John Florens | Dec 18, 2022

Table of Content


Moor is a term of popular and colloquial use, which may or may not have pejorative connotations, depending on both the sender and the receiver, to designate, without clear distinction between religion, ethnicity or culture, the natives of northwest Africa or Maghreb (Arabic expression that includes all of West Africa north of the Sahara: the current Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and even Libya).

Used by Greek and Roman authors to designate the North African peoples inhabiting the ancient kingdom of Mauritania and the ancient Roman provinces of Mauritania Tingitana and Mauritania Caesariense. Since the Middle Ages the term Moors has been used, even in cultured literature, to designate an imprecise group of human groups: both the Iberian Muslims (Andalusians, confronted during the long historical period called Reconquest -eighth to fifteenth centuries- to the peninsular Christian kingdoms), and the Berbers, Arabs or Muslims from other areas (even those of black race (such as Shakespeare in Othello: The Moor of Venice, in a usage more typical of Elizabethan England) or to anyone of dark complexion (as in the nickname of the condotiero Ludovico Sforza, called Ludovico il Moro).

Land of the Moors was the name given to the territory dominated by Muslims, especially in medieval Muslim Spain, but also in any other place or time, in a usage equivalent to the Islamic concept of Dar al-Islam.

The term "Moor" was not always applied in a derogatory manner, but rather, depending on the context, in a positive and even admiring way.

Used in the ethnography of the 18th and 19th centuries to generically designate the populations of the Maghreb (with greater or lesser precision in terms of skin color -more or less "brown" or dark-, hair color and shape -more or less black and curly-, cephalic index or other anthropometric measurements), the use of the terms Moor or Moorish race with this meaning fell into disuse with the advance of science and has no scientific validity in recent ethnography. The same denominator of appearance, moreno derives from moro, as does Mauri in the original Greco-Latin from which they derive. Nevertheless, it is still in common and official use (even statistically) in the denomination of very diverse population groups in a large area of Northwest Africa, not only north of the Sahara, but also in Mauritania, Senegal, Mali and Niger. In other far-flung parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the term Moro is used to designate populations of Muslim religion with no ethnic connection to the Maghreb.

The Spanish word "moro" comes from the Latin maurus and this in turn from the Greek máuros (even today in modern Greek mávros-mávri is the masculine-feminine adjective for black. It is not clear whether it was this use as an adjective that originated the name of the gentilicio or the other way around.

The etymological meaning of "oscuro" was reserved in Spanish for the related form "moreno", although it was preserved in locutions such as hierba mora (Solanum nigrum), whose fruit is black, for the dark fruit of the blackberry, or for a type of equine coat (black with a white spot on the forehead and shoes on some legs).

In Castilian usage, Moorish wine is unbaptized wine, that is, wine that has not been mixed with water. The word morapio is also used colloquially to refer to wine, although the DRAE does not include for this word any link with moro, not even as a derogatory, but only one definition: that of dark, red wine; and despite this it is not supposed to be derived from Latin or Greek, but from the Andalusian Arabic *murabbí, and this from the classical Arabic murabbà, electuario, for murabbab, made arrope.

There is also no etymological relation of the word moro with the words morabito and almorávide, whose sonority and semantic field are, nevertheless, close. The former refers to a kind of Muslim hermit and his place of retreat. The Dictionary of the Spanish Language (DRAE) refers that its origin is from the classical Arabic murābiṭ, member of a rabida. From this usage the second was derived, although the DRAE specifies that this word comes from the Hispanic Arabic almurábiṭ, and this from the classical Arabic murābiṭ, cantoned.

The words derived from "moro" are very numerous in Spanish, and have generated all kinds of toponyms, anthroponyms, phytonyms, zoonyms, etc.

Ancient Age

The Greek geographer Strabo speaks of these North African populations, saying that they were called "maurisi" by the Greeks and "mauri" by the Romans.

According to the Roman historian Sallust, the Moors (Mauri) were one of the peoples that formed part of Hercules' army on his journey to the western end of the Mediterranean, along with Persians, Armenians and Medes. After this mythological origin, they would have mixed with the local populations of Getulia (Zenates, Berber groups of today's Maghreb), settling in the mountains of Morocco, the Algerian Aurès and Libya.

