The Muslims controlled most of the Iberian Peninsula for close to 800 years. They left behind one of Europe's finest collection of Islamic architecture and art. The Islamic architecture in Spain must be seen as part of a greater movement that flourished in the Western Mediterranean area, and left architectural marvels in an area stretching from Spain through modern Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria.
The highlight in Islamic architecture in medieval Europe is a monument in Southern Spain: the Alhambra, 'the Red Fortress', built by the Nazrids. The Palaces still stand proud on the hilltops of Granada today make millions of visitors wonder every year. There is many more beautiful Islamic architecture to see in Spain, though many others have been lost in history. Among the highlights are the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba) that the Christians destroyed partially upon the conquer of the city: today 856 columns are left of the original 1293.
In Islamic art, human or religious representations are almost absent. In all the three monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, representations of the divine have been discussed heavily, and only in Christianity, religious images and icons were permitted. However, even In Christianity, during the Byzantine Iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th century AD, religious images or icons were opposed by religious and imperial authorities during two periods.
The Quran clearly condemns idolatry and Islamic art has moved away from religious images and icons. Instead, the following three types of ornamentation have been dominating:
Key ornament elements in Islamic Art & Architecture
Islamic architecture evolved into a highly elaborate artform based on geometric, natural and calligraphic elements. Some of the popular elements in art, were combined with the following key elements in architecture.
Poetry and architecture go hand in hand in the Islamic world. Calligraphy is a key element in Islamic architecture, and usually the Caliph employed a court poet to write poems to be written directly on the stucco in calligraphic patterns.
In the first centuries of Islamic art, a wide range of new or redefined techniques evolutioned. Among the most important are:
The most elaborate Islamic art can be resumed to the following elements that evolutioned over several centuries
Element typical of Islamic architecture and art
In the following, we will present a short description of each element with photos
The muqarnas were first documented from the mid-12th century in Spain, but they were probably used here since mid 11th century. They are ornamented vaulting in Islamic architecture.
The structure originated from the squinch and were sometimes called structure originated from the squinch and were sometimes called "honeycomb vaulting" or "stalactite vaulting" to hide the structural space that bears a dome. They were especially used for important areas in a mosque or a place close to central halls or close to the mihrab in the mosque.
Carved plaster or yeseria as it is called in Spanish, was a beautiful ornamentation used especially for upper walls in Spain.
Decoration with tiles in geometric patterns and inscriptions were generally used for courtyards and interiors. The tiles can be seen in most Islamic architecture from the late middle ages. In modern construction the Spaniards still use tiles (azulejos).
Artesonado ceilings are made out of intricately joined wooden ceiling forming geometric patterns. The ceilings often consist of many hundred or even thousands of small pieces of carved wood.
The artesonado ceilings start appearing in the 13th century and are found in both Islamic Spain and in Northern Africa. The Alhambra and the Aljafería in Zaragoza have several excellent examples of Artesonado ceilings.
Art was important as it showed the status of the caliphs, and huge sums were used on the production of works of art. Art plays together with architecture in the Islamic world, and the two cannot really be separated. Early Islamic art was influenced by Roman art and Christian art (particularly from the Byzantine churches) but as it evolutioned it ended up exceeding the former.
Key elements are the geometrical floral and vegetal designs that are repeated almost infinitely and are called arabesque. Naturalistic works of art show plants, animals and sometimes human beings.
The Muslims in Spain were fantastic mathematicians. When Abd al-Rahman I built the first Ymayyad mosque in Córdoba, his architects based the mosque on simple arithmetic and the work of the Roman mathematician Vitruvius, and laid it out as a perfect square: 150 cubits x 150 cubits (the cubit is a traditional meassure based on the lenght of the forearm). During the 10th century, architects began to use geometry - including the use of equilateral triangles - in addition to arithmetics, which was later seen in the design of Medinat Azahara.
