Mörcìc of Rijeka

The Moors were foot soldiers of the Ummayad dynasties of Syria who crossed the straits of Gibraltar into the Iberian peninsula. Later in that period, two new dynasties emerged: the Almoravids and the Almohads. They are said to have come from the Senegal river valley of West Africa.

What surprises me is that even though the Moors were largely Arabs and Berbers, the Europeans seem to have imagined them in a somewhat contradictory and unflattering way. There is a book by John V. Tolan which explains what I'm trying to say. It is titled Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination.

The Song of Roland is an epic poem based on the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778, during the reign of Charlemagne. It is the oldest surviving major of French literature. Below are some excepts that demonstrate the contradictions I'm talking about.


.... Then canters forth with all his great army.

Canters before a Sarrazin, Abisme,

More felon none was in that company;

Cankered with guile and every felony,

He fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary;

Black is that man as molten pitch that seethes;

Better he loves murder and treachery

Than to have all the gold of Galicie;...


... And Ethiope, a cursed land indeed;

The blackamoors from there are in his keep,

Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear,

Fifty thousand and more in company.

These canter forth with arrogance and heat,

Then they cry out the pagans’ rallying-cheer....

Such discipline of Sarrazins he’ll see,

For one of ours he’ll find them dead fifteen;


When Rollant sees those misbegotten men,

Who are more black than ink is on the pen

With no part white, only their teeth except,

Then says that count: “I know now very well

That here to die we’re bound, as I can tell....

This is a short documentary of the Moorish contributions to Europe. It also highlights the darkness which surrounds European perceptions of this period and the Moorish people.

Blackamoors is a decorative art form that arose as a result of the 800 year Islamist domination of Iberia. In this art form, Arabs and Berbers seem to be largely missing.

From a historians point of view, what is the reason for the disappearance of the Arab rulers from European imagination (artists and writers) and their replacement with subsaharan African slaves

Flag of the Sardinia "Slaves" depicted with crowns Subsaharan "slaves" playing chess

  • 8
    Questions that ask "Why don't people see things the way I do" (and really, most "why" questions in general) are too opinion-based to be answerable. Do you think you could recast this question to ask something more concrete?
    – Spencer
    Oct 8, 2018 at 14:04
  • 4
    I see two factors you might think about. First, Islam basically forbids depictions of the human form (and often animals), so the outside world had little to go on. Second, what you're seeing in the blackamoor art are depictions of slaves (mostly if not entirely non-Islamic) originating from sub-Saharan Africa. You're just being confused by the misapplication of a name, similarly to the use of Indian for both the inhabitants of a subcontinent and the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas..
    – jamesqf
    Oct 8, 2018 at 16:50
  • 4
    Two points: (1) Moors who look like your own neighbors will be much less vividly remembered than ones who look markedly different. and (2) Moors who look like your neighbors may well be assumed to be captive (or turncoat) Spaniards, while Moors who look different can only be the foreign invaders.
    – Mark Olson
    Oct 8, 2018 at 21:15
  • I wonder how many writers and painters have ever seen a Moor, let alone know more broadly the various ethnic groups among the Moors.
    – Greg
    Dec 8, 2021 at 18:35

3 Answers 3


The "Moors" were a very diverse group.

The first invading "Moors" were Arabs and Berbers from North Africa, the Berbers being descended from the Moors of Classical antiquity and thus probably mostly looking like other Mediterranean people.

A lot of native Spaniards converted to Islam over the centuries, and so a lot of "Moors" looked like native Spaniards and no different from Christian Spaniards.

Muslim invaders and later immigrants intermarried with native Spanish converts to Islam and with Christian and Jewish Spaniards.

Furthermore, rich Muslims including monarchs usually had a number of slave concubines, often imported from thousands of miles away, who usually became the mothers of their sons and heirs.

So if a Muslim monarch had a black African slave mother and a black African slave grandmother, he would be three quarters sub Saharan African and look a lot like a sub Saharan African.

And if a Muslim monarch had a pale skinned blonde northern slave mother and a pale skinned blonde northern slave grandmother, he would be three quarters northern and look a lot like a pale skinned blonde northern person.

