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View of the Alhambra

The Queen of Castille sits regally on a somewhat bewildered-looking white steed, crown perched prominently on her head. Her eyes are drawn to the ochre-coloured castle gleaming brightly in late November sunlight on a distant hill. Her husband, the King of Aragon, has his hand out ready to accept the hefty keys reluctantly proffered by the last Nasrid ruler of the final bastion of Moorish rule in Al Andalus. Boabdil, wearing black robes and a black beard, leans forward on his black horse. Though spared the humiliation of kissing the monarch’s hand, his eyes seem to be silently pleading, “Remember what you promised.”

This image is from a painting by Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz painted in 1882, called ‘The Capitulation of Granada’ and captures an historic moment in the achievement of a unified Spain. It’s also a story that every kid learns at school – the surrender of Granada by the Sultan Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, also known as Boabdil, to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492. Finally, after an eight-month siege of the city, both parties sign a treaty that assures the fair treatment of the Moors and Jews living in the kingdom of Granada who were given three years to choose between becoming a Catholic or exile to North Africa – a concession superseded a year later by forced conversion or expulsion.

Knight on horse in a medieval fair.

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘History is written by the victors’, and nowhere was it truer than in Christian Spain. Often in those same history books we read that after 800 years of fighting to defend their country from the Islamic infidels, the Christian reconquistas finally succeeded in reclaiming the peninsula. It’s a story re-enacted annually around eastern Spain in their moros y cristianos fiestas and often portrayed as a tale of good triumphing over evil. I’ve heard more than a few Spaniards say they believe Isabel and Ferdinand did the right thing in expelling all the Moors.

Not everyone feels this way, however. In fact, Spaniards are still pretty divided over the positive/negative effects of Moorish Spain. There are some who will argue emphatically that those 800 years were just a short hiccup in the long Christian tradition that goes all the way back to the Romans and that their influence was insignificant. Then there are others who insist they left an essential and considerable imprint which has moulded the country into what it is today.

So let’s find out by jumping back in time, first to the early 8th century, when the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by the Germanic Visigoths who had moved in after the Roman Empire crumbled. Spain by the 700s was ripe for the picking; internal civil wars had weakened Visigothic rule and it was only a matter of time before they would lose their short-lived sovereignty. The “Moors” who landed at Tariq’s Rock (now Gibraltar) in April 711 were made up of Berber tribes from North Africa and Arabs from Arabia. It took them only seven years to control almost the entire Visigoth Kingdom and rename it Al-Andalus.

The word “Moor” comes from “Mauri” which referred to the Berber tribes that lived in Mauritania during Roman times, (now Algeria and Morocco) but the term was applied to all Muslims who lived in Spain during the Middle Ages. The Christians who suddenly found themselves under the rule of these fierce-looking, dark haired, dark eyed conquerors were, surprisingly, made dhimmis (protected people) and allowed to continue to practice their religion and keep their churches as long as they submitted to Muslim rule and paid a tax. Those who decided to flee to the Christian kingdoms in the north soon became the embryo of the reconquest.

The tolerance the Moors showed from the outset no doubt smoothed the transition to an integrated, stable society, at least for a while. The Jews that made up about 5% of the population were also made dhimmis and saw the Moors as liberators from the persecution they had faced under their Christian Goth overlords. Despite the religious freedom afforded the citizens, there were advantages to converting to Islam; one could rise among the social ranks, obtain positions of power and gain wealth more easily as a Muslim. And as women had not accompanied the Moors in their invasion, by the first generation they were already a mixed race and much of the population had become Arabized, if not by religion, at least in terms of culture and language. These Christians and Jews became known as Mozarabs (from the Arabic for ‘Arabized’) and these days you can still see a Mozarabic mass in a small chapel in the Cathedral of Toledo as well as the art and architecture dotted around the country that is attributed to this Christian-Arabic group.

