Seville, Granada and Cordoba are the cities where the legacy and spirit of the seven centuries of Islamic rule in Spain remain most vivid. Here its influence on music, literature, traditional celebrations, costume and other aspects of Spanish culture can still be traced. Between 711 and 1492, Catholics, Jews and Muslims walked the same streets and bought from the same shops in the cities of Almeria, Cadiz, Cordoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaen, Malaga and Seville in the Andalusian region of Spain.
A popular festival which re-enacts those times known as the Moors and Christians Festival, remains a popular event in many parts of eastern Andalusia today. It has been taking place since the 16th or 17th centuries, and is celebrated on various dates throughout the year in towns of the region. The participants dress in historical costume as Christians or Moors, and interestingly more people want to dress up as Moors than Christians! This is attributed by some to the fact that eastern costume is more exotic, and by others to the sympathy felt by the descendants of Don Quixote for lost causes.
During the years of Muslim rule, Spain became the foremost cultural centre of Europe, and echoes of this era in Spanish culture can still be felt in Seville, our first stop, and once the capital of Muslim Spain. Today the city is the main centre of flamenco music and bull fighting, and with its narrow streets filled with cafés and tapas bars, painters and musicians, has a lively cheerful atmosphere that immediately captivates visitors. When Seville came under Arab rule in 711, it became known as Ishbiliye, a name that it retained until the city was recaptured by the Spanish in 1248. The royal palace here is a spectacular mixture of Gothic, Renaissance and Mudehar architectural style, Mudehar being the name given to the Muslims permitted to remain in the region after Spanish rule was restored.
One of Seville’s landmarks is the 94 metre high Girelda Tower, originally a minaret whose mosque is no longer standing. Seville Cathedral, which is like something out of a fairytale, is the main tourist attraction after the castle of Alcazar. Other principal sights are the Jewish quarter, which still retains its distinctive architecture, and the palace with its ceramic panels illustrating the Spanish dynasties.
The Iraqi born musician Ziryab, who settled in Andalusia in 822, is still remembered by the Spanish for his contributions to regional music. As well as the musical traditions of the East, Ziryab also introduced the customs and lifestyle of the Baghdad palaces into Spain. Arab music is one of the roots of flamenco, born of a blend of Christian church music composed by Saint Isidor and Eugene, Islamic hymns, gypsy music and Jewish folk music.
The Umayyads began their conquest of the Iberian peninsula at Cordoba, whose famous mosque was built in 784-786 by Sultan Abdurrahman I. Covering an area of 23,000 square metres, the prayer niche decorated with coloured marbles and gold mosaics is one of the masterpieces of Islamic art. The Gothic and Renaissance chapel and altars were added at a later date when the mosque was converted into a cathedral.
In the Jewish quarter of Cordoba you can see statues of the renowned Islamic scholar Ibni Rushd and the Jewish physician and scholar Ibni Meymun. The 14th century synagogue here is in Mudehar style with intricate decoration. The celebrated Alcazar with its Moorish gardens stands on the banks of the Guadalquivir River which runs through the centre of the city. The Rome Bridge with its statue of the Virgin Mary is another sight not to be missed.
Of course one of the first places that comes to mind when thinking of Spain and Andalusia is the Alhambra Palace. This splendid palace surmounting the hilltop in the centre of Granada was constructed between 1238 and 1358 by the Nasrid Muslim dynasty. The beauty of its gardens and superb architecture and ornate decoration of the buildings make it a magical place that no visitor can ever forget. Its three main buildings are linked by passages and courtyard gardens. The most ancient part is the fortress known as Alcazaba. The Comares Palace is built around the Court of the Myrtles, where the pool with its famous reflection of the building is located.
In the Comares Tower to the north is the Throne Room, also known as the Hall of Ambassadors. The Alhambra is noted especially for its lovely tiles with geometric patterns and its carved and painted stucco decoration, usually in the form of kufic inscriptions. Close to the Alhambra are the Generalife gardens originally built in the 13th century by the Nasrid dynasty. These beautiful gardens with their flowers and pools are like a corner of paradise.
Granada was the last stronghold of Islam in Andalusia. The city was reconquered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel, who are both buried here. Under Muslim rule Spain was a cosmopolitan mosaic of Arabs, Spanish, Berbers, Muwallads (Muslims of Spanish origin), Christians of non-Spanish origin, Jews and many others. For centuries Andalusia was Europe’s centre of culture and scholarship, and the magnificent buildings which have survived from this era are the fruits of this mosaic.