Arab Influence in the Balearic Islands
As we wandered along the tiny streets in the ancient Arab quarter of Palma, capital of the Balearic Islands, every once and a while we would peer through wrought-iron gates and heavy wooden doors fascinated with glimpses of one magnificent patio after another, attracted by their stone staircases, galleries and arcades. All reminders of the Arab era, they brought alive, in the area bounded by the partially preserved old walls, Muslim times when Palma was one of the great cities in the Mediterranean region.
Located on the island of Mallorca (also spelled Majorca), which along with its sister islands of Menorca (Minorca), Ibiza and Formentera, make up the Balearic Islands, Palma is the largest and most important city on the Islands. Lying in the Mediterranean Sea off the southeast coast of mainland Spain, the city was the initial landing spot of the Arabs when their expedition made contact with the inhabitants.
The Arabs first came to the Balearic in the early the 8th century when in 707, a Muslim fleet, under the command of Abd Allah ibn Musa, son of the governor of Ifriqiya, Musa ibn Nusayr, reached the islands. However, they did not fully occupy the Islands until 902 when the Islands were annexed to the Emirate of Cordoba. In that year the affluent Moorish man of commerce, Al Hawlani convinced the ruler of Al-Andalusia to conquer the Balearics. Al Hawlani himself took the command over the fleet, conquered the Balearics and was made the first Governor of Mallorca.
The Islands stayed under Islamic domination until 1229 when the Spanish King James I began to occupy them. During their rule, the Arabs gave the islands a long period of cultural blooming and prosperity, which saw Medina Mayurka, the Arabic name for Palma, the Balearic Island’s capital, become one of the major trading ports in the Mediterranean and a city of culture and wealth.
Before the Arabs came the islands were occupied by the Phoenicians then by the Carthaginians and later the Romans who all of left their stamp. However, it was the Arab/Muslims who, after their taking full control of the Islands, left the deepest imprint.
While Roman culture had an impact on the Balearic’s social life, the influence of the Arabs was responsible for the flourishing of the Islands’ agriculture, as well as the development of the Islands’ crafts and local industries. Commerce and manufacturing developed in a manner that was unknown previously. No less important was the Arab’s contribution to cuisine, folklore and language of the Balearics. Historians have written that the Arabs were the ones who truly brought civilization to the Islands.
Even though after the Arabs were defeated in 1229 and thereafter the Christian conquistadors tried to erase much of the Moorish culture, much of the more remote parts of the Islands remained as they were in Arab times. One can still see their legacy in the dry stonewalls which form hillside terraces, north African-style water wheels, the irrigation tanks, wells and irrigation channels needed for agriculture. As well, numerous place names show Arabic influences such as Alcúdia (the hill), Albufera (the lake) and Benisalem (the sons of Salem). As well, a traveller may still spot Arab costumes, particularly on Ibiza.
With the introduction of new and sophisticated irrigation systems, agriculture flourished and became the main source of income, bringing prosperity to the Islands.
The excellent land watering system constructed by the Arabs is attested to by the Catalonian language that is rich in Arabic loanwords in the field of irrigation a number of which are: céquia – channel of water, is derived from the Arabic (al-saqiya - irrigation ditch); sinia - waterwheel driven by animal power (saniya - waterwheel); assut - diversion dam (al-sudd - dam or barrier); albelló - drain or sewer (al-ballaca - the drain); alcàntara - culvert, (al-qantara - pontoon bridge); aljup - cistern, (a1-jubb - the well); alcaduf - bucket, (al-qadus - the water trough; safareij - cistern (sahrij - large water tank); and tarquí - silt (tarkim - to pile up).
Many plants that did not exist before were introduced into the Islands and these were instrumental in the creation of new dishes. From the many plants introduced into the Iberian Peninsula and beyond, which in Catalonian still carry their Arab names, are these samples: albercoc - apricot, derived from the Arabic (al-barquq - the apricot); alcarxofc - artichoke, (al-khurshuf - the artichoke); garrofa - carob, (al-kharrub - the carob); arròs - rice, (a1-ruz the rice); albergínia - eggplant, (badhinjan - eggplant); espinacs - spinach, (isbanakh - spinach); llimona - lemon, (laymun - lemon); taronja - orange, (naranja - bitter orange); and l’aranja - grapefruit, (turunj - citron).