In later works on the mosque of Córdoba the archades received free standing arches, and during the reign of al-Hakam II (961-971), the archades of the maqsura (a prayer room close to the mihrab) were designed as a complex superposition of different arches, including half-cirle arches (horseshoe shaped or multifoiled). Some arches span several bays, crossing other arches and creating interlocking arches and ribbed vaults. These elements are similar to the ones to be used in gothic architecture, but in the mosque in Córdoba, they mainly play and aesthetic purpose, more than a structural one.
Later, works by writers like Ibn Haitam, especially his Book of Optics (1028) that was translated into latin as De Aspectibus would revolutionize architecture in the 11th and 12th century. And eventually the vaulting was fractionized into a large number of small squinches and corbels, thus creating the muqarnas.
The term mudejar is slightly confusing, since it has more than one meaning. The term comes from the Arabic word mudajjan, which means 'domesticated' or 'permitted to remain'. It was originally used for the Muslims that lived in areas conquered by the Christians, staying after the conquest. Later it came to designate architecture built "by Muslims, Christians, and Jews for Christian or Jewish patrons in the lands conquered from Islam", and over time it was used for all architecture and art influenced by Islamic art and architecture, made for Christian or Jewish patrons.
Both Christian and Jewish patrons adopted Islamic techniques, particularly in Toledo and Seville. Below you can find Examples of mudejar architecture in Spain like the Synagogues of Toledo and the Alcázar of Seville.
Some scholars use the fact that Muslim, Christian and Jewish architecture unites around one style in the mudejar architecture. This is referred to as the theory of convivencia, arguing that three cultures and religions coexisted peacefully (called convivencia in Spanish).
But the convivencia was not entirely peaceful and, as the American scholar Jonathan M. Bloom has argued, the fact that the three cultures agreed about a style in architecture and art - the mudejar style - did not imply that they agreed in cultural and much less religious questions, since "practical and aesthetic considerations were quite independent of religious affiliation, so that what we today consider an "Islamic" style was seen simply as the finest that money - and lots of it - could buy." (Jonathan M. Bloom, Architecture of the Islamic West).
Granada has a splendid collection of Islamic architecture, one of the very best in the world. The city had been controlled by both the Zirids, the Almoravids, the Almohads and by Banu’l -Ahmar, but it was under the Nasrids in the 14th and 15th century, that the most splendid palaces were built: the Alhambra. Al-Hamrā in Arabic means 'the red one', because of the red clay that was used to build its walls.
The Alhambra Palace is the finest example of medieval Islamic architecture in the world. The Palace city can be defined as one building with several palaces (a total of 6 palaces), and it was inhabited by the Nasrid rulers for approximately 250 years.
The location of Alhambra is simply perfect: the palace received water from the nearby snowcapped mountain chain Sierra Nevada and the valley below the palace was fertile. Furthermore, the Mediterranean coastline was nearby with ports like Malaga and Almería, where Genovese traders helped the commerce flow. However, it was also commerce that brought the black death to the palace in 1348.
When Muhammad came back from Fez and was restored to power he built the famous Patio de los leones (Palace of the Lions) in Alhambra. This extraordinary palace is very different from the rest of the Alhambra, and must have been inspired by buildings Muhammad V had seen in Fez.
Today, only four of the original six palaces exist, and the scholars can only guess at how the Alhambra must have looked like in the 14th and 15th century. been demolished
Nasrid architecture, can be divided into 4 periods:
The founder of the Alhambra, Muhammad I (1238-1273), built only few elements to the Alhambra, basically the walls of the fortress at the west end (the Alcazaba), but he made canals to drive water from the Darro river to the palace. Muhammad II (1273-1302) built the palace of Abencerrajes (only known from excavations),
Muhammad III (1302-09) who built the Partal Palace and its pond as well as a congregational mosque (that was later replaced by a church). Ismael I (1314-15) built the palacio de Comares, the myrtle palace, baths and the rawda (the mausoleum).
