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Spain's Arabic roots

la-giralda-de-nocheDid you know that almost all of Spain was part of an Islamic Empire for hundreds of years? Al-Andalus, as it was called, existed for just a hair less than eight centuries and certainly left its mark on the Spain we all know and love today. From the early 8th century, when the Moors wrested power from the Visigoths, to very end of the 15th century, when the Spanish kingdom finally succeeded in ousting the Moors from power in the final Islamic stronghold of Granada, the Iberian Peninsula was home to a territorial tug-of-war that saw both the Christian and Islamic kingdoms constantly expanding, dwindling and mingling.

However, in addition to centuries upon centuries of ugly clashes over territory, Spain also became home to an inevitable and enriching fusion of both Islamic and Christian traditions, languages, artwork, gastronomy, etc. This blending is most noticeable in the southern regions of Spain, namely Andalusia, where the Moors held on to control for longer periods of time. The hundreds of years of Islamic presence left a hefty cultural and linguistic imprint on all aspects of Spain, ranging from language to artwork, food and music.

Here we’re just going to touch briefly upon the Arabic influences in just two of Spain’s richest and most interesting assets: architecture and language.

ARCHITECTURE

alhambraThe artistic creativity, ideals of harmony and sophisticated attention to detail that characterized Spain’s Islamic civilization provided Spanish architecture – particularly in the south – with an elegant and exotic touch. Signature elements include graceful lobed and horseshoe-shaped arches, intricate carvings, elaborate tile work and the integration of nature, as light, water and plant life were integrated flawlessly into homes, palaces and mosques for both aesthetic and practical purposes. All of these features, as well as many others, can be seen in some of Spain’s most emblematic attractions, such as:

  • La GiraldaSevilla – Now serving as the bell tower of Sevilla’s Gothic cathedral, the towering Giralda was originally the minaret of the city’s mosque.
  • La MezquitaCórdoba – Córdoba’s humongous Great Mosque, parts of which date as far back as the 8th century. It represents Spain’s Islamic empire at the very peak of its splendor. Following the Reconquest, a full-blown cathedral was rather symbolically plopped right in the middle of it.
  • La Alhambra – Granada – Spectacular palace and fortress complex that served as the lavish and exotic residence of Granada’s Muslim rulers.

Even after the very last Islamic stronghold fell to the Christian Reconquest, Spain’s architecture continued – and continues – to be influenced by Islamic culture by way of a style called Mudejar, which can essentially be classified as an Islamic reinterpretation of western styles. Breathtaking Mudejar works can be found throughout the country, ranging from synagogues in Toledo to castles in Segovia, palaces in Zaragoza and churches in Sevilla. Furthermore, many cities’ most picturesque neighborhoods, like Granada’s Albaicín or Sevilla’s Santa Cruz, have survived since Islamic times and are attractions in themselves, as are entire towns like Ronda or Arcos de la Frontera. Here, narrow streets are flanked by white-washed buildings and shady interior courtyards, all of which maximizes shade and minimizes direct sunshine for a nifty set-up designed to beat the heat of the steamy Spanish summer. In fact, you can even feel the temperature drop as you enter these labyrinth neighborhoods!

LANGUAGE

Modern-day Spanish is packed with words and even names of Arabic origin; in fact, after Latin, Arabic is one of the biggest contributors of words to the Spanish language. Over the hundreds of years spent by Moors and Christians sharing – albeit begrudgingly – the Iberian Peninsula, Old Castilian Spanish mingled with Arabic and Mozarabic dialects and eventually absorbed a great deal of vocabulary that it came into contact with. One interesting case is that of Spanish words beginning with “al-”, which is the Arabic word for “the”. Algodón (the cotton), almohada (the pillow), albahaca (the basil) and alcohol, for example, all derive from Arabic. This linguistic mingling also explains why there are often two words, one derived from Latin and another from Arabic, that share the same meaning. Migraine, for example, has two translations in Spanish: the Arabic-derived jaqueca and the Latin-derived migraña.
Many Spaniards aren’t even aware of just how many of the words and names they say each day come straight from the country’s decidedly lengthy Islamic past. Below you can peruse just a handful of the thousands of Arabic-derived words used in modern-day Spanish:

Spanish Word & Meaning Arabic Word & Meaning
Ojalá

Let’s hope! I wish!

law šha allāh

God willing

Rincón

corner, nook

rukan

corner, nook

Sandía

watermelon

sindiya

from Sinde (a province in India)

Loco

crazy

lawqa

fool

Azafrán

saffron

za’firan

saffron

Albornoz

bathrobe

al-burnos

robe

Jaqueca

migraine

shaqiqa

migraine

Almudena

a woman’s name

Al-mudayna

the fortress

Albacete

a town in southwestern Spain

Al-basit

the plain

Tarifa

a city in the Cádiz province

Jazeera Tarif

the island of Tarif (Berber conqueror)

Madrid

capital of Spain

Al-MagriT

source of water

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