Cultural Tourism Eleven must-see treasures of Al-Andalus in Spain
THE GREAT MOSQUE (CÓRDOBA)
During the 8th Century up to 1492, present day Spain was a vast medieval territory ruled by Muslim emirs. Throughout the Iberian Peninsula, Al-Andalus was brimming with a culture and architecture vastly different than what we see today such as this mosque. Prince Abd al-Rahman I escaped from his native Damascus to Córdoba, bearing orange trees and a new era of Islamic rule to the Iberian Peninsula. He rebuilt the Great Mosque of Córdoba to rival the grandeur of Baghdad and Mecca, using recycled Roman marble, jasper and onyx to make the 856 columns with patterns that were inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The famous gilded Mihrab prayer room faces Mecca, and remains a masterpiece of architectural art.
MEDINA AZAHARA (CÓRDOBA)
Serving as the capital of Al-Andalus, this medieval palace complex at the foot of the Sierra Morena mountains was a bustling government office, reception hall and mint, surrounded by baths and gardens. It was a city full of treasures, built as an ideological symbol of the power of the Caliphates. Legend says that the pond at the High Garden contained mercury, which lit up the waters with flashing lights. Literally meaning “bright city,” the Medina Azahara stands as one of the most well-preserved monuments to Hispano-Muslim architecture.
Standing high on the hill overlooking a beautiful Andalusian village, the Alcazaba of Antequera is a remnant of the waning days of Moorish rule in Al-Andalus. Built in the 14th century as a protection from the encroaching Christian advance from the north, the monument is a unique mix of Christian and Muslim cultures. The Torre del Homenaje, one of the largest keeps in Moorish Spain, is now topped with a Catholic bell tower, and holds a 6-meter-deep well which was used to pack in large amounts of prisoners.
Built by the Emir of Granada in the 13th centuries, the Alhambra palace is the most-visited tourist destination in Spain, and for good reason. Designated by UNESCO as one of the most significant examples of Muslim art and emblematic of the glory days of Al-Andalus, “The Red One” is a time capsule from a bygone epoch. Inhabited by both monarchs and emirs, its halls are filled with elaborate Arabic inscriptions and numerous fountains and courtyards, as well as tile mosaics drawn in complex mathematical patterns called “lacería,” all placed in a picturesque fortress at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
One of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens, this summer palace connected to the Alhambra was meant for the enjoyment of the Emirate of Granada. The clever mix of elaborate decoration and practical use of water is on full display in the typical Hispano-Muslim style, as the Water Garden Courtyard is flanked by arcaded walls and a long pool surrounded by fountains and curated flowerbeds. The constantly flowing water against marble and stone offer an ancient method of natural air conditioning under the oppressive Andalusian sun.
Of all the Moorish citadels in Spain, the Alcazaba in Málaga is the best-preserved. A testimonial monument to past Muslim military might, the thick walls rise high at the center of the city, its quarters decorated by extravagant fountains and gardens. Alongside the structure still stands an ancient Roman amphitheater. In the 1487 Siege of Málaga, which lasted four months, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella flew their flag high atop the Torre del Homenaje in one of the most epic moments of the Reconquista.
ALCÁZAR (JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA)
A quintessential Islamic fortress, Alcázar de Jerez de la Frontera is an astounding conglomeration of walls, towers and gates that now symbolize a center of political and military power in the era of Al-Andalus. The fortress is a rare example of architecture from the Almohad caliphate and once housed 16,000 inhabitants. The highlights include the horseshoe-arched Gate of the City, the mosque, Arab baths and, like Great Mosque of Córdoba, the mihrab which faces the direction of Mecca. The rare minaret, where calls to Muslim prayer would emanate long ago, is now topped with a Catholic bell tower and Christian cross.
THE MONDRAGÓN PALACE (RHONDA)
This small, delightful palace garden, set in the beautiful Andalusian village of Rhonda, was the residence of Moorish king Abd al Malik. Here, visitors find fine examples of Mudéjar architecture, tile mosaics and pebble work, but there is also a vibrant mix of late Gothic and Renaissance styles. The centerpiece is the lavish water garden, which is perched at the cliff´s edge overlooking the vast El Tajo Gorge.
THE GIRALDA TOWER (SEVILLA)
Another extravagant minaret in the era of Al-Andalus, the Giralda Tower in Seville was built by Muslim astronomer and mathematician Geber and later topped with a Renaissance bell tower by Spanish conquistadors. A UNESCO World Heritage site at 342 feet high, it is a compelling symbol of Seville. It was inspired by the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakesh, and now displays an inscription in the form of a rebus puzzle which translates to “Seville has not abandoned me.” To get to the top, there is a series of ramps, originally constructed so the muezzin could ride a horse to the top for the call to prayer.
THE ALCÁZAR (SEVILLA)
One of the most outstanding examples of Mudéjar architectural styles in the world, the Alcázar in Sevilla is also the oldest palace still in official use in Europe. Dense with fragrant flowers and orchards, curated gardens, carved figures, ornate fountains and ponds, in later years aspects of Baroque and Renaissance were added. The powerful Umayyads of Al-Andalus first constructed it as a Moorish fortress, but it was later converted into an elaborate garden palace. The walled complex was used to film the fictional Water Gardens of Dorne in the TV series Game of Thrones.
ARAB BATHS (PALMA DE MALLORCA)
The most important remnant of Muslim rule of the Balearic Islands, when “Madinah Mayurca” was an important city in Al-Andalus, the Banys Arabe are in surprisingly fine condition despite little renovation. Built around the 10th and 11th century, the Arab bath house is hidden in the center of Palma, covered by a dome with several columns, each of different styles, probably a result of the recycling of old Roman materials. At the top of the dome, beams of light shine though, just as at the time when Muslim noblemen would hold meetings in the sauna. Here and throughout Palma de Majorca, Arab engineers built a complex system of hydraulics to water the surrounding gardens.
SHAWN MOKSVOLD I 13/12/2017
Photography by Cordon Press and Javier Zori del Amo