The legacy of Al-Andalus through the great Moorish buildings in Spain

The influence of al-Andalus is, without a doubt, one of the most significant and appreciated in Spain’s rich historical heritage. Seven hundred years of Muslim domination remain alive today in its great architectural monuments, where the splendour of a civilisation that reached an extraordinary degree of development and artistic refinement is preserved. Mosques, palaces and fortresses are the best representatives of the legacy of al-Andalus, authentic Islamic architectural works that were born to stay and be part of the Hispanic culture.

Explore the legacy of al-Andalus in present Spain

The Alhambra in Granada

Alhambra de Granada

Alhambra in Granada. | Shutterstock

Granada is the city of al-Andalus par excellence. It was the last territory to remain under Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula until 1492, when Boabdil handed over the Islamic gem to Christianity, the Alhambra. With Sierra Nevada as a backdrop, this splendid Andalusian palatine city stands as a reference point for Muslim architecture and art in Spain. The splendour that endures in its gardens, fountains and geometric decorations dates from the 14th century, when the Nasrid kingdom moved to Granada and built its residence there. The harmony and refinement of its design and decoration reached almost unparalleled levels of perfection.

Two centuries later, the Christian monarchs built a Renaissance palace but maintained the Muslim structures. The Alhambra enclosure is perfectly preserved, despite the blasting by Napoleonic troops during the 19th century, which almost destroyed the enclosure completely. Fortunately, today it is possible to walk among its columns and arches in the Andalusi style, decorated with quotes from the Koran. As well as visiting the Patio de los Leones and the gardens that maintain the predominant hydraulic system in the Muslim architectures.

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, legacy of Al-Andalus

Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. | Shutterstock

Built between 786 and 988, the Mosque of Córdoba is the first monument in the entire Western Islamic world and one of the most important buildings of all Muslim architecture. Its historical value and artistic wealth have earned it the title of World Heritage Site. A treasure from the past where we can witness the majesty of al-Andalus.

It was the Amir Abd al-Rahman I who promoted the Mosque, which became the best example of the strength of the Umayyad Caliphate of Córdoba. Since the Christian reconquest in 1236, it was used as a cathedral, with all the transformations that the conversion of the temple to Catholic worship entailed. In the last century, the current Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba was restored. Thanks to this, today one can enjoy both the Moorish column forest and the Christian Renaissance basilica.

Medina al-Zahra, Córdoba

Medina Azahara

Medina Azahara in Córdoba. | Shutterstock

From the beginning of the 10th century, the emirate of Córdoba enjoyed a century of splendour that made it the most powerful kingdom in the Western world. Under the figure of Abd al-Rahman III, Córdoba rose to be the most important city in Europe, both in terms of population and as a cultural and political beacon of reference. In this way, the Caliph ordered the creation of a palatine city intended to become the seat of the newly inaugurated Caliphate of Córdoba. This is how Medina Azahara came into being, at the foot of Sierra Morena and eight kilometres from the capital.

The palatine city was destroyed with the end of the Umayyad dynasty, remaining in ruins until its restoration in the 20th century. Today this archaeological site has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Currently only 10% of the surface area within the city walls has been excavated, corresponding to the central nucleus of the Royal Alcazar, which has three terraces surrounded by a wall. Rich red and violet marbles, precious stones and gold, in addition to the artisan care of the best stonemasons and Byzantine contributions, helped the rise of Medina Azahara.

La Giralda and Torre del Oro in Seville

The Giralda in Seville

The Giralda of Seville. | Shutterstock

The Giralda is one of the great Moorish legacies of Seville, also considered as the icon of the city. It summarizes many centuries of history on its own physiognomy, full of different architectural styles of the cultures that inhabited the city. Today it stands as the imposing bell tower of the cathedral, but was originally the minaret of the mosque. The lower two thirds of the tower are precisely those of Muslim construction, recognisable at first sight by their characteristic Arabic ornamentation. For hundreds of years it was the tallest building in Spain and one of the closest to the sky in Europe.

