Moorish Heritage in Portugal

Jun 27, 2019Alentejo, Portuguese culture and lifestyle

Portugal (and the Iberian Peninsula) was, for centuries, occupied by different peoples, with distinct cultures and religions. From the Roman to the Celts, going through Moorish occupation and being conquered back by the Catholic, all of them left their mark on the territory and their influence on the daily life and culture of the country.

The result of the different occupations of the territory is a country rich in history, culture, and traditions, dating back to the beginning of times. Let us take you on a small tour and learn more about the Moorish Heritage in Portugal.

There is plenty to discover!

Historical Facts

In 711 the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, coming from the North of Africa and taking the territory from South to North. In no more than two years they dominated the territory militarily and culturally – with the exception of the Asturias and the Pyrenees region, due to their adverse conditions. It is important to refer that the invasion was not solely done by military force. There were villages that accepted to convert to Islamism, change their way of living and there was peaceful coexistence between the invaded and the invader.

The Moors wanted to gain territory in order to spread their religion and to spread their territory to a more fertile region. Arabia was a very poor region and they needed to conquer more lands where they could grow produce, in order to feed their people.

Christian And Muslim Playing Chess. Libros de juegosd’Alphonse X le sage fol. 64r

As the Muslims set foot on the Iberian Peninsula and started conquering the land, Christians tried to face them and stop the invasion. The goal was to defeat the Moors and regain territory and local domain. This reconquest happened, though it was a painful and long process, that lasted for the whole Medieval ages.

The Asturias played a very important role in the process of reconquering the Iberian Peninsula. As the Moors had difficulty in dealing with the territory and the climate, this bought some time to the Christians. They managed to organize small resistance cells and from there started gaining back the territory.

Discoveries age kept on spreading the Christian faith around the world- São Bento train station Porto | Conquest of Ceuta – 1415

In 1178, D.Sancho I, king of Portugal, fights the Moors near Seville and the Guadalquivir river, making it impossible for them to invade the national territory. In 1189, with the help of the English and German Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem, D.Sancho invaded the city of Silves (in the Algarve) expelling the moors from Portuguese lands for good.

After a long siege, he negotiated the surrender of the Muslim and agreed with their departure from the city. In exchange, they would have to leave everything behind, apart from the clothes on their backs. To compensate the Crusaders for their help, the King granted them the right to take whatever they wanted from the city – this is a nice way to say they could ransack the place. The Crusaders changed their minds and slaughtered all the city’s inhabitants as they left the fortification.

D.Sancho I statue at Castelo de Silves

There is a legend, related to this unfortunate episode in Portuguese history: legend has it that on this day, due to all the blood pouring down to the river, it settled and that to this day no more water flowed in its bed.

In 1492, after ten years of war, the Granada Capitulation happens, putting an end to 800 years of Moorish dominance of the Iberian Peninsula.

Castelo de Silves – Silves (Algarve)

The Castle of Silves consists of an irregular polygon structure, on a hilltop, overlooking the village. It has 4 towers and seven crenelated posts, all linked by walls.  There are two gates. The Traitor’s Gate is located between two towers, carved into the northern wall.

The Guardhouse has a vaulted ceiling and is covered in tiles. Inside the castle, you will find a courtyard and underneath various subterranean structures. The Cistern of Moura and the Cistern of Dogs (Cisterna dos Cães) are two of the main features of the Castle.

This is one of the best examples of the Muslim Heritage in Portugal. Castle of Silves was declared a National Monument in 1910.

Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) – Sintra

Set in the lush forest of Sintra Mountain, the Moorish Castle is one of the best examples of Moorish constructions in Portugal. It was constructed in the 9th century, as the Moors occupied the territory. After the Christians won back the land it was left in ruins. King Ferdinand II reconstructed it and turned it into a romantic feature on the Sintra Park. 

Take the time to walk along the wall and appreciate the sights. Realize that the castle has been there for 12 centuries. Try to imagine how life was like back in the day when the Moors ruled.

