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The Moor: Images In Art, Literature, Theatre, And Film


As you arrive at the Philadelphia Art Museum and enter room 155 in the European Art section you are instantly struck by a powerful image there that stands out from the rest. The image is a painting simply titled the Moorish Chief, and it is a sight to behold. What makes the painting so striking is that it is a powerful image of a black man from the past. He is dressed in a white cloak and he is armed with a sword. In the background is the famous Islamic architecture of Spain known as the Alhambra. The Moors in an almost forgotten time invaded Europe and ruled over Spain for 700 years. Castles and beautiful structures like the Alhambra are the monuments and testaments that are all that is left, but are powerful reminders that they were once there. I think what is so mind blogging about the painting is that this powerful image runs counter to everything we have been taught about the African in history. We were taught that he was either a savage or a slave, but yet here we are left staring at this "Moorish Chief" in wonderment.

The painting was created by an Austrian artist by the name of Eduard Charlemont. It was first unveiled at the Paris Salon in 1878. The "Moorish Chief" is part of an artistic style known as Orientalism that captured the world in the late 19th century and early 20th century, for many European artist everything dealing with the East was in vogue. Orientalism is not without its flaws. On the one end there is the valid criticism that says too many of the images were stereotypes of lustful Muslim men surrounded by harams of exploited female slaves. One dimensional images for sure that are often stuck in the past and do not fully represent the totality of Muslim life. Critics correctly point out that this one dimensional view of what a Muslim is suppose to be like was used in much the way the "terrorist" moniker is used today in order to justify imperialism and war. On the other hand many especially in the black community take pilgrimages to The Philadelphia Museum of Art just to see the Oriental style painting the "Moorish Chief" as proof that African people had a rich and powerful history before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

By all means Eduard Charlemont was not the most famous or prolific out of the Orientalist painters in fact his "Moorish Chief" was a break from his typical style. A quick Google search on Orientalism will give you the names of many other artist such as Rudolph Ernst and Ludwig Deustch. Both Ernst and Deustch were from Austria and trained in the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. They traveled to places like the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain searching for subject matter to study and paint. Orientalist artist when viewed as a collective often painted the Moors in a variety of ways. At times the Black Moor is the lowest on the hierarchical ladder as we see the servant is in Ludwig Deustch's The Treasure Chest.

At other times the Black Moor is a noble occupying the highest level of the hierarchial ladder, as the power dynamic has clearly shifted and is made clear in another painting by Deustch this one titled News of the Sudan. Here the Black Moor is in a position of authority as he reclines on the ottomon and is read a report. It is images like News of the Sudan that captured the imagination of the black community in the United States.

Other paintings show the Black Moor as an erudite scholar a man of great learning as we see in another painting by Deustch this one titled The Philosopher. The Philosopher should come as a surprise to no one learned black men from Timbuktu in West Africa to Cordova Spain were a common sight during the Middle Ages. At a time when Europe struggled during the Dark Ages libraries in Cordova and Timbuktu had thousands of books both authored and pondered over. The stereotypical image of a dark unenlightened uncivilized Africa and the ignorant slave must first come to terms with the image of Deutsch's The Philosopher and Rudolf Ernst La Lecture.

Ludwig Deutsch - The Philosopher

Rudolf Ernst - La Lecture

Not all images of the Black Moor were of nobles and servants, and while on the topic of slavery to be certain there was slavery in Muslim countries for sure; however, that slavery was not race based the way it was in America. A slave could just as easily be a black slave as he or she could be a white one. Some of the Orientalist paintings have an egalitarian element showing the Arab or "Twany Moor" and the "Black Moor" on the same level as equals. We see this in the painting titled Outside a Café. They are represented as equals as they sit on the ground in between conversation and puffs of hookah. We also see this egalitarian element in Enrico Tarenghi's painting Leaving Prayers. Every man regardless of color is represented as an equal in these two amazing paintings

Some Oriental paintings show Black Moorish nobles in fine clothing enjoying the luxuries of everyday life such as drinking coffee, smoking hookah, and playing chess. Once again images from the past representing a far cry from any modern notions of blacks associated with slavery or poverty.