The term Moors is also used by the Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea and by the Roman-African St. Augustine to designate the non-Romanized population of Aures, among other indigenous populations revolted against Rome. Flavius Cresconius Corypius names a group of peoples of the same area, revolted against the Empire of Justinian I (6th century), as Ifuraces. In contrast, the indigenous populations favorable to the Roman regime are designated with the term Afris. These Afris or Ifrenids are later called Banū Ifrēn or Ait Ifren, within the group of the Zenets or Getuls.

As famed horsemen, Moorish and Numidian mercenaries served extensively in the cavalries of the armies of antiquity. In the Punic Wars they were recruited by both Carthaginians (Syphax) and Romans (Masinissa). Yugurta, who took as his wife the daughter of one of the Moorish kings (Boco I), benefited for some time from their support, but was left in the hands of his enemies as soon as he asked them for asylum.

The kingdom of Mauritania was converted into Roman Mauritania after being conquered and constituted into two imperial provinces (Mauritania Tingitana - western part, corresponding to present-day Morocco - and Mauritania Caesariense - central part, corresponding to present-day Algeria -) under Caligula (years 37 and 41, respectively). The easternmost part of today's Maghreb did not fall under the denomination of Mauritania and was organized in the provinces of Numidia and Africa (areas of today's Algeria, Tunisia and Libya).

The Moors employed as auxiliary troops contributed to establish the pax romana in Gaul and settled in Roman colonies. The Notitia Dignitatum (beginning of the 5th century) reflects them cantoned in Armorica, with the name of mauri veneti and mauri osismiaci, after the Veneti and Osismiaci, whose territories they occupied. Several localities called Mortaigne or Mortagne in present-day France and Belgium derive their name from Mauretania, although the etymology dead water has also been proposed.

Moors were Roman generals like Gildo, rebelled against Rome; or Lusius Quietus, defined by Dion Cassius as a Moor and chief of Moorish soldiers, and whom Trajan would have thought to choose as successor, according to some authors. Quietus and his Moorish cavalry are immortalized in the Trajan column. There was even an ephemeral Moorish emperor: Macrinus.

Partially Romanized and later Christianized (from the 3rd century), the Moors were among those subject to persecutions prior to the declaration of Christianity as the official religion, and to religious debates or heresies after it, particularly with Donatism.

Middle Ages

In the 5th century, the Vandals and their allied Alans, expelled by the Visigoths from Hispania, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and built a Vandal kingdom in Africa, around 431. The Moors collaborated in their plundering expeditions against Rome - sacking of Rome (455) - and the presence of Roman prisoners reduced to slavery by these Moors was noted. The Byzantine expansion of Justinian I brought them back under imperial authority in 533, although Byzantium's control over this area was relative.

In 647, the Islamization of the region began simultaneously with its annexation to the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus. The resistance of Moorish chiefs such as Kusaila or Kahina did not prevent that by the 8th century most of the Moorish tribes had converted to the new religion and became active agents in their proselytizing, such as Kahina herself, a Moorish queen who after submitting ordered her sons to embrace Islam.

In the Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century, the Moors - in the sense of Berbers - formed part of a small force that conquered the peninsula in only 9 years. Their presence compared to other contingents (Arabs, from other areas of the Near East and even Slavs) who migrated to al-Andalus (Arabic name for the Muslim peninsular territory) in the medieval period must have always been in the majority, and the historiographic sources show their intermediate social position between the top of the ruling class (of real or pretended Arab origin) and the base of the majority of the population (of Hispano-Roman-Visigothic origin, both those who continued to be Christians -Mozarabs- and those who converted to Islam -Muladis-).

With the advance of the Christian kingdoms from the north to the south, substantially from the 11th century onwards, the Moors - in the sense of Andalusians - who maintained their Islamic religion after their territories were occupied (or reconquered), were called Mudejars (from the Hispanic Arabic mudáǧǧǧan, and this from the classical Arabic mudaǧǧǧan, tamed).

