Arabic Influences Remain in all Aspects of Spanish Culture

By Habeeb Salloum



Throughout the ranks of the travelling public in the Western world the name of Spain, especially Andalusia, is synonymous with dark haired beauties, flowers, splendid processions, light-hearted gaiety, the halo of enchanted patios and romance.  Visitors roaming that delightful part of southern Spain searching for these attributes will be able to find them in abundance in Seville, Cordova and Granada - three of Andalusia’s most fascinating cities.  The high spirits of the people and the lingering aura of the long-gone Arabs, more commonly known in the West as Moors, continue to impregnate the Andalusian atmosphere and give it a fairytale mystique.

All this came about, in the main, as a result of the 900 years the Arabs were in Spain – first as conquerors then as conquered.  In their dances, music, singing and handicrafts, the inhabitants of southern Spain, and to a lesser extent those to the north, still retain a good amount of Moorish influences.  This has added much to the rich culture of Spain and by way of Spain to the Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. 



The finest example of this is when it comes to Spanish music and dance.  One of the principle contributors to Spanish music was Ziryab, one of the greatest teachers of musicians and singers of all times.  He arrived in Andalusia in 82l A.D. directly from the court of Baghdad.   Ziryab, was a marvellous entertainer and enchanted the court of Cordova for years with his wit, music and song.  He was steeped in the knowledge of refined music and established a conservatory of music in Cordova with his daughter as its head - the first in Europe.  His method of teaching his pupils how to sing and play music left an imprint on Spanish and to, some extent, other European music for all times.

The Arab music brought to Spain by Ziryab embellished Cordova's golden years, from the ninth to the twelfth century, when this capital of Arab Spain rivalled Baghdad as the richest and most powerful city in the world and in which all the sciences, including music, were pursued.

To the music schools of Arab Andalusia in these golden years, students came from other European countries to study, then returned to their lands, influenced by the music of the Arabs - the finest in the world at that time. 

During their centuries in the Iberian Peninsula, the Arabs developed innumerable types of music, song and dance.  The zajal and muwashshahat type of verse and song were the most famous.  Muqaddam ibn Qabri, born in Cabra near Cordova, was the father of this type of verse and song.  His songs and music were widely sung and appreciated by both the Muslims and Christians in all parts of the Iberian Peninsula.  He became famous as his type of verse spread throughout the Arabic-speaking world of his time.  The centuries have not eroded his fame but rather solidified his greatness.  Today, his poetry is still sung by famous singers across the whole of the modern Arab world.

The zajal was the colloquial form of the muwashshahat, written and sung in vulgar Arabic.  It was popular among the masses in both Muslim and Christian Spain and later spread throughout the Muslim world with remarkable rapidity.  The well-known 12th century poet from Cordova, Ibn Guzman, used to boast that his zajal was sung as far away as the eastern Arab world.  This type of verse did not disappear in the subsequent centuries. Today, in Egypt and Lebanon, zajal continues to be a popular folk art.

It is believed that the zajal gave rise to the villancico, a type of Spanish Christmas carol and from the zajal and  muwashshahat the Spanish cantigas developed.  In the cantigas de Santa María compiled by Alfonso the Wise, the musical form of the zajal is clearly evident.  It is said that the majority of Alfonso's cantigas were direct translations of Arab zajal verses.  In later centuries these cantigas were to have a great impact on all European music.

The romerias, celebrations held near Christian shrines and still to be seen in modern Spain, were originally visits to the shrines of Muslim holy men that were passed from the Moorish to the Christian communities.  In the spring months, when the cities of Andalusia are filled with colourful religious parades, the sad and wavering laments of the saeta punctuates these processions.  Although now sung in Spanish, there is no doubt that its origins go back to the Arabic songs of the Moors. 

The poetry and music of the zajal and muwashshahat also gave rise to the troubadours, from the Arabic tariba - to sing.  From the very beginning, these entertainers, not only sung Arabic poetry in its authentic and sentimental state but also, in its method and construction.  Later Arabic was abandoned for the languages of southern Europe, but the Arabic format remained.   

When the Spaniards occupied Granada, the last city held by the Moors, Arab music and singing did not die but actually flourished.  The conquered Muslims, until well into the 16th century, were allowed to have their music-filled evenings.  As well, their entertainers were in demand in the courts of the king and nobles of the land. 