Edwin Lord Weeks - A Game of Chess in Cairo Street

Charles Bargue - An Oriental Coffee House

Discart Jean - The Arab Smoker

For many Orientalist painters the physical prowess of the Black Moor as a warrior was still very much in the collective memory of many Europeans even years after the Moors invaded Spain and Italy. A very large portion of Oriental paintings show the Black Moor as either a guard, or a warrior equal in strength to the knights of Europe. It is these powerful images of the past showing black men in a position of strength and power that leave people in awe. The way Orientalist approached the subject of the physical prowess of the Black Moor is not completely surprising at all, for it is still very much done even today with the attention that is paid to black athletes like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Usain Bolt. As for the black community one that was enslaved, written out of history, deprived of rights, and marginalized these contrary images of the Black Moor, as powerful, honorable, and intellectual offer an element of redemption.

Ludwig Deutsch - The Palace Guard

Ludwig Deutsch - The Nubian Guard

Carl Haag - Abdullah, Chief of Said Pasha's Bodyguard

Eduard Charlemont - The Moorish Chief

So just who were the Moors? How come we do not know more about them? No subject has been debated over more the only exception probably being arguing over the race of the Egyptians.

The Moors represented a collective group of people from the Middle East, North Africa, and West Africa. As Dr. Ivan Van Sertima and others have pointed out in the book 1992 ground breaking book Golden Age of The Moor the skin color of the Moor represented a range a spectrum from a medium "tawny" brown to an "ebony black." However in recent years the Moor is wrongly often portrayed exclusively as a fair skinned Arab. Van Sertima, Runoko Rashidi, and others have presented a powerful argument that rightfully reestablishes the Black Moor to his proper place in history. In fact the very word Moor means black.

Tracing the etymology the actual word Moor has its root in the Greek word mauri and the Roman or Latin word maurus which translated means black. In the Spanish language the word moreno still means a black person, and mora is a blackberry. In German the word mohrenkopf refers to chocolate candy. The popular name Maurice means "like a Moor."

Still some taught that the root for Moor was associated with the ancient Moabites. Others in more alternative circles have linked the word moor to the supposed lost continent of Mu and still others to a lesser known name for the country of Egypt which was also known as Ta-Merry. No matter which origin of the word Moor is correct it seems that at an early date it was associated with dark people. William Shakespeare clearly saw the Moors as black as he casted the role of Othello with a black person in mind to quote Shakespeare's own words:

"even now, now, very now, an old black ram. is tupping your white ewe."

Othello Act One, Scene One

Regardless of the greatness found in William Shakespeare's plays in much the same way that the standard history books whitewashed the Moors so too would the role of Othello go through a whitewash.

Though Othello was acknowledged as black the racism of the times would only allow a white actor in black face to play the part. Forgettable roles were given to Orson Wells and Laurence Olivier. The fear was that they did not want a black actor getting to close to a white actress clearly missing the whole point of Shakespeare's anti-racism message. Eventually allowing good sense to get the better of them black actors were finally allowed to play Othello. The first being Ira Aldridge. Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones have all brought honor to the role of Othello, while actor Laurence Fishburne magnificently played the Black Moor in film.

