Who Were the Moors?

Who Were the Moors?

The term “Moors” has been applied to many different groups throughout history. However, it generally refers to the mostly Muslim inhabitants who lived in North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, and Malta during the Middle Ages.

It’s important to note that the Moors are not a self-defined people, and the term is actually pretty useless from an ethnological perspective. Europeans in the Middles Ages used the word to describe Arabs, North Africans, and Muslims living in Europe–sometimes in a derogatory sense. 

Who Were the Moors?

The word “Moor” derives from the Latin Maurus, which was used by the Romans to describe those living in the Roman province of Mauretania. Eventually, it would be applied to a much broader group. 

In the late 7th and early 8th centuries AD, the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate, which was established after the death of Muhammad, experienced a period of rapid growth. During this time, the Muslim Umayyads were often at conflict with Christian and pagan Berbers across many North African provinces.  

Gradually, the Berber and urban populations of North Africa would be converted to Islam–and the Arabic language was adopted. It was during this slow process that the diverse people living across northern Africa, or the Maghreb, came to be known collectively as the “Moors”.

The term’s usage continued even after independent states arose in the region.

Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula 

Map of the Umayyad Caliphate.

In 711, Islamic Arabs and Moors from northern Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar onto the Iberian Peninsula. Led by their general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, most of Iberia would be conquered and brought under Islamic rule in just eight years. The Moors would have continued across the Pyrenees Mountains, but were defeated by the Franks at the Battle of Tours in 732.

After the conquest of Visigothic Iberia, the region came to be known as al-Andalus. At its peak, it included most of modern-day Spain and Portugal. 

The Moors of al-Andalus would leave many lasting marks on the Iberian Peninsula, including now famous architecture which can be found throughout southern Spain. al-Andalus would quickly become a center of knowledge and culture. Córdoba would become the largest city in Europe. And many major achievements in science would come from al-Andalus, like advances in math, astronomy, and medicine. 

Almost from the start, however, al-Andalus found itself at conflict with Christian kingdoms in the north. When the Umayyad Caliphate fell, al-Andalus was broken into smaller states, and Christian attacks intensified. In 1085, Alfonso VI captured Toledo, and Muslim power in Iberia would begin a gradual decline. Córdoba fell in 1236, and with it, much of southern Iberia would too. On January 2, 1492, the last Muslim state on the peninsula, Granada, would be surrendered to Queen Isabella I of Castile. The Christian “Reconquista” of Iberia was complete.

The Influence of the Moors

Today, the use of the term “Moors” is applied almost exclusively to those Muslims who conquered Iberia. And their influence is still apparent in Spain today, evident in historic mosques, art, architecture, and overall culture. Even among the various languages and dialects in Spain, elements of Arabic remain.

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