Starting in the ninth century, Andalusi migrants left southwestern Europe to settle in Egypt, ultimately leaving a lasting legacy in their new homeland.

“…and in the end we will wonder:

Al-Andalus, was it here or there?

On the land or in the poem”? – Mahmud Darwish

These years mark the four-hundredth anniversary of one of the most loathsome tragedies of the Middle Ages: the formal and final expulsion (1609) and the subsequent exodus of some 300,000 Moriscos – Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity under the pressure of the Inquisition and later accused of practicing Islam in secret – from al-Andalus, following earlier efforts to coerce them into leaving.

To many people, the term ‘Andalus’ brings to mind images of grandiosity and refinement. It provokes an evanescent sense of nostalgia; it is a metaphor for a distant golden age and a remote ‘paradise lost’ when the caliph’s court in Cordoba became the epicenter of a flourishing civilization.

To begin, and contrary to the misperception about al-Andalus being synonymous with present-day Andalusia (an autonomous community in the south of Spain), al-Andalus is a term that must be used carefully. Al-Andalus is the territory in and around the Iberian Peninsula once occupied and ruled by the Muslims between the years 711 and 1492. It is an elastic term because this transient territory kept on changing borders regularly with the rise of the Reconquista and the recurring battles between the Muslims and the Christians. In its moment of greatest expansion (eighth century), it included present-day Portugal, most of Spain, Andorra, Gibraltar and a part of France. Before its fall (fifteenthentury), al-Andalus was limited to the Kingdom of Granada, the Last Kingdom.

Another man, blind since childhood, has a whole district named after him (in Alexandria, Egypt): Abu Mohamed al-Shatbi (from Shatiba, also known as Xativa, in Spain)

Away from conventional geography, anyone who scratches beneath the surface would comprehend that the Mediterranean was never really a sea between two continents or a barrier between two cultures, but rather a valley between two hills, one being al-Andalus, the other, al-Maghreb. Only by crossing the Strait (of Gibraltar) – from north to south and back again – would you come to comprehend that al-Andalus was here and there, on the land and in the poem, a cultural entity that extended from the Ebro River in Catalonia to the Niger River in Sub-Saharan Africa (yes, this is cultural geography). You can still see it in the features of a girl from Seville, touch it in an old manuscript within the libraries of Timbuktu, hear it in the tunes of a muwashaha in Tunis, feel it in the alleys of Tetuan … or you can just sit back, read on, and learn how to trace its imprint in Egypt.

Destination Egypt, Blessings of the Genius Loci

Seeking knowledge, fleeing persecution and expulsion, these are some of the reasons why many people from al-Andalus flocked into Arab countries, Egypt included. From the tenth century onwards, the educational, scientific, and religious institutions of Egypt became a magnet for students, scholars, and intellectuals. Entities like al-Azhar, the Madrasa (School/College) of Barquq, or the Bimaristan (Hospital) of Qalawun are a few examples.

Travelling in search of knowledge was part and parcel of the zeitgeist, and if we add to that the genius loci that Egypt possesses and the embracing nature of its people, one ends with a perfect recipe for a desirable host. Cairo and Alexandria were typical destinations, the first being the seat of the caliph or king and the centre of a ravishing cultural scene, and the second a cosmopolitan Mediterranean city, well-suited to the desire of yet another category of Andalusi immigrants: those who come for ribat (living in an Islamic port and  being ready to defend it).

But it is not this category that we are after. Rather, we want to talk about intellectuals, scholars and mystics that departed for Egypt, settled in it and left a lasting legacy. It does not take much cultural excavation to discover that names like Ibn al-Baitar, Ibn Maymoun (Maimonides), and Ibn Jubayr all walked our streets. Who are they? What are their stories?

From al-Andalus to Egypt with Love

And it is pure love that brought the ‘Juggler of Love’, Abul-Hassan al-Sustari, from Guadix (Granada) to Egypt, where he settled, preached his spiritual teachings, and recited his mystic verses before finally dying and being buried near Damietta. The thirteenth-century mystic departed from al-Andalus and followed the austere lifestyle of a Sufi order in Morocco, where he left all the pomp-and-circumstance of his former life and deservedly earned the title of “Prince of the Austere”.

