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‘What did the Moors ever do for us?’ How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

Fans of Monty Python's Life of Brian will be familiar with John Cleese's laughable dismissal of Roman influence over Judea. But how about the progress Moorish conquest and rule brought to modern-day Spain? It's not to be taken lightly.

'What did the Moors ever do for us?' How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule
Granada's Alhambra is the most famous example of Spain's Moorish legacy, but Spain's Muslim rulers did plenty more to modernise and enlighten the Iberian Peninsula. Photo: Hari Nandakumar/Unsplash

The Moors ruled much of Spain for almost 400 years from 711 to 1086, before they were driven south and continued their rule of southern Spain and the Kingdom of Granada for a further 400 more until 1492.

The series of century-long battles when the Christians tried to expel the Moors were known as the Reconquista (Reconquest), a term first coined in the 19th century.

However, many historians question the use of this word as Spain wasn’t formed as the nation prior to the Moorish conquest, and Muslim culture and knowledge contributed to what Spain is today.

Most of Spain wasn’t unified in fact until the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragón and Isabella I of Castile, after the fall of the Kingdom of Granada in 1469.

It may have been long ago, but the Moors most certainly left their stamp on Spain, evident today from vestiges of their culture we can see in everything from the Spanish language and food, to its architecture and music.

Spanish painter Manuel Gómez-Moreno González’s 19th-century depiction of Muhammad XII’s family in the Alhambra moments after the fall of Granada. Painting: Public Domain

Staunch Spanish nationalists, most notably far-right party Vox, would like to have everyone follow the narrative that Asturian hero Pelagius (Don Pelayo) and other medieval warriors took back Catholic Spain and restored it to exactly what it once was, shrugging off any benefit Muslim rule brought.

That, of course, does not tell the full story. So, what did the Moors ever do for Spain?

They developed Spain’s irrigation systems

The Moors built (and improved on those built by the Romans) thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels or acequias across Spain. These were not only used for agricultural purposes but also brought water to the cities and neighbourhoods, filling public fountains, providing drinking water, water for cleaning and water for washing before prayers at the mosques. Water was also an important symbol of purity in the Islamic rules and integral to their religion too. 

They were great pioneers in medicine, pharmacology and science

The Moors founded modern hospitals, where they combined schools and libraries, as well as gardens for the cultivation of medicinal plants, and separate departments for ophthalmology, internal medicine and orthopaedics. Many modern health centres are still based on these models. The Muslim surgeons of the 11th century even knew how to treat cataracts and stop internal bleeding. They kept lists of plants to be used for medicines and pharmacology. One of the Moors responsible for one of the most important lists was Ibn al-Baytar, born in Málaga in 1197.

As for science, the Moors influenced all facets of the subject, from physics and chemistry to astrology. They were the first to provide more scientific information on substances such as alcohol, sulphuric acid, ammonia and mercury, and were also one of the first people to create the distillation process. They were pioneers in the use of dams for the production of hydraulic energy and in the development of water clocks, which recorded time. With regards to astrology, they built the world’s most important observatories in Córdoba and Toledo (as well as in the Middle East) and studied phenomena such as solar eclipses and comets. 

They influenced the traditional music

The Moors greatly influenced Spanish music, particularly the soulful flamenco tunes. It’s said that the Spanish guitar can trace its roots back to the Arabic oud – a four-stringed instrument brought over by the Moors. Later, this was replaced by the guitarra morisca, the ancestor of modern Spanish guitars. The guttural sad tones of flamenco songs were also greatly influenced by the Moors and even today you can hear a strong resemblance to Arabic music.

The Spanish guitar has its origins in the Arabic oud or lute. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

They created a sewage system and public baths

Like the Romans before them, the Moors built many public baths. Hammams were very important to them both for ritualistic cleaning and social gatherings. At the height of the Moorish Empire in the 10th century, Córdoba was its capital and historians estimate that the city had around 300 public baths. Today you can see evidence of these bathhouses, all the way from Girona in the north, down to Málaga in the south. Several Moorish hammams have even been restored or faithfully recreated in cities such as Granada, Sevilla, Córdoba and even Barcelona.

In addition to baths, they also introduced some of the first sewer systems in Spain, where the dirty or used water was carried away through channels. 

