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By: Joyce Behrens/Arab America Contributing Writer
One may think that Portugal is one of those countries which have been only influenced by Spain because of its close proximity. However, that is not entirely true. Portugal, although it may not be visible, it still has a rich Arab history that lies hidden beneath the cracks. Architecture, food, even the hints of Arab influence in the Portuguese language that is present today. Early traces of Arab culture, that date back to almost a millennia ago, can be found. Portugal may have replaced the previous history, but the fact is that its history and culture cannot be erased.
Portugal was divided into two empires for five hundred years. The Islamic Empire conquered the southern part of Portugal from 711 to 1139. Areas in the region included Silves and Algarve. As time progressed, Arab ruling started to be reduced as Afonso III came into power. The final traces of Arab power became demolished in 1492. During those five centuries of control, traces of Arab heritage left an impact on Portugal. Despite the fact as time progressed, and the Portuguese tried to replace and reestablish their identity, there are some things that remain untouched.
Food is a distinctive feature of every culture. As different countries have an exchange or a settlement with one another, food is a part of that exchange. Moors, inhabitants from the Maghreb region, began to have influence in Portugal. Some examples of food include dates, almonds, olives, and lamb. These are some common foods that the Moors brought during their time of power in the eighth century and continue to grow forward.
In terms of how Arab culture-inspired Portuguese cooking, a common cooking utensil for seafood came from the Algarve region. The utensil is called cataplana. It’s made from copper, which is mostly found in the North Africa region. It’s a similar serving style to Spanish paella, which is seafood cooked with spices and you can add with vegetables or meats. However, there is a difference. the Portuguese put their own flavors profiles together and is usually served without rice.
The southern part of Portugal is the area that has the most Arab inspired architecture still around. After the Arabs lost power in the fifteenth century, the Portuguese started to replace mosques and wanted to re-establish their culture. The remaining, untouched area of Portugal is located in the city of Mértola.
One example of icons in Arab architecture is the mihrab. As you know, mihrabs are the semi-circular shape borders in the walls of mosques. This design is not only used in mosques but as a common architectural design during the times of reign for the Arabs. It is the semi-circular shape that defined it. Sometimes, mihrabs include border lines that can either have smooth edges or jagged lines. When you look at the older areas in southern Portugal, most of the museums and mosques still carrying this historic concept of interior design.
Tile design is another example of Arab influence. The creation of art and murals from tiles acted like paint. By this simile, mural designs on the walls are typical in Arab culture. Mostly from small, individual tiles. The color schemes are typical in shades of blue, turquoise, and white.
Some aspects of the Portuguese language are inspired by the Arabs. The Arabs had control of Portugal for a good chunk of time. During that time, some words came from the standard dialectic of the Arabs. For example, the Portuguese word for “God Willing”, oxalá, is similar to the phrase insha’Allah. The meaning remains in the same context as the Arabs.