugal and Spain?

The Moors brought many new techniques and crops with them and propelled Europe into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. They left a lasting legacy on language, agriculture, architecture, art, and culture.

In the sciences, the Moors brought many advances in Astronomy, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Geography, and Philosophy. They also introduced the astrolabe to Europe. This was a device to measure the position of the stars and planets.

For crops, the Moors introduced orange, lemon, peach, apricot, fig, sugar cane, dates, ginger, pomegranate, saffron, cotton, silk, and rice.

Before the Moors arrived in Portugal and Spain, streets were simply dirt ruts filled with rocks and bumps. However, the Moors introduced well-paved streets and raised sidewalks for pedestrians.

They also introduced paper. Prior to the Moors, people wrote scrolls and such on clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, and vellum. Papyrus was mostly used in the Mediterranean locations as it was made from a plant native to the area. Vellum was made from calfskin stretched over a frame and processed to prepare it for writing. Making vellum was a time-consuming process so it was used only for scrolls, codices, and books.

Irrigation techniques improved as did the method of digging wells and pumping water.

Arabic numbers replaced Roman numerals after the Moors invaded. They also introduced the earliest versions of the Lute, Lyre, and Guitar. The Moors brought the idea of public libraries with them. And they brought the compass from China to the region. This would become a very important import in the 15th and 16th centuries during the Age of Discovery.

The Moors in Portugal

The Moors were in Portugal from the years 711-1294. Their main power base was in Spain and from there, they controlled most of what is now Portugal.

Although their main power base was in Spain, the Moors did have a presence in Portugal. They ruled Lisbon (which they called “Lashbuna”) as well as the southern, central, and most of the northern regions. Besides Lisbon, other cities of great Moorish influence were Beja, Coimbra, Santarém, and Silves.

After the Moorish invasion of Portugal, the Moors gave the cities and towns an option – surrender and keep their faith, property, and local autonomy while paying a tax for being unbelievers of the Muslim faith, or risk all adult males to be executed and the women and children enslaved if they resisted.

By the early 11th century, the Moors and the native people had learned to live and prosper together. They interbred and built communities. Most of the native population that lived in the countryside converted to Islam. Arabic became the main language. Today, over 1,000 words in the Portuguese language have Islamic origins.

Although “less than 1% of Portugal’s population is now Muslim … the influence of the religion and Islamic culture on the country remain[s] strong.” (Portugal Visitor) Scientists believe that “a third of the present population of Portugal have either Muslim or Jewish ancestry.” (Portugal Visitor)

Who Expelled the Moors from Portugal?

The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (Afonso I), began expelling the Moors in the year 1139, the year he assumed the title of king. But who was Afonso I?

The emperor of León ceded Portugal to Afonso’s father, Henry of Burgundy. Henry defended Portugal successfully against the Moors (1095-1112). Henry then married the illegitimate daughter of the emperor, Teresa. She governed Portugal after Henry’s death in 1112 until her son Afonso came of age. She did not want to give up her power though. Afonso defeated her forces at the Battle of São Mamede in 1128.

In 1139, Afonso won the Battle of Ourique and assumed the title of king. He began collecting tribute from his Muslim neighbors.

Afonso captured Santarém in 1147. He also laid siege to Lisbon with the help of some passing Crusaders. After capturing Lisbon, Afonso I annexed Beja in 1162 and Evora in 1165. By the time he died in 1185 in Coimbra, Afonso I had built a stable and independent monarchy, free of the Moors but not their influence. (britannica.com)


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One Comment

  • Daniel C

    I wonder how quickly they set up the tax offices, like, “everyone form a line with your taxes.”

    That was enlightening. To think I will be the next to invade Portugal! Yay! (but no murdering and pillaging)

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