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A Short Journey into Moorish Spain

posted on: Apr 28, 2021


By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

In the world today, if a man wants to travel back through history he would find no better place than Andalusia, a former Moorish land in southern Spain. In this part of the Iberian Peninsula known as al-Andalus during the centuries of Arab rule, there once flourished a civilization unequalled in tis era or even in later ages.  The conquering Arabs from the east, the Berbers of North Africa, the Muslim converted inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, the Christians under Muslim rule and the Jewish inhabitants of Spain, all had a part in the formation of this rich civilization.  The freedom and equality under Arab rule allowed all these people to take part in a creation of a society that was to leave much to mankind.  At the pinnacle of its glory under the great Umayyad ruler, cAbd al-Raḥmān III in the 10th century, Andalusia, the al-Andalus of the Arabs, was the most powerful country in the world.  In military power, economic wealth and rich culture, it had no equal and its goods, learning and technicians were to be found throughout the eastern and western worlds of that era.  It is said that the population of Arab Spain in that age was 23 million, more numerous that the population of all the countries of Europe combined.

The country created by the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula became known as Moorish Spain or the land of the Moors.  From this land the knowledge of the east was transmitted to Europe and Moorish scientists such as Ibn Rushd (Averrose), al-Zarqali (Arzachel) and many others had a great effect on Europe of the Renaissance. Not only were the Moors of Andalusia great scientists but they were also great builders.  They developed a beautiful Moorish-Andalusian architecture which influenced the architecture in the rest of Europe and later the New World.  What remains today from that magnificent architecture such as mosques and palaces in the cities of southern Spain indicates that those buildings must have been beautiful gems in the days when the Arabs were lords in this land.

Cordoba – the author at the statue of Averroes – Ibn Rushd

When the Moors were defeated by the conquering Spaniards, the renowned mosques of Andalusia were either destroyed or converted into churches.  The palaces were used by the Spaniards for a few centuries then torn down or allowed to decay.  What remains is a miniscule portion of the thousands of mosques and palaces which at one time filled this land.  But these tiny remnants, which we can see today, are some of the most impressive historic remains to be found in the world.  Travelers in southern Spain have marveled again and again when writing about these beautiful remains from the Arab past.  The charm and grandeur of he glorious Moorish world can be glimpsed in these few buildings remaining in the cities of Andalusia.  For the uninitiated, a week’s journey through Seville, Cordova, Granada and Malaga will take the hurried traveler into this intriguing historic world of the Moors.

Of the four cities, Seville is the ideal place to start our journey.  To reach this first capital of Arab Andalusia, the easiest method is by air, but this charming city can also be reached by rail or auto.  There is no doubt that whatever method the traveler chooses to reach this city, it will be worth the effort.  Its picturesque parks, gardens, stately modern and ancient buildings, especially the remnants left by the Moors, will fascinate any tourist.  To flavor the majestic past of this fourth largest city in Spain, and the principle city in Andalusia, one should find a hotel in Santa Cruz.  There is no question that the ideal way to stat our journey into Moorish Spain would be from this Jewish section in Arab times.

Granada-Alhambra-View From the Generalife Gardens

On the edge of Santa Cruz is the Giralda, a former imnaret of once the largest osque in Seville.  This minaret is now a part of the world’s largest Gothic cathedral which is the third largest Christian structure in the world.  The cathedral has replaced the mosque which was built by Yacqub al-Mansur, a great builder-sultan of al-Muwahhidun (Almohades), a dynasty which once ruled Arab Spain from North Africa.  It is a must for every visitor to climb the Giralda by way of the wide ramp.  The climb is tiring but well worth the effort.  In the Muslim era, horses or donkeys were used to carry muezzins, who called the faithful to prayer from this minaret.  Now, as the muezzins must have observed in the Muslim period, the view of Seville from the top of this former minaret is magnificent.  From this height, one can also see the steeples of fifteen churches which were formerly minarets of mosques that are no more.

MEZQUITA -The entrance to the Mihrab in the … rdoba still preserves the Arabic scrip

Another part of the original mosque which is still preserved is the Patio de los Naranjas, the former courtyard of the mosque.  There still exists today part of the walls, doors and a fountain as part of the patio.  The cathedral itself which replaced the well-lit mosque is a huge structure with a semi-dark, damp interior.  Two different worlds amalgamated into one.