So how much influence did the Moorish conquest have on Iberia? Let’s remember that while we often hear, “Spain was under Islamic rule for 800 years”, they really inhabited two-thirds of the peninsula for 375 years, half of it for another 160 years and finally a small area that included Granada, Malaga and Almeria for the next 245 years. What we understand as “Moorish Spain” is in fact limited to a handful of cities, the majority in Andalusia in the south of Spain, though you can still see evidence of Islamic-style architecture in many parts of the country – but more of that later.

La Alhambra.

Before the Covid pandemic, more than 32 million visitors flocked to Andalusia. The greatest drawcard of this region is, of course, the elegant and exotic craftsmanship of the Islamic architecture. Granada boasts the stunning palace of the Alhambra, glowing like a golden jewel against the snow-tipped Sierra Nevada, and the Royal Alcazar and Gardens of Seville dazzle with their intricately carved plasterwork, geometric tiles, and reflective pools. Braving the intense heat of summer, tourists then head to Cordoba to be awe-struck by the immense Mesquita of endless marble columns.

The magnificent Mezquita of Cordoba.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba was begun in 784 and expanded by each successive ruler to accommodate the growing population and became the most important place of worship after Mecca. Alongside the rich Islamic architecture, there are elements of Byzantine, Visigothic and even Roman styles, such as the red and white brick arches reminiscent of the aqueduct in Merida. While its impressive beauty still draws tourists, imagine what it was like with hanging incense lamps, exotic rugs covering the floors, candles, the many open entrances that allowed the cooling flow of air, the haunting calls to prayer.

Unique to Spain - Islamic mosque and Renaissance cathedral all in one.

Fortunately, when the Christians, led by Ferdinand III, took the city in 1236, they did not demolish the structure, but converted it into a cathedral, blocking up many of the entrances and creating several small chapels, most of which are still there. The Catholic Monarchs in the 16th century went a step further by ripping out the heart of the building and erecting a massive Gothic-Renaissance cathedral. We can be indignant of the desecration, but thankful they allowed the rest of it to stay standing.

The beautiful Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, Cordoba.

Not only did the Moors prove to be remarkable architects and artists, but their talents were far-reaching and hugely important, as we shall see. One only has to meander around the colourfully floral narrow streets of the Jewish Quarter in Cordoba to get a sense of what it might have been like in its heyday. In the 10th and 11th centuries visitors from around the world were mesmerized by the beauty and sophistication of the city. Traders and merchants helped turn the city into a vibrant commercial centre, bringing with them innovations and ideas from the East and people from everywhere came to learn from the greatest collection of books and knowledge in Europe, if not the world. There were paper-making factories, water mills, libraries,

Marble columns and red and white arches of the Mezquita, Cordoba.

universities, paved and lit roads, public baths, patios with fountains and indoor plumbing – even WCs (literal water closets with their own channel of running water). It was a very different picture from the rest of medieval Europe at this time.

As the Christians made their way down the peninsula, pushing the ruling Moors ever more southward, they were still left with a Muslim majority in the cities and towns who for the time being were permitted to continue practicing their religion. They were known as Mudejars (permitted to stay, or “domesticated”, depending on what translation you go with). Many of them were artisans, skilled in woodwork, tilework and plasterwork. Their craftsmanship created a style unique to Spain – a blending of Islamic motifs and elements such as the horseshoe arch and tiled geometric patterns, but conforming to Christian requirements. Today there are many examples of Mudejar art and architecture around the country, one of the most well-known being the Royal Palace of Seville.

The Royal Palace of Seville is often touted as a perfect example of Mudejar architecture. Though the original palace was begun in the 10th century, it was later expanded by the Almohads in the 12th century not long before the city was taken by the Christians in 1248. One hundred years later, King Pedro I had three of the Almohad palaces demolished and his own palace built using Mudejar artisans from Toledo, Granada and Seville.

Brick and tile work typical of Mudejar architecture, Teruel.

Many Christians were fascinated by the Islamic aesthetic – the intricately carved alabaster lacework, the geometric wooden coffered ceilings – and were happy to incorporate the style into their own constructions. Pedro I even went so far as to allow an Islamic calligraphic inscription to exalt his illustriousness: “Glory to our Lord the Sultan Don Pedro, may Allah protect him.” !!