Thus the Umayyad Caliph of Cordoba Abd ar-Rahmin III (889/91-961) whose mother was a Christian slave and grandmother was a Christian princess, had white skin, blue eyes, and light hair and beard, which he dyed black to look more Arab.

The movie The Long Ships (1964) features vikings vs Muslims. Sidney Poitier, an African-American, portrays a "Moorish" ruler of a land that might be in Spain and/or in Morocco, since it is not too far from the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar). There is a Scandinavian king Harald in the movie who I thought was supposed to be King Harald I the Fairhaired (reigned c.872-932) of Norway but is said in some sources to be King Harald I Bluetooth (r. c. 958/59-958/86) of Denmark.

If by that time an Arab ruler could look like a northern European as Caliph Abd ar-Rahmin III did another Muslim Arab or Berber ruler in that era could have looked like an African-American if he was descended from enough sub Saharan slave women. But I doubt if the filmmakers were thinking about that; they were probably influenced by the stereotype of "Moors" being very dark.

By this time Muslim armies were largely composed of foreign slaves and ex slaves. The foreign slaves and ex slaves in the Abbasid Caliph's armies in Iraq were mostly Turks from central Asia. In the case of Cordoba the slave and ex slave soldiers were 1) Slavs, some blonde and blue eyed, and 2) black Africans. Strife between the Slav and African soldiers contributed to the eventual collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain.

Thus by about 950 AD the Muslim leaders and warriors who interacted with Spanish Christians in peace and war could look like anything from light skinned blue eyed blond northern Europeans to black skinned, black eyed, and black haired sub Saharan Africans.

In the 11th Century the Muslim Taifa states in Spain called for help against the Christian kingdoms from the Almoravids of Morocco, who invaded and conquered the Muslim Taifa kingdoms and drove the Christians back to Northern Spain. When the Almoravid power in Spain decayed and new Taifa kingdoms emerged, the Christian kingdoms attacked them and the Taifas called for help from the new power in Morocco, the Almohads, who invaded, conquered the Muslim Taifas, and drove the Christians back to northern Spain.

Many warriors in the later invading Almoravid and Almohad armies were black Africans from south of the Sahara Desert.

And because the sub Saharan African Muslim warriors were the most exotic looking Muslim warriors they probably became stereotyped as the typical Muslim enemies. Some Muslim warriors in Spain looked just like Christian Spaniards, and some looked slightly foreign, and some looked more foreign, but the black African Muslim Warriors in Spain looked the most exotic and foreign, and so would have become the model for artists wanting to stereotype Muslim enemies as foreign and exotic.

  • Was Shakespeare also following the popular stereotype of his day. I never would have believed that the Moors were black until I came across the Desdemona complex (The so called attraction of black men to white women). On further reading, I discovered that the black man in this scenario was Shakespeare's Othello, a Moor. He was black! Was he a slave?, Descended from subsaharan slaves? How did subsaharans enter into English literature centuries before colonialism, centuries before they could cross the sahara? So that is the disconnect. Arabs are missing from the perceptive of Moors in Europe.
    – user20490
    Oct 8, 2018 at 21:25
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    @user20490 As for Shakespeare's Othello, you might find this Guardian article about Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri, who has been postulated as a possible model for Othello, of interest. Oct 9, 2018 at 1:58
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    @user20490 Shakespeare's works are basically a walking collection of stereotypes written by someone who frankly never traveled outside England. Absolutely great literature, but reflective of very little beyond the attitudes of an Englishman of his age. Even his depiction of Italy (the place where most of the sources for his stories came from!) is heavily stereotyped... Oct 9, 2018 at 9:31
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    @user20490: Re ",,,centuries before they could cross the sahara", while the English may not have been able to cross the Sahara in those days, the Arab world had considerable trade with sub-Saharan Africa, including the importation of many slaves.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 9, 2018 at 16:01
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    @jamesqf Why then are the slaves jewelled in European art. Why are the slaves patron saints. Why are the slaves on the flag of Sardinia and Corsica. Why are the slaves in Shakespeare's Othello, alphonso of Aragon and in the song of Roland. Why are the slaves the ones being stabbed in the neck (William of orange killed the Giant Ysore and depicted it). Why were the slaves the ones surrendering the country in numerous artistic and literary depictions. Why are the arabs nowhere in the popular narrative. Why are the slaves wearing crowns and on the crests/coat of arms. It's baffling. Europeans!!
    – user20490
    Oct 9, 2018 at 16:33

I believe it was the exotic nature they were going for. Moor came to equate with foreign and negroid people were the most foreign looking at the time. There is also St Maurice who was depicted as Negroid from at least the 13th century. His depiction varies from Roman soldier to negro dressed as a knight. While the original St Maurice came from Thebes, Egypt, his name was likely conflated with Moorish during medieval times where the word later became synonymous with foreign.

