Spain’s Moorish Past

I recently read Phillippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess which is about Henry VIII’s first wife Katherine. It concerns her life before she married England’s most notorious monarch, specifically when she first journeyed to England to marry Henry’s older brother Arthur. However, before she became an English princess, Katherine was Catalina (the Spanish name for Katherine), a Spanish princess, the youngest child of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. While the book was mediocre (I’m not a fan of overly tawdry novels and The Constant Princess was definitely that in some parts), I certainly enjoyed Gregory’s descriptions of Spanish royal life, specifically of that at the Alhambra,  a Moorish palace that was acquired by Isabella and Ferdinand after Granada fell to their Christian forces.

Excluding my brief visit to Morocco, Spain was my closet connection to the Arab world. For almost 800 years, the Moors, populations of Berber and Arab people from North Africa, conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula, comprising Spain and Portugal). More than 500 years after the last Moorish kingdom, the Kingdom of Granada, fell to Christian forces, Spain’s Moorish past is still tangibly felt in the country, most notably in the preservation of some of its incredible buildings.

While the Moors controlled most of Spain during their rule, their kingdoms flourished the most in southern Spain, in the region of what is today Andalusia. (The name is derived from the Arabic word al-Andalus which means “to become green at the end of the summer” and referred to the Moorish kingdoms in southern Spain.) The city of Cordoba was a significant cultural and economic mecca in both Europe and the Islamic world; it was thought at one time to even rival Baghdad, which was a major center of learning. It was in Spain that I learned of the dozens of Spanish words that are derived from Arabic-zanahoria (carrot), ojala (I hope), azucar (sugar), and azafran (saffran), are just a smattering of them.

Although it would have been incredible to study almost anywhere in Spain, I think that I was doubly lucky studying in Andalusia because I experienced a culture within a culture, the historical legacy of the Moorish people in Spain. While I didn’t particularly care for the city of Granada, the Alhambra, the city’s most famous building, was simply awe inspiring. I visited there over six years ago and while I certainly appreciated the incredible details and stunning architectural designs, I was still a college student touring with other college students. I feel if I were to return today, I would pay that much more attention to the level of detail and scope the Moors put into their most famed palace in all of the Iberian Peninsula. Nestled high up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, I can see why Moorish poets described it as a “pearl set in the emeralds” (referring to the color of the buildings and the woods around them) and also why the last Muslim ruler of the Emirate of Granada, Muhammad XII, allegedly wept upon riding away from the Alhambra, never to return.

When my dad came to visit me, he contemplated on whether or not to include Granada in his trip. if you look at a map of Spain you will discover that Seville is almost directly south of the capital, whereas Granada is extremely southeast. There is no high speed rail service between Seville and Granada, so you’re looking at an extremely long day were you to make the trip. He ultimately decided against it, preferring to concentrate his visit in Seville and Madrid with day trips to Cordoba and Toledo. It worked our perfectly because I feel Seville’s alcazar (a type of castle in Spain and Portugal and also another word derived from Arabic) was equally as worthy as the Alhambra. While the striking backdrop of the mountains and the overall physical location of the Alhambra is far superior to that of the alcazar (which is located in the thick of the Barrio de Santa Cruz), on the inside, the alcazar is just as enchanting. There are fountains, gardens, and a dizzying array of color and detail.

For me one of the most memorable sites I visited was La Mezquita (Spanish for mosque), which is considered the most important Islamic monument in the Western world. It was built on the site of a Visigoth basilica in 784 (the Visigoths came before the Moors) and eventually measured in size to the equivalent of several city blocks with more than 850 columns, making it the largest mosque in the Islamic world at the time. After Catholicism was restored in Spain, La Mezquita was converted into a Gothic cathedral. While its Christian past is undeniably present, La Mezquita will always be remembered for the glory that was once the Moorish empire.

If a trip to the Arabic speaking world is not in your travel cards, look no further than Spain, as a visit there will immerse you in the country’s magnificent and fascinating Islamic cultural past and heritage.

Here are some other photos of the Islamic world in Spain:

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