It’s hard to beat Spain for epic architecture. The Great Mosque of Córdoba is every bit as otherworldly as the work of Antoni Gaudí, while the Alhambra complex is the stuff of legends. No trip to the Iberian Peninsula would be complete without visiting its Islamic and Islamic-influenced buildings. The three most significant sites are Córdoba’s Mezquita (Great Mosque), Seville’s Alcázar, and Granada’s Alhambra. All three lie in the southern province of Andalusia, named after al-Andalus, the Arabic term for Spain.
Christians gradually wrested political control of medieval Spain from the Muslims, but the cultural impacts of al-Andalus remain. Islamic architecture had become so pervasive that non-Muslims began borrowing from it for their own religious structures. “Mudéjar” refers to Islamic-style art and architecture executed after the Christian conquest. Even modern Spanish buildings continue traditions begun over a thousand years ago during the explosive growth of al-Andalus.
Arab and Berber Muslims from northern Africa, often called Moors, controlled most of Spain for hundreds of years. By the end of the eighth century the Moors had developed a sophisticated style of architecture, adapted to the local climate. Their African and Middle Eastern heritage gave them expertise in laying out streets take advantage of cooling breezes, while Iberia’s fertile soil encouraged the development of gardens and courtyards.
Structurally, the Moors introduced ribbed domes and a variety of new shapes such as horseshoe arches. Ornamentation included tiles in complex geometric patterns, filigree carvings, honeycomb vaulting called muqarnas, and calligraphic inscriptions.
Córdoba & the Mezquita (Great Mosque)
Al-Andalus started in the eighth century, when a refugee prince founded the city of Córdoba and set about recreating the dynamic culture of his Syrian homeland. Abd al-Rahman I and his descendants founded a progressive society, building upon classical Mediterranean knowledge and the latest innovations from Asia and Africa.
Córdoba’s Mezquita is unlike any other building on the planet. Stacked pairs of arches connect a grid of marble columns extending as far as the eye can see while stripes hover above in every direction. Elaborate additions in the rear include a gilded dome which modern engineers have called “perfect geometry”– it hasn’t needed repair in over 1,000 years.
In later years Catholics made a point of destroying evidence of Muslim history. The Mezquita is the only major mosque to survive the Reconquista, as no one was willing to raze it completely. Instead, the the middle of the building was converted into a cathedral.
For more, see our post on Córdoba’s Mezquita.
The cathedral in the middle of the mosque.
Around the Mezquita, smaller structures adopted its intricate carvings and elaborate geometry. Córdoba’s historic center still features the original layout of narrow, whitewashed streets with a few buildings from the medieval period, such as the Synagogue and the Capilla de San Bartolomé.
Outside the city center, the Madinat al-Zahra (Medina Azahara) set a new standard for paradisal retreats. Unfortunately, enemies razed the site when Córdoba’s government dissolved in the early 11th century. Today, bits and pieces of the palace have been recovered but the legendary gardens – complete with a reflecting pool of mercury – are lost forever.
Seville & the Real Alcázar
Seville grew into the most prominent of the regional powers which sprouted up after Córdoba’s central government collapsed. Moorish rulers began the Real Alcázar in the 11th century, and several Christian kings expanded it in the ensuing centuries. All the hallmarks of Moorish architecture are here, from the intricate tile floors to the ornate layers on the ceilings. Sprawling out from the palace, a series of garden spaces begins with original Islamic patios and morphs into European-style fantasies.
Other prominent traces of Seville’s Islamic past include La Giralda, a conversion of the main mosque’s minaret into a bell tower, and La Torre de Oro, a 12-sided defensive structure by the river.
Spanish nobles borrowed liberally from the Alcázar in the design of the Casa de Pilatos, with nearly identical tilework and carvings. The Bunhaira Gardens occupy the site of a Muslim-era estate, with a 19th-century Moorish-style palace.
See our post for more on Seville’s architecture.