Yusuf I (1333-1354) refurbished the Myrtle Palace, built the ambassadors Hall and the justice gate (Bab al-Sharia) which is still the main entrance. Muhammad V (1354-59 and again 1562-91) built the Palace of Lions, the Riyad (the garden) and rebuilt the entrance wing (the Mexuar, the Cuarto Dorado and the façade of the Comares Hall/Myrtle Palace).
Later, the Roman-German emperor Carlos V built the famous renaissance palace and two centuries later, Filipe V (1700-46) added elements in an italianate style.
In the 19th century, the fragile architecture had fallen into disrepair and in the 20th century many refurbishments were made. In the last decades Alhambra has changed several times due to restauration: in famous Patio de los Leones was covered by grass in the 1970'ies, with gravel in the 1990'ies and marble from the 2000'ies.
Rectangular courtyards with use of water (pool, fountain, channel) are basic building elements in Nasrid architecture: often they are connected with halls with alcoves (Arabic alqubba = 'vaulted room'). They used white marble from Almeria's Macael quarry.
Islamic buildings are mostly designed to be seen from within - in Muslim culture, it is important not to brag and the Alhambra have a severe facade and only opens up when the visitor enters inside the building.
There were several court poets working at Alhambra during the 14th and 15th century who wrote the poems that are reproduced in calligraphic plaster carvings.
The poems were later collected and written down by poet-king Yusuf III (1376-1417)
The most important buildings in the Alhambra are:
This space in Granada was originally an Almohad palace called Dar al-Bayda, but it was rebuilt in Nasrid-style around 1270. When the city was conquered in 1492 by the Catholic Kings it was given to the Dominican Order (from which is takes its name today). from 1835 it was privately owned, and in 1990 the town hall bought the building.
The structure clearly shows that the Nasrids had developed their own design already in 1270. A clearly defined design with the use of cut tiles, carved plaster, muqarnas, inscribed wooden friezes and artesonado ceilings.
The building is a masterpiece in early Islamic architecture. Construction was begun in 784 by Abd ar-Rahman I and 130 columns were erected. During the years 822-854, the mosque was expanded by Abd ar-Rahman II because of the population growth. He enlarged the mosque by breaking the qibla wall and added 8 columns. Muhammad (852-86) completed the decoration.
Between 951 and 952 Abd al-Rahman III started an expansion of the mosque that ended in 958. A minaret was added, Umayyad builders had traditionally placed the minarets in the center of the courtyard, but here it was placed left of the courtyard's central portal.
Al-Hakam II reigned from 961 to 976 continued the work on the mosque. He had a famous library with more than 400.000 volumes.
He expanded the Mosque and made a new mihrab after having participated in the work on Medina Azahara. The byzantine emperor send skilled artisans and a gift of 1.600 kg gold and mosaic tesserae. The Córdoba mosque's prayer hall was expanded by breaking the 9th century qibla wall (constructed by Abd al-Rahman II).
The mihrab and surroundings are extraordinary. The mihrab itself is heptagonal, with slabs of veined marble. There is a remarkable complexity of intersecting cusped arches - which is not found anywhere else in Islamic art. The domes over the mihrab are entirely different and have an astonishing variety, a scalloped cupula and glass mosaics.
The Mihrab is surrounded by an inscription from Quran 22:77-8, and the panels are framed by rectangular alfiz.
During the reign of Hisham II (976-1009), where the de facto person in charge was the warrior Almanzor, the mosque was expanded again to its present size, with a total of 1293 columns. The Cordoba Mosque had then become the third biggest Mosque in the World.
In 1236, Córdoba was conquered by the Christians, and the mosque was turned into a church, but it is not until 1523 that more than 400 columns are derived to make space for a new cathedral in the Mosque's interior. Charles V later famously said:
"You have destroyed something that was unique in the world, and have put in its place something you can see anywhere."
