Arabic influences in Spain

1Spain occupies a unique place in history in that she was the vessel through which a fruitful connection between the Arabic and European cultures was created. Spain was ruled by Arabs from 711 to 1492. The Muslims co-existed peacefully with Christians and Jews. The three religions are so closely related that they have more things in common than differences. Jews and Christians soon learned to live peacefully side by side with their Muslim rulers. It was a period during which architecture, art, poetry and science prospered on the Iberian peninsula. Many of the things that we normally consider as Spanish, e.g. Spanish architecture, temperament, music and poetry, and even the language, are a mixture with many elements of the Arab inheritance. Just think of the unique Flamenco rhythms, which are considered the essence of Spanish-ness. The lyrics are Spanish, but the melancholy melodies were brought to Spain by the Arabs. The flamenco is a fusion of medieval Muslim music and Gipsy song culture. Another example is the Spanish riding school, which is an institution within dressage. The rider has full control over the horse, which is the essence of the traditions that the Moorish horsemen brought with them. It all started in Arabia in the year 622 AD, when the prophet Mohammad founded the Muslim religion. The new religion led to political unity between the Arabs’ various enclaves and beduin tribes. It spread quickly, and when Mohammad died in 632, all of the Arabian peninsula was Muslim. Soon afther Mohammad’s death the expansion started, and this quickly led to the conquest of large areas of land. In the year 711 the Muslims invaded Spain, and they got as far as Southern France, where they were defeated in the battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel. So for a time the Pyrenees constituted the border between Christian Europe and Muslim Spain. A century after the birth of Islam, Mullahs were calling to prayer from Minarets all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the edge of China. By then Muslim rule covered an area almost as big as the Roman empire in its heyday.

2The Muslim conquerors that arrived in Spain were called ‘Moors’, probably because they came from Morocco in North Western Africa, the former Roman province of Mauretania. The Moors themselves never used this label. They were Arabs from Damascus and Medina who were leading an army of converted Northern African Berbers. The Moorish soldiers did not bring any women with them, so the soldiers married into Spanish and Visigoth families, or they took pale complexioned Galician slaves as their wives. This mixture of races and cultures developed into the Moorish civilization, which was to change Spain forever. The enormous areas that the Arabs conquered were never ‘arabised’ as such. The Arab immigrants always constituted a minority relative to the local inhabitants. Also, the area did not appear a single political empire. It was a loosely connected system of caliphates with no supreme central government. It was not a single religious unit either. Islam did not accept idolism or those who believed in more than one god. But it was tolerant about monotheists, i.e. worshippers of just one god, such as Christians and Jews. An example of this tolerance is the celebration of services. On Fridays the Muslims went to service, on Saturdays the Jews and on Sundays the Christians. And often all to the same building. As a whole, the rule of the Moors meant a better economy for the inhabitants of countries dominated by Arabic culture. The Moors left beautiful and interesting buildings behind, and they had a significant influence on Spanish archtecture. The Mosque in Córdoba, La Giralda in Seville and the Alhambra palace in Granada are some of the most remarkle landmarks from that era. At the beginning the Muslims avoided any kind of ornaments on their buildings. The mosques were little more than covered over areas, a practical solution to the simple problem of sheltering the worshippers. Originally the mosque of Córdoba was a relatively simple building with pillars only in the side that faced Mekka. But over the 900s the rows of pillars were extended several times. This step-by-step extension shows how flexible the plans of the first mosques were. It was possible to quadruple the size of the mosque without deviating from the original pattern. Today the mosque in Córdoba is the same size as some of the mosques of Mekka. When you visit, you walk through an endless forest of pillars, some 850, made from different materials such as granite, porphyry and several different kinds of marble. The roof of the mosque rests on an intricate system of double arches made from red and white rock. Not many of the great palaces that the Muslim conquerors of Spain constructed have been preserved. But you can still sense the past in the ordinary buildings in, for example, Córdoba. Córdoba is one of Spain’s hottest cities. The climate is at its best in spring and autumn. The centre of the city is dominated by narrow streets which to a great extent are the same as during Moorish rule. The houses can seem a bit drab, but many of them have balconies laden with an abundance of flowers. Just like the houses of Muslim cities, the Córdoba houses only have small windows with grills and shutters looking out into the street. They gravitate inwards, towards the centre of family life: the patio. This is a small private garden with an open yard in the centre of the building, a safe place for the children to play, a pieceful area with flowers, a herb garden and citrus trees in pots set around a small fountain. Science blossomed in Muslim Córdoba: Astronomy, philology, philosophy, history, medical science and mathematics, often led by Jewish scientists. It was a city with public teaching, hospitals, baths, paved streets with street lights, libraries and book shops.

3But the Muslim centre in Spain changed with the different rulers. After the year 1000, the central power disolved into a number of small states in perpetual dispute. In 1085 the Muslims lost Toledo to the Christian armies and they sent to Morocco for help. The berbers that arrived grabbed the power for themselves, and some 50 years later a new wave of Berbers arrived. Their leader, Sultan Yuqab Yusuf, moved the capital to Seville. You can still enjoy a stunning view of Seville from Sultan Yuqab Yusuf’s minaret, one of the three sister towers he had constructed. The two others are in Rabat and in Marakesh in Morocco. When the Christians destroyed Yuqab Yusuf’s mosque, they spared the minaret and built a bell tower with an enormous bronze weather vane on top. Today the minaret comprises the church tower of the large, adjacent cathedral. Before the addition, the minaret was 82 metres tall. The bell tower measures 32 metres, so today the tower, known as La Giralda, is 114 metres tall. Granada became the last bastion of the Muslims. This is where they constructed their masterpiece, the palace-fortress of Alhambra. Construction started at the beginning of the 13th century at a time when the larger part of Spain was already Christian. The palace was extended and changed during several construction phases, a process that continued until the end of the 15th century. Surrounded by walls with defence and watch towers, the buildings of Alhambra spread out over an almost ellipse shaped area of the Sabikha hill. Alhambra was not a palace in the usual sense of the word. It was a palace city consisting of districts with separate and well defined functions.

An area to the west was mainly military, an area to the east contained the service functions, and to the south was the area for aristocrats and civil servants. The prince himself resided in the northern area. The plan of the palace is simple, but the decorations, on the other hand, are lavish. All interior surfaces have been divided into geometric fields with coloured stucco panels and faiance tiles. They are decorated with the classic Islam motifs, such as vines with stylised flowers and fruits. The motifs are either completely flat or in very low relief. The wealth of vegetable matter is due to the Islam image prohibition – according to the Koran it is prohibited to picture humans or animals. Apart from the many decorative geometric motifs, writing has also been used as an ornament. There are inscriptions citing verses from the Koran and from Arabic poetry, which reached a zenith in Andalucía. The Koran quotes in the audience room of Alhambra praise the ruler, who saw himself as Allah’s representative on earth, and thus part of the world cosmos. The beginning of the end for the Arabs in Spain arrived in 1469 when prince Ferdinand of Aragon married princess Isabella of Castille. This marriage unified Spain into one realm. They carried out a systematic crusade against the Arabs in Southern Spain at the same time as harbouring increasing suspicions against Jews and Muslims within their owns borders. In 1480 they started the Spanish Inquisition, and by the time it stopped its activities three hundred years later, thousands of Jews and Muslims had been killed. As a consequence, traders, scientists and artists of Jewish and Muslim origin fled Spain, and many sought refuge in Muslim North Africa. But in spite of intense cleansing, the country never managed to erase its Arabic inheritance, which is still very visible in everyday Spain.