If there’s one enduring image people have of Moorish Spain, it’s that of La Alhambra in Granada. For hundreds of years it’s been the subject of poetry, stories, romantic legends, paintings, songs and so much more. Its appeal can perhaps be attributed to its gratifying symmetry, its harmonious mathematical proportions, the rich decoration and artisanship, the gardens and countless fountains, pools and marble canals that provide a sense of tranquillity and appealing coolness.

Patio of the Lions, La Alhambra

Besides being so satisfying to look at, the Alhambra is a mathematical, engineering and architectural triumph. The towers and palaces were built using a mathematical ratio that makes the harmony very pleasing to the eye, much as a well-composed piece of classical music does to our ears. The tiles that decorate the walls use all 17 mathematically possible wallpaper groups, which are the indefinitely repeated motifs in the geometric patterns. Apparently when the artist Escher visited the Alhambra in 1922, he was inspired to create his famous tessellation designs after studying these patterns.

Intricately carved stucco capitals, the colours long ago faded, La Alhambra

Water was, and still is, drawn from the river Darro using a complex hydraulic system. Water played an integral part in the palaces of the Moorish rulers. It was used to impress and intimidate the dignitaries and emirs visiting from northern Africa where water is a rare commodity. It was a symbol of power and those who controlled the complex network, controlled the mindset of the visitors. In fact, water was one of the principal differences between the Moors’ Christian predecessors and successors. They reopened many of the public baths that the Visigoths had closed down and brought water into the houses through channels, fountains and pools. The act of cleansing oneself was very important in the religious ritual and thus used in the 16th and 17th centuries as a reason for the Inquisition to suspect someone of being Muslim; “The accused was known to take baths”.

Courtyard of the Orange Trees, Mezquita, Cordoba - once filled with fountains for the ablutions before prayer.

Irrigation, introduced by the Romans but abandoned by the Goths, was resurrected from its dusty death and improved upon, transforming agriculture throughout the land. New food crops were introduced, such as figs, pomegranates, artichokes, coriander, peaches and other stone fruit, oranges, lemons, sugar cane, saffron and rice – products that have since become the staple of Spanish cuisine. In fact Moorish influence is also evidenced in cooking and preserving techniques, using oil to fry foods or vinegar and salt to preserve fish, vegetables and olives. Many of the syrupy desserts popular in Spain come from the Moors as do the famous almond tarts.

Cordoba, Seville, and Granada were important centres of mathematics, philosophy, science and engineering, design and craftsmanship, but politically things were not going so well for the Moors. Much of the trouble started at the harem; male rulers had multiple children by multiple women who then grew up wanting a slice of the royal political pie. Internal fighting and regular revolts were destroying any chance of unified rule on the Iberian Peninsula. In the first half of the new millennium, Al Andalus, which at that time still controlled two thirds of the peninsula, was split into about 20 taifas (kingdoms). The Christians were revitalized in their efforts to gain ground and started to see themselves as a religious crusade, uniting the Christian kingdoms and adopting Saint James the Moor Slayer as their God-given inspiration. When Alfonso VI of Castille and Leon took the important city of Toledo in 1085, the Moors asked for help from the Almoravids – a fundamentalist group of Berbers from north-west Africa.

A steep narrow street of cobblestone, Toledo.

The Almoravids managed to unite Al Andalus, but their fanatical and intolerant approach caused a lot of unrest among the citizens and the period of religious freedom and tolerance was over. Many Christian and Jewish Mozarabs and even Muslims, fled to Toledo where it became known as ‘The city of the three cultures’. Today, as you climb the steep narrow cobblestone streets, you can still visit the synagogue, Ibn Shushan (now known as Santa Maria la Blanca) and the mosque, Mesquita de las Tornerias – both constructed around this time. The Mesquita was used as a mosque right up until the Catholic Monarchs desacralized it in the 16th century.