MEZQUITA-Great Mosque of Cordoba

A few feet away from the Giralda is Alcazar, a beautiful Moorish palace which was first built in 1220 by the Moorish sultans.  Later, after the Christian conquest, it was rebuilt by the Spanish King known as Pedro the Cruel who brought in Muslim workmen from Granada to erect this finest example of Mudejar art.   Its patio’s and chambers are a fairyland of charm which bring back memories of the Moorish era.  The Hall of Ambassadors with its magnificent ceiling and tile inlays and the Patio of the Maidens with its beautiful arches and colourful tiles are only two parts of this intriguing Moorish palace.  

Spain – Cordoba – old city – Calle Albucasi … d in honour of Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi

Not to be outdone by the lovely palace, the well-kept gardens of Alcazar, arranged in Moorish style and filled with orange, lemon, myrtle and jasmine trees, while in the background one hears the whispering water, are a joy to the eyes of the beholder.   Al-Muctamid, one of the Moorish kings of Seville, was a great lover and poet.  He must have strolled in these same gardens thinking of his love for a servant girl, Ictimad, who he had later married, when he wrote:

“Invisible to my eyes, thou art ever present in my heart,

Thy happiness I desire to be infinite.

As my sighs, my tears, and my sleepless nights,

Impatient of the bridle when other women seek to guide me.

Thou makest me submissive to thy slightest wishes,

My desire each moment is to be at thy side; 

Speedly may it be fulfilled.

Ah! My heart’s darling forget me not,

However long my absence.

Dearest of names!  I have written it,

I have now traced that delicious word ‘Ictimad.

There are many other relics of the Moors in Seville but after La Giralda and Alcazar, they appear insignificant.  A traveler, if he has some time to spare, can perhaps visit the Church of San Salvador, built on the site of the first grand mosque in Seville and which incorporates part of the mosque’s minaret in its tower.  If he has the inclination, he can stroll along the river still carrying an Arab name, Guadalquiver – “the large valley”, to visit Torre del Oro, formerly a part of the Moorish fortifications guarding Seville.

Spain – Granada – Alhambra Palace – Court o … e Myrtles – Patio de los Arrayanes

For a farewell to this city, it is a must to attend an evening of flamenco at Los Gallos in Santa Cruz.  The flamenco, a national dance of Andalusia and known all over the world as the Spanish dance, owes much to the Mooors.  The singer’s voices remind one of the heart-piercing songs in the Arabian desert and the firey dances of the dark Spanish beauties are, to some extent, the dances of the Berbers in North Africa.  In Seville, there are many flamenco places of entertainment, but the songs and dances are modified in order to cater to the many tourists who flock to this picturesque city.  Only Los Gallos has preserved the true Andalusian-Moorish heritage.

Spain – Granada – Alhambra Palace – Generalife

It is hard to leave this city of al-Muctamid, but Cordova, the capital city of Muslim Spain for many centuries, beckons the traveler into the Moorish past.  To leave Seville for that city of former Moorish glory, there is no better way than by taking a train from the Seville railway station with its superb Moorish arches, a reminder to any traveler of Spain’s Moorish past.

Spain – Seville – Cathedral of Seville – The Giralda

The trip between Seville and Cordova crosses some of the richest agricultural land in all of Spain, a land developed during the Arab era to become one of the most productive lands on earth.  Set into the green background of this rich land the traveler is intrigued by the white-washed villages of Andalusia, glittering as jewels in the bright sunshine.  The journey is pleasant and soon the tourist travelling back through history reaches Cordova, a city of 240,000 souls.  The inhabitants are much less than when Cordova was the capital of Moorish Spain in the 10th century.  With1,000,000 inhabitants in that era, Cordova rivaled Baghdad as the largest and richest city in the world.  In Europe, in addition to being the largest and richest city it was also the cultural and intellectual centre of that continent.