However, it was not love that brought Abul-Abbas al-Mursi from his hometown in Murcia (Spain) to Alexandria, but rather an accident. Shipwrecked as a pilgrim, he became a devout follower of Abul-Hassan al-Shazli and followed him to Alexandria where he eventually took over the responsibility of leading the Shazli Order. Approaching Alexandria by the sea, one is greeted by the elegant white minarets and domes of the Mosque of al-Mursi, the visual reference of the city. Around the corner, his mausoleum is still frequented by his mureeds, while his memory lives on in the heart of every true Alexandrian. He is not the only Andalusi ‘saint’ celebrated in Alexandria, however. Another man, blind since childhood, has a whole district named after him: Abu Mohamed al-Shatbi (from Shatiba, also known as Xativa, in Spain), the undisputed Imam al-Qurraa (Best of the Quran Reciters) who lived, taught, and died in Alexandria, and whose rissala (epistle) is still chanted in religious ceremonies.

Mystics aside, there came a polymath escaping the religious fanaticism of the Almohads (a Berber dynasty that ruled al-Andalus from 1147 till the 1220s.) in al-Andalus. Born in Cordoba, he later fled to Fez (Morocco) where he studied at the Qarqwiyyin Mosque. He never could have guessed that he would end up being the private physician of Saladin’s family in Egypt, and that a synagogue would bear his name at the heart of Islamic Cairo. We are talking about Musa Ibn Maymoun (aka Maimonides), possibly the greatest and most versatile Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages.

Earlier, a man from Tortosa (Spain) had already left his mark in Alexandria in the twelfth century: Abu Bakr al-Turtusi, the outspoken religious scholar who confronted the excesses of the Fatimids in Egypt, famed for his book Siraj al-Muluk (Lamp of the Kings), a manual on effective governance and proper rule.

Then came the legendary Ibn al-Baitar, the quintessential botanist of the medieval Muslim World, credited with developing the first natural medication to cure tumors in the thirteenthentury. Born in Malaga, he toured North Africa, collecting and cataloging medicinal herbs and plants. Following a stay in Egypt under the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil, he then accompanied him to Syria, where he resumed his work until his death.

Ibn Jubayr is yet another Andalusi figure who ended up in Egypt following a life full of adventures and travels. Originally from Valencia, his travel accounts remain widely celebrated. Equally celebrated are the works of Abu Hayyan (from Granada), a linguist, interpreter of – and commentator on – the Quran, who left us his al-Bahr al-Muhit.

Do we really need to delve into the qualities of Ibn Khaldun? Suffice it to say that he is widely regarded as the Father of Sociology, and one reading of his astounding Muqaddema (The Introduction) will confirm it. Born in Tunisia to an Andalusi family from Seville, he taught at several Egyptian madrasas in the Mamluk era.   

Flashback: Alexandria under the Rule of Andalusi Exiles

We now return to the ninth century to tell yet another epic tale. When the people of one of the Cordoban neighborhoods rebelled against the condescending attitude of the Umayyad prince al-Hakam I, the prince responded with a massacre that ended in the surviving rebels being sent into exile. A group of exiles headed to Fez, another preferred Alexandria, where they benefited from the Abbasid weakness to establish their rule over the city, thus making it independent under their own rule. Some linguists even argue ambivalently that they left their imprint on the Alexandrian accent.

The Abbasids finally responded some eight years later, forcing the settlers to leave Alexandria. They set sail for Crete with their arms and supplies. The Egyptian historian al-Nuwairi talks of 15,000 exiles who, upon arrival at Crete, took control of the island. They ruled from 827 till 961, becoming a thorn in the side of the Byzantine Empire, which failed to recapture the island in the 840s.

This group represents the first documented wave of Andalusi migration to Egypt. More would arrive during the following centuries with the fall of Cordoba, Valencia and Seville. Some of the architects who fled to Egypt would leave their mark in the renovations performed on Ibn Tulun Mosque under the Mamluks; one glimpse of the minaret’s base is enough to recognize the caliphal-type horseshoe arc. The Andalusi inspiration extended to the interlacing arcs of the Qalawun minaret, as well as the ataurique (a Spanish term derived from the Arabic word at-tawriq – the use of floral leaves as a decorative motif in calligraphy bands) and stucco decoration of al-Nassir ibn Qalawun’s minaret.

Yet another wave of migrants followed in the seventeenth century with the expulsion of the Moriscos. Families with names such as al-Turudi, al-Qutri and Ibn Suweiha settled in Cairo (Tulun, Bulaq, and Bayn al-Qasrayn), Alexandria (the Turkish City), Kafr al-Sheikh (Sidi Ghazi and al-Hamra), and other places.

In the end, although the Andalusi imprint in Egypt is obviously not as prominent as it is in al-Maghreb for historical and geo-cultural reasons, the legacy is there for passionate researchers to unearth and bring to light.

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 4, 2013