Neil Hook

On the Trail of the Moors

Neil Hook
On the Trail of the Moors

The point about the Moorish Trail is that Ramblers travel from Morocco into Spain following the 8th century journey of the Moors, the Muslim inhabitants of the Berber villages of north-west Africa.  So, while Britain was still grappling this year with its long winter, what better place to start our holiday than in the warmer climes of an Atlas Mountain spring, through Berber villages and souks.

Early in the 8th century, the Moroccan army of king Umar al-Murtada and his Christian allies, gathered in Marrakech to prepare for battle.  And this was where we too gathered to begin.  On our tour of the city, we visited the mediaeval Moorish palace of El Badi, the Medersa, with its spectacular Moorish decoration, and the tombs of the Saadi dynasty, as well as the great Berber souk which surrounds the Jemaa el Fna Square.

Now an Islamic army, the Moors moved south to Rabat, which was converted into a great fortress to serve as a base for attacks on Spain.  Following their route, although travelling rather more comfortably by train, we were able to see the 12th century remains of the citadel and the Hasan Tower, intended to be the tallest minaret of the biggest mosque in Islam.

The crossing to Spain was made from Tangier, a Berber settlement since prehistoric times, and from which the southern coast of Spain was clearly visible across the strait of Gibraltar.  We made the crossing in style in the high-speed hydrofoil into Algeciras.

And here we witness already the enormous Moorish influence on the region, known by the Moors as Al-Andalus and today as Andalusia.  The name, Algeciras, comes from the Arabic of the time and Gibraltar, which we could see from the boat, was named after the Moorish leader of the initial campaign into Al-Andalus.  Similarly, Ronda, where we travelled next by local train, evolved from the name given by the Moors after their 8th century conquest, just 2 years after they set out from Marrakech.  Sadly, although Ronda  is still a captivating town in a spectacular location, much of the evidence of the 750 years of Moorish occupation disappeared during subsequent battles, such as the punitive Napoleonic Wars, but the so-called Arab Bridge still spans the dramatic Tajo Gorge and we could also visit the Arab Baths by the old city walls.

It is astonishing now to reflect that that Moorish army, from those mountain villages above Marrakech, which we had left less than a week earlier, conquered almost the whole of the Iberian Peninsula within eight years and that, in a couple of hundred years, three-quarters of the entire population had converted to Islam.

By train again, we travelled on to Cordoba, the capital of the Al-Adalus empire and, at its 10th century peak, the most populous city in the world, thanks to its tolerance of its major Christian and Jewish populations.  We were able to see something of that multi-cultural history in our wander through the second largest old town in Europe – in the pretty, flower-filled Jewish quarter, several Christian churches dating from the 13th century Reconquest of the town by the Spanish Kings, and of course the fabulous Mezquita mosque-cathedral.

Originally a 7th century church, the Mezquita was used by both Christians and Muslims until the Moorish invasion, when it was converted to a mosque and expanded to its present size.  Now again a Christian place of worship, it remains today one of the finest examples of Moorish and Renaissance architecture and one of the highlights for us all of this absorbing holiday.

After a journey by coach, we arrived in Granada, here to visit the other highlight of our holiday, the Alhambra Palace and Generalife Gardens.

Granada, the last city to surrender in the Reconquest, thus retains much of its old artisan and aristocrat district, the Albaicin.  As well as almost a full day soaking up the atmosphere of the Moorish Palace and gardens, we enjoyed another wandering the quaint alleyways of the Albaicin, stopping only to enjoy tapas and sangria in one of the picturesque squares.

From Granada we followed the trail to Madrid, travelling on the AVE express at 300 kph, an advance the Moors could only have dreamed of!  Although the Moors built a fortress nearby to protect the northern boundary of Al-Andalus, the city has little to show now of its Moorish past, although we were able to spend two enjoyable days visiting the historical monuments of this bustling capital city and to relax in the halls of its galleries and museums, in particular  the Prado, possibly the greatest collection of European art.

Our trail of Moorish history now brought up to the present time, what better place to end this holiday than sunning ourselves in one of the many squares?

Here we could reflect at leisure on what had been a fascinating holiday, full of delightful walks, stunning Moorish architecture, and of course far away from the British ‘spring’.