The Cordova railway station does not give any indication of this fabulous past.  To relish this proud era in Cordova’s history one should visit the old Moorish parts.  There, a few relics are still to be found from the city’s days of grandeur. Overshadowing all these remining relics is the Great Mosque of Cordova, even if now a cathedral, it is still known as La Mezquita – The Mosque.  This former Muslim house of worship was the crowning architectural achievement in the western Muslim world and represents the age of splendor during the Moorish rule in Spain.  In its day it was only rivaled by the great mosque in Mecca.

cAbd al-Rahman I, who established the Umayyad Arab empire in the Iberian Peninsula, began the erection of this mosque in 785 A.D., but it was not completed until the reign of al-Mansur in the 10th century.  After the Christians conquered the city in 1236 A.D., the mosque was converted into a Christian house of worship and later a portion of this majestic building was removed in order to erect a church in the middle of what remained from the mosque.

In the front part of this renowned religious edifice is the patio or mosque courtyard, filled with orange trees with a fountain, once used by the Muslims for ablutions.  Also, the bell tower of the Cathedral-Mosque, forming part of the wall of the patio, was formerly the minaret of the Muslim structure.  In the Muslim era there were nineteen horseshoe arches which led from this patio into the hall of prayer.  Now nearly all these arches are cemented and instead of entering a well-lit mosque, today one enters a semi-lit church.

The inside of this former mosque is filled with a forest of marble columns of various colours topped by double arches, a unique style of construction not found in any other mosque in the past or today.   Some of the beauty of these columns and arches is, today, lost since many of the open archways in the outside walls have been cemented and, to a visitor, the mosque seems to be always in semi-darkness.  In Muslim times, it is said, as one entered from the patio archways, he could see the golden Arabic letters on the mihrab shining in the sunlight.  Today the mihrab still exists and is the most splendid part of the mosque.  The walls and ceiling of this Muslim architectural jewel are covered with mosaics, Kufic Arabic inscriptions and arabesque, but because of the darkness, to enjoy its beauty, the 20th century electric lights are a necessity.  A few years ago when visiting this former mosque, I spent hours walking and enjoying the grandeur of the architecture, especially, the mihrab.   But I was not the only one excited and affected by this splendid house of worship from the Muslim east.  Many writers through the centuries have written in glowing terms when describing this Mosque.  I am sure that   visits this gem of Muslim architecture will be impressed by tis beauty and grandeur.

A few feet away from the mosque is the Alcazar, once the home of the Muslim caliphs and after the Christian conquest, the home of the Spanish kings.  The structure remaining today has hardly anything from its Muslim past.  Only its lovely Moorish style gardens, accented with reflecting pols, flower beds and fountains, remind one of the Moorish age of glory.

The former Arab city around the mosque and Alcazar is dotted with relics from the Muslim past.  The narrow streets with their white-washed homes and courtyards filled with flowers are a legacy left from the days of the Moors.  In those days the courtyards were walled, but today, the walls are gone and anyone walking these narrow streets can look into flower-filled courtyards with cook water spouting from picturesque tiled fountains:  a small scene from the Muslim paradise.

Scattered among the whitewashed houses in this section of Cordova are many churches built on the sites of former mosques.  Here and there one finds incorporated into these churches parts from the original mosques.  Perhaps, to a traveler into the Moorish past, the most important are the bell towers of the two churches of Santiago and San Juan which were former minarets.

Besides churches that incorporate parts of former mosques, there are other relics left from the days of Cordova’s glory.  Parts of the Arab wall, the Almodovar Gate and the Arab baths are some of the Moorish remains to be found in this part of the city.  

Besides the remains from the past, the city-fathers of modern Cordova have not rejected their Arab heritage.  Many of the great Moorish men have been honoured with statues erected in tis older part of the city.  Ibn Hazm, a great writer; Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a renowned physician and philosopher; al-Ghafiqi, an excellent oculist; Ibn Maymun (Maimonides), one of the most renowned Moorish-Jewish philosphers fo all times; al-Hakam II, one of the scholarly caliphs who was noted for his learning and; Ibn Zaydun and Wallada, two famous Arab poets who were lovers; all have statues erected in their honour.

A few feet from the mosque and Alcazar a Roman bridge, rebuilt by the Moors, crosses Guadalquivir, the river which also passes through Seville.  At the end of tis bridge across the river is a fort, now a museum, named Calahorra, an Arabic name qalcat al-hurra (the free fort).  Running a few feet away and parallel to the bridge are the impressive ruins of Moorish flour mills whose design was brought by the Arabs from Syria to this land.