A new period of enlightenment began as schools and universities attracted scholars from all over the world. One school was set up to help organise the translations of Arabic texts into Latin which enabled their knowledge to be disseminated throughout Europe. Persian literature, Arabic medicine as well as works of Greek philosophers such as Aristotle were translated, triggering a renewed interest in scientific and philosophical literacy. The ‘Canon of Medicine’ by Ibn Sina, the great physician and scientist, was the most influential textbook on medicine for centuries and his ‘The Book of Healing’ analysed mathematics, physics, metaphysics, and politics. This was a far cry from dogmatic Europe which believed such works to be heretical. But the ideas spread and became instrumental in the development of Christian thought. Thomas Aquinas, for example, cited Aristotle to show that Christianity was based not only on faith, but on reason, allowing it to be defended and rationally explained.

Tiny tiles are embedded in the stones around the Jewish Quarter, Toledo, a reminder of the Sephardi, or Hispanic Jews.

The golden era of tolerance of the three religions began to break down around the beginning of the 14th century. Jews particularly were persecuted and often blamed for society’s problems. The Christian

forces were becoming more zealous in their holy war and determined to convert the entire peninsula to a Christendom. Muslims and Jews fled back south again, and Al Andalus continued to shrink with Cordoba falling in 1236 and Seville in 1248, leaving Granada as a tributary state for the next 244 years. But the Moors had left their mark in so many ways and not only in the sciences, art, architecture, food, infrastructure, and irrigation, but also in the language and numerical system.

The introduction of Arabic numerals transformed mathematics and spread quickly around Europe. Before that, large numbers written as Roman numerals stretched out inconveniently, not to mention lacked a zero, so were not well suited to algebra and higher maths. Arabic words have become part of the Spanish vernacular, such as: alcázar (fortified palace), arroz (rice), aduana (customs), naranja (orange), azúcar (sugar), alcalde (mayor) and many more, and there are words that have also made it into the English language, such as: algebra, alcohol, sesame, saffron, jasmine, coffee, almanac, zenith, syrup, elixir and alkali… The word ‘chemistry’ comes from ‘alchemy’ (al chemia) - another science the Moors helped develop.

We can thank the Moors for the rice and saffron used in paella.

The list of Moorish influences keeps going; they brought the skills of leatherwork, metalwork, silk and cotton weaving, glazed pottery, and glasswork into the country. The guitar was developed from their lute and their poetic songs inspired the adagios of cante jondo flamenco - the “wa-allah!” called out after each stanza has its echo in the “Ole!” during a flamenco song. Even the saeta sung during Holy Week in Andalusia recalls the haunting spiritual hymns sung during Islamic festivals. Their contribution to astronomy, botany and geography was also significant, so while one may argue the impact Moors had on Spain, you can’t deny the impact they had on the rest of Europe. A new age of rationality and scientific endeavour was flourishing in Moorish Spain long before the rest of Europe and was instrumental in bringing about the Renaissance which in turn led to the Scientific Revolution.

Not all was peaches and cream in Islamic Spain. The Moors could be blood-thirsty, cruel, fond of fighting and chopping off heads. They raided, pillaged, tortured, and lusted after treasures, status and power. In the process of creating a shared enemy, Spain united and assumed its own national identity, and regrettably, a religious zealotry that was to last many more centuries. It was rather unfortunate that both the Moors and the Jews were expelled around the same time. Spain lost their most skilled, talented, educated and financially savvy citizens in the years to come, but the Crown was bankrupt after so many years of war and benefitted financially from the property that was confiscated. These freshly obtained coffers also helped finance the expedition to the New World.

Evening lights on the Alhambra.

A decade after painting ‘The Capitulation of Granada’, Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz painted the ‘The Moor’s Sigh’, based on the romanticised legend of a heart-broken Boabdil standing on a rocky hilltop gazing back one last time at his beloved Alhambra. With tears in his eyes he lets out a long sigh. “Weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man”, his mother reproaches him.

There is a stone marker that commemorates the spot for anyone who wishes to visit.

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