You can also compare Morris Dancing where the word Morris is thought to derive from Moorish though this could be conflating the words due to similarity like Maurice. Morris dances often involved a blackface character so there could be another coincidental link there. The blackface character could share origins with the Zwarte Piete of The Netherlands.

  • 1
    Coincidence? It seems like the coincidences are just too much. Another coincidence is the fact that the word "Moor" comes from the greek word "Mauro" which means "dark-skinned".
    – user20490
    Oct 9, 2018 at 3:10
  • Dark skinned does not equal negro though. The early depictions of the Carthaginians, Berbers and Moorish cavalry show them as caucasians as are the modern populations.
    – Daniel
    Oct 12, 2018 at 7:31
  • The word Negro is a derivative of the latin word "Niger" which means black. So Negroes are just black skinned people according to the etymology of the word.
    – user20490
    Oct 12, 2018 at 14:17
  • Read the song of Roland excerpts that I placed in the question. Roland described the Moors as being "black as ink with no part white but their teeth". He also said that they came from "Ethiope the cursed land, their noses are flat and their ears are large".
    – user20490
    Oct 12, 2018 at 14:19
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    The Song of Roland is a largely fictional account based on a real event and the earliest record of it is two and a half centuries after the event. Hardly a good source for anything other than what 11th century writers considered fantastical. The actual battle was between Basques and Franks, there were no Moslems involved.
    – Daniel
    Oct 13, 2018 at 4:12

The key is the theoretical term "Imaginary." The imaginary is a post-structuralist influenced term which claims that cultures have, effectively, a collective subconscious. As you note the "imaginary" of the Muslim from North Africa stabilised on a black or dark depiction long before the triangle trade reformed Western European racism on an economic basis. The depiction is entirely unrelated to the reality of people in North Africa and entirely related to what lay in North Western European cultures.

We know from urban accounts in North Western Europe, and from Shakespeare, that "the Moor" or dark skinned people weren't viewed through triangle trade racism. So I'd suggest a combination of traditional saints depictions, "Africa" being distant and indirectly experienced, and an accumulated tradition casting "the Moor" as other.

  • Were the Moors black? It doesn't make any sense for the slaves to appear on flags, crests and coat of arms. It doesn't make sense for the slaves to be be wearing crowns, emeralds and other precious jewels in European art. It looks like there is something we are missing. The men who lit the fires of the Inquisition, who tried to expunge the Moors from history have done a great disservice to the study of that history.
    – user20490
    Oct 9, 2018 at 22:58
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    Oh I see now, you're pushing a barrow here about black moslems in Europe, you're not really interested in the allegory or symbolism that underpins depictions of Moors as black.
    – Daniel
    Oct 13, 2018 at 4:14
  • @Daniel Then explain the allegory. Why are the arabs and Berbers not in the art. If the song of Roland is fictional, then it means we cannot trust eye witness accounts from medieval Europe. What then are we to trust. If we cannot believe the art, the poems, the literature etc. Then what should we believe?
    – user20490
    Oct 21, 2018 at 21:04
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    @user20490 Writers of fiction are not eye witness accounts. The point of researching history is determining if the sources are accurate or not and that includes whether you're dealing with fiction or not. Ancient Greeks are not unreliable eye witnesses because the Homeric epics include supernatural events. The Iliad is fiction which has been shown to be based on real events but is ultimately a work of fiction. That doesn't detract from actual historians like Herodotus writing about events. Two very different things.
    – Daniel
    Oct 24, 2018 at 21:37
  • @Daniel What about in cases where the eye witness accounts are corroborated by artistic work, by linguistics etc.
    – user20490
    Oct 26, 2018 at 16:25

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