Remembering the Moors
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y Runoko Rashidi


Remembering the Moors: A civilizing force

By: By Runoko Rashidi

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2008 1:16 pm

Note: This writing continues a series focused on the diaspora by a research specialist, public lecturer and world traveler in love with African people:  Runoko Rashidi.  This feature is drawn from several of Mr. Rashidi’s works concerning the Moors,  the Africans who dominated much of southern Europe for approximately eight hundred years.  Brother Rashidi is constantly at work researching projects and coordinating tours of the African world.  For tour information, to schedule lectures  and order audio and video tapes, contact him at, or call (210) 648-5178.  Visit Rashidi’s GlobalAfrican Presence web site at http: //




It would not be inaccurate to say that the Moors helped reintroduce Europe to civilization.  But just who were the Moors of antiquity anyway? As early as the Middle Ages, and as early as the seventeenth century, “The Moors were,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “commonly supposed to be mostly black or very swarthy, and hence the word is often used for negro.”  Dr. Chancellor Williams stated that “The original Moors, like the original Egyptians, were black Africans.”


At the beginning of the eighth century, Moorish soldiers crossed over from Africa into Spain, Portugal, and France, where their swift victories became the substance of legends. To the Christians of early Europe there was no question regarding the ethnicity of the Moors, and numerous sources support the view that the Moors were a black-skinned people. Morien, for example, is the adventure of a heroic Moorish knight supposed to have lived during the days of King Arthur. Morien is described as “all black: his head, his body, and his hands were all black.”  In the French epic known as the Song of Roland, the Moors are
described as “blacker than ink.”

William Shakespeare used the word Moor as a synonym for African. Christopher Marlowe used African and Moor interchangeably. Arab writers further buttress the black identity of the Moors. The powerful Moorish emperor Yusuf ben-Tachfin is described by an Arab chronicler as “a brown man with wooly hair.”

Black soldiers, specifically identified as Moors, were actively recruited by Rome, and served in Britain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania.  St. Maurice, patron saint of medieval Europe, was only one of many black soldiers and officers under the employ of the Roman Empire.


Remembering the Moors: A civilizing force

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2008 1:16 pm

By: By Runoko Rashidi

Al-Hassan Ibn-Muhammad al-Wezzani was born in Granada in Spain in 1493 or 1494 of well-educated and affluent Moorish parents. He probably preferred to be called al-Fasi, the man of Fez--the great seat of learning in Morocco to which he owed his education. As a young man, he became a soldier, merchant and ambassador. By the age of twenty-five he had crossed the Mediterranean Sea numerous times, and traveled in West Africa and Southwest Asia.  In 1518, while crossing the Mediterranean, he was captured on an Arab galley by Christian
pirates. As he was a very learned man, instead of being sold into slavery, he was presented to Pope Leo X.  The Pope, very impressed by him, freed the young man, granted him a pension and secured his conversion to Christianity.  At his baptism, the Pope gave him his own name, Giovanni Leone, from which he became commonly known as Leo Africanus.



When he was captured, Leo Africanus had with him a rough draft, in Arabic, of the work which made him famous, The History and Description of Africa and of the Notable Things Therein Contained.  He completed this work in Italian in 1526, three years after his patron's death. In 1550, the manuscript fell into the hands of Ramusio, who published it in his collection of Voyages and Travels.  Although Leo Africanus died in 1552, his work was translated into English by John Pory, a
scholarly friend of Richard Hakluyt, and published in London in 1600.

Our beloved John Henrik Clarke placed The History and Description of Africa, published in three volumes in London by the Hakluyt Society in 1600, as first on his list of the
twenty most important historical works by African writers.  According to Dr. Clarke:

“The writer Al-Hassan Ibn Mohammed was later in his life, a slave of Giovanni de' Medici, Pope Leo X.  His family moved from Granada to North Africa during the last years of Moorish power in Spain.  Earlier in his life he had accompanied his uncle to West Africa, where he visited the then great cities of Timbuctoo, Jenne and Goa, the capital of the Songhay Empire.  His uncle was an ambassador to the court of Askia the Great, whose reign was from 1493 to 1528.