The talents of the well-trained Moorish musicians and singers were known throughout all of southern Europe.  However, when the Spanish Inquisition banned everything Arab and Muslim, including music and song, Moorish entertainment faded from the land.  But the haunting melodies of Arab music were not lost.  They evolved into the modern Spanish folk music of our day.


Closely associated with the haunting music of the Arabs are the fiery, dances of Spain, the most well known being the flamenco.  The canas, jaleo, malaagueZa, polos, and tiranas of the flamenco; the zarabanda danced in Spain during the 16th century; the zorongo dance with its Andalusian music; the jota from the Arabic khata (to step); the sequidillas; the fandango; the folias; the sevillanas; and the bulerias, all have been influenced to some extent by the music, song and dance of the Moors.

 It had been some years back, but I had never forgotten that entrancing flamenco evening in the Santa Cruz district of old Seville. The voice of the singer seemed to hypnotize his audience into a state of ecstasy. Impressive in a traditional black suit, ruffled shirt and high-heeled boots, his penetrating songs took us on a journey to the haunting lands of the East. His voice vibrating inside the walls of Los Gallos entered my very soul.  No different than the captivating cry of a Bedouin singing a mawwal (emotional ballad) in the open desert, it gave me a feeling of exhilaration.

This thrilling vociferation appeared to inspire the fiery black-haired women dancers as they stamped the stage floor with wild uncontrolled passion. Beautifully costumed, their tight-bodice multi-coloured dresses flaring at the hips and covering petticoats with countless ruffles matched the carnations in their hair. Turning, twisting and leaping up in a provocative fashion, they stirred then inflamed my inner emotions.

Like purebred Arabian horses, sparks flew from their eyes as they held their heads high. Now coy, now inviting, they snapped and clicked their fingers as they twirled their erect bodies to the strains of the captivating music. Never did a dance before or after affect to such a degree my very being.


Almost a decade later in the same establishment in Seville, remembering that exciting evening, I felt a surge of joy and anticipation as I waited for the flamenco show to begin.  The fire and fervour of yesteryear were there, but in an abridged fashion.  In the same fashion as in most Spanish places of entertainment, to appeal to tourists, the authentic flamenco had been transformed into a somewhat modern commercial spectacle.

Yet, even in this modern version, it was an inspiring extrava­ganza - an exhibition of moving entertainment. The thrilling voices, stamping feet, lithe young bodies with their teasing graceful sway and clapping hands still seduced most of the audience. Even in its modernized form the flamenco still had its enchantment.

Although it is known as a gypsy dance, the flamenco has no historic connection with these artistic people. Perhaps, since the Andalusian gypsies have a virtual monopoly on this entertainment, people came to associate it with these world wanderers. Nevertheless, as to its name and origin it is a different story.

In spite of the fact that most dictionaries derive flamenco from the word Flemish, the name is probably a mispronunciation of the Arabic fallah manju (fugitive peasant). Some historians indicate that this epithet was likely applied to Andalusian persecuted farmers who fled to the mountains. To express their suffering these fugitives developed the cante jondo (deep song), the original heart of the dance. Through usage fallah manju could easily have been transformed into flamenco.

Even though elements of Greek, Indian, Persian and other Oriental music have been absorbed by this fiery spectacle, the Arab influences have been the most profound. All four components of the flamenco: cante (singing), bail (dancing), toque (guitar), and jaleo (rhythm accentuation and reciting) have been greatly influenced by the Moors - a term for the Muslim Arabs and Berbers who inhabited Spain.  When, during a performance, these components are perfectly combined a masterpiece which defuses an aura of the magical East is produced.

From the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Arabs brought their mawwals and qasidas (deep songs and epic poems), elements that were absorbed into the flamenco songs. These infused into the melodies complex Oriental halftones expressing profound emotion. A number of music historians have written that the passionate songs of the flamenco are only the ancient religious chants and lyrics of the Middle East. Some have even suggested that the moving voice of the singer had its origin in the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer.