Most people are aware of European colonialism in South America, Africa, and Asia and the subsequent damage that it caused but few are aware that there was a time when Europe was also invaded and colonized, and this invasion was brought on by the Moors. A general by the name of Tarikh along with his Moorish warriors invaded Spain and conquered the Visigoths in the year 711 AD. The Moors stayed in Spain from 711-1492 AD a staggering 700 years, and unlike the European imperialism that left Africa, South America, and the Caribbean worse off the Moors actually brought civilization to Europe during a time when Europe was languishing through the Dark Ages. Prior to the Dark Ages the civilization of Greece built philosophy and science upon the foundations of the Ancient Egyptians, and the Romans built their civilizations on the backs of the Greeks. Rome would be sacked by Germanic barbarian tribes from the North who had little appreciation for philosophy and the sciences. The once great civilizations of Europe fell into a cultural amnesia as illiteracy rose to an all time high, few libraries existed, Roman aqueduct's fell to ruin, and even bathing was viewed as a sin. This Europe is a far cry from the Western dominance we have grown accustom to. The irony of the Moorish invasion is that it was the invaders that civilized Europe. As Dr. Van Sertima often pointed out most invasions bring destruction; however, the Moorish invasion brought light. At that time the Islamic world that stretched from Bagdad in the Middle East to Timbuktu in West Africa all the way to Spain in Southern Europe was a civilization of higher learning.

The Moors are credited with restoring learning as they translated the ancient writings of Greek philosophers first into Arabic and later into Latin. In this way knowledge of the ancient world that was once lost was now restored. For these countless volumes of new books libraries and universities were now opened up all throughout Spain, as well as the many Moorish castles that dotted the land. The Moors reintroduced the concept of bathing as public bathhouses were opened up.

The Moors took the game of chess out of India and introduced the game to Europeans, and they also replaced Roman numerals with the Indian numerals we use today. The Moors brought innovations to ocean navigation introducing ocean maps, astrolabes, and caravel ships with lateen sails. All of this would help to usher in the European Age of Exploration. It is a lesser known fact that both Christopher Columbus as well as Vasco de Gama sailed with Moors on their ships. The Moors introduced fruits like oranges, lemons, bananas, as well as sugar a word that comes from the Indian word sakkar, and candy from the Arabic word qand. The Moors are credited with introducing concepts in Algebra to Europe. Indeed algebra is also an Arabic word, it comes from the word al-jabar meaning to "take apart." One Black Moor by the name of Al Jahiz wrote a book called Kitab Al Hayawan or (Book of Animals) where he theorized over the role the environment played on the development of skin color, as well as an animals chances of survival based on the environment it lived in. Al Jahiz anticipated Charles Darwin by a 1000 years. One of the more interesting Black Moors was a musican who brought a cultural revolution to Europe evidence of which still reverberates with us even today.

Ludwig Deutsch - The Musician

His name was Ziryab also given the nickname the "black bird" for his apparent black skin and beautiful singing voice. He was the ancient equivalent of what today would be known as the modern pop star. What ever Ziryab did was soon to become a trend and the masses would follow. It was Ziryab that created the trend of breaking your meal up into courses such as first soup and salad, next the main course, and then finally followed by dessert. Ziryab also created the trend of wearing bright colors in the Spring and Summer, and dark colors in the Fall and Winter. These are customs that we still have with us today. Ziryab was known to also introduce hygienic practices like toothpaste and deodorant. As far as music the Moors brought new instruments into Europe like the lute and qitara which later transformed into the guitar.

The mere thought of black men occupying a place of dominance in European history is too much for some. These are the same kind of thinkers that resist the idea of humanity originating in Africa or Ancient Egypt having African origins. When they finally attempt to acknowledge the undeniable existence of Black Moors in Europe, Black Moors are usually written off as only slaves, even though the evidence proves they occupied every strata of society. Proof is in the very artwork Middle Age Europeans painted themselves. One can argue that Orientalist painters of the late 19th and early 20th century, and though that was a hundred years ago, it is still a long time removed from when the Moors actually ruled; however, it is much harder to argue against the paintings of the Moors from the actual Middle Ages, or references to Black Moors in early European literature; for example, in the oldest French poem The Song of Roland the Moors are described as "black as melted pitch" and "blacker than the blackest ink."

Middle Age painting of Moors and Europeans in battle.

Middle Age painting of Moors and Europeans in battle.

