Jewels in an Uneasy Crown

I’m not an historian, I’m an opinionated blogger, an undisciplined student of whatever is on my mind and an itinerant traveller with a superficial grasp of the facts.

I have a thin patina of knowledge, enough to make me dangerous in my self delusion. I like to say that deep down, I’m quite shallow – so  reader beware.

To me, Spain seems to have a problem reconciling itself with its history.

Franco ruled Spain as a dictator for more than 35 years yet It is difficult to find public evidence of his regime. The last Franco statue to be removed from public display was at Santander in 2008; continued attempts at reconciliation are ongoing and painful.

Similarly, the unbending repressive strain of Catholicism exhibited in Spain since Ferdinand and Isabella united the country in the late 15th century seems to be an uncomfortably sidelined part of Spanish history. The only reference to the infamous excesses of the Inquisition that I could find were in side-show ‘museums’ that duped unwitting tourists into parting with their Euros to see depictions of blood, gore and torture.

This summer, I came across another example of how Spain’s collective psyche seems to find it difficult to reconcile itself with its history.

In a thoughtfully curated and reputable museum in Malaga, I came across the attached. Here’s part of the quote;

…“effectively dismissing the long centuries of Islamic occupation as a mere hiccup in the otherwise smooth course of Spain’s Christian history.”

It’s tough to stuff 700 years of history under the rug but Spain has tried.

This spring, I was part of a travel study group focused on the seven centuries of Islamic rule of southern Spain, generally agreed to have started in 711 with the invasion of Spain by Muslim Berbers. The conquest was swift and pervasive.

It lasted for some 700 years until the final capitulation of of the Muslim city-state Granada in 1492 to Ferdinand and Isabella. 

These seven centuries of rule profoundly influenced the evolution of renaissance Europe – of that there is general agreement amongst scholars of all persuasions.

In those seven centuries, the Islamic influence permeated medieval Spain, influenced intellectual thought in the rest of Europe and advanced knowledge and civilization in architecture, art, agriculture, irrigation and water usage, science in all its emerging forms. Libraries were created book-by-book that brought the greatest intellectual thoughts of Greece and Rome to Europeans for the first time. Through Cordoba. By Muslims. 

Maria Rosa Menocal described the vast positive influence of Islam on Spain and the emerging societies of Europe  in her book The Ornament of the World.

On our tour we visited three major sites of Moorish Spain; Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. I also enjoyed a pre-tour visit to Malaga, an ancient port on the Mediterranean  coast.

It is hard to describe the impact of visits to the remnants of Moorish influence in these cities of Andalusia. Most of what we saw was architecture, much of it replicated. 

Malaga has two major monuments, the Castillo de Gibralfaro – the fortress – and the Alcazaba – the adjacent fortified palace. The Castillo, a fortification since Phoenician times, was turned into a major Muslim fortress in the 11th century, conquered by the Christians in the late 15th century and used as a military fortification for most of the last centuries. The illustrations and explanations of the Castillo’s history at the on-site museum begins with the conquest of the site by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1487; one has to search for references to Muslim rule prior to that date.


The Alcazaba is treated more honestly. Built mostly in the 11th century, it was home to Muslim Kings and Governors starting in the Taifa period; some 500 years of continuous Moorish governance of the region. The Alcazaba, even what little is left, is a beautiful place. Distinctive Moorish arches and decorative features are balanced, delicate and enticing. Water features, plants, green spaces and shaded areas cool the air and calm the mind. It is a pleasant respite from the streets below, an excellent first encounter with Moorish architecture.

It is estimated that, in the 11th century, Cordoba was one the five largest cities in the world; dynamic, cultured, economically robust and relatively calm. Calm enough for Muslims, Christians and Jews to work in close proximity to each other somewhat peacefully (for the time) and important enough for the Moorish ruler, Abd ar-Rahman III, to declare himself Caliph (leader of the Muslim world) with Cordoba as the capital of his Caliphate.

Cordoba’s Mezquita is unique jewel and a stirring example of Moorish architecture; it is unlike anything I have seen. Built over a period from late 8th century and expanded continuously through 200 years of Cordoba’s Moorish Caliphate, this was the largest mosque used for Muslim worship in Cordoba. At its zenith, the Mezquita measured 140 metres by 85 metres, the roof supported by more than 1000 pillars.

