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A Moorish legacy in the Sierra Nevada



The twisting mountain roads of Andalusia are a thread through history

Our car inches back slowly. Outside, robust, local women shout excitedly in animated Spanish, arms gesturing wildly. Their foreign cries are unintelligible to us.

“I told you not to go this way,” I reprimand my mother, who is lightly sweating at the wheel of our rented Peugeot. “It’s one way.”

The alley is flanked by white walls of solid stone. In a small window above, a bushel of brilliant red peppers hangs to dry in the crisp, mountain air, the sill adorned with colourful flowerpots. Overhead, laundry flaps quietly in the light breeze, oblivious to our plight.

This small cluster of white, boxy homes that clings to the stepped slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Andalusia is evidence of the long Moorish occupation of Spain. In the year 711 AD, under the leadership of Tariq ibn-Ziyad, a Berber Muslim army from North Africa boldly crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, its collective eye firmly fixed on the sizeable landmass to the north, what we presently call Spain and Portugal.

The Iberian Peninsula was taken from the Germanic Visigoths quickly and with relative ease. The Moorish conquest ended at the Pyrenees Mountains, finally halted in 732 by Charles Martel, the Frankish leader of the time. It was a significant event in that it may have arrested the Muslim conquest of much of Europe. Thus began the 780 year Moorish occupation of Spain, and subsequently, the “Reconquista”, a long and tedious campaign by the Christians to reclaim Iberia, an objective that was not realized for three quarters of a millennium.

Evidence of the Moorish occupation of Spain is most noticeable in the southern part of the country, known as Andalusia, whose white towns, or pueblos blancos , are reminiscent of those found in North Africa. This was the last stronghold of the Muslim kingdom, which finally surrendered its southern city of Granada to the Catholic Monarch, King Fernando and Queen Isabela, in 1492, marking the end of the Reconquista, or re-conquest of Iberia. In January of 1567, reforms were published banning Arabic dress and speech, and forcing all Muslims to convert to Christianity. The export of woven silk was heavily taxed, an industry upon which the Moors relied. Many fled back to North Africa; others to isolated mountain towns where the warm climate of southern Spain combined with abundant rain water running off the Sierra Nevada Mountains created fertile, albeit steep, farmland. The Moors terraced and irrigated the land, successfully producing grapes, oranges, lemons, persimmons, figs and almonds.