Moorish Architectural Heritage

Most of the Moorish constructions were destroyed. The motto after the Moors were defeated was “scorched land”. All buildings were to be destroyed and burnt down to ashes. Nothing was to be left of them.

In Portugal, there are 4 great buildings that resisted Time and Man: Silves Castle (Algarve), the Moorish Castle (Sintra), Mother Church in Mértola (Alentejo), and Sintra’s National Palace (Sintra). They help us understand the Moorish way of living, their construction techniques, the decoration style and much more.

There are decorative elements that are nowadays part of the decoration and architecture in Portugal that are clearly of Moorish heritage. The tiling on the walls, the stucco ornaments on the ceilings, the combination of materials and textures, the repetition of geometric, cosmological and plant-based designs.

Palácio Nacional – Sintra

Sintra is one of the most visited destinations in Portugal. The National Palace, in the center of the city, has been part of the landscape since the Moorish times. It started out as a Moorish castle in the 12th century and was transformed into an amazing palace, throughout the dynasties. 

You can find an array of Moorish decorative elements on the walls and ceilings, on the architectural structure (horseshoe arcs, for example), the presence of water and light on the courtyard.

Take the time to visit the Palace and appreciate the details of the decorative elements. You’ll be delighted with the calligraphy tiles, the plant-based elements, the colors and the perfection of the artisans.

Mother Church – Mértola

The Mother Church in Mértola (Alentejo) dates back to the 11th century and is, in fact,  a re-use of a mosque. It presents a quadrangular structure, with 5 naves, with a wider center, the polygonal niche  of the ‘mihrab’ – name given to the niche that integrates the great Muslim prayer shrines and whose purpose was to indicate to the faithful the direction of Mecca – with decoration of parabolic arches in plaster, and the main columns of the  mosque, ordered in rows of six, supporting four sequences or arcs.

After the defeat of the Moors, the church suffered a number of interventions, altering its configuration and giving it a more Catholic look. Nonetheless, the Muslim structure is there as a witness and proof of their presence, influence, culture, and religion.

If you decide to drive along the roads of the Alentejo and Algarve you will notice the chimneys on the whitewashed houses and the terraces on top. These terraces, called ‘ açoteias’,  were used to store rainwater and to sundry the fruits.

Moorish Gastronomic Heritage

The basis of the Alentejo gastronomy is of Moorish Heritage, except for the pork dishes and a very special broth. The Moors adopted a Roman dish, made from water, olive oil, aromatic herbs, and garlic. It can be made using pennyroyal or coriander. This is known as ‘açorda Alentejana’. This broth has been part of the daily lives of the people living in that region since Roman times and was adopted by the Muslims as ‘the royal dish’. This status was only altered in the 14th century.

As in the northern African confectionery, most recipes (for cakes and biscuits) include almonds. When it comes to the meat dishes, the lamb stew, the roasted lamb head, ‘migas’ (a mix of bread and meat – nowadays, pork meat) and pickled sardines are the ones that catch the eye. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit the Alentejo and taste the ‘açorda’ and the ‘migas’.


açorda Alentejana

Fun facts about the Moorish Heritage in Portugal

Did you know that the Muslims brought to Portugal a number of trees that are now part of the cultivated species? The list is long and includes olive trees, pear trees, apple trees, orange trees, fig trees, almond trees, carob trees, cotton, lemon trees. They also introduced wheat, pumpkins, artichokes, cucumbers, carrots, lupines, and other vegetables. 

The Moors were also responsible for the introduction of water extraction and storage techniques, and irrigation systems. Some of the objects we use in our daily life, such as the carpets, the rugs, the pillows, the oiler (‘almotolia’)

Portugal is an old country. All the people that passed through the territory left their mark. We are a result of all that history and influences. This is one of the features that make our country such an amazing destination.

Come experience and let us help you explore all the history, traditions and cultural heritage, from North to South!



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