It was at the Pope’s request that he wrote his book, The History and Description of Africa.  Like Ibn Batuta, the author traveled widely in Western Africa; lived for sometime in Songhay when it was at the height of its power and development.  He wrote largely as an eye witness, but included in his account much information about West Africa in earlier times.  His work is one of the two or three most important sources of information on West African civilization in the Middle Ages and in early modern times."

According to West African scholar Dr. J.C. DeGraft-Johnson:

“At Timbuktu, Leo Africanus was impressed with the palace and the mosque which had been built two centuries earlier for Mansa Musa.  He records finding in Timbuktu a ‘great store of doctors, judges, priests, and other learned men, that are bountifully maintained at the king's expense.’  He also records seeing ‘divers manuscripts and books which were being sold for more money than any other merchandise.’”


“Whatever makes a kingdom great, whatever tends to refinement and civilization was found in Moorish Spain.”

--Stanley Lane-Poole

The same degree of intellect and learning was brought by the Moorish conquerors of the Iberian peninsula to Portugal.  Like Spain, that country was to be culturally influenced by the Moors.  Its association with Africa dates as far back as the fourth and fifth centuries when Africans arrived in southern Europe.  But it was in 711 A.D. that they marched in as conquerors under the command of Tarik.  To reinforce what has been said earlier these Moors, as the early writers
chronicled, were “black or dark people, some being very black.”


After the invasion of 711 came other waves of Moors even darker.  It was this occupation of Portugal which accounts for the fact that even noble families had absorbed the blood of the Moor. From that time onwards, racial mixing in Portugal, as in Spain, and elsewhere in Europe which came under the influence of Moors, took place on a large scale.  That is why historians claim that “Portugal is in reality a Negroid land,” and that when Napoleon explained that “Africa begins at the Pyrenees,” he meant every word that he uttered. 

Even the world-famed shrine in Portugal, Fatima, where Catholic pilgrims from all over the world go in search of miracle cures for their afflictions, owes its origin to the Moors.  The story goes that a Portuguese nobleman was so saddened by the death of his wife, a young Moorish beauty whom he had married after her conversion to the
Christian faith, that he gave up his title and fortune and entered a monastery.   His wife was buried on a high plateau called Sierra de Aire.  It is from there that the name of Fatima is derived.


The Moors ruled and occupied Lisbon and the rest of the country until well into the twelfth century.  They were finally defeated and driven out by the forces of King Alfonso Henriques, who was aided by English and Flemish crusaders. The scene of this battle was the Castelo de Sao Jorge or, in English, the Castle of St. George.  Today, it still stands, overlooking the city of “Lashbuna”--as the Moors named Lisbon.

The defeat of the Moors did not put an end to their influence on Portugal.  The African (Moorish) presence can be seen everywhere in Portugal; in the architecture of many of the buildings. They still retain their Moorish design--like the Praca De Toiros--the Bull Ring in Lisbon.  A walk through Afalma--the oldest quarter in Lisbon, with its fifteenth century houses, narrow-winding streets--dates back to the time when it was the last settlement of the Moors.  Fado singers abound in all corners and bistros of Afalma.  Their songs and rhythms
owe much to the influence of the Moorish musicians centuries ago. Even the fishing boats on the beaches of Cascais show marked African traces.  Called the rabelos, these boats, with their large red or white sails, which also ply on the Douro River to fetch wine from the upper valleys, are reminiscent of the transport boats of Lagos in Nigeria.


1. Using the article, tell how we know that the Moors were African people.

2.  How does Leo Africanus’ description of Timbukto differ from the common perception of  the    place.  What do his words infer about how the Africans valued learning?



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