They set up Spain’s first universities 

Islamic universities or madrasas were first created in the 11th century and were the forerunners to modern-day European universities. The first madrasa was built in 1349 in Málaga, which was followed by those built in Granada and Zaragoza, the latter dedicated almost exclusively to the teaching of medicine. In fact, classes here were still taught in Arabic up until the 16th century. The capital Córdoba, once had three universities, 80 colleges and a library with almost 700,000 manuscript volumes.

They shaped the language

Although Arabic and Spanish may seem like very different languages, there are quite a few words that the Moors in fact gave us. A clue is that many of these words begin with the letters ‘Al’, as in almohada (pillow), albaricoque (apricot) and algodón (cotton). According to linguists, it is estimated that around 4,000 Spanish words have some kind of Arabic influence, which equals to around 8 percent of the Spanish dictionary. Approximately 1,000 of those words have direct Arabic roots.

Many commonly used words in the Spanish language can be traced back to Arabic. Image: Cervantes Institute
They discovered important mathematical formulas
Many of the basic principles of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra today are due to the discoveries of Islamic scholars. We even still use the numbers and counting methods they created. They also brought the concept of the number zero to Spain in the 13th century, which was invented earlier in India. Trigonometry was another branch of mathematics that they greatly influenced. 

They designed incredible buildings

Today, some of the most-visited buildings in Spain are ones that were built by the Moors. The Moors built incredible structures, from regal mosques and ornate palaces to spectacular gardens. The most famous of these is of course Granada’s Alhambra Palace and Generalife Gardens. Built mostly during the 13th century, the Alhambra is one of the best surviving examples of Moorish architecture in the world. Other amazing Moorish buildings you can still visit today include Seville’s stunning Real Alcázar, Zaragoza’s Aljaferia castle-like palace, Córdoba’s grand La Mezquita mosque-turned cathedral and Málaga’s palatial fortress The Alcazaba.

Córdoba astounding Mosque-Cathedral is over 1,000 years old. Alexandra Tran/Unsplash

They introduced popular games

Believe it or not, it was the Muslim rulers who introduced some of the world’s most famous games to Spain. According to historians, in 822, the Moors brought chess with them, which was originally invented in India. Thanks to Muslim influence, expressions such as checkmate have remained, which is derived from the Persian word al-jakh-mat or “the king is dead.” Another popular game, noughts and crosses or tres en raya as they say in Spanish, also comes from the Arabs, who called it the alquerque.


They added flavour to Spanish cuisine

Spanish cuisine may not seem similar to that of Northwest Africa, but there are in fact many ways in which the Moors influenced the food in Spain and even some dishes which remain popular today. The main one is paella, as it was the Moors who first introduced and planted rice in Spain, as well as one of its main spices – yellow-hued saffron. Another dish that is in fact both eaten widely across Andalusia as well as in Morocco today is espinacas con garbanzos or spinach with chickpeas.

More than 250,000 flowers are needed to produce one kilo of saffron. For over a thousand years, inhabitants of La Mancha in central Spain have cultivated the flowers to extract the expensive spice. (Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP)

The Moors also introduced aubergine as seen in the much-loved Granada tapas dish – berejenas con miel (battered aubergine drizzled with honey or cane sugar syrup). They even introduced orange and lemon trees, such an important symbol of Spain today and used to flavour many dishes. And if it wasn’t for the Moors, the Spanish wouldn’t fry everything in olive oil.

So to slightly misquote John Cleese in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, apart from the Spanish guitar, paella’s ingredients, irrigation channels, universities, public baths, a sewage system science, mathematics, thousands of words, medicine, architecture and cuisine…what did the Moors ever do for us?

Written by Esme Fox and Alex Dunham

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The Scottish roots of Spain’s oldest football club

Football is as synonymous with Spanish culture as paella and bullfighting, but Spain’s oldest club has its roots in British-run mines in southern Spain. We dig into the history of Recreativo de Huelva, Spain's oldest football club.

The Scottish roots of Spain's oldest football club

Real Madrid. Barça. El clásico. La Copa Del Rey. The dominance of Spain’s national team in recent years. Football is woven deep into the sociocultural fabric of Spanish society, taking on an almost religious level of fanaticism that dictates people’s lives, schedules, moods and relationships.

Spanish clubs are some of Europe’s biggest, its players some of the world’s best, but Spanish football history has a curious tale of Scottish influence. 