When discussing Spanish folk songs such as the lyrics of the flamenco, N. B. Adams in the Heritage of Spain, writes that there is decidedly something Oriental, at least un-European about simple melodies heavily adorned, with distinctive rhythms.

More than the songs, the haughty dances with their sensuous lure that stir a wild feeling in the audience, are the main attractions of a flamenco performance. These were originally brought from India and embellished by the footwork of the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. The dancers' flaunting looks, rhythmical punctuation of the feet, flashing eyes and movements full of grace, all have their roots in the lands of the East and North Africa.

The guitar, to whose music the singers and dancers perform, is the qithara of the Arabs. The prototype of this most Spanish of all musical instruments was introduced into Spain by the famous Arab musician Ziryab in the 9th century and it evolved to become the modern guitar. In flamenco today, the guitar gives impetus to the dance and the guitar player is the hardest worker -the unsung hero. Like his brethren, the lute players in the Arab lands, he is, at times, a spontaneous composer. There is little doubt that this method of playing musical instruments, practised by Arab musicians since time immemorial, is a leftover from the Moors.

The jaleo, which is another intricate component of the flamenco, has a strong connection with the Arabs who inhabit the countries edging the Arabian Gulf. The beat of the rapid handclapping in flamenco is a carbon copy of the clapping in the folk melodies and dances of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, the recitations that punctuate the dance are no different than the poems with which many Arab singers include in their songs.

As to the shout of Ole!: it is of pure Arab origin. E. Sordo in his book Moorish Spain understood this connection when he wrote: "...The ole of the cante jondo is still the wa Allah (Oh God) with which the Arabs cheered every poetic recitation."

Visitors to Spain who enjoy the pleasures of the traditional flamenco, the pinnacle of Spanish folkloric art but now largely a tourist oriented folk extravaganza, as they mimic the Spaniards shouting olé, usually have no idea that it is saturated with many vestiges from Spain's Moorish past.

There is no doubt that the music of the West is saturated with the rhythms of Arab melodies.  Western scholars have for many centuries denied that the Arabs contributed greatly to the melodies and dances of Europe.  But research by scholars, in the last hundred years, has established that not only measured music but the popular Spanish music and, in fact, the folk music of all South­west Europe, was taken from Arab-Andalusian sources.


No less important is what the Arabs left in the handicrafts of the country.  I could not believe my eyes when, during my first trip to Andalusia, while strolling through the Albaicín Quarter, still known as Arab Quarter of Granada, I stumbled across an artisan shop producing exquisite hand-inlaid wooden products.  A year earlier, I had been in Damascus, Syria’s capital, and seen the same goods being inlaid, virtually in identical fashion.

Admiring the trays, boxes, tables and many other inlaid items, I asked in my broken Spanish the craftsman at work, “It’s amazing!  I saw the same products being produced in Damascus!”  The man looked up at me and smiled, “It’s not strange!  We can trace our ancestry to Syria.  Our family has been producing these inlaid goods for hundreds of years.”  

During my many ensuing visits to southern Spain, that former Al-Andalus of the Arabs, I often thought of this chance incident in Albaicín.  As I travelled through that beautiful and charming land, I could see that the handiwork of the Arabs saturated every facet of life. Without question, their handiwork has much to do in the creation of the Andalusia of our times.

When travellers hear or read such phrases as: ‘The majestic Córdoba of the Caliphs’, Al-Andalus - land of splendour’ and ‘Al-Andalus - Queen of the world’, these words are only a reflection of the accomplishments of Arab Spain’s sons who virtually made the country an ‘earthly paradise’.  What made Al-Andalus, reflected in Andalusia today, so alluring to travellers was its talented craftsmen who decorated its villas, palaces and public buildings, as well as filling its shops with their exquisite handicrafts.

In the ensuing centuries after the conquest of Al-Andalus by the Christians, the rich heritage of these artisans, little by little began to fade into oblivion.  However, in the last few decades, throughout Andalusia, especially in Córdoba, recovery of handicraft skills from the period of the caliphs is in full swing. 

Among the top of the skills being revived is the hand making of ceramic and pottery.  Once again potters are re-introducing designs, decorative methods and techniques, reflecting the splendour of Córdoba’s pottery during the city’s Islamic era.  Bottles, bowls, plates are being made, decorated with geometrical, animal and vegetable forms, and words in the Arabic Kufic script.  It is as if the Al-Andalus of the Arabs continues to live on.

