Moorish Architecture in Portugal

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, learn about the defining characteristics of Moorish architecture that developed in Portugal during the Islamic occupation between the 8th-12th centuries. Also, explore some buildings of this period that are still standing.

Moorish architecture

Portugal was once considered the end of the world, as it was the westernmost point of the known world of the time and the final frontier of the Islamic expansion. Those 500 years of Islamic occupation have left traces of military and religious architecture that can still be seen today. Let's find out more.

The word Moorish refers to the culture of the Muslim people who dominated the Iberian Peninsula, today's Spain and Portugal, between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries. The Moorish period in Portugal lasted until the twelfth century when the Arabs were expelled by the Catholic armies. During the Moorish occupation, military architecture flourished and many fortresses were built.

Characteristics of Moorish Architecture in Portugal

Materials and Techniques

In Portuguese Moorish architecture, constructions were often made of adobe, a material made of earth and straw. Rammed earth, a technique for building walls by compressing earth inside a mold, was also frequently used during this period. The walls were usually covered in white stucco; a calcium material that continues to be used today.

Castle of Paderne, near Albufeira
Castle of Paderne, near Albufeira

Additionally, arches were a commonly used constructive element; the horseshoe arch, in particular, was very characteristic of Islamic architecture. Arches were used to support ceilings, frame doorways and windows, and sometimes just for decoration.

Castles

The Moors constructed many castles, especially in the southern region of Algarve, to defend the land they had conquered. Military buildings were usually located on top of hills and other strategic places, which allowed the Moors to better protect their territories and trade routes.

Castles often had two lines of walls, which consisted of an outer wall to protect the surroundings, and the interior wall to protect the main buildings. The layout of the walls followed the natural topography of the terrain. The upper openings of the walls, known as merlons, were square shaped. Square towers were built on strategic points along the wall.

The main building of the military buildings was often the residence of the ruler and was also used for storing food and valuable goods. Water tanks or cisterns were built under the castles to guarantee the availability of water during sieges. Water was collected from openings on the roof. In different ruins, vestiges of sewage systems have been found, suggesting there were sophisticated water systems.

Religous Structures

Mosques have always been an important theme for Islamic architecture. Portuguese Moorish religious buildings had a square plan layout. The minarets, or towers for announcing the time for prayers were usually built on the corner. The direction towards Mecca was indicated by a small niche on the main wall, known as mihrab. These two elements usually projected from the main walls.

Some small Moorish tombs for important spiritual individuals, known as marabouts, still stand today, especially in southern areas. These tombs were small square structures with a dome. Most of them have been transformed into Catholic chapels.

Drawing of the traditional tomb of a marabout
Drawing of the traditional tomb of a marabout

Decorative Motifs

Some ornaments are still visible in Portuguese Moorish constructions. Decorative elements were mostly surface decorations made with detailed patterns formed by intertwining lines; known as arabesques. They had geometric and floral motifs. The patterns used for decoration were based on simple shapes, repeated in symmetrical arrays.

Examples of Moorish architecture in Portugal

Most of the Islamic constructions in Portugal have been lost throughout the years. After the Catholics expelled the Arabs, most buildings were intensely remodeled, and only a few original structures are still standing. Unlike in neighboring Spain, the existing examples are not so well preserved.

Castle of the Moors near Lisbon (8th to 9th centuries)

This military structure was built on top of a mountain to protect the population and the agricultural land around it. It has a double line of walls that run irregularly along the sloped terrain. The inner line of walls has rectangular defensive towers. Inside the inner walls are the ruins of what once was the main building of the castle, where it is possible to see the cistern and the remains of cellars and grain storage silos.

Castle of the Moors, near Lisbon
Castle of the Moors, near Lisbon

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