Granada & the Alhambra
Travelers have been making the pilgrimage to Granada for centuries to see the Alhambra. Although a new high-speed rail link makes the journey easier, tickets must be reserved months in advance. Like Córdoba’s Mezquita, the Alhambra is an often-copied-but-never-replicated kind of place. From the enigmatic Courtyard of the Lions to the delicate muqarnas vaulting in the domes, the palaces – and the gardens – retain an uncanny ability to enchant.
Once a city unto itself, the walled complex contains a number of distinct areas, including extensive remains of an ancient fort, the Alcazaba. Further up the hill, the Nasrid Palaces and adjoining Generalife Gardens include the oldest surviving Islamic palace in the world.
See our post for more on the Alhambra-Generalife.
Granada’s Albaicín district is sometimes called the Arab Quarter, since the layout and many of the structures date to before the Reconquista. One can explore the distinctive forms of the old hammam (bath complex) El Bañuelo, or ponder the remnants of the Maristán hospital.
El Bañuelo and the Casa de Zafra in Granada’s Albacín neighborhood
Above all, the neighborhood retains more of a connection to its Muslim past than perhaps anyplace else in Spain. Wandering the serpentine lanes through the garden-centered homes known as carmens, it feels natural to find a new mosque topping the hill with a perfect view of the Alhambra.
See our post for more on the Albaicín district.
Southern Andalusia & Medieval Fortresses
Muslims erected dozens of fortresses all over the peninsula, many of which remain in shell form. These exhibit the same solid designs used for defensive structures all over the medieval world. Very few retain traces of specifically Islamic hallmarks.
Málaga’s castle is an exception: three palaces and over 100 towers in the Alcazaba hold a number of exquisitely-crafted courtyard spaces. The Alcazaba and adjacent Castillo de Gibralfaro span over seven centuries of Muslim rule .
Of the remaining military structures, one of the most picturesque is the Alcazaba in Almería, a coastal town east of Granada. Erected in the 10-11th centuries, its hilltop location and restored gardens have made it a popular filming location.
Mudéjar Architecture in Toledo
Toledo offers one of the largest concentrations of Islamic-influenced architecture outside of Andalusia’s ‘Big Three’ cities. Located further north, it fell to the Christians relatively early (1085), but the period’s fluid politics guaranteed contact between cultural groups.
Inside the Mosque of Bāb al-Mardūm.
Architectural highlights include the Cristo de la Luz, a Templar expansion of a 10th-century mosque, and a pair of synagogues featuring dramatic horseshoe arches and Arabic inscriptions.
See our post for more on Toledo’s Mudéjar architecture.
Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon: Zaragoza and Teruel
The city-state of Zaragoza, in modern-day Aragon, fell to the Christians about 20 years after Toledo. Although the mosques were destroyed, some of the pre-Reconquista Aljafería Palace survived. And like Toledo, the city features plenty of Mudéjar architecture. UNESCO granted World Heritage status to 10 sites in Zaragoza and nearby Teruel in 1986.
Other Sites in Spain
During the Spanish Inquisition, efforts to eradicate Islam from the Iberian Peninsula intensified and countless buildings were lost. Nonetheless, pieces of al-Andalus remain. Wall sections, stray arches, and other fragments litter streets which retain their medieval layout in many towns. Former city-state capitals like Palma de Mallorca and Valencia contain original Arab baths as well as Mudéjar ceilings and other Islamic influences in their palaces.
The Arab Baths in Palma de Mallorca
For more, see our post on Palma de Mallorca.
Islamic Influences on Spanish Architecture
Stylistic influences of Islamic architecture eventually became indistinguishable from other architecture in Spain. Colonists brought Mudéjar ceilings and colorful tiles to South America. Revival movements in the 19th century included Neo-Moorish or Neo-Mudéjar buildings.
Modernista architects fused regional traditions from the monuments of al-Andalus with the Art Nouveau style to create wildly unique buildings. Barcelona’s tilework is the most obvious example; other features include inventive uses of brick and plenty of pattern.
Casa Vicens, circa 1883-85
Gaudì’s Casa Vicens owes the most to Islamic architecture, from its wall structure to the ornamentation – it even has muqarnas in the smoking room.
We recommend Maria Rosa Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.