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In Lisbon, a discreet heritage

Anyone who surveys the Portuguese capital cannot suspect that it has lived four and a half centuries under Arab-Berber domination. And yet, as long as you imagine it for a well-guided walk, this more or less buried past, long forgotten in the national narrative, resurfaces around the corner.

Report by Vincent Barros

It’s at the appointed time that we honor our appointment in front of the Casa dos Bicos, the “House of spikes” which, on this Monday afternoon, shines in the autumn sun. Facing the Tagus estuary, a blue expanse streaked by the white wake of boats, the portrait of José Saramago, hung on the facade, reminds us that this emblematic building in the Portuguese capital houses the foundation of the late writer – the only Portuguese speaker to date who won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The same man who, in his novel The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989), wanted to give back a role to the Moors in the construction of his heritage. Good patronage, we think, for our afternoon trip.

Because it is precisely in the footsteps of the Moors that we are about to walk, following in the footsteps of Natália Nunes, who arrives: our guide for the day, black hair, wears a patterned dress, the same blue as the line that emphasizes his gaze, which we cling to, the rest of his face being protected by a surgical mask. This one fallen, it is with a big smile that she introduces herself: a medievalist by training, teacher-researcher, Natália gives courses on Arab heritage, literature and mysticism at the new University of Lisbon; “courses open to all the curious”, she says. The perfect person, in short, to discover “Arabic Lisbon”, a circuit that she created and that she offers, on occasion, when requested, on behalf of the small agency Lisboa Autentica.

Al Usbûna for the Moors

“What do we know about the subject?”, she asks straight away, to adapt. Some vague knowledge, at most, that we take from a work started but not yet finished, by the historian Marc Terrisse: Lisbon, in the Muslim city (ed. Chandeigne, 2019). In this case: that the city was first baptized Alis Ubbo (“the quiet harbour”) by navigators from the Near East, the Phoenicians, “a bit like the Portuguese of Antiquity”, we read.

Then it was renamed Olisipo by the Greeks and Romans, then Al Usbûna by the Moors, from 714 to 1147. Precisely the period, nearly four and a half centuries long, that interests us. And of which there remains, Natália prefers to inform us, “nothing much visible, unlike Spain, except ceramics, pottery or tombstones in museums”. The iconoclastic reign of Manuel I, “who had a lot of monuments destroyed”and the earthquake of 1755 considerably damaged this heritage, which for a long time, if not always, remained in the blind spot of Portuguese history.

An influence that goes beyond the architectural framework

Casa dos Bicos – Richard Cummins / Robert Harding Premium / robertharding via AFP

But the trip is worth it, she assures us, and begins immediately beyond the door of the Casa dos Bicos, which we cross to discover, on the ground floor, the remains of a section of the “cerca moura”, the Moorish enclosure. Its limestone blocks, resting on the geological substrate, suggest its robustness. And it had to be. “It dates from the Roman period, but it was rebuilt by Muslim dignitaries to protect the medina and resist attacks, especially from the Vikings.”

On the wall, we read a sentence of Al-Bakrí, Andalusian geographer of the 11th century, amazed in front of these ramparts “remarkably built upon which the waves break”. “At the time, the water went up to the current praça da Figueira, a former Arab district, specifies our guide. Nothing was built around here, the Baixa did not yet exist.”

We leave, then we walk along the Moorish enclosure now punctuated with explanatory panels, in the direction of Alfama. In the distance, the clean cut of a huge cruise ship in the azure sky augurs a new era: that of the post-Covid-19 era and the return of tourists, en masse. Opposite, shy, stands what would be the oldest public fountain in Lisbon, Chafariz d’El-Rei. From Roman times, they say. Its name, an Arabic derivative of “chahrij”, means cistern. Natália deplores her drying up, then invites us to look up to see that a palace of the same name overlooks her, with “windows and mosaics in the neo-Moorish style”.

hafariz of el Rei - Alfama
In the Alfama district, the Chafariz d’el Rei palace, which overlooks the fountain of the same name, has windows and mosaics in the neo-Moorish style. Photo credit: Palacete Chafariz D’El Rei – Lisboa

Our guide then pauses, as if to support his point: the numerous water springs – some of which were hot at the time – inspired the Moors to name the district we are about to enter: Alfama, derived from “al-hamma”, refers to water sources, baths (mentioned by Al-Idrissi, another Andalusian geographer, as essential for body hygiene and socialization). An example, among the 19,000 Portuguese expressions and words of Arabic origin, recorded in a dictionary published in 2013 by Adalberto Alves.

