Moorish Alcazabas in Spain, a treasure of military tradition

The traces of the Muslim invasions in the peninsula are evident in many aspects of our daily life. From the influence on science, agriculture, art and language, to other less abstract aspects that can still be enjoyed. The architectural heritage, including both civil and military, has survived subsequent conquests and the most unforgiving of invaders: time.

It should be noted that the general layout of Muslim cities bears great resemblance to other civilisations. In fact, they took advantage of many of the towns already created to transform them according to their needs. The urban nucleus or medina concentrated the main utilities, such as the souk, baths and mosque. It was in turn subdivided into neighbourhoods, normally grouped by guilds. The particular weather and extreme heat conditioned much of its architecture, from the materials available to the size of the spaces.

The use of water became one of the fundamental pillars of its development. But, knowing that they had a large number of enemies, including internal ones, defence was a fundamental area. That is why fortifications or citadels were established as examples of military architecture. Spain still has valuable remains of Moorish alcazabas, including the largest in Europe.

Castle of Gormaz, Soria

Extremo oeste y campa interior del castillo de Gormaz

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

Andalusia holds most of the Moorish treasure in Spain, but it is not the only community. There are very important remains in unexpected territories far from the south. Just over 60 kilometres from Soria, stands the Castle of Gormaz. It was built during the Caliphate of Cordoba in the 9th century and later extended until it was adapted to the terrain. It became the largest Muslim fortress of its time in Europe. In Spain it boasted of being the most famous at the time of Gálib and Almanzor. It reaches a perimeter of approximately 1,200 metres with a total of 28 towers. It is situated on the top of a hill, as the standards require. In 1931 it was declared a national historical monument.

It suffered numerous sieges because it was a key point for holding back the Christian invasions along the Duero River. The castle also served the Caliphate of Cordoba to spread terror north of the river. Cid himself became owner and lord of the fortress. It conserves an impressive double caliphal gate with a typical horseshoe arch, situated to the south and, although it is not the only entrance, it must have been the most common in the cold winters. The castle also conserves a fortress inside with a keep, the “Torre de Almanzor“. In turn, the whole is surrounded by a moat that clearly divides the interior space.

Alcazaba of Badajoz

Alcazaba de Badajoz

Alcazaba of Badajoz. | Shutterstock

The Alcazaba of Badajoz is not only the largest walled enclosure in Spain, it is also the largest in Europe. Strategically surrounded by steep slopes and the Guadiana River, construction began in the 9th century for the Taifa of Badajoz. The subsequent extensions and splendour came during the Almohad rule in the 12th century. The border with Portugal was also controlled from this fortification.

Today, the alcazaba houses the Museo Arqueológico Provincial (Provincial Archaeological Museum), the Santa María tower and the Episcopal Palace tower and gardens, among other urban areas of interest. Among the typical towers built, perhaps the most striking is the Espantaperros tower. Unlike constructions of this type, this octagonal tower stands out from the rest of the complex with its 20 metres in height.

The strategic location of these citadels on a military level has in turn served as an architectural model for similar later constructions. The alcazaba of Badajoz suffered the same fate as most of the Arab alcazabas during the Reconquest: it was converted into Christian castles to take advantage of its facilities and privileged geographical location. Although with little intention of preserving the plebeian population inside.

Alcazaba of Mérida

Alcazaba of Mérida. | Shutterstock

This is another relevant example as the descent towards Andalusia begins. It was built by the Umayyad Abderraman II in 835. It is one of the oldest preserved in the peninsula. In the past it was completely surrounded by a moat, and to this day it still has walls almost three metres long. In the case of Mérida, the remains coexist with Roman records, often used by new peninsular tenants. Not in vain, it continues to be the capital of the Via de la Plata.

The walls of the citadels also used to house much of the administrative and civil power in their vicinity. The more purely formal matters of the city, not so much the conquests, were dealt with from these buildings. They were a kind of small ministries at the service of the citizens. On the other hand, it is said that this is where the city’s treasures and wealth were housed. Finally, it is worth highlighting its underground cistern, a watery, dark haven of peace.

Alcazaba de Reina, Badajoz

Alcazaba de Reina

Alcazaba de Reina in Badajoz. | Shutterstock

On the current geographical border with Andalusia stands another of the lesser-known Muslim fortifications, but one with a glorious past. This is the Alcazaba de Reina. It may not be the best preserved, but it is a place that does not disappoint, as it also has spectacular views. It consists of 14 towers with a quadrangular floor plan and is built of adobe and concrete with mud and lime.

This alcazaba dates back to the 12th century, the Almohad period, so its strategic location was very important. In 1246, conquered by the Christians, it was given to the Knights of the Order of Santiago with the curious aim of protecting pilgrims from the Arabs. At that time, the Jacobean passage of the Silver began to be consolidated in these lands. Nearby it is also possible to visit the remains of the Roman city of Regina Turdulorum. It is also an excellent celestial viewpoint, nationally recognised for the purity of the Extremaduran sky that can be seen from the hill.