Painting of a Black Moor and European playing the Lute

To still deny the presence of the Black Moor in Middle Age Europe or even to insist on regulating him as a slave ignoring his representation in art and literature only smacks of Eurocentric foolishness.

The impact of the Moor was remembered very well by Middle Age Europeans as they took the time to symbolically record victories over them in their coat-of-arms. Harlem Renaissance writer J.A. Rogers unveils to us in his book Nature Knows No Color Line the image of many Black Moor heads in European heraldry. These images can mean only one of two things, and that is either the Moors mixed with Europeans and are part of their bloodline, or the coat-of-arms is a symbolic representation of victories over them. It is interesting to note that Pope Benedict XVI has a Black Moor head in his very own coat-of-arms.

Pope Benedict XVI Coat-of-arms with the Black Moors head.

Pope Benedict XVI coat-of-arm with Black Moor head in background

In an Oriental style painting by a Spanish painter named Marcelino de Unceta y Lopez he depicts the Moors final defeat in Granada. His painting is titled El suspiro del moro. It is translated to mean Sigh of the Moor. The Moorish king Boabdil is in retreat with his army reflecting on how the Moors were once the rulers of Spain, but have now lost it all. What is most interesting is that Unceta a Spanish artist chose to portray the Moorish king and his army as entirely black. What is painfully obvious, and yet oblivious to some is that in the collective memory of many Europeans from the past there was no problem acknowledging the Black Moor's presence in history. Only recently has the narrative of slavery dwarfed the image of the Black Moor as a ruler.

Marcelino de Unceta y Lopez - Sigh of the Moor

I believe that the two events that most likely kept the memory of the Moor alive in the consciousness of many Black Americans would be the 1992 release of Ivan Van Sertima's edited work Golden Age of The Moor with excellent essays from the likes of Runoko Rashidi, James Brunson, John G Jackson, Wayne Chandler, Dana Reynolds, Jose V Pimienta-Bey, Jan Carew, Yusef Ali, Edward Scobie among others.

At the late Dr. Ivan Van Sertima's website the Journal of African Civilizations copies of Golden Age of The Moor are constantly sold out, and on Amazon.com if your lucky enough to find a used copy the asking price are sometimes $1,000.00 and yes that is not a typo. When it comes to popularizing the Moors and bringing it to the attention of the masses the great scholar Dr. Ivan Sertima is second only to the early black nationalist Timothy Drew also known as Noble Drew Ali.

Ali was somewhat of a contemporary to the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey. Noble Drew Ali founded an organization known as the Moorish Science Temple of America in Newark, New Jersey around 1913. Ali stressed that black people, or as he would say Moors had their origins in the East before arriving in the West. His teachings were a mixture of Islam, Gnostic Christianity, Freemasonry, and Black History. Ali more than anyone else helped to popularize the rather unknown history of the Moors in the black community. His focus on establishing a new identity for black people outside of slavery would precede both the more popular Elijah Muhammad and his pupil Malcolm X.

As a seasoned high school history teacher who has taught in the public schools for many years I have to say that it is my observation that in classrooms across this nation the role that the Moors played in bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages, and sparking both the European Renaissance and Age of Exploration is underemphasized, and the fact that these Moors constituted a huge population of Black Moors even less so. Harriet Tubman and Henry "Box" Brown are great, and those stories of heroism should definitely not be removed, but its time to take the story of the Moors out of obscurity and be brave enough to link that story with our own.

Suggested Reading:

Ivan Van Sertima, Golden Age of the Moor, 1992, Transaction Publishing.

Runoko Rashidi, Black Star: The African Presence in Early Europe, 2011, Books of Africa.

Stanley Lane-Poole, The Story of the Moors in Spain, 1886.

Joshua Hammer, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race To Save The World's Most Precious Manuscripts, 2016, Simon and Schuster.

John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, 2004, Cambridge University Press.

John G Jackson, Introduction to African Civilizations, 2001, Citadel Press.

J.A. Rogers, Nature Knows No Color Line, 1952.

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