Descended from North African tribes of Berbers and Arabs, the Moors ruled parts of Spain from the eighth until the fifteenth century, focusing much of their domination on the southern province of Andalucía. During their 800-year rule, the Moors inevitably left their mark upon Spanish culture – in its cuisine, language and architecture. Many vestiges of Spain’s Moorish past can still be seen today, from magnificent palaces, to towering fortresses and mesmerising mosques. Here, Esme Fox tells us where to see the best of Moorish Spain.
The Alhambra, Granada
If you only have time to visit just one of Spain’s Moorish sites, then it’s got to be Granada’s impressive Alhambra. Presiding over the city like an ornate crown, the fortress was the Moors last stronghold in Spain. Parts of the complex date as far back as the ninth century, although most of what survives today was built in the fourteenth century by the rulers Yusuf I and Mohammed V.
The author Washington Irving, who actually lived in the Alhambra for a while, wrote of the palace: “Everything here appears calculated to inspire kind and happy feelings, for everything is delicate and beautiful.” His words seem apt when standing in rooms of such lavish beauty, fountain-filled courtyards and the fragrant gardens of the Generalife. Tickets allow for half a day’s exploration of the complex, but even this is nowhere near enough time to properly take in everything. You’ll just have to promise yourself that you will return.
Don’t leave Granada without visiting the Moorish district of Albaicín, with its steep cobbled streets, Arabic style arches, ornate tiles and doorways. Today, the lower streets still feel like they’re inhabited by the Moors, lined by Moroccan souvenir shops overflowing with sparkling, multicoloured lamps and carved leather handbags. Stop for a drink at one of the intricately decorated teterías (teahouses), where the smells of spiced-infused concoctions drift through the air.
La Giralda, Seville
Built on the site of the old mosque, La Giralda is a Gothic- and Renaissance-style cathedral incorporates the original Islamic minaret as its bell tower. La Giralda dates back to the end of the twelfth century and is one of only three remaining Almohad minarets left in the world. Walk up the unique series of slopes to reach the top of the tower and marvel at the spectacular views over the rooftops of Seville.
The Alcázar, Seville
Although the Alcázar is not as large as the Alhambra, parts of its interiors are just as impressive. Surrounded by lush palm gardens and high walls, it was built primarily during the 1300s as a fort for the governors of Seville. During the subsequent 1100 years, the Alcázar has been reconstructed many times, both by the Almohad rulers and by the Catholic monarchs after they recaptured Seville in 1248.
The fortress’s showpiece is without doubt the extravagant Mudéjar Palacio de Don Pedro, built by Pedro I between 1364 and 1366 and made by some of the same artisans who created parts of the Alhambra. Make your way through sumptuous rooms of elaborate portico arches, star-scattered domes, glittering gold plaster work and tranquil sunken gardens. One can certainly see why the producers of Game of Thrones chose this as a setting for season five.
La Mezquita, Córdoba
Part mosque and part cathedral, Córdoba’s La Mezquita is quite a sight to behold with its detailed Arabic arches, heavy gold doors and thick stonewalls. Enter through an orange tree-filled patio into the vast interior, packed with exotic red and white arches, delicate Byzantine mosaics in flashes of gold and over 850 marble pillars. The Arabic parts date back to the tenth century, while the central Renaissance-style cathedral is around 500 years old. When the Spanish recaptured Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral, however more Arabic Mudéjar elements, as well as Gothic-style structures were added at later dates.
The Aljaferiá, Zaragoza
Although most of Spain’s best Moorish sights can be found in Andalucía, there are still some surviving in other parts of Spain, the best-preserved being The Aljaferiá in the north-eastern city of Zaragoza. Built as a pleasure palace in the eleventh century, it later fell in into the hands of the Catholic monarchs Fernando II and Isabella I, who put their own stamp on the building. Today, it serves as the headquarters of Aragón’s regional parliament, with visitor tours taking place throughout the day. Of notable interest is the elaborate octagonal prayer room and mihrab (a semi-circular niche in the wall that denotes the direction of Mecca), decorated in floral patterns and inscriptions from the Qur’an.
The Alcazaba, Málaga
The palatial fortress of Málaga’s Alcazaba sits on a green, verdant hill and towers over one of the city’s main plazas. Fronted by a large Roman amphitheatre, it’s a unique structure combining Roman, Arabic and Renaissance styles. According to historians, it was built at the instruction of Badis, King of the Berber Taifa of Granada between 1057 and 1063. Later, when Málaga became part of the Nasrid Kingdom, the Alcazaba was remodelled and its palatial elements were added.
It may not have all the intricate Mudéjar detail of the Alhambra or Seville’s Real Alcazár, but the building still makes for a fascinating exploration, meandering through the maze-like corridors, patios and gardens. The fortress is connected via a steep walled passageway to the Castillo de Gibralfaro, high above. The castle was built in the fourteenth century to protect the Alcazaba, and from up here you can enjoy one of the best views over Málaga city and its port.