The Islamic history and influence in Europe

silver mosque top dome ornament

Medieval Europe was a swirling mix of three religions in particular – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And the Islamic influence can be found in places you might not expect.

Ten years ago, I visited the cities of Cordoba and Seville in Spain. In Cordoba, you can still visit the great mosque built in the 10th century. It’s a forest of pillars in the Islamic style – yet in the middle of western Europe today.

Islamic legacy in Europe very visible in Spain

The mosque was put up at a time when most of modern Spain and Portugal was under the rule of Muslim emirs – ruling from cities like Seville and Cordoba. These were huge centres of urban civilisation producing top mathematicians and philosophers. But also stunning architecture.

There was a very subtle and nuanced relationships between Christianity and Islam – it wasn’t all conducted on the point of a sword – though that had its place. The mosque in Cordoba borrowed Roman pillars from local ruined sites and the shape of the arches was heavily influenced by the earlier Christian Visigothic civilisation.

When Cordoba was retaken by Christian crusaders after over four hundreds of Muslim rule – they kept the mosque because of its beauty. But later, the kings of Catholic Spain slapped a cathedral right in the middle of it. Today, you have the almost surreal experience of walking into a 10th century mosque and then suddenly finding yourself in a gothic/baroque cathedral at the centre of the building.

Islamic rulers in Europe told to preserve their buildings – by Christians

In Seville, the crusaders were on the verge of taking the city in the 13th century and told its Muslim rulers not to destroy the huge, thick minaret on the great mosque. If they did, the city would be slaughtered. When it was seized by the Christian armies, they kept the minaret and demolished the mosque. The minaret became the new bell tower. But such was the admiration for the Islamic craftsmanship involved in building the minaret – that it was inconceivable to knock it down.

DISCOVER: The bigotry towards Jews in medieval Europe during Easter

Here are a couple of photos I took back in 2010 of the mosque in Cordoba – pardon the quality of digital images back in those days!

7 thoughts on “The Islamic history and influence in Europe

    1. Thanks for your kind comments – I’m always happy to comment on other people’s blogs on this subject. I have a book with a strong Islamic theme coming out later this year – will tell you more when I can.

    1. Researching the conquest of Lisbon – or Al Usbunna as it was called under the Moors – it’s certainly said in the chronicle that the Islamic population had three days to leave the city. However, it’s clear many stayed as there was a ‘mouraria’ there for centuries – and of course a Jewish quarter. In fact, it’s clear that all over Spain and Portugal, Jewish and Muslim communities continued for longer than you might expect. The final expulsions took place under Ferdinand and Isabella and then again in the opening years of the seventeenth century. The Templars in the twelfth century were certainly the shock troops who often were the only Christian force in ‘nullius diocesis’- the lands between Islam and Christianity where no bishop or prince ruled. Preceptories like Calatrava were right on the front line between the two religions. The Templars are particularly important in the history of Portugal were they continued to exist as the renamed Order of Christ – after the Templars had been suppressed throughout the rest of Europe. The Order of Christ continued to use all the emblems and rituals of the Order and one of its most famous members was Henry the Navigator. All fascinating stuff! I can recommend some really good books on the subject.

  1. Thank you for this post, enjoyed reading it and thank you for the pictures.

    To be noted that Arabs in Europe let their imprint also in the European languages, through spanish and portuguese. Perticulartly, almost all words starting with “al” are of arabic origin (al- = “the” )
    Alchemy / chemistry


    to be noted also that on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea the presence of European populations (not even talking about colonization) is assessed by many ways: italian speaking communities in Tunisia, Spanish speaking communities in North Morocco, high ethnical mixing between berbers and europeans (especially in the North Morroco and North Algeria), without even mentioning the Egyptian multicultural crossroad (Greek, Turkish, Arab, British, French cultures). Enrichment is mutual and if Europe havent christianized Arabs and Arabs havent islamized Europeans during the last 15 decades, there is absolutely no reason to fear an islamized Europe or US today.

    1. Thank you for those comments. Another good Arabic word that you find in Portuguese is “Almohada” for pillow. I find that word interesting because of course the Almohads were radical Berbers who swept aside the more moderate Almoravid caliphate in Al-Andalus in the twelfth and early thirteenth century. Lavender in Portuguese is ‘Alfazema’ – a very nice word.

      My mother comes from Portugal and when she was young the people in the north of that country would call the southerners ‘Arabs’ while the people in the south would call the northerners ‘Vikings’.

      I agree with what you say about the mixing of peoples around the Mediterranean. DNA testing in Spain has shown north African descendancy among much of the population which is inevitable as human being crossed from Africa in to Europe over millenia. But the Carthaginians, Greeks and Romans were Mediterranean empires – a Roman could travel from Rome to Alexandria and Antioch and still be within the same cultural world. The emergence of Islam was in a way another in a long line of Mediterranean empires and to conquer lands on the northern side of the sea was probably an obvious thing to do.

      The Templars of course fought the Saracens – not just in the Middle East but also in Spain and Portugal. But in the process, they undoubtedly came in to extensive contact with eastern culture. This is something that was used against them by their enemies. The Templar Grand Master in Jerusalem, for example, made a point of having a Saracen secretary. And we know there were Templars who spoke Arabic. Not to assimilate I realise, but to conquer more effectively.

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