The orientalist, since, is formal: the Arab-Muslim influences on Portuguese culture, beyond being linguistic, also pass through music, carpet weaving, pastries, architecture and even navigation (thanks especially astrolabes, precious tools during the “great discoveries”).

“It feels like being in the Maghreb!”

Remains from the Islamic era have been found in the cloister of the Sé Cathedral in Lisboa. Manuel Cohen / Manuel Cohen via AFP

You enter Aflama through the Escadinhas do Terreirodo Trigo, the first series of a maze of narrow streets. “It feels like being in the Maghreb!”, smiles Natalia. The smell of cod exhaled from the taverns mingles with that, a little further on, of the metal being ground by workers. Quite a symbol, for this former suburb populated by fishermen, craftsmen, goldsmiths, silk and textile merchants from the time of Al Usbûna, which has now become a tourist hotspot in perpetual work.

Going up, the old wall is revealed here and there, and our guide draws our attention to the “aldrabas”, these knockers suspended from the tiny doors and in the shape of Fatma’s hand to protect against the evil eye. “Water was central in this district and the Arabs, who imported irrigation techniques to us, thanks to the norias, for agriculture, knew how to use it”, continues Natalia. “Here, we washed, dried and sold the skins, as today in the open-air tanneries of Fez in Morocco”, continues the specialist, winding through the beco das Barrelas, the largo das Alcaçarias, then the beco dos Curtumes (“leather alley”).

We go up the small São Pedro street which, like its neighbor São Miguel, which it ends up joining, rustles with fado in the evening. Along the way, we come across several orange trees dating from Al Usbûna, which have resisted time, urbanization, and whose fruits are edible. “Have you ever eaten it?” Natália asks us, before smiling: “You will remember it.” Because Alfama oranges are bitter. “The Moors brought us other citrus fruits, vegetables, figs, almonds, but also rice…” The Portuguese, later, in turn exported the sweet orange – “portucale”, a word derived from Portugal – from China to several Arabic-speaking countries.

An imaginary journey

Azulejos (wall tiles inspired by Arabic zelliges) of Rua Arco de Jesus. Photo credit: Vincent Barros

Past the door of Alfama, you end up, opposite the famous Clube de fado, in the steps of Arco de Jesus, whose azulejos shine with all their brilliance. These earthenware, emblematic of Portuguese culture, originate from the Arab world, underlines our guide.

“Their North African equivalent, the zelliges, have identical patterns and functions.” Further on, we learn that the Sé, the cathedral, was built after the Reconquista – or the Reconquest, in 1147, of the city, thanks to the help of the Crusaders, by Dom Afonso Henriques (Alphonse I), first king of Portugal . A hero whose glory is always duly celebrated in the textbooks of the very Catholic country. “It is here, in the Gothic cloister, that at the time was the great mosque, but also a Koranic school”, says Natália, before climbing to São Jorge Castle, whose crenellated walls crown the hill of Alfama, one of the seven in the city. A castle which, in Moorish times, was part of the “alcáçova” (the kasbah), a place of administrative and military power, right in the heart of the medina. From this former Islamic district, archaeological excavations have notably made it possible to exhume, among other oriental ceramics, a Muslim cemetery.

“All the heads of the skeletons found were turned towards Mecca”, specifies Natália, who now proposes to go down again in Mouraria, the “district of the Moors”, where the latter were grouped together after the Reconquista, from the 12th century. “It was the ghetto. Tax was high there!”, reports our guide, on the threshold of a church which seems abandoned (Nossa Senhora do Socorro) and which housed, in another time, one of the 30 mosques that Al Usbûna had. Another was Rua do capelão (“of the chaplain”), where it is believed the imam lived. “An ablution basin decorated with Kufic inscriptions (one of the oldest calligraphic forms in Arabic, editor’s note) and dated from the 14th century”found nearby, suggests this.

The visit ends here, in this district similar to Alfama for its alleys and its fado, where the “tuk-tuks” loaded with tourists hurtle down and whose toponymy (rue du Jasmin, de la Rose, des Fleurs, de l ‘Almond…) “testifies to the importance of nature for the Arabs”. On leaving, after a long digression on what Portugal owes culturally to Zyriab, the teacher-researcher asks, laughing, if we appreciated… not having seen anything. “Stroll through Arab Lisbon, she concludesit’s a journey that summons the imagination.”

Vincent Barros

Beco do Jasmin (plaque erased) in the Mouraria district, where the Moors lived, hence the name of the district, after the Christian reconquest, from 1147. Photo credit: Vincent Barros

Case. On the Arab-Muslim footsteps in Europe

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