The condition of the Moorish communities within the peninsular medieval Christian kingdoms was under a peculiar figure: the aljamas or morerías, physically and legally separated from the dominant Christian community and from another of peculiar situation, the Jewish community. The various local charters regulated the conditions of daily coexistence and the resolution of conflicts between individuals of each community.

The Toledo charter established the same procedure for judging homicide, regardless of the community of the victim:

The Zorita de los Canes charter uses the expression Moor of peace to indicate the condition of the person protected by such equal treatment:

On the other hand, for some crimes committed by Moors against Christians, the Sepulveda charter provides for greater penalties than in other cases:

In the Capitulations for the surrender of Granada (November 25, 1491) the term Moor is extensively recorded, as opposed to Christian as the one that designated each of the conflicting sides in the War of Granada:

That the justices be ordered not to allow Christians to climb the wall that is between the Alcazaba and the Albaicín, from where the Moorish houses are discovered; and that if anyone does climb, he be punished severely.

Modern Age

After the surrender of Granada (January 2, 1492), all the Moors of the Iberian Peninsula had the status of Mudejars, but the term used to refer to them was usually Moorish, and as such they were considered subject to the obligations stipulated and the rights guaranteed in the Capitulations, which were fulfilled with greater or lesser rigor in the following years. After the Mudejar rebellion of the Albaicín (December 18, 1499), the Christian authorities considered themselves freed from any type of guarantee, proceeded to census the entire Moorish population (1501) and issued the Pragmatic of forced conversion of February 1502, which implied the forced baptism of all Moors who remained in Spain.

From that moment on, historiography used to designate this population the term moriscos, a Castilian construction derived from the word moro to which is added the suffix -isco, which indicates collective value, as well as relationship or belonging and sometimes has a derogatory nuance. The Rebellion of the Alpujarras of 1568-1571 gave rise to a more extensive use of the term, such as the Historia de la rebelión y castigo de los moriscos del reino de Granada, by Luis de Mármol Carvajal (1600).

After their dispersion throughout the interior of the peninsula (decreed by Philip II), in an attempt to avoid the repetition of conflicts and contacts with the Moors of Barbary, the definitive expulsion of the Moors took place in 1609 (decreed by Philip III on April 9). The permanence in hiding or the sporadic return of some Moors is explicitly reflected in a passage of Don Quixote (encounter between Sancho and Ricote the Moor). Cervantes' work is very abundant in Moorish references, beginning with the enigmatic personality to whom, for literary purposes, the author himself attributes authorship (Cide Hamete Benengeli).

The term Moorish is also used to designate literary genres:

The Moorish novel was a literary genre of narrative prose of an idealistic character, within the fictional prose of the 16th century. In a Portuguese book of chivalry, the Triumphs of Sagramor (1554), a Spanish Moor is included as a character going to challenge the knights of the Round Table.

The Moorish romance was a genre in poetry, in which the heroic and chivalrous behavior of a Moor is used as a resource to praise a Christian knight.

Berber or North African Moors

Since the 16th century, the term Moor has been restricted to the Muslims of Northwest Africa, or Berber Moors, of the Maghreb area known as Barbary, whose coasts became from the 15th century the territory militarily disputed between Moors and Christians, in a sort of continuity of the secular confrontation of the Reconquest. During the Ancien Régime, other terms were used for the inhabitants of these areas, such as Moors of peace, Moors of war and Moors of mogataces.

The tribal social structure of a good part of the Maghreb area (Rif, Barbary, etc.) did not allow the stability of the Muslim States of the area, to which the interference of the Ottoman Empire and the incursions of the kingdom of Portugal (Ceuta, battle of Alcazarquivir, etc.) and of the Spanish Monarchy (Melilla, Oran, Bizerte, Bejaia, Algiers, Tunis, etc.) also contributed. The indigenous tribes or cabilas were often at odds with each other and lacked ethnic or linguistic unity, which made it feasible for the authorities of the Christian bases on the coast to encourage their division.

Peaceful Moor was the term used to designate those who maintained peaceful relations, traded in supplies and paid tribute in the Spanish strongholds of Africa or presidios, and served as intermediaries to deal with the other Moors.

