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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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How a town on Spain’s Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Traditional wisdom tells us that many Nazis escaped to South America, but hundreds more also made Spain home following WWII with the help of fascist dictator Franco. The Valencian town of Dénia in particular hides a very dark past.

How a town on Spain's Costa Blanca became a Nazi retreat

Dénia, a small upmarket Costa Blanca port town on Spain’s easterly Mediterranean coast, is most famous for its golden beaches and lively street life.

If you’ve visited, you might’ve taken a stroll through the quaint town up to its castle, overlooking the picturesque marina, or seen the Roman ruins in its museum.

What you might not have realised is that that following the Second World War, Dénia became not only a place of transit for Nazis fleeing Europe (known as a ‘ratline’) but a place of safe haven for many who were allowed to make a home and enjoy their retirement there.

In reality, Dénia’s crystal clear waters have a much murkier past that reveals the ease with with Nazis settled on Spain’s costas, and the uncomfortable relationship between Franco’s Spain and the Third Reich.

READ MORE: Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

From the 1930s to the mid-1990s there is evidence of the presence of prominent Nazis in the town of Denia (Alicante province). Photo: Capturando el Tiempo en Segundos/Unsplash

Costa Blanca, Nazi retirement home?

The Costa Blanca is one of the most sought after and visited tourist spots in the world. So much so, it seems, that even former Nazis agreed.

Dénia was, for example, the chosen destination of Gerhard Bremer, a high ranking Sturmbannführer in the Waffen SS who was awarded, among a whole host of medals and awards, the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross – an accolade only awarded for serious commitment to Nazi Germany.

After being convicted at the Nuremberg trials, Bremer lived happily in Dénia until his death in 1989, becoming a local businessmen and building bungalows and hotels during the birth of tourism on the Costa Blanca.

Bremer and his family were reportedly integrated in the community, with his children attending local schools. 

In fact, some Nazis were so comfortable in Spain that many, although remaining discreet of course, never felt the need to renounce their Nazi ideology.

According to Spanish historian José Muñoz, every April 20th a group of Germans met at the Finita restaurant in Dénia to celebrate Hitler’s birth.

“They did it in a discreet way, a small group of people during the week, not with a party open to the whole town,” he told Spanish website Newtrawl, “they were not idiots”.

READ MORE: Spain seeks return of Nazi gifts ‘proving’ Aryan origins

Another of the first to arrive on the Costa Blanca was Johannes Bernhardt, an honourary general of the SS and businessman who had supplied weapons to Franco, who then rewarded him with Spanish nationality in order to prevent his deportation.

According to historian Stanley G. Payne, “Bernhardt lived discreetly between Madrid and Dénia, without integrating with the locals. In 1953, he left for Argentina.

A third prominent Nazi in Dénia was Anton Galler, alleged by the Italian government to be the commander of the Nazi army responsible for a massacre at Sant’Anna. He lived in Dénia for the rest of his life and was buried there in 1995.

It is also believed that the notorious Otto Skorzeny, the man who organised the mission to rescue Benito Mussolini from captivity in September 1943 and who was nicknamed ‘the most dangerous man in Spain’, also lived on the Costa Blanca. 

Hitler shakes hands with Spanish fascist dictaror Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border October 23rd1940. (Photo by AFP)

Nazis in other parts of Spain

These notable examples of known high-ranking Nazis in Dénia are just handful of hundreds of suspected Nazis that made their homes in Spain following the war.

And it was no secret; in 1947 the United States wrote to Franco with a list of 104 people suspected of being Nazis, or at least connected to the Nazi party, who were on Spanish territory.

Their initial list was as many as 1,600 names, although ultimately the Americans focused on the 104 most notorious names on the list for extradition. 

But perhaps former high-ranking Nazis making their home in Spain didn’t come as that much of a surprise to the British intelligence services.

During the war many in the British establishment worried about Spanish sympathies towards Nazi Germany, so much so that MI6 bribed top Spanish officials with bribes equivalent to €179 million in order to maintain the country’s neutrality.

Infamous Belgian Nazi Léon Degrelle made a home in Málaga, on the Costa del Sol, and in this case went to no great lengths to hide his identity. After relocating to Málaga with the help of the Spanish government and keeping a low profile for a few years, Degrelle became an increasingly public figure in the 1960s.

He socialised with other Nazis hiding out in Spain, including Austrian SS coronel Otto Skorzeny, and even wore his SS uniform to his daughter’s wedding in1969. 

After diplomatic tensions between Spain and Belgium throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, Degrelle took Spanish citizenship and lived very comfortably in Málaga having done well financially because his construction company built American airbases in Spain, incredibly, under his real name.

Degrelle felt so comfortable in Spain, in fact, that he attended a centenary celebration of Hitler’s birthday in Madrid in 1989.

As for Skorzeny, who wasn’t so happy to also be nicknamed Scarface, in an interview with the Daily Express in 1952 he said: “I finally feel free in Spain, I can remove my mask and don’t have any reasons to live in secret”.

There are hundreds more Nazis and Nazi sympathisers who found a safe haven in Francoist Spain, from the Basque Country to Barcelona or Mallorca, living the rest of their lives in peace under the Spanish sun despite the crimes they committed. 

If you wish to delve further into the history of the Nazis in Spain, there are several books offering far more detail on the matter, as well as the 2021 Spanish-Belgian film The Replacement (trailer below) or the new Spanish series Jaguar.