According to a document dating back to the 10th Century, the Arabs were already talking of the excellence of Minorcan cheese at that time. Despite Koranic prohibitions, the cultivation of grapes was widespread. Proof of this is the fact that an Arab, Ben Abet, offered King James I excellent quality grapes when he conquered the Island of Mallorca. Arab writers from around the year 1000 talk about high yields of wine and meat in Menorca. The early 13th century Arab historian, Al-Shaqundi, as well – commented that besides the good cattle to be found on the Island, there were good vines to make good wine.
Today, there are very few vestiges from Arab times. The Arabs’ influence can still be seen in the use of fruits and almonds in savoury dishes and in some of the spices and sweet dishes. A number of waterwheels and windmills that were first introduced by the Arabs for irrigation persist. Some architecture, ceramics, embroidery and wrought iron, are some of the other scare reminders from the Arab/Muslim era.
The most important remains are to be found in Palma, the capital of both the Balearic Islands and the Island of Mallorca. The Palau de l'Almudaina (Almundaina Palace), initially built by Al Hawlani as the Governor’s palace, and Banyas Arabas (Arab baths) have a history that goes back to the Arab period in the Islands.
The Arab Baths, hidden away on a tiny street in the Old city. Dating from the 10th century and surrounded by well-tended gardens, they are the only complete structure remaining from Arab times and believed to have been part of a nobleman's house. All that remains are two small underground chambers, one of which has a large orange domed ceiling supported by 12 columns. Interestingly, each of the columns is topped by a different capital obtained from demolished Roman buildings. The tepidarium has a dome in the shape of a half orange, with 25 round shafts for sunlight, supported by a dozen columns.
They are one of the most visited attractions in Palma de Mallorca. After the Christians invaded and conquered Majorca in the 13th Century, they obliterated almost every possible sign of Arab/Muslim architecture and settlement. The Baths remain the last testimony of the more than 300 years of Arab/Muslim presence on the island and are extremely popular with visitors, continuing to generate much historic interest.
Perhaps more interesting to travellers than the Arab Baths is the Almudaina Palace, once the seat of the Moorish rulers and located next door to the Cathedral. With its walls rising proudly above the defensive ramparts of the medieval quarter, this splendid palace/fortress, which still contains a small Arab Bath, offers a panoramic view of Palma's harbour.
In the Middle Ages it was used as a Royal Palace and today it is the official residence of the King of Spain when he visits Palma. It also houses of the Museum of National Heritage is the Harbour Office of the Balearic Islands and contains antiques, suits of armour, and numerous works of art, including 16th and 17th century Flemish tapestries that illustrate episodes from Spanish history, as well as Spanish tapestries from the 17th and 18th centuries and banners decorated with scenes from the battle of Lepanto.
Yet, even though the Arab Baths and Almudaina Palace are the two most often visited Arab/Muslim remains on the Balearic Islands, there are other leftovers from the days of the Arabs. On the island Iziza, called by the Arabs Yebisah (the dry) there are very important wetlands known as ‘Ses Feixes’ that still show the remains of a network of an Arab irrigation system. Also, the Arab influence can still be felt strongly today in many customs, such as the construction of the houses, traditional costumes and musical instruments, and in the island dialect ‘Ibicenco’.
There are much more the Arabs left in the daily life of the people of the Balearic Islands but this overview of their influence will give an idea of the richness of the Arab contributions to the Balearic Islands and, in fact, to the whole of the Iberian Peninsula and, consequently, beyond to Latin America.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Habeeb Salloum is a Freelance Writer and Author
who writes from Don Mills (Toronto), Ontario, Canada. Tel: 416-445-4558, Fax: 416-510-2143.