Photo: Tharik Hussein

The Portuguese Journey: Muslims are a visible part of the public sphere in Western Europe

In the mid-1990s, the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago dedicated a famous travel book to his homeland. The writer had travelled through the country for months and reported on Portugal’s cultural richness with ironic anecdotes, in various stories. The declared atheist and communist visited countless churches on his journey, the architecture of which fascinated him time and again. The result is an account of a voyage of discovery that reminds us of the wonder of human achievement and creative power. Although the prominent author shows no resentment towards other cultures, it is noticeable that Samarago only mentions Islamic history in passing, as the country was dominated by Muslims for a long time from the 8th century onwards.

He did visit various cities founded by the Moors, especially in the Algarve, whose name derives from the Islamic word “west,” but without going into the relevant urban histories of these places. He admires the old castle in Silves, walks through the Arabic-influenced old town of Loulé or visits the church of Mertola, but without getting involved with the recognisable architectural structures of the old mosque there. Many travelers discovering the country today feel the same way as the poet. The Islamic heritage is buried, only rarely is this background explicitly mentioned at the sights, and the traces of Muslim civilisation are usually only remembered by ruins. There is a lack of literature on the complicated history of Andalusia. Under these circumstances, knowledge of the Islamic heritage and the civilisational achievements of this era was for a long time reserved for experts.

For some years now, Portugal’s government has been trying harder to emphasise this unknown part of its own history. Small museums have sprung up in the Algarve that present archaeological finds from the Moorish period. Sometimes, many Portuguese words that originate from Arabic are explained in the rooms. Throughout the country, attempts are being made, at least at the historical sites, to give more content to this phase of their own history. It is mainly local communities that are becoming active here.

A few weeks ago, the municipality in Loulé, a town in the hinterland of Faro, lovingly ruined its old bathhouse. In the display cases, Qur’anic verses about washing prayers are quoted and clay bowls that Muslims used for everyday cleansing are presented. It becomes clear to many visitors here that the Islamic way of life, with its rites of faith, goes hand in hand with a high level of civilisation. In the hamam, for example, one learns that various forms of aroma therapy were practised during this time. The places one visits in the city give a fragmentary picture. In the local museum, one searches in vain for plans or historical drawings that explain the Islamic infrastructure of that time in its entirety. There is undoubtedly a need to catch up here. The cultural administration is trying to supplement its own historiography with the forgotten chapter, because, as one is informed when asked, there are plans to publish books in various languages about the heritage. So far, there is hardly any information material in Loulé that classifies the Arabic-influenced old town, the castle, the minaret that now adorns the church, and the bathing complex. At the same time, many travellers who appreciate this area not only for its beaches are interested in learning more about this period.

Many tourists visiting Loulé today are impressed by the market hall, built in neo-Moorish style at the beginning of the 20th century (1908). The building, now connected to the town hall, is not only the eye-catcher of the town, but an attempt to revive successful economic practices of the past. Every Saturday, the market hustle and bustle in the hall is complemented by stalls in the adjacent streets. Here there are regional vendors, with sustainable products, food from organic cultivation and much more. The layout is reminiscent of the civilisational origins of every city. The connection between mosque, synagogue or church and the local market – usually located in the immediate vicinity – can be admired in many places in Europe and is an essential aspect of urban development.

The municipality of Loulé spent three years extensively renovating the market hall and opened it in 2007 in new splendour. Their presentation says of its importance: “The market is the central meeting point for sellers and buyers of every urban community, traditionally transforming itself into a social centre that truly represents the city.”

Artist Salvador Santos describes the timeless impact of this phenomenon, which is not just about commercial interests. A communication platform is created, he argues, where people, whether they are local or from abroad and beyond their confessional background, support, get to know and exchange ideas. The participating traders, in turn, are for him the “ambassadors” of the region. Walking through the market hall, which is always filled with life, is a unique shopping experience for many visitors. Few are aware that this is a common heritage of all religions and civilisations. Time does not stand still in the Algarve either. Just outside the city gates, as everywhere else in Europe, there are numerous supermarkets and outlet centres. Their offers are cheaper, they have great market power, they form monopolies, but they do not fulfil the social role of the original market. And, as one hears from critics, in the shopping centres at the gates of the cities, only a few, supra-regional retail chains become the profiteers of local purchasing power, while the complex in the old towns gives hundreds of suppliers free access to trade. We will see how the local market culture develops under the economic conditions of the 21st century.

The town of Mertola, located in the province of Alentejo, has been turning to its Islamic heritage for years. The Arabs and Berbers known as Moors conquered the region between 712 and 714. The local church is architecturally based on an old mosque, the five-nave building erected by the new rulers shortly after their arrival. The exact location of the marketplace, which Muslims traditionally established with the place of worship, is not known here. In 1238, King Sancho II ended the 500-year rule of the Moors. The city, which is well worth a visit, is full of cultural assets and traces from the various eras. But, the town does not only understand itself from the past.

For years, the city administration has organised an extremely successful Islamic festival. A fixed part of the programme is a large market, to which many traders travel from neighbouring Spain. They are supported by the city by offering organisational help and free accommodation to the exhibitors. Muslims are engaged and involved in this event, not least to present the social and economic dimensions of Islam. Similar to Loulé, the market event proves to be an informal meeting place for locals and tourists. The festival has long been one of the symbols of Islam in Portugal and is an important part of the cultural programme of the whole country. Such activities are probably the reason why Islamophobic voices in society are not listened to or welcomed much. The event is not only mentioned on national television, it also offers the opportunity to listen to lectures about Islam. The speakers, many of them Spanish and Portuguese Muslims, remind us that they were and are part of European history. The thesis that Islam is a foreign religion is thus factually contradicted.

If the benevolent climate continues, it is a matter of time before mosques again enrich the whole country. So far, it is mainly the central mosque in Lisbon that reminds us that practising Muslims still live in Portugal today. Various Islamic countries support the building in the capital, which was completed in 1985. In many other places, the faithful meet for prayer in less suitable premises. Thus, it will remain a challenge to give their presence a new architectural expression and formal language in the country. The future of Muslims will depend on becoming a more visible and active part of urban society again. The achievement of political leaders, such as in Mertola, is to have recognised early on the social and constructive potential of Muslims for their region.

One thing is certain, Portugal, famous for its nature, its water landscapes, its sights, its history, is today once again a melting pot of civilisations and cultures.

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