Recreativo de Huelva is a fourth division club based in the Andalusian town of Huelva in south-western Spain.

Although the small club has had some stints in Spain’s top league, the majority of its history has been spent in the lower leagues living a largely nondescript and unsuccessful footballing existence.

But it is the club’s history, and how it came to be, that is the most interesting thing about it.

Recreativo de Huelva is Spain’s oldest football club, founded 132 years ago by two Scots on 23rd December 1889 as Huelva Recreation Club. 

Recreativo de Huelva in 1906. Photo: Public Domain

Scottish doctors Alexander Mackay and Robert Russell Ross, were working at the mine near the Río Tinto (Tinto river) that stretches across southern Spain, and founded the club as a way of keeping themselves and their colleagues fit as they lay train lines on the outskirts of the city.

Technically speaking, the Rio Tinto Foot-Ball Club was the first football club to be established in Spain in 1878 (also in Huelva province), but the team ceased to exist after a few years, meaning Recreativo is the oldest still existing club in Spain.

Charles Adam, the club’s first president, was also a Scot, and director of the Huelva Gas Company.

Recre’s first organised match came a few days later, reportedly against a group of British sailors docked at the town’s port, and then the first official match against Andalusian rivals Sevilla FC (formed in January 1890 by another Scot, Edward F. Johnston) in March of that same year.

Ríotinto Company Limited was founded in 1873 when of a group of British investors purchased a mine complex on the Tinto river in Huelva from the Spanish government. Photo: Public Domain

Among the names in the starting XI that day were Alcock, Smith, Yates, Wakelin, Kirk, Daniels, Curtis, and Gibbon.

Recreativo continued playing invitational games over the next few years, facing groups of Britons working or docked in Spain, but also new Spanish clubs being formed as football mania swept over the country.

Eventually local tournaments were formed in the Andalusian area, and Recre won several cups before the turn of the century.

Unfortunately for Recreativo fans, aside from short stints in the first and second divisions over the years, the last in primera coming in the 2008/9 season, those early triumphs were the highlight.

Built in 1892 , Recreativo’s Velódromo was the club’s first official stadium until it was replaced in the 1950s by the Colombino Stadium, then upgraded to the Nuevo Colombino. Photo: Public Domain

By no means world beaters, Recreativo de Huelva are no Barcelona or Madrid but they are older than both, started a Spanish love affair with football that remains to this day, and will always have a footprint in the history of Spanish football.

But Recreativo isn’t the only British connection to Spanish football.

Scots and Englishmen founded several smaller clubs around the Madrid area before the birth of Real, and the Witty family helped to found Barcelona.

FC Barcelona’s first football squad pose for a team photo in 1903, including Arthur Witty, seen here holding the football. Photo: Public Domain

Many Scots who introduced football to the Catalonia region founded small clubs, and some even went onto to play for Barcelona.

Scot George Pattullo was one of Barça’s first greats, scoring an incredible 43 goals in 23 games between 1910 and 1912 and even coming out of retirement to play against local rivals Espanyol in the 1912 cup semi-final.

In the 1890’s British shipyard workers working in the Basque Country founded Bilbao Football Club.

The Athletic Club (Athletic de Bilbao) team of 1903, winners of Spain’s first Copa del Rey , also winning the Copa de la Coronación that year. Photo: Public Domain

Basque students who had been studying in England founded Athletic Club on their return home- naming it not ‘Atlético’ but Athletic in homage to the English game, and many early Spanish clubs were named in the English tradition and remained so until the rule of Franco.

Athletic Club de Bilbao even reportedly got their kit from Blackburn Rovers and then Southampton.

One curious linguistic quirk is that the word ‘fútbol’ even exists as a Spanish anglicism of the word football, and that very few clubs go by the more traditional ‘balompié’ like Real Betis de Balompié do.

Another example of the influence the creators of the beautiful game had over late 19th century Spaniards is seen in the iconic kits of Real Madrid, who in their early days adopted the all-white look to pay homage to the London-team Corinthian, an amateur team credited with having popularised football around the world and having promoted sportsmanship and fair play.

Whatever football team you support in Spain, whether it’s Sevilla, Celta de Vigo or of course Barça or Real, there’s a high chance the club’s origins have a British connection.