Who Were the Saracens?

History of Sicily: Arrival of Arabs in Mazara del Vallo
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Today, the word "Saracen" is mainly associated with the Crusades, a series of bloody European invasions into the Middle East that took place between 1095 and 1291 CE. The European Christian knights who went crusading used the term Saracen to denote their foes in the Holy Land (as well as Muslim civilians who happened to get in their way). Where did this odd-sounding word come from? What does it really mean?

Meaning of "Saracen"

The precise meaning of the word Saracen evolved over time, and which people it was applied to also changed through the ages. To speak very generally, though, it was a term for Middle Eastern people that was used by Europeans from at least late Greek or early Roman times forward.

The word comes into English via the Old French Sarrazin, from the Latin Saracenus, itself derived from the Greek Sarakenos. The origins of the Greek term are unclear, but linguists theorize that it may come from the Arabic sharq meaning "east" or "sunrise," perhaps in the adjective form sharqiy or "eastern."

Late Greek writers such as Ptolemy refer to some of the people of Syria and Iraq as Sarakenoi. The Romans later held them in grudging respect for their military capabilities, but certainly classed them among the "barbarian" peoples of the world. Although we do not know exactly who these people were, the Greeks and Romans distinguished them from the Arabs. In some texts, such as that of Hippolytus, the term seems to refer to the heavy cavalry fighters from Phoenicia, in what is now Lebanon and Syria.

During the early Middle Ages, Europeans lost touch with the outside world to some extent. Nonetheless, they remained aware of Muslim peoples, particularly since the Muslim Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Even as late as the tenth century, though, the word "Saracen" was not necessarily considered the same as "Arab" nor as "Moor" -- the latter specifically designating the North African Muslim Berber and Arab peoples who had conquered much of Spain and Portugal.

Racial Ties

By the later Middle Ages, Europeans used the word "Saracen" as a pejorative term for any Muslim. However, there was also a racial belief current at the time that Saracens were black-skinned. Notwithstanding that, European Muslims from places like Albania, Macedonia, and Chechnya were considered Saracens. (Logic is not a requirement in any racial classification, after all.)

By the time of the Crusades, Europeans were set in their pattern of using the word Saracen to refer to any Muslim. It was considered a disparaging term by this period, as well, stripped of even the grudging admiration that the Romans had bestowed upon the Saracens. This terminology dehumanized the Muslims, which likely helped the European knights to slaughter men, women, and children without mercy during the early Crusades, as they sought to wrest control of the Holy Land away from the "infidels."

The Muslims didn't take this insulting name lying down, however. They had their own none-too-complimentary term for the European invaders, as well. To the Europeans, all Muslims were Saracens. And to the Muslim defenders, all Europeans were Franks (or Frenchmen) -- even if those Europeans were English.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were the Saracens?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/who-were-the-saracens-195413. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Who Were the Saracens? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-saracens-195413 Szczepanski, Kallie. "Who Were the Saracens?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-saracens-195413 (accessed June 6, 2023).