In the surrounding towns, particularly remarkable are the small ewers from La Rambla, the earthenware vats from Lucena, the pitchers and scoops for waterwheels from Baena, and the flowerpots from Alcolea del Rio.  A little further on the same Arab-type kilns, used for at least eight centuries, are still baking pottery in Almería and at the nearby towns of Alhabia, Albox, Nijar and Sorbas.  Their production of large bowls, casseroles, ewers, figurines, jars, pitchers and plates are much in demand for decorative purposes and in the tourism industry.

Granada and the nearby towns still preserve the traditional Arab inherited art of hand-manufacturing pottery.  Potters in Guadix are famous for their filigree jars, full of ornamental details, inherited from the Nasrid (the last Arab dynasty in Spain) times.  Most typical of this area in southern Spain are the blues and greens used in stylized drawings of birds, flowers and pomegranates.

Near Jaén, the pottery of Úbeda is well known for its handsome ewers and in the province of Malaga, the clay artisans are famous for their Barros Malagueños, small figurines representing popular scenes and characters.  In the west of Andalusia, around Huelva, old Moorish techniques are used in the production of small ewers with large mouths, used by fishermen to capture squid.     

The tile craftsmen of Triana, near Seville, as in the Arab era, are renowned for producing tiles in exquisite colours.  At Sunlúcar la Mayor, Hispano-Arabic designs are still in fashion and the potters at Carmona, Lebrija and Lora del Rio still produce traditional-style pottery.

In the Córdoba of the caliphs, choice leather goods were the city’s trademark.  The fine leather products produced by its craftsmen were world-renowned and their method of production, until the present has not died out.  Today, the old Arab embossing techniques are still employed.  In the area around the city, Baena and Almodóvar del Rio are noted for their leather products made for pack horses and mules while the town of Montora is famous for its handmade cartridge belts, gun cases, pouches and shoes. 

Ubrique, besides being noted for its Flamenco Festival, is also a town where numerous handmade leather products are produced; saddle and harness making are an important industry in Seville, Carmona and Eija; and Villalba del Acor, along with a number of neighbouring towns, are famed for their tobacco pouches and gun cases. 

The quarries at Macael, Olula del Rio, Contoria and Vera, near Almería - the principal concentration of marble in Andalusia - have been mined since Arab times; carpet weaving, a very important industry in the Al-Andalus of the Arabs, is being revived in Málaga, Marbella and Estepona; and wood carvers, inheriting the art from their Arab ancestors, are now busy making articles for the Easter processions and festivals, in many parts of Andalusia.  Other Andalusian wood artisans turn out fine musical instruments, concentrating on guitars, and attractive furniture, like the Mudéjar-style cabinets made in Capileira.

Among the other Arab influenced handicrafts in Andalusia is Seville’s production of religious embroidery by the use of gold and silver threads with silks and velvets – an inheritance from the artisans in Damascus.  As in Arab times, jewellery making, important in the Moorish era, has again become a flourishing industry in Cordóba.  Handmade iron products, mostly inherited from the Moors, are produced in a number of urban centres in western Andalusia and in some of the towns around Jaén; and marquetry, an important skill in Granada when the star of Al-Andalus shone brightly, offers tourists exquisite inlaid boxes, chairs, chess sets, tables and trays - the same handmade products still made in today’s Damascus.

All these trades, which make Andalusia unique in Europe, almost without exception, are an Arab legacy.  Some have been evolved to fit into the modern age, but most are as they were when the Arabs were a part of Spanish history.  Despite the many religious wars in the past, the Spaniards have, to a great extent, preserved their Arab heritage, especially in the field of handicrafts, dance and music.  The Alhambra in Granada, the Mesquita of Cordóba, the Alcázar in Seville, and above all, Andalusia’s culture and artisan products, testify to the rich artisan legacy the Arabs bequeathed to Andalusia and to a lesser extent to all of Spain.

Habeeb Salloum is a Canadian freelance writer and author who has traveled to many parts of the world and has written comprehensively about the countries and their cuisines. His email is: habeeb.salloum@sympatico.ca