“I was taught nothing about Muslim Portugal in school. It was simply never mentioned.”
Irina Lopes is a Lisbonian, from the city once known as Al-Ishbun, but Irina doesn’t know this.
“Until I spoke to you I didn’t know Portugal had this amazing Islamic history. I knew nothing about it and none of my friends have ever said anything of our Islamic history.”
Irina was educated in Lisbon during the 1990s, yet her education ignored 500-years of Portuguese history – that was the length of the Muslim presence.
If it had been covered, it wouldn’t have been positive. During the 90s many Portuguese history books were still talking about the ‘evil invaders’ known as the Moors – reinforcing medieval Islamaphobia.
Remembering al Gharb al Andalus
Things are changing, albeit slowly. In 1985, the Central Lisbon Mosque opened, and Portuguese children are no longer taught the evils of the Moors. In 2002 the city of Silves – the former Muslim capital of the south – unveiled the country’s first centre of Portuguese-Arabic studies.
The most positive sign though came just two years ago in the city of Tavira near the popular holiday region of the Algarve, which takes its name from al-Gharb al-Andalus the ancient Muslim name for Portugal. When the new Islamic centre was unveiled at the Municipality Museum in Tavira, the local authority’s opening speech said they hoped the centre would bring “residents closer to their heritage”.
The Algarve isn’t the only place to inherit a Muslim name, hundreds of place names in Portugal start with Al, the arabic for ‘the’. In Irina’s native Lisbon, the Alfama district is one such example. In fact all across the Mediterranean this is the case, from Alghero in Sardinia to Algeciras in Southern Spain.
This linguistic legacy continues into the Portuguese language, which has nearly a thousand words borrowed from Arabic, such as azeitona (olives) and garrafa (bottle).
Then there is the music. That mournful traditional folk sound, known as Fado, so common in the neighbourhoods of Lisbon, is said to have Arab ancestry.
All of this might be news to Lisbonians like Irina, but it is hardly a surprise. Muslim came to Portugal in 714 and ruled al-Gharb al-Andalus for more than five centuries. During that time, they completely revolutionised the country, introducing innovative agricultural techniques, changing local eating habits, and the lie of the land forever. They built major centres of learning in cities like al-Ishbun, which were frequented by great medieval luminaries such as Ibn Arabi, and produced intellectuals, poets and mystics like Ibn Qasi and Ibn Ammar.
On the Moorish trail
The physical reminders of the Muslim era are few and far between in Irina’s native Lisbon. Like her history lessons, Lisbon offers very little obvious physical Muslim heritage. Waves of Christian rulers, determined to eradicate the country’s Islamic identity, put paid to that. Only a tiny section of the wall of the original Moorish castle that overlooked Lisbon now remains. In its place is St George’s castle. Even the city’s museums lacks any real depth of quality when it comes to Islamic artefacts, barring the odd one-off specialist exhibition.
The best preserved sites are in the surrounding countryside near the quaint little town of Sintra. This is where Lisbon’s Muslim aristocracy spent their summers cooling off; in the green tranquillity of what is today, the World Heritage Parque de Sintra.
The town’s strategic distance and positioning from the capital, also made it an ideal military outpost protecting al-Ishbun against sea invaders from the west.
Perched high up on one of the more craggier hills, like an eagle’s nest sits the Moorish fort, a reminder of this role. Sintra’s ‘castelo’ was built in the 10th century as a residential castle. Today only the outer wall survives, some of which was rebuilt during the later Romantic period, yet it remains probably the most atmospheric Moorish fort in Europe.
The walk along the narrow ramparts goes from from the Royal Tower to the Castle Keep, offering breathtaking panoramic vistas across the surrounding countryside – making it obvious why the Muslims pitched up here. Potential enemies would have been spotted miles away.