Alcazaba of Málaga

Alcazaba de Málaga

Alcazaba of Málaga. | Shutterstock

It is a precise example of the Taifa period in the 10th century, as well as being one of the most beautiful to be found on the peninsula. The well-known Gibralfaro Castle was started in 1340 by the Nasrid Yusuf I, who decided to build a wall to connect it with the alcazaba. The arrival of long-range artillery together with military development meant that the existing fortifications had to be reinforced in order to adapt the defence of the citadel. In the case of Málaga, they did not do too badly because it has gone down in history as one of the most reinforced ever.

The four initial enclosures of the alcazaba grew and housed different defensive rings with characteristic military towers and dungeons. In last place and under all the defensive walls, there was the palace area destined to the governors and the administration. The nearby city of Antequera can also be proud of a well-preserved fortress moulded into the hill, from which spectacular views can be contemplated.

Vélez-Málaga Castle

The Vélez-Málaga Castle

Vélez-Málaga was a significant Muslim enclave in al-Andalus, whose construction began at the end of the 9th century. It is a double enclosure, originally with four entrances. It occupies 1,500 square metres coupled with the whims of the land and was built of tapial, a kind of Arab adobe, as well as lime and sand. The cladding is made of masonry and brick.

It suffered considerable deterioration as it was linked to a lime deposit, the exploitation of which did not take much account of whether it emptied a plot of land with no apparent value or a 10th century cistern. Of course, some 150 years before the French invasion it was also considered to have such good strategic potential that it was better to blow up part of the building for whoever might come after it. Thanks to the town’s recovery of the complex, the Keep and other more deteriorated areas began to be restored.

Alcazaba of Granada

Alcazaba de Granada

Alcazaba of Granada. | Shutterstock

Little is new about the Alhambra complex, one of the most admirable and best preserved buildings in the history of Spain. The Alcazaba is one of the oldest areas of the Granada architectural complex. Once again, its first remains can be found in the 9th century. It was not, however, until the arrival of the first King of Granada and Nasrid that the building was reinforced.

Mohammed I was responsible for erecting three emblematic towers in the complex: the Quebrada, the Torre del Homenaje and the Torre de la Vela. The latter stands out for its 16-metre floor plan and its height of 26.80 metres. The panoramic view from this tower allows you to see the entire city and even Sierra Nevada. This Alcazaba suffered a notable abandonment during a long period of time. It was not until the last century that restoration work began.

Alcazaba of Gaudix, Granada

Alcazaba de Guadix

Alcazaba of Guadix. | Shutterstock

A few kilometres from the Sierra Nevada is Guadix, a city in Granada that is home to a considerable artistic and historical heritage. Renamed by the Muslims after the invasion as Wa-Dish, it witnessed a very unstable political climate. The alcazaba played an important role throughout the Muslim period, being relegated to the background with the Reconquest. Built in the 9th and 10th centuries, it underwent modifications to reinforce its defensive character on several occasions. Like many other Muslim fortresses, it was built with tapial. This gives its walls that earthy, red appearance.

Alcazaba of Almería

Alcazaba de Almería

Alcazaba of Almería. | Shutterstock

Almería has always known how to protect itself in a big way. Its impressive alcazaba is one of the most popular examples of Muslim buildings in Spain. It was Abd al-Rahmān III who began its construction in the mid-9th century, which was completed in the 11th century by King Taifa Hayrán. To the two already existing enclosures, the Catholic Monarchs added a third, taking advantage of the Muslim construction. The complex of the alcazaba and the walls are distributed along the so-called Cerro de San Cristóbal.

It has a perimeter wall of 1,430 metres that made it the largest Spanish construction after the Alhambra. Inside you can visit both parts of the Muslim era and the remains of the Christian palace. You can also see the wall of the viewpoint of the odalisque or the parade ground with the towers of the Homenaje, the Noria and the Pólvora. You can enter the enclosure through a single door; which remains almost invisible between the robustness and the nooks and crannies of the wall. As a curiosity, the alcazaba served as the setting for the Game of Thrones series; when scenes from the Lance of the Sun, the capital of Dorne, home of the Martell house, were recreated there.

Palacio of La Aljafería, Zaragoza

Arte mudéjar en Aragón

Palacio of Aljafería. | Shutterstock

A real example of space optimisation over the centuries. This palace of Arab origin was built in the 11th century with the intention of being a fort and also the residence of the Hudi kings, the Taifa of Zaragoza. Built during a period of splendour, it is another of the greatest Muslim exponents in the peninsula. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. The interior houses magnificent examples of art such as the mixtilinear arches of the Golden Hall, typical of Taifa art. Also the characteristic decorations worked on the plasterwork with polychrome and the decoration of atauriques, geometric arabesque motifs, of vegetable and pastoral origin.

One of the most important elements is the Torre del Trovador, used as a watchtower. Its base is made of ashlar and consists of five floors. The last two have a clear Mudejar influence. The architectural complex includes the Taifa Palace, the mosque, the Santa Isabel courtyard and the Palace of the Catholic Monarchs, among other rooms of great interest. It is currently the seat of the Aragonese Parliament. An hour’s drive from the Aragonese capital, we can also find the citadel of Calatayud. It is the oldest in the peninsula, since the first writings speak of this fortification as early as 862.

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