Moro mogataz or simply mogataz (from the Hispanic Arabic muḡaṭṭás, and this from the Arabic muḡaṭṭas, baptized, literally, 'plunged'), was the term used to designate the indigenous soldiers who, without renouncing their Muslim religion, were at the service of Spain in those squares, in the raids to the interior, or in the galleys.

The first Muslim community installed in the Hispanic Monarchy after the obligatory conversion into Moors of the Mudejars of the Kingdom of Castile and Aragon, in 1502 and 1525, respectively, was of Mogataces. When the Hispanic Monarchy left Oran, a group of Moghaz were evacuated to avoid revenge from the neighboring tribes, and settled in Ceuta. The 1875 census recorded only 91 Muslims, barely 2% of the total. The number of Muslims in Ceuta will only increase with the arrival of Muslim immigrants.

20th Century: Harka, Regulars, Legion and Moorish Guard

The Spanish Protectorate of Morocco led to the establishment of much deeper relations with the Moors, a term that continued to be used, especially in the military field. The Moorish harkas, or irregular troops waging guerrilla warfare, were fought by Spanish troops, but also by the Spanish Legion (a corps created in 1920, in which soldiers of any nationality were enlisted) and by the Regulares (an indigenous corps created in 1911, i.e., also Moors). The massive use of the Moors as a front-line shock force of the so-called national side during the Spanish Civil War had a great repercussion, both in terms of warfare and in terms of media and propaganda, on both sides. Once the war was over, Francisco Franco (an Africanist military man, co-founder of the Legion and with a great personal involvement in the area, to the point of being considered by some cabilas as the bearer of baraka -providential luck-) kept as a bodyguard a Moorish Guard of colorful uniforms, which he used until the independence of Morocco (1956). From then until 1975, the Moors continued to be present in the Spanish military and political life through the Spanish Sahara, which had representation through procurators in the Spanish Courts of the Franco dictatorship.

Moors of Mauritania: White Moors and Black Moors

The history of Mauritania, in the area where the French colony of that name and the current independent State of Mauritania developed (a large part of the extensive western Saharan region), has been characterized since the 3rd century by the conflictive relationship between ethnic Berber groups from the north and sub-Saharan ethnic groups from the south (Bafours, Soninke). The Almoravid rule over the Ghanaian empire in the 11th century was followed by continuous attempts at penetration by eastern Arab centers of power, which from the 17th century took the form of the Beni Hassan tribe, which claimed a theoretical Yemenite ancestry, although its ethnic distinction from the Moorish, Moorish or Berber population is not very evident. Hassanian, a mainly oral Arabic dialect, influenced by Berber, whose name derives from that tribe, became the dominant language among the largely nomadic population of the region; just as the Maliki rite or school (a spiritualist version of Sunni Islam) became the dominant religious practice. A caste society developed: the white Moors, beydanes, beidanes, bidan or bidhan (the aristocratic caste), the black Moors or haratines (Pulaar, Toucouleur and Fulani (Peuls), the Soninké (Sarakolé) and the Wolof, who were never enslaved).

The term haratin is also used as an exonym with derogatory content to refer to the dark-skinned population living in the oases throughout North-West Africa (not only Mauritania, but also Western Sahara, Morocco, Senegal and Mali), characterized by a sedentary way of life and dedicated to agriculture. The origin of the term haratin is not clarified, with an Arabic etymology being proposed with the meaning of "cultivator", a Berber one with the meaning of "dark skin", or an Arabized version of the Berber word ahardan, meaning "dark-colored"; while bidan (أبيض بيضان') means "white" in Arabic.

Moors in sub-Saharan Africa

The Islamic expansion towards the south involved economic and demographic contacts since the Middle Ages (trans-Saharan gold route, secularly disputed by all the powers with projection in the area, from the Caliphate of Cordoba to the Songhay Empire); but they were much more important since the late sixteenth century, when the Sultanate of Morocco achieved the conquest of Timbuktu, which it held for two centuries. This event was led by contingents of Spanish Moorish origin (Yuder Pasha), who settled permanently among the local population.

