Although most of Spain and Portugal was under Moorish rule for many years, it’s the southernmost Spanish province, that is still a living testimony to its muslim past. Al-Andalus, the Moorish reign was called. The Andalusia of today is wonderful patchwork of Arab architecture, lemon groves, shadowy patios in hot cities, olive trees and water fountains. Here, history is alive in every aspect of daily life. And it looks like nowhere else in Europe.
The best known cities with the most beautiful Moorish architecture is Cordoba, Seville and Granada. But you just have to drive through the Andalusian landscape to see the whitewashed Pueblos Blancos, white villages, huddled together at the foot of a hill, with an Alcazaba, a fortress, rising above as protection and observation post to discover the arab past in the landscape.
The ancient culture of Al-Andalus was remarkably urban and the best examples of Arab or Moorish Architecture is found in the larger cities. So let’s begin our Tour in the Footsteps of the Moors:
The Arabs of the so-called Umayyad dynasty conquered Córdoba in 711 and made it capital of the muslim empire of Al-Andalus, that in a time-span of merely 9 years came to include most of the Iberian peninsula. The medieval Visigoth fortress in Córdoba was rebuilt after Arab designs and became a Moorish palace for the rulers – an Alcázar. But contrary to Seville and Granada, this was not to be the height of the Moorish architecture in Córdoba. Instead, 200 years of labour and thousands of workers created the Great Mosque – or Mezquita – of Córdoba.
Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba
The Mezquita was built on the site of a Visigoth temple, integrating pieces of the old temple and thus absorbing the structure that went before it. The construction ended in 987 and during the 300 years of Moorish reign in Córdoba, the Mezquita was the pride and joy of its citizens.
In 1236, Córdoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile during the so-called Reconquista – the Christian reconquering of the Iberian peninsula. Now converted into a Catholic church, the following Kings persisted in adding Christian features, the most distinctive being the opulent, almost vulgar, Renaissance nave in the middle of the vast but intimate Moorish structure. The Catholic Charles V, who had commissioned the addition, was so displeased with the result that he exclaimed: “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city”.
Although true, I regard it as an example how an existing structure might have been considered a symbol of the conquered past and that the conquerors had to to put their fingerprints on these grand buildings in order to assert themselves as rulers. And that’s what makes the architecture of Andalusia so interesting and diverse, because you have Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Catholics all trying to put their fingerprints on a grand structure and through this architecture become immortalised.
The Mezquita of Córdoba is the largest muslim building in Western Europe. When you enter the huge and intimate arcaded hypostyle hall, with 856 columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx supporting more than 400 horseshoe arches with two-coloured arch-stones, you at once feel at home in this intimate space. Although grand in scale, the scale is horizontal and not vertical, as we’re used to in grand Gothic structures and this adds to the intimate and informal ambiance. The gem of the building is the prayer niche or mihrab – a masterpiece of architectural art, with geometric and flowing designs of plants, detailed engravings and adorned with gold.
Nowadays, the complex is named Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, but serves only as a cathedral. There has been Muslim requests to pray in the building, but these have been refused. Still to this day this piece of spiritual architecture resonates strongly in the two largest religions of the world. Let’s hope history has taught us the lesson to solve these differences in peace this time.
More information about the Mezquita:
Patios of Córdoba
It’s not just the Mosque–Cathedral, that’s UNESCO World Heritage attested. It’s the whole old town of Córdoba. The second largest in Europe and the largest one that’s UNESCO credited. The old town is a mix of narrow, crooked streets near the Mezquita and straight, orderly roads the further away from the centre you get.
When walking through the narrow streets, you experience another example of Moorish architecture: The buildings turn their back to the streets. They’re actually quite boring to look at. But when you catch a glimpse of what’s on the other side of the closed door, you see that the stern facades just guard a life that’s lived inside the walls.
The beauty of Arab architecture lies not in its facade, like it does with Western architecture, but instead it focuses on the heart of a home in the warm south: the patios. Most buildings are centered around a shady courtyard with a fountain in the middle. Doors and windows open out into this chilled space, that is cooled down by shade and running water, and the trickling sound of the spring permeates through the rooms of the house.
Here, Moorish life unfolded a thousand years ago. Life is still lived around the shady patios, that you can peek into while strolling around the streets. People are proud of their homes, and since they can’t show of an impressive facade, they can show you the gem of the house, often filled with green plants and decorated with colourful tiles.
A fortnight a year, in May, they even throw a festival in honour of the courtyards: The Fiesta de los Patios, where all the doors are opened, and everyone is invited in to see the wonders of Córdoba’s patios. The rest of the year, you just have to do like us: have a peak!
If you’re interested in more history about the Moorish influence on Andalucia, follow us In the Footsteps of the Moors: Seville, where we find out how much of the Alcázar is really Moorish, and how much of the Cathedral was originally a mosque.
More information about the Patios:
- Map of Córdoba’s Patios at the Festival
- Fiesta de los Patios on Facebook
- More about the festival on Córdoba’s Tourism website