Torre del Oro

Current Torre del Oro. | Shutterstock

Another of the great constructions of Moorish origin in Seville is the Torre del Oro, located on the left bank of the Guadalquivir River. Its name is due to the golden reflections produced by the tiles that covered it in its time. Originally, this tower of al-Andalus architecture had a defensive function, being part of a section of the wall that defended the Alcazar of the city. The building is made up of three bodies, the first of which was built in 1221 by order of the Almohad governor Abù l-Ulà. The other two bodies date from the 14th and 18th centuries, the latter as a result of the Lisbon earthquake. In 1931 it was declared a historical and artistic monument.

Real Alcázar in Seville

Reales Alcázares in Seville

Reales Alcázares in Seville. | Shutterstock

Another of the most important Hispano-Moorish monuments in Seville is the Real Alcázar, a palace complex with a defensive character that has been declared a World Heritage Site since 1987. It dates back to the 10th century, when Abd al-Rahman III ordered its construction as a new enclosure for the Umayyad government. During the Taifa of Seville, the New Alcazar of the abbots was added to this complex. It was later extended to the Guadalquivir with the Almoravids, until it passed into the hands of the Crown of Castile in 1249.

In addition to this architectural framework, the elements that give life to the Real Alcázar of Seville at every moment must be added: the new uses of the spaces, the gardens, the water from the fountains and ponds. Palaces such as the Gothic or the Mudejar Palace of Pedro I were built on top of its original structures in the Castilian period, where an Islamic air continued to predominate in its rooms. Among these, the Salón de los Embajadores and its marvellous dome stand out. As well as the Patio de las Doncellas or the Patio de las Muñecas, decorated with Mudejar tiles and ceilings.

Arab Baths of Ronda, Málaga

One of the best-preserved baths from Al-Andalus

The Ronda hamman is one of the best preserved in Spain. | Shutterstock

The Arab baths or hamman also belong to the great al-Andalus legacy, although they often go unnoticed in the shadow of the great architectural works. These buildings, however, accumulate a great deal of knowledge about the daily life of Muslim societies, something that was totally unknown to the Christians and Jews of the time.

One of the great examples is the hamman of Ronda in Málaga, the best preserved in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. This is a spectacular archaeological site from the Nasrid era, built in the 13th century. Inside it maintains the basic structure of the Arab baths: dressing room, cold, warm and hot room. In fact, a large part of this building has arrived practically intact to this day. Even the hydraulic system with the waterwheel that operated the water route has been preserved.

Castle of Gormaz in Soria

Far west and inner grounds of the castle of Gormaz

Far west and inner grounds of the castle of Gormaz. | Shutterstock

This is a fortress of Muslim origin located in the village of Gormaz, in Soria. It was the most decisive enclave in the war between the Arabs and Christians during the Middle Ages. Besides being the largest castle that the Muslim caliphs built in Europe and one of the greatest works of military architecture of the time on the continent. Its walls, impressive remains of al-Andalus, have seen time go by on the Soria plain for more than 1,000 years.

Construction began in the 9th century during the Caliphate of Córdoba on the remains of a previous castle, whose true origin is unknown. At first only a small castle was built, which was reconquered by the Christians in 912. When it returned to Muslim hands during the Caliphate of Alhaken II, son of Abd al-Rahman III, the expansion of the current Muslim citadel began between 955 and 966. It expanded in such a way that it was capable of protecting a commanding corps as well as sheltering thousands of men inside. Gormaz Castle became the largest European fortress of its time, with a walled perimeter of 1200 metres, 446 metres in length, 28 towers and an elongated shape in an east-west direction.

Aljafería Palace in Zaragoza

Aljafería in Zaragoza, a construction from Al-Andalus

Aljafería in Zaragoza. | Shutterstock

The Aljafería in Zaragoza was built in the 11th century as a recreational palace for the Muslim kings who governed the Taifa of Sarakusta . It is, together with the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque of Córdoba, one of the artistic jewels of the Islamic presence in southern Europe. It reflects the splendour reached by the Taifa kingdom at its political and cultural peak, so much so that the Mudéjar remains of the palace are declared a World Heritage Site as part of the Mudéjar architectural ensemble of Aragón.

The perimeter of the Islamic palace is completely walled. Its arches stand out with the imposing presence of the Tower of El Trovador, which is its oldest construction and which served as the watchtower of the fortress. The interior has a private mosque for the use of the monarch. Another of the most beautiful corners of the Aljafería is the Patio de Santa Isabel, whose complex decorative arches give it a unique personality. Centuries later, the kings of the Crown of Aragon also resided there.


About the author