In Niger and Mali, the Hassani-speaking population, a dialectal variety of Arabic that some sources identify with that which characterizes the Moors, is known as Azawagh Arabs, after the Saharan region of Azawagh or Azaouad.

According to the 1988 census of Senegal, there are 67,726 Moors (Maures) out of a total population of 6,773,417 inhabitants in the country, or 1%, among whom they are widely dispersed.

Moors in the Indian Ocean

In Portuguese Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka, the Muslim population, considered to be of Arab origin, was referred to by the term Moors, significant to the colonizers. Today they have abandoned the Arabic and Arwi languages for Tamil and Sinhala. They are still a very important minority of the population (the third largest in number: two million inhabitants, 8% of the population).

Without any racial similarity to the North African populations, the Moro Filipinos are the Muslim populations of the islands, which the Spanish conquistadors named after the religious equivalence.

Moors in Spanish America

During Spanish rule, there was no transoceanic emigration of Moors, at least not in significant numbers. On the one hand, shipments to the Indies were highly controlled, and were restricted to Old Christians. Although such a prohibition could be circumvented by some groups of Judeo-converts, these were much more motivated to escape social pressure, which did not affect the Moors in the same way (in fact, they put up great resistance to their expulsion). On the other hand, slavery in Latin America was led by the black populations of the sub-Saharan zone, and not by those of North Africa.

Without any connection with the Islamic religion or with the populations of North Africa, the Moors in Cuba are the mulattoes of dark complexion, straight black hair and fine features. Among the numerous classifications of the colonial caste system, one of them was expressed as follows: From Spanish and mulatto, Morisco.

The surname "Moro", although not very frequent, is present in many parts of Europe, and has been used by several historical characters:

The heraldic use of Moorish figures or Moorish kings is relatively frequent. Recently, it has even been incorporated into the personal coat of arms of Pope Benedict XVI, where it is justified as follows:

The Moor's head is not rare in European heraldry. It still appears today in many coats of arms of Sardinia and Corsica, as well as in several coats of arms of noble families. Also in the coat of arms of Pope Pius VII, Barnaba Gregorio Chiaramonti (1800-1823), there were three Moorish heads. But the Moor in the heraldry of Italy in general wears around his head a white band, which indicates the freed slave, and is not crowned, while it is in the Germanic heraldry.

In Spain, Moors appear, sometimes chained, especially in several coats of arms of towns and cities, and even of States (Aragon Coat of Arms, Sardinia). In recent years there have been some protests that, in some cases, have resulted in institutional questioning of the desirability of removing such symbols.

In the official heraldry of Western Sahara, which maintains, by ancestral religious prescription, the prohibition to include human figures in its symbols, is inserted, however, the head of a Moor (which is painted black) as a figure carrying on a tower in the daira of Dchera, wilaya of Aaiún.


  1. Moors
  2. Moro
  3. Página de Commons con el reportaje completo.
  4. A más moros, más ganancia (despreciar los riesgos confiando en que cuanto mayores son, más recompensa se obtiene al vencerlos).
  5. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Moors" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 812.
  6. a et b Richardot Philippe, « La pacification de l'Afrique byzantine 534 - 546 », Stratégique, 2009/1-2-3-4 (N° 93-94-95-96), p. 129-158. DOI : 10.3917/strat.093.0129. URL :
  7. Entrée « Maure », dans Le nouveau Petit Robert, Paris, 2000, (ISBN 2-85036-668-4), p. 1538.
  8. J. B. Morin, Jean-Baptiste Gaspard d'Ansse de Villoison, Dictionnaire étymologique des mots françois dérivés du grec, p. 69.
  9. Camps, Gabriel., Les Berbères : mémoire et identité, Actes sud, 2007 (ISBN 978-2-7427-6922-3, 2-7427-6922-6 et 978-2-7609-2702-5, OCLC 214697838)
  10. Michael Brett, Elizabeth Fentress, The Berbers, Willey-Blackwell 1997, ISBN 978-0-631-20767-2, s. 25, 77.

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