We all hear about the Moors at school, usually in the context of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain – Columbus’s bankrollers – ousting them from Granada or the Venetian general who “loves not wisely, but too well” and kills his wife in a jealous rage before smiting himself. In the first scenario, we understand the Moors to be Muslims. In the second, we understand the Moor to be a black guy (or, if you’re one guy, a place where you tie up boats). What the heck.
Historically speaking, the term ‘Moor’ originally applied only to the indigenous people of the Maghreb (what we now call North Africa, usually referring specifically to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia), called the Berbers. Later, after Islam had spread through the Saharan region, the term came to mean Muslims in general. After that, it was applied to Arabs as well, as there is a strong connection between Arab culture and Islam. Somewhere along the line, it also came to refer to Africans, thus Iago’s description of Othello, the Moor of Venice, as a “black ram.” Basically, in medieval and early modern Europe, ‘Moor’ was the equivalent of today’s ‘These People’ (as in, “These People come over here and take all the jobs…”).
One thing that we did get right in 9th-grade history was that North African Muslims conquered and occupied parts of what is now considered Spain, including Granada, Córdoba, and Mallorca. Under Muslim leadership, these places became organized centers of trade, learning, and culture, which is largely what made them so attractive to the likes of Ferdinand and Isabella.
All over southern Spain, you can find remnants of the Muslim culture that existed there in the forms of dialect words, cuisine, and architecture. Palma de Mallorca, while having few ancient structures still standing, boasts one such relic of Moorish culture within its confines: Los Baños Árabes (lohs bahn-yos a-rah-bays; the Arab Baths), the only remaining structure from the Muslim occupation.
Just like in ancient Rome, bathhouses in Moorish territories were a symbol of culture and refinement. After all, nothing like a bath to say “We literally do not stink.” The upper echelons of society would have had access to bathhouses, which, just like today’s baths, would have had hot and cold functionalities. Visitors to the bath would have gone first to the hot room, which would have hot water and floors heated by fires in the basement level. They’d disrobe, lay on the floor, and sweat out all the impurities of daily life before washing. Next, they’d go into the cold room, where they’d rinse off in cold spring water. Having just visited Mallorca myself and sweated it out without the help of the baths, I can honestly say that being doused in cold spring water would have been both refreshing and bracing. After that, you’d be ready to face the Mediterranean heat once again – or sit in the shade in the lovely tree-filled garden, as I did.
Visiting Los Baños Árabes:
Note: Mallorca is bilingual in Spanish and Catalan, so everything has two names. Los Baños Árabes is the Spanish name; Banys Arabs is the Catalan name. Follow signs with both names – they will lead you to the same place.
Getting There: Just follow the signs. It’s not very far from the cathedral, and there is not really a way to get there by public transit. If you’re anywhere near the cathedral, look for the signs, which will lead you right to the doorstep.
Admission: Tickets cost a whopping €2.50, payable to the nice man sitting at the entrance.
Hours: April to November, the baths are open from 9-7:30. From December through March, they’re open from 9-6.