The good news is that the Catholic conquerers did not destroy the Mezquita when they captured Cordoba in 1236. Like all other conquerers, they choose to assert their dominance and redecorate. They consecrated the mosque as a Christian site and in the 1500’s chose to build a cathedral in the middle of Mezquita. 

When Emperor Charles V viewed the almost completed Church in the middle of the Mosque he is said to have commented: “You have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.” 

Seville provided another perspective on Moorish Spain. We arrived on a very hot sunny day; our first visit, the Seville Cathedral. Built on the site of the mosque, it is the third largest cathedral in the world; overwhelming does not cover my reaction to this is a need to sit for a few minutes – it is an assault on the senses.




The Gothic structure has been built upon and altered so many times that it is now an unreconcilable mish-mash of a host of evolving architectural styles; add-ons offer a dizzying array of chapels, stalls, aisles, walls, altars, side attractions, all further confused by dazzling golden altars, bas-relief art, figurines, monuments, columns and pillars. It is dazzling – living up to a quote found in a guide book – “When they see it, future generations will think we are mad.” 

They certainly succeeded in convincing me they were mad; in fact, they nailed it.

I had also finally discovered where all that confiscated Incan and Mayan gold had been spent.

An hour later, we entered the Alcazar; the contrast to the Cathedral was profound. Rather than feeling overwhelmed, I immediately felt calmed, almost serene.

The gardens, the shade, the respite from the heat, the lightness of the architecture, the simplicity and integrity of all features of the buildings design, the use of water and plants, the placement of doors, windows and the size of rooms – all contributed to a sense of harmony and peacefulness.

It was one of the most enriching hours of my visit to Seville.

The contrast between the two religious sites could not have been more stark.

Granada was, fittingly, our final visit; it is known as the jewel of Andalucia. It was also the city where the Moorish rule of Spain ended for it was in Granada in 1492, that Isabel and Ferdinand formally received the keys to the gates of Granada from Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler in Spain.

The Alhambra jewel is spectacular. The complex, almost 700 metres long from the Alcazaba the fortress to the Generalife, the private residences and extensive gardens of the ruler.It is surrounded by almost 2000 metres of imposing walls. It sits above Granada, framed by the snow-capped Sierra Madre mountains in the distance, a city within itself built over generations starting in the 9th century.

Isabel, the Spanish monarch who led the final stage of the Reconquesta, was so taken with the beauty of the Alhambra that she was buried there for a short time until her remains were removed to the Royal Chapel in the Granada Cathedral. Such was her judgement of the beauty of the Alhambra.

The grounds are extensive, the palace buildings the most necessary of many attractions in the 13 hectare site. Here a succession of small rooms, pleasingly sized and each in its own right a marvel, open to more rooms, larger and more ornate. The effect is to induce a greater sense of awe as one moves through each passage. It works.

The rooms are captivating, walls covered with stuccoed designs including Arabic calligraphy in praise of Allah. Brilliant mosaic tile patterns adorn walls, pillars are carved with delicate lattice capitals imparting a sense of fragility.

The use of light and shadow, the constant presence of water and the specific placement of windows for views and to catch the breezes ensures that the temperature is moderate. Even in the mid-day heat, we were cooled. Even in the cacophony of the never ending stream of tourists, we were calmed; the rooms were more peaceful, quieter than they should be.

I have never understood the effect of architecture on the human spirit, mostly I’ve considered it the hype of architects. The Mezquita, the Alcazar and the palaces at the Alhambra changed that impression. The Moorish command of architecture and building adornment, the use of light, water and views, the decoration of walls, halls and rooms proved that there is a difference. My mood is uplifted, my demeanour is altered, my perspective shifts. 

I cannot claim to have more than a superficial impression of the centuries of Moorish dominion over Spain. I know that the jewels in the crown of Spanish history that may be the least favorite are also the most dazzling – the architecture of three sites in Cordoba, Seville and Granada are all must-see wonders of the world. If, even in a small way, they represent the impact of the Moorish ruling period, the Spanish people should be grateful for such enrichment. Menocal’s book, Ornament of the World is subtitled How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. 

It would have been a rich and interesting time to be alive.

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