The Moors, a diverse group of conquerors and settlers, played a significant role in shaping the history and architecture of North Africa, and Southern Iberia. From the early rule of the Carthaginians to the struggles for independence during the Scramble for Africa, the Moors left a lasting impact on the region. This article delves into the rich history of the Moors and explores the common features of Moorish architecture.
The Moors’ history in North Africa spans several civilizations. The region that is now Morocco saw successive rulers, including the Carthaginians, Berbers, Romans, and Arabs. The Arab conquest of North Africa took place over two generations, from 660 to 700, leading to the establishment of Muslim rule in the region.
One prominent Moorish figure was Idris I, who conquered Morocco in 683 AD and made Tangiers the capital. Under Muslim rule, the Moors embarked on a conquest that extended beyond North Africa. Tariq Al Ziyad, a Moorish general, led the conquest of half of Spain and the entire region of Portugal. The iconic Rock of Gibraltar derives its name from Jebel Al Tariq (Mountain of Tariq). The Moorish-ruled territory in the Iberian Peninsula became known as Cordoba.
Cordoba was initially ruled by the Umayyad caliphate and later by the Abbasid caliphate after the Umayyads were deposed in Damascus. During this period, the Mezquita mosque in Cordoba was constructed on the site of a former church. The Moors were regarded as liberators by the Catholics and Jews of Spain, as they freed them from the rule of the Visigoths.
After the Idrisid dynasty, the Almoravids came to power and founded the city of Marrakesh in 1062. Led by charismatic leader Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the Almoravids built a mud wall around Marrakesh and introduced an underground irrigation system. They also constructed fortress palace complexes called Alcazabas during their raids into the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors were known for their impressive gardens and water systems within their palaces.
The city of Rabat served as a launching point for invasion attempts and retreats from Spain. Around 1045, Rabat boasted 10,000 shops and 785 mosques. Following the Almoravids, the Almohads came to power, followed by the Almorads and the Merenids. The Merenids revitalized the city of Fez in 1248 and built numerous boarding schools called madrasahs. One notable example is the Madra Bou Inania, known for its elaborate tile work and lattice screens. The Merenids’ architectural style, featuring squares and plazas, later influenced the design of Spanish plazas.
The Moors also left their architectural imprint in Spain. The Alhambra Palace, a magnificent palace complex, was built over centuries and is renowned for its intricate details. It housed a hall for ambassadors, areas for business and administration, and a fortress called Alcazabas. The Moors incorporated bronze cannons into their fortifications as gunpowder technology spread.
The last Moorish emir, Boabdil, surrendered to Isabel and Ferdinand in 1492. Subsequently, the Spanish Inquisition, led by Tomas de Torquemada, targeted Jews who had been safe under Islamic rule. The Edict of Expulsion was issued, leading to the forced conversion, exile, or execution of thousands of Jews and Muslims. Many refugees sought sanctuary in North Africa, particularly in cities like Fez.
Common features of Moorish architecture include horseshoe arches, influenced by Byzantine forms, and intricate geometric tilework known as zelech. Figurative art and wall paintings were generally absent, while external walls often appeared austere to conceal the wealth within. Riads, or internal courtyards, and elaborately decorated doors and patios were also characteristic of Moorish architecture.
Despite the tumultuous events and struggles faced by the Moors, their architectural legacy endures. From the grand mosques and palaces to the refined craftsmanship of tiles, copperwork, and leatherwork, the Moors left an indelible mark on North African and Spanish architecture.
Throughout their history, Morocco and its people fought battles to regain independence and establish African rule. As a monarchy, Morocco has achieved stability and is often considered one of the best-governed and safest countries in Africa. The legacy of the Moors lives on in the vibrant culture, rich heritage, and architectural marvels of the region.