The many columns create the sensation of being in a forest of columns. When the mosque was constructed, there was a problem, since the columns were only 3 m tall. So the builders set impost blocks in at around 1.75 m high, so that they could rise the ceiling. The columns are connected by horseshoe vaults, that also provided stability to the building. Stone and brick alternated, giving color and structure.
This entrance is the most impressive, and it was supposedly the entrance of the emir. The use of horseshoe arches using composite brick voussoirs alternating with limestone voussoirs mirror the interior.
A mudejar structure built around 1300. The building is much inspired by the Nasrid architecture and has stucco decoration with geometry and vegetal motifs that are close to the Nasrid-style.
The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos has elements that go as far back as the Visigoths, before it was refurbished under Abd ar-Rahman I in the 8th century AD. They were later expanded under the Almohads before the city was taken in 1236 by the Christians. The present fortress was made under Alfonso Xi in 1328.
Another example are the gardens in the Royal Palace. They are known to have existed since the 10th century during the reign of Abd ar-Rahman, but the modern version dates from a restauration made in the mid-20th century. The gardens have several fountains and is dominated by palm trees, cypress and orange trees.
The building dates back to 10th century, when Abd ar-Rahman III built a fortified palace that was later extended by the Abbadids in Seville (1023-1091). When the Almohads gained control over Al-Andalus, they made Seville their capital and demolished most of the anterior palace (besides the walls) in 1198 and built 12 palaces as royal residence. However, most of the present palace was built later by the Christians in mudejar style, but the Patio del Yeso still stands from the Almohad period.
After the Christians conquest of Seville in 1248 by the hand of Ferdinand III, the Spanish king Alfonso X (r. 1312-1340) made Seville the capital of Spain and the Alcazar was used as a royal palace. Alfonso X built the gothic palace between 1352 and 1360 and Peter the Cruel (in Spanish: Pedro el Cruel) built a mudejar Palace in between 1364 and 1366. Peter had a close connection with the Nasrids and he used a Nasrid-style for the new Alcázar and even included Arabic inscriptions in the palace.
The palace included polylobed (multifoiled) arches, splayed voussoirs, ornamental stucco, eaves of wood with muqarnas. The ornate wooden marquetry doors were made in 1366 by woodworkers from Toledo, but the Nasrid emir Muhammad V probably also sent craftsmen to help with the construction of Peter the Cruel's palace. Peter the Cruel also built a palace in Nasrid style north-west of Madrid in Tordesillas (Valladolid), which is part of the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Tordesillas. After Peter the Cruels death, Enrique II built a royal chapel in Nasrid-style in 1371 with tile mosaic, Plaster walls and Muqarnas
The Cathedral of Seville lies on the ground of an earlier Almohad Mosque. Only a few elements are left from the original mosque: the Islamic elements left from the Almohad period are two portals - one of them being the Portal del perdon, with horseshoe arches and a wooden bronze-plated door -, a muqarnas vault (over the east entrance to the courtyard) and the famous minaret la Giralda (see below).
Seville experienced a big earthquake in 1356, and part of the original church was demolished. The cathedral seen today is mostly built in late gothic style between 1434 and 1506, making it the biggest cathedral in Europe, surpassing Hagia Sofia in Constantinople.
The Torre de Oro was built as a dodecagonal defensive tower, on the riverbed of the Guadalquivir river. The tower was built in 1220-21 by Abu l aula Idris and is constructed in brick and sandstone. Today, the stone and brick stands bare, but it was probably covered by green or white tiles before. The name 'The Golden Tower' probably does not come from gold covering the tower, but from the golden colour of the sandstone.
La Giralda is the bell tower in Sevilla's cathedral. La Giralda was originally built as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Seville. Only the top of the tower built in renaissance style dates from the Christian period.
The Great Mosque was built by the Almohads from 1171 to 1176, but construction on the minaret was done in the period 1184-98.
The minaret is one of the most remarkable buildings from medieval Spain. The tower measures 104,5 meters and stands next to the cathedral - it is possible to enter the tower from the church. The Giralda is on UNESCO's World Heritage List.
