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John Bonner

Who Were the Moors?

A.D. 630-711

In order that you shall understand something of the people who conquered Spain nearly twelve hundred years ago, and who held the best part of it for over seven hundred years, I must tell you something of their origin.

In the deserts of Arabia, where a tropical sun scorches vast stretches of sand, divided from each other by bare mountain ranges, and grass and trees only grow round a well or spring, to which the traveller, choked with dust or sickened by breathing air which is full of sulphur and salt, staggers at the close of a sultry day's march, in order to camp for the night. In these deserts wandering tribes of dark-faced men, with their wives, their children, their servants, their horses, their camels, and their flocks and herds, lived as long ago as history remembers. They were Arabs of the Desert. They rarely ventured out of their country, and strangers seldom visited them. They were not barbarians. In their lonely life they had studied many things, among others astronomy, mathematics, and poetry. They lived so close to Nature that their minds inclined to thoughts of God. They were brave and warlike, hardened to fatigue, and, like all natives of barren regions, they could live on a few dates, or a frijole, on which others would have starved.


A Moorish Fort.

Among these Arabs there appeared, in the first quarter of the seventh century, a teacher whose name was Mahomet, or Mohammed. He proclaimed to the Arabs a new religion, which was based on the Old Testament. It differed from Christianity in that it did not admit the divinity of Christ, but it resembled Christianity in that it declared there was but one God. It also declared that Mahomet was his prophet. The general rules of life which this new religion proclaimed were much like the rules of Christ, though it did not forbid the Eastern practice of marrying more than one wife, and did forbid the use of wine. It enjoined three chief duties: the duty of prayer, the duty of self-denial, and the duty of charity.

Such a religion was a vast improvement upon the religions which the Eastern nations had professed. After a few years' consideration the Arabs embraced it; and having embraced it, they resolved to spread it through the world by force of arms. In this enterprise they were surprisingly successful. In a few years they overran Syria, Persia, Egypt, and the whole of Northern Africa, and made the people adopt their faith. It looked at one time as though Mahometanism, or Moslemism, was going to supersede Christianity.

The chief holy city of the Moslem Church was Mecca, in Arabia; but when the Moslems began to conquer territory, their chief ruler resided at Damascus, in Syria. He was called a caliph, which means a successor, and he was so called to indicate that he was a successor of Mahomet. He was, in fact, a Moslem Pope, with temporal as well as spiritual power. He gave orders to the Moslem armies wherever they were; his authority extended from the Indus to the Atlantic Ocean. After a time the caliphs removed from Damascus to Bagdad. I dare say you have read in story-books accounts of one of the caliphs of Bagdad who used to go round in disguise to see how his officers performed their duties, and to hear what people said of him.

These Arabs had long led contented lives in their barren country, surrounded by their children, their fleet horses, and their tireless camels. There was no distinction of rank among them. All dressed alike, ate the same food, bore the same privations with the same fortitude. They were hospitable to the stranger, and merciful to the prisoner. In speech they were courteous. They loved poetry, and well knew the books of the Old Testament. When Mahomet roused them to undertake the spread of their religion by the invasion of other countries, and they enlarged their minds by mixing with foreigners, the Moslem Arabs became admirable soldiers, capable of long marches on short rations, unconscious of fear, and submissive to discipline. Their swift horsemen were the terror of an enemy. In peace they were patient, intelligent workers. They farmed their lands with skill, and toiled with unceasing industry. They made fine cloths of silk and wool and linen. They forged steel swords which have not been surpassed in temper by the best weapons of our day. They knew much, for the times in which they lived, of various sciences. It is from the language they used that we borrowed such words as alphabet, algebra, and alchemy; and with the names we borrowed the first rudiments of the things. They invented the numerals we use. You will see, as we go on with this Child's History, that they were at one time the most learned people in the world.


Mosque of Medina, containing the Prophet's tomb.

The Moors who invaded Spain in the year 711 were a branch of these Moslem Arabs. They were called Moors by the Christians, because they embarked for the enterprise from ports in Morocco, and also because a considerable number of them were natives of that country. Musa and Tarik were Arabs, born in Asia; but many of their regiments consisted of Berbers, who were men of the Arab race, born and bred in Northern Africa.

You have already learned what manner of people they found in Spain. At this time the Goths and the native races had completely blended into one race—Spaniards. Four or five hundred years before the Moors came Spain was a centre of elegant Roman civilization. Learning was general, manners were polished, letters were cultivated, fine cities had been built with splendid adornments, and rich people lived in luxurious villas, in which life was a dream of pleasure. At that time, too, the poor were not to be pitied, for everybody had or could have a farm; nor were the Spanish soldiers to be despised, for they could hold their own against any foe.

But by the beginning of the eighth century vast changes had taken place. Luxury had ruined the rich, and brought the poor to the verge of starvation. The earnings of the farmer were taken by nobles, to be spent in riotous living. Feuds between family and family constantly turned whole sections of the country into a wilderness. No Spaniard could tell when he might be called out to fight in a quarrel which was not his own. No one could go to bed sure that his vineyard and his wheat-field would not be ravaged in the night-time by an enemy. No father of a family could feel certain he would not be stabbed in the back as he filled his water-pail, or that a band of marauders would not carry off his daughters.

Of course, when such confusion prevailed, farming was difficult, industry slow, and education impossible. The Spaniards forgot how to read. The science of war was lost when there were no armies, and everybody was skirmishing on his own account. Courage died out when people fell into the way of stabbing each other from behind. Even the national spirit, exhausted by never-ending misery, faded out of existence, and the old Spanish love of country, which had taught the men of Saguntum to die rather than to surrender to Hannibal, had become a dim tradition.

You must remember these contrasts if you wish to understand the remaining chapters of this book.