Uncovering Portugalʹs Islamic roots

Where Christians pray facing Mecca

Archaeologists in Mertola have spent the last 40 years looking for traces of Portugalʹs Islamic past. What they found shows that Islam is not alien to Europe and has in fact deeply influenced Portuguese history and culture. By Marta Vidal

When archaeologist Claudio Torres first visited Mertola, a small town in the south of Portugal, he stumbled upon broken pieces of pottery near the old townʹs medieval castle. The area on top of a steep hill on the banks of the Guadiana River had been abandoned for several centuries.

Near the ruins, he saw an imposing church with whitewashed walls and horseshoe arches. In its vaulted interior a mihrab, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca, showed that the church had once been a mosque.

"We realised there were very important traces of the Islamic period in Mertola and quickly started excavations," says Torres, who first visited the town with the historian Antonio Borges Coelho in 1976. The ceramic shards they found under a fig tree turned out to be important Islamic artefacts.

In the 8th century, Muslim armies sailed from North Africa and took control of much of what is now Portugal and Spain. Muslims would rule over a big part of the Iberian Peninsula, known in Arabic as al-Andalus, for several centuries before losing territory to Christian kingdoms.

After the discovery of ceramics from the Andalus period, a team of archaeologists, researchers and students came to Mertola every summer to look for traces of Portugalʹs Islamic history.

Portuguese archaeologist and founder of the Archaeological Field of Mertola, Claudio Torres (photo: Marta Vidal)
Islam not imposed by force, but spread through trade: based on the belief of a common past between Portugal and North Africa, Claudio Torresʹ work tries to de-bunk the concept of Muslims as invaders and Islam as something foreign to Europe. For Torres, the best example of co-existence is Mertolaʹs church – also Portugalʹs best preserved medieval mosque – where Christians still pray facing in the direction of Mecca

"We discovered that Mertola was more important than we had ever imagined," says Torres. The townʹs river port made it a major regional capital, which went into decline after the 13th century.

The significance of the remains found led Torres to establish the Archaeological Field of Mertola in 1978 and move to Mertola permanently with his family.

Since then, archaeologists have uncovered rare Islamic ceramics, a 12th century Almohad quarter and a 6th century baptistry. Mertola now holds one of Portugalʹs most important Islamic art collections. From an impoverished town in a marginalised region of Portugal, it has been transformed into a museum town visited by tens of thousands every year.

But what was discovered in Mertola had much wider implications. It showed deep connections between Europe and Islam and challenged the way history is told in Portugal.

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Comments for this article: Where Christians pray facing Mecca

Quote: "In the 8th century, Muslim armies sailed from North Africa and took control of much of what is now Portugal and Spain". Very euphemistic. I presume that was a bloody, murderous, unprovoked war of conquest, after which Sharia law imposed, with Christians relegated to second class dhimmi status.
Quote: "National identity was constructed in opposition to the Muslim". Why not? Muslim identity was constructed in opposition to the Christian dhimmi.
Torresʹ work tries to debunk conceptions of Muslims as invaders. That must be very hard to do, seeing that they were invaders, and invaders with a supremacist ideology at that.

Mikel Kritzinger31.05.2019 | 21:13 Uhr

It would also be interesting to excavate the Christian (Nestorian) basilicas in contemporary Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Where was the Maryam chapel in the Ka'aba, etc.

Gied ten Berge,...19.06.2019 | 07:34 Uhr

For many centuries, the Arab countries have been home to Christians, Muslims, and Jews living side by side.

bassam12.07.2019 | 19:40 Uhr