The history of Portugal is mostly told starting from the 12th century, with the emergence of the first Portuguese states. But in reality it began long before that…
Did you know that several peoples had a great influence on Portuguese culture, even long before the country was founded?
Before it became the Portugal we know today, long before the borders were established, the Iberian Peninsula was occupied by the Romans.
But what did they do?
The Romans stayed more than 5 centuries on the territory, from 146 BC to 409 AD, they were a civilised people with a hereditary and hierarchical social organisation.
They left their mark in a visible way, with the construction of monuments such as the Temple of Diana in Évora, the ancient city of Conímbriga and many other monuments such as amphitheatres, temples and baths.
They also left their mark on culture, introducing writing, schooling, many scientific concepts and the previously unknown concept of private property. They also developed the cultivation of cereals and fishing, as well as the production of wine and salt.
And finally, they had an influence on the language, since Galaico-Portuguese was the dominant language of the region and replaced all the dialects spoken before.
But after their defeat against the Barbarians, the Romans had no choice but to leave and give way to them.
Although they did not stay for long, only a little more than a century, the Barbarians did influence
the functioning of politics since the Church, which was Catholic, had a much greater role in decision-making.
But the last peoples to occupy the territory before the foundation of Portugal were the Moors, and they too have left many traces that are still visible today.
The Moors were Muslims from North Africa, they were great conquerors with very good warfare techniques, and in less than four years they dominated the Iberian Peninsula and lived there between 300 and 500 years.
Why did they matter so much?
The Moors brought their knowledge and their plantation and irrigation methods and there are still ruins and relics that testify to their ingenuity.
They left many traces of their passage, castles for example, but also names of cities, beginning with Al-, Albufeira, Alcabideche, Alcobaça… Many words in the modern Portuguese language have Arabic origins, for example, “alecrim” from the Arabic al-iklīl, meaning rosemary, “alface” from the Arabic al-ḫass meaning salad, “açúcar” from the Arabic as-sukkar meaning sugar… and many others.
But the Moors did not only influence the language, they also deeply influenced the culture and gastronomy. Indeed, even some emblematic Portuguese objects have an Arabic origin, such as azulejos, which are decorated tiles (az-zulaich in Arabic). However, it was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that they were first applied in Portugal and their style is still very Portuguese, with colours and designs that were never seen before.
By the way, do not be surprised if during your visit to Portugal you find that the typical Portuguese musical style, Fado, sounds like Arabic songs, as it is said to have been influenced by the Moors.
And what about the cuisine?
As far as gastronomy is concerned, the Moors interfered a lot with agriculture and the Mediterranean diet. They planted olive trees, spices, almonds, potatoes, and many others, which are now part of the everyday diet.
The cooked dishes are simple and modest, such as soup, and stews. Olive oil is mostly used and more fish than meat is consumed.
Wine is also a very popular drink during meals and for a good reason, the Moors brought new ways of cultivating and producing wine, and today it is one of the most important symbols of Portugal.
But the Moors also left some recipes for desserts and biscuits.
Despite the fact that most of the desserts were invented in the 16th century, in the convents, and are mainly based on eggs, especially egg yolks, as the white was used as a purifying element at the time, and was also used to iron clothes, some recipes can still be found today that were created by the Moors.
For example, marzipan (maçapão in Portuguese) which is a kind of almond paste, almond biscuits (bolinhos de amêndoa) or alcomonias which are a diamond-shaped pastry made of roasted wheat flour, honey and pine nuts.
These peoples who lived in the Iberian Peninsula before the formation of the country had a huge influence on the culture and modified the landscape. They brought with them their architecture and their techniques of agriculture, cooking… And without them the Portuguese culture would not be what it is today!