Spain and Arab countries: all about the ancient relationship

The Spanish Language

Arabic words entered the Spanish language after the invasion of modern-day Spain and Portugal during the 8th century. Many of those words are the names of goods brought to Europe by Arabs. Very few are verbs and a lot of them are everyday words that express the magnitude and impact of the Arab presence. This linguistic bond is the true beginning of the Arab Spain relationship.

The Arab presence in Spain had a huge impact on this region - it changed everything, from mathematics to the cuisine. And many of the words used to name these new products and practices made their way into modern Spanish. In fact, even some cities, regions and rivers in southern Spain can trace their names to this era: Andalucía, Guadalajara, Alhambra, Albacete, Almería, Badajoz, Guadalquivir. To this day, Spain maintains a close relationship to several Arab countries.

Did you know?

If you speak Arabic, you may in fact already know 8% of all Spanish words.

Arab influence on numbers and science

By the 8th century, Arab countries had a deep scientific knowledge, which they brought into the west. Perhaps their most lasting influence is felt on mathematics: the Arabic numerical system, from 0 to 9, is the one we still use today. Previously, all of Europe used Latin numbers.

In addition, the Arab influence was felt in advances on water storage systems, construction techniques, agricultural and piscatory practices. This influence is noted on words like algebra, algoritmo [algorithm], alquimia [alchemy], almadraba [a fence to catch tuna], cero [zero], cifra [numeral] and ajedrez [chess].

Rice, fruits and spices: the culinary arts

With crops brought from Africa and the Middle East, the Arab influence was also felt in the cuisine. Almost all the names for these new crops, fruits and spices were adopted by Spanish. Here’s a short list: albahaca [basil], albaricoque [apricot], albóndiga [meatball], azafrán [saffron], alcachofa [artichoke], arroz [rice], azúcar [sugar], café [coffee], fideo [noodles for soup], jarabe [syrup], sandía [watermelon], zanahoria [carrot] and all the citrus fruits, lima [lime], lemón [lemon], naranja [orange] and toronja [grapefruit].

Persian carpets arrive in Spain

The Arab world is well-known for its marvelous textiles. And, of course, they brought this millennial art into Al-Andalus. Alfombra [carpet], algodón [cotton] and almohada [pillow] all have their origins in Arabic.

Arab influence on Spanish music

Flamenco is one of the most traditional artforms in Spain and no one is saying otherwise. The sound of the Spanish guitars, the dance moves and the rhythm of the handclapping make it very special and unique. But música [music], guitarra [guitar] and tambor [drums] all came from Arabic. Coincidence?

The symbolic ¡Olé!

¡Olé! is one of the most popular interjections between Hispanophones. And that’s why you might be surprised to learn that its origin lies in the Arabic word Allah. It’s in good company though: ¡ojalá! [I hope; God willing] is another common Arab Spanish word (Arabic roots).

More evidence of the similiraties between Spanish and Arabic

A shared Arab-Spain history

You already know that Arabic words entered the Spanish language after the invasion of modern-day Spain and Portugal during the 8th century. And you also realized that many of those words are the names of goods brought to Europe by Arabs, very few are verbs and a lot of them are everyday words that express the magnitude and impact of the Arab presence in the region.

Arab Spain Relationship

Arabic historical influence

What you may not know yet is that this historical period was also marked by an intensive trade between Spain and the Maghreb countries and, less extensively, the Middle East. This represented a complete change from the communal and agricultural economy of the peninsula. Textiles such as silk, cotton and wool came from other Arab dominated territories, while the Peninsula itself exported metals (gold, silver), minerals extracted from rivers and artisanal products.

This prosperous time in Spain’s history is immortalized in historical buildings such as the Córdoba Mosque, the fortress of Alhambra in Granada or Giralda in Seville. Thus, Spain is one of very few countries in the west to incorporate Islamic traditions into its culture.

Spain’s ties to Morocco

Spain and Morocco have one natural border: the Strait of Gibraltar, which is to say 14.3 km or 35 minutes by ferry. Rabat is much closer to Madrid than most European capitals.

For centuries, Spain tried to take control over cities in northern Africa. In fact, until 1956, Spain was still fighting for its protectorate in Morocco - a reality portrayed in the 2009 bestseller El Tiempo Entre Costuras by Maria Dueñas.

Since then, Spain has maintained two autonomous cities completely surrounded by Moroccan territory, Ceuta and Melilla, and both monarchies enjoy a close and peaceful relationship. As of 2016, many Spanish companies are investing in northern Africa and vice-versa. There has even been talks of building a tunnel to cross the Mediterranean!

La Casa Árabe - The Arab House

Apart from the great relationships between the Spanish Royal House and the monarchies of many Gulf nations, such as the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Spain is also the home of Casa Árabe [the Arab House].

This organization was founded by the Spanish government and works as an intercultural  meeting place between Arab countries and Spain. Living up to Spain’s Islamic tradition, its functions extend far beyond the political sphere. It promotes economic and cooperation programs, cultural events, Arabic classes and it even opened a restaurant. No other country has a similar institution sponsored by the state.

Latin America and Arab countries

Latin American countries like Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela are emerging markets with whom Spain enjoys a privileged relationship and whose official language is Spanish. At the same time, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are Arabic-speaking countries on the rise who are now the home of many highly qualified Spanish emigrants.

As these two groups of countries have very few relationships with one another, Spain is now trying to bring them together and build strong coalitions between the Hispanophone world and attractive Arab markets.

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