One of the last to seen marching towards the fort by the Muslims was the man they called ‘Ibn Arrik’ – the son of Henriques. Alfonso Henriques, laid siege to the castle around 1147 on his way to conquering the city of Lisbon and bringing to an end the 500 year Moorish presence. Henriques would go on to become the first king of Portugal and remembered fondly thereafter as ‘El Bortukali’.
The spirit of the Moors
The castle is not the only Moorish presence in Sintra. According to a 700 year old legend, on bright moonlit nights, the dark woods are frequented by an extremely beautiful Moorish maiden dressed in white. She is said to emerge from an opening next to a rock carrying a water-pot, which she goes and fills at a nearby spring. In her wake, says the legend, the wind can be heard mourning a time that will never again return.
It seems this pining for all things Moorish wasn’t just the preserve of the wind alone, whose howling was at its loudest during Portugal’s Romantic period, for it was during this time that the Pena Palace was built.
A former monastery, the palace was purchased by eccentric King Don (Dom) Fernando II in 1838, and is said to be the finest example of Moorish-influenced Manueline design in all of Portugal. As well as revealing the 19th century bourgeois’ love affair with all things oriental, the mish-mash style of the Pena Palace also reveals just how mental old King Fernando actually was!
Entry to the complex is via a stunning Moorish gate that wouldn’t look out of place in the Fez medina, and inside elegant arabesque arcades lead into buildings tiled with mesmerising geometric patterns last seen on the palaces of southern Spain. Every room is filled with Moorish sculptures and paintings and behind the Queen’s Terrace there is an open courtyard just like riyads of Morocco.
Ferdinand didn’t just use the Muslim Moorish styles on his palace. He sought inspiration further east. Perched on the end of the Guardhouse sits a solitary Mughal turret complete with yellow onion dome, completely out of synch with the rest of the Moorish design.
The oriental styles are then brought awkwardly alongside Maritime, Manueline and Gothic features. This means that just as your eyes are adjusting to the hypnotic patterns on an archway that belongs in Baghdad, you could conceivably turn around to face a ghastly gargoyle that belongs on a Prague cathedral. Or, as you admire a floor to roof Moorish-tiled façade, capped with exquisite yellow domes, you are quite likely to jump back in horror at the realisation that a gruesome half-man-half-fish is thrusting it’s pelvis at you from atop an arch. The Pena Palace really is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed, and when you do, what fun you will have.
Portugal’s new Moors
What Lisbon lacks in historical Muslim culture, it more than makes up for with the modern Portuguese Muslim community. No building is more important in this respect than the Central Lisbon Mosque, whose Imam is Munir.
“The mosque was associated in 1910, but the current building was built in 1985,” he tells me in perfect English, whilst tucking into a lamb biryani, in the Mosque’s cafe-cum-restaurant. A place that serves the finest South Asian food in Lisbon.
Imam Munir’s son is sat opposite enjoying – like any good Muslim boy – a plate of fried chicken.
The Imam is dressed in a long white arab thobe, a nod to his Yemeni roots, though he grew up in Mozambique he tells me. His training though was completed in Pakistan.
The design of his mosque is similarly influenced by a myriad of cultures.
“The design has been influenced by North and Central African styles, as well as Andalusian styles; this is meant to reflect the community and of course our home region (Andalusia). Many of the worshippers here are originally from Africa, but nowadays more and more are coming from the subcontinent, like Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshis,”
The mosque’s architecture includes an intriguing minaret.
A modern take on the spiralling 9th century Samarra minaret in Iraq. Inside, The main prayer hall has a large archetypal dome with beautiful Arabic calligraphy all around it, whilst the mihrab’s greens, browns and different shades of blue take the eyes to Isfahan in Central Asia.
The mosque, like the Pena Palace, is centred around an open courtyard, inspired by north African riyads. Around this, elderly men are sat on little wooden benches talking quietly. It is a warm space where you want to stay and spend a little time, and it is also a classically Moorish space, just like so much of Portugal.