Medina Azahara (also Madinat al-Zahra), 'the shining city', was a beautiful city in the middle ages.
In 936 Abd al-Rahman III started the construction of Medina Azahara on a hill 6 km west of Córdoba. It was an earlier Roman city with aqueducts. Abd ar-Rahman III brought more than 1.000 columns from Ifriqiya, mostly from Carthage. The city was later renovated by al-Hakim (reign 961-76) and contemporary sources write that nothing of its kind had been built before in the Islamic world.
The area covered a total of 112 hectares, and counted a mosque, baths, markets. The city was protected by double walls. Three complex had three levels. On the highest level was the alcazar and the caliph’s private rooms. One the second level were the courtiers and their associates.m, and on the last level were the gardens & orchards.
Toledo is a marvelous city and as in no other Spanish city its architecture mingles Christian, Jewish and Islamic elements.
The synagogue was built 1359-61 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, who was chief minister and treasurer to Peter the Cruel.
The law stated that the synagogues needed be smaller than churches and must only have plain decoration, but ha-Levi succeeded in getting permission to built a bigger church with elaborate ornamentation.
The result is a Nasrid-style synagogue with polychrome stucco-work, both Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions and quotation from the Psalms and an artesonado ceiling, stucco carvings with vegetal and geometric motifs with much variation and a triple-arched opening. The second-floor gallery were made for the women.
The former Mosque Bab-al-Mardum, that is now a Catholic church is one of the most interesting buildings in Toledo. It was built in 999. In 1187 it was converted to church
The Iglesia de San Roman was built in the 13th century in mudejar-style on the site of an earlier Visigothic church (before there was also a Roman building on the same site)
The photo below shows what looks like an Islamic building: the horseshoe arches clearly mimics the arches in the Mezquita of Córdoba. But the church was built as such and had never been a a mosque.
Zaragoza was founded by the Romans as Caesaraugusta. In the 11th Century, the Banu Hud family came to rule Zaragoza from 1039 until 1110, when the city was conquered by the Almohads. In this period, the city was the capital of a taifa kingdom, the Aljafería was the residence of the Banus Hud Dynasty.
Even though the building is much restored, it is an important testimony from the era of the Taifas (independent kongdoms) and it shows several important structural elements, like the decoration of interlocking arches and lobed arches. The building, together with other mudejar architecture of Aragón, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. The list also includes buildings and structures like the Tower of the Church of Utebo, the apse and the dome of the La Seu Cathedral of Zaragoza and the cathedral and the San Pedro Church of Teruel.
There is much more Islamic architecture to be seen in Spain. Many hundred fortresses still stand scattered around the country, and the remains of more elaborate architecture such as palaces or mosques also abound.
Among the most important fortresses in Spain are the ones in Murcia. The city was founded in 825 by the Umayyad Abd ar-Rahman III, and was made provincial capital. In Malaga in Andalucía, you can still enjoy the Alcazaba fortress, that stands on top of the Gibralfaro.
As mentioned earlier, many churches around Spain are former Mosques converted into churches. This is the case of several hundred churches, with the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba as one of the most clear examples. However, in other churches, the traces from the original mosques, are more difficult to see. Another example is the Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador in Toledo, a former mosque turned into a church.
At the same time, mosques were built outside of Al-Andalus by the Umayyads, like the great mosque of Kairouan and mosques in Sousse, Sfax and the mosque of Tunis (Zaytuna), Aghmat and Agadir.
Even though the Muslim areas were conquered by the Christians, the influence of the Islamic architecture and art continued.
The continued, extensive use of glazed tiles (today called azulejos) is a distinguished feature in modern, Spanish architecture - an element that is directly derived from Islamic architecture.
Some of the elements that the Christians took from the Muslims were:
Architecture of the Islamic West by Jonathan M. Bloom. Yale University Press, 2020.