Portugal’s Islamic Roots – The Algarve’s traditional architecture also bears witness to its Islamic heritage.

Long ago, Portugal was part of Al-Andalus, the land known in the West as Moorish Iberia.  It wasn’t until the mid-thirteenth century that five centuries of Islamic rule in Portugal ended. During that time, the Islamic culture and the Arab language contributed much to the Portuguese language, architecture, agriculture and cuisine.

Many of the aromas and flavours of the Portuguese kitchen are inherited from the Moors. Their sweet tooth was passed on too, as Portugal’s candied fruits and its many pastries
made from almonds, egg yolks, honey and rose water demonstrate.

Thanks to the invaders, Iberian fields of almonds, apricots, carobs, figs, lemons, olives, oranges, pomegranates, rice, palms, sugar, spices and numerous vegetables flourished. Sometimes built on Roman foundations, existing irrigation systems were made more efficient by the introduction from Arab lands of the windmill, the watermill (Portuguese azenha, from the Arabic al-saniyah) and the water wheel (Portuguese nora, from the Arabic na’urah).

The traditional architecture of the Algarve is also testimony to its Islamic past. In Loulé, parts of the city’s 12th-century ramparts remain. Likewise, the older sections of Olhão and Tavira with their narrow streets, kasbah style town architecture and “Moorish” chimneys also appear more North African than European.

Crowning all these towns for Islamic influence is Silves, known as Shilb when it was the Moorish capital of the Algarve. Today, only the castle, the Alcazaba (from Arab al-qasabah, the fortress), the nearby cathedral (which retains vestiges of the mosque it was built on) and a gate in the Moorish city walls remain.

A Moorish decorative tradition that has endured to become part of modern Portuguese identity is the love of vivacious ornamental tiles, called azulejos. (The word comes from Arabic al-zulayi, meaning polished stone.) On the walls of humble homes, churches, grand houses, train stations and countless other structures, these colourful, often geometrically-patterned tiles make every building they adorn seem more beautiful.

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