History of Mayrit: walls of fire over the water

The Madrid we know today has changed significantly since the time it was founded. To start with, it was not the capital of Spain—it was not even a city. During the Umayyad Caliphate of Al-Andalus, Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba founded Mayrit, the only Arab city in Europe. Back then, it belonged to Marca Media, one of the territories at the border of the Arab and Castilian kingdoms. Mayrit was born with a clear defensive intention, like a clash between two different worlds. 

Mayrit’s foundation

It was the second half of the 9th century. The emir decided to build a fortress next to the Manzanares, in an elevated position that would allow them to keep watch of the surroundings, particularly the mountain pass of Guadarrama. This was a key location, among other things, because it connected Zaragoza to Mérida, as well as communicating Segovia with the south of the peninsula. This alcázar was guarded by high walls, and it was built in the current location of the Royal Palace of Madrid. They built the Al-Mudayna or the citadel further to the south, where the common people lived. 

The Royal Palace of Madrid, surrounded by beautiful gardens

Way before the construction of the Royal Palace, there was an Arab fortress here. | Shutterstock

Whereas the Arab fortress was built in the current spot of the Royal Palace, the citadel used to take the place of today’s Almudena Cathedral. In fact, the name “Almudena” comes from “Al-Mudayna”. And it is not the only emblematic element in Madrid whose origin traces back to this time period. Two of the most popular theories regarding the name of Mayrit claim that it comes from the Arabic language. It could be a derivation of the term “mayra”, which means mother or parent, with the suffix “it”, meaning abundance. Alternatively, it could come from “maǧra”, which means stream or watercourse. 

There is another theory held by researcher Jaime Oliver Asín in his book Historia del Nombre de Madrid (“History of Madrid’s name”), which argues that the origin of the Spanish capital’s name actually goes back to a time prior to the arrival of the Muslims, when there was a Visigothic settlement called “matrice”, meaning “mother of water”. However, the research group of Parque Lineal affirms on their website that “there is no evidence of the existence of a vicus or a Visigothic settlement of any kind in medieval Madrid”. Nevertheless, they do admit it is not impossible, since there have been archaeological findings in the area. 

“I was built over water, and fire are my walls”

Whatever the origin of this city’s name, it clearly has something to do with water. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the emir founded Mayrit here in the first place: because this place was surrounded by water streams, which have been buried just as the Muslim past of the capital. 

As a consequence, Mayrit developed a thriving economy in the area, which was improved by the underground channels designed by Arab engineers. This way, water was channelled through pipes, canals, pools and vents right into the heart of the city, where it emerged from fountains and pipes for the people to enjoy. 

A mural with Madrid's motto in Spanish

The square of Puerta Cerrada in Madrid displays a mural with Madrid’s motto. | Wikimedia

“I was built over water, and fire are my walls”, says Madrid’s motto, alluding to the watery reality of the city. The part concerning fire is interesting too. In the Middle Ages, Mayrit was protected by a wall of limestone and flint, a dark quartz that produces sparks when struck. When the city was under attack, the swords and spears that struck the wall produced surprising sparkles, originating the motto we know today. 

The popular Spanish expression “de Madrid al cielo” (“from Madrid to the sky”) has its roots in this time period too. Indeed, astronomy reached its peak in Spain’s capital city thanks to Maslama al-Mayrit, a renowned astronomer and intellectual from the Caliphate of Córdoba who was born in Mayrit. 

A route through Arab Madrid

After 250 years of Arab reign, Mayrit was conquered by Alfonso VI in the 11th century, although many of its former inhabitants were relocated to one of its suburbs: the current neighbourhood of La Latina. It was not until the reign of Felipe II, in the 16th century, that Madrid became the capital of Spain. This marked the beginning of another time period, but it is still related to the remnants of the Arab past we have discussed, since most of those buildings were destroyed then. 

A star-shaped square in a park

The park of Muhammad I. | Wikimedia

Now there is not much of old Mayrit left. The most remarkable element that has remained is the ruins of its wall, scattered throughout the capital. The park of Muhammad I, next to the Almudena Cathedral on the slope of La Vega, is perhaps the best vestige of that chapter of the country’s history. 

We can find another piece of the fortification in quite an unusual place: the access to a garage under the viaduct of Segovia, in the street of Bailén. In Plaza de Oriente, there are remains of an 11th-century Islamic watchtower resting in a public parking lot. Likewise, the square of Ramales holds an Islamic silo—the last of them. Searching for these secret spots is almost like a puzzle game; hence, there are many tours that will guide us through the fascinating remnants of Mayrit, the seed of the city we know today. 

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