Islamic Legacies in Spain

After leaving Oman, I flew into the UK and left shortly after for Barcelona.  I ended up being stuck in the city for five days instead of the one that I was planning on, due to issues with my credit card and purchasing tickets to get out.  In the interest of keeping this blog Middle Eastern themed I’ll skip over my time there and get on to Granada and Seville.

I arrived in Granada early in the morning after an overnight train, and managed to make it to the hostel in time to drop off my bags and catch a walking tour of the city.  Granada has been continuously inhabited since well before Roman times, but began to become an important city after the Islamic conquest of Spain.  The Umayyads fled to al-Andalus after being routed by the Abbasids in the Middle East.  The set up a caliphate based in Cordoba, but during the strife that led to their downfall, a Berber set up the Taifa of Granada as an independent state.  It become an important part of Almoravid and Almohad holdings in Spain and later was the home to the Nasrid Emirate of Granada, the last Islamic dynasty in Spain before the Reconquista.

We started the tour by walking along a river at the base of the hill by the Alhambra, with old irrigation networks that definitely reminded me of the falaj (Qanat) systems I saw in Oman.  We traveled up through the old Moorish section of the city, Albayzin.  Because of its historic nature, its difficult for renovations to be done to the buildings here, so many are inhabited by poorer residents of Granada, which is often students or appropriately enough, Arab residents.  The alleyways here are alternately narrow and wide, and as serpentine as any suq I’ve been here.  Interestingly, the guide said that the narrower walkways were intentionally built that way to help funnel wind and block the sun for a natural cooling effect in the heat.  I don’t know if that’s actually true, but it would explain the way that many Mediterranean towns are set up.

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Albayzin is on a hill, and as you get higher, you begin to get beyond the Moorish architecture and into an area where people build stores and homes into the cave systems at the top.  Again, these are primarily for poorer residents, in this case, Romany and artists for the most part.  From across the hill you get a good look at Alhambra.

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While I was here, I decided to take the opportunity to eat tapas whenever possible.  Similarly to Turkish Mezze, tapas are little plates of food brought out to a table usually consisting of a random assortment of simple, unique dishes.  Granada is where tapas originated, and here they are still done traditionally, where each tapa is free and brought out as an accompaniment to a drink of some kind.  Local wines were less than 2 euro, so it was an all around good deal.  Between the flamenco influenced local music scene, some pretty impressive graffiti, and gastronomically adventurous cooks of Granada, the city is a haven for creatively minded people.


The most famous part of Granada is Alhambra, the palace/fortress complex one a hill in the middle of the city.  Several people I met at the hostel were actually architecture students who had come specifically to see Alhambra.  A relic of the Nasrids, it was built by Mohammed ben al-Ahmar, giving it its Arabic name, الْحَمْرَاء‎ (al-hamra).   The Nasrid palaces are incredibly beautiful and filled with the kind of geometric art found in much of the Islamic world.  These served as the palace to the Nasrid emirs who ruled over the last Islamic emirate in al-Andalus.

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In addition to beautiful architecture, the Alhambra complex was a military stronghold.  The Alcazaba citadel, walls, and its location on a hilltop provided a strong defence were the city ever to be besieged.  During the Reconquista, Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered rather than force the Spanish to take Alhambra by force, but he probably could have held out for years if he had chosen too.

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The third major part of the complex was added after the Reconquista.  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V built his own palace within the complex.  From the instant you see it, you can tell it is from a different time and culture from the rest of the complex.  It doesn’t really fit, but its interesting that the Holy Roman Emperor revered the Alhambra enough to build a palace there, but rejected the Nasrid complexes onsite for a palace.

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In Seville, the Islamic influences aren’t as stark as in Granada.  The city was actually the capital to the Umayyads, the Almohads, and the Almoravids, but it seems to have been built up a lot in the style of European renaissance architecture as well, and continues to be built up in more modern styles.  Much of the Islamic architecture was repurposed and in some cases isn’t really recognizably Islamic.  A perfect example is La Giralda, the Bell Tower of the Cathedral of Seville.  I walked by it not ever having any inkling that it was previously a minaret, because it had been refitted to look like the cathedral it was now a part of.

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Probably the only recognizably Islamic building I saw in Seville was the alcázar (from القصر or al-qasr).  Much like Alhambra, there is some post-Reconquista construction here as well, but the palace still retains much of its Islamic character.  Despite the fact that it was originally a fort, its an incredibly beautiful building.  Interestingly, it is still an official residence for the Spanish King in Andalusia today, though the King has a few of those scattered over Spain. 

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Wandering through the city with a guide did give me a new insight into the Arabic influences on Spanish.  Spanish contains more than a few words of Arabic origin, many of them beginning with ‘al’, but even words like olive and oil are of Arabic origin.  Another common pattern is that many Spanish-named begin with guad or guadal, even in the Americas.  Our guide explained to us that the Guadalquivir that runs through Seville was actually originally the al-wadi al-kabeer.  Further research led me to Guadalajara/wadi al-hajar, Guadalupe/wadi al-luben, and Guadalmedina/wadi al-medina.

Culturally Spain draws some of its heritage from its Moorish rulers, especially in the south.  Its kind of interesting to see more of that in person.  Its a very Catholic nation now, but before the Ottomans took Constantinople and the Balkans, it was the bastion of Islamic culture in medieval Europe, and a place of remarkable religious tolerance.


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