What we have described are only some of the Moorish remnants existing in this city.  There are many other small relics left from that illustrious past.  A traveler with only a short time to spend would be well advised to forget these other remains and visit only the mosque and Alcazar.  But no matter how much time a visitor has, he should not miss visiting Madinat al-Zahra’:  the remains of a Moorish royal city a few miles from Cordova.  This royal city one mile long and half a mile wide, was built by cAbd al-Rahman III for his favourite wife Zahra’, “the flower”.  The city, which took 10,000 workmen forty years to build, was made up of a complex of palaces with no equal, even in the fantasies of the thousand and one nights.  When it was completed, it became renowned throughout the world of that time and many visitors came from all parts of Europe to view this Moorish earthly paradise.  The beautiful city did not last for long.  A quarter century after its completion, it was in ruins and only in this century has some renovation and restoration been made, giving us a glimpse of what that jewel of cAbd al-Rahman must have been.  Today, some of the palaces are being reconstructed and in time, perhaps, a part of the splendor that once dazzled visitors from foreign lands will attract the modern tourist.  

Leaving Cordova, the city of the caliphs, we can take a train, bus or auto for Granada, the last city of the Moors before they were expelled from Spain.   Writers in both Moorish and Christian eras have glorified this city which during the last years of Moorish rule was the most populous and richest city in Spain.  As one approaches this historic city from the west, his route takes him through rich farmland, filled with fruit orchards fed by murmuring streams thus giving the countryside an appearance of one large garden.  Arab writers have compared this land surrounding Granada to the Damascus countryside.  This description, besides having elements of truth, also had something of nostalgia for the Arabs who settle din Granada were Syrians from Damascus.  To the southeast of the city rise the towering snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains from whose snows Granada and its countryside are nourished.

Today Granada has barely 200,000 inhabitants, far less than it had in its last days of Moorish glory.  In that era, the city had a million souls.  In these last years under Muslim rule, thousands of fleeing Muslims flocked to Granada as the Moors lost one part of Spain after another.  These fleeing refugees brought with them their handicraft skills, and their industry.  The city became wealthy and commerce flourished.  The arts, science and other avenues of learning were encouraged, making Granada a world-renowned seat of wealth and learning.  Today, this last possession of the Moors in Spain, ahs the atmosphere of the twilight of the Muslim glory in the Iberian Peninsula and perhaps, because of the world-renowned Alhambra, has a haunting beauty not to be found in any other city in Spain.

To one travelling into Spain’s Moorish past, I the beautiful complex of places known as Alhambra, he will find his mecca.  Through the centuries, poets have vied with one another in poetic metaphors when describing this treasure of Muslim architecture.  The name Alhambra is from the Arabic al-aḥmar, “the red” and there are two theories which have developed concerning how this complex of palaces came to be named.  One is that they were named after Muhammad al-Ahmar, the ruler who began their construction in 1239 A.D.; the other is that they were named after the red earth from which much of the building material came.

Alhambra, situated on a hill overlooking the city of Granada, is the most illustrious monument of Moorish art remaining in Spain.  Built of such fragile materials as wood and plaster, it is a miracle that it has stood the ravages of the centuries.  

There are today, in all the world, no more intriguing and splendid buildings from the Muslim past than this Moorish landmark in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada.  The visitor will be awed by the beautiful arches and ceilings, honeycombed cupolas, statactite pendentives, slender marble columns, walls covered with verses of Arabic script and richly coloured tiles, when he walks from room to room through the palaces of this marvelous reminder of the Moors.

To start the journey through Alhambra on enters through the Puerta de la Justicia, then ascends to the Puerta del Vino before entering the palace-complex.  At the west end is the Alcazaba, the fortress part of Ibn al-Ahmar’s creation.  From its walls, the city of Granada below is a marvelous sight to behold and it is easy to see why a fortress was built on this high point.  From Alcazaba one goes through the Plaza de los Aljubes, then passes the Palace of Charles V.  To build this huge out of place renaissance building, Charles tore down part of the Moorish palaces.  Any visitor can easily observe that this palace does not blend with the architecture of the Moorish buildings:  it serve as a scar on the lovely face of Alhambra.  The complex of buildings consists of many majestic halls and chambers, but a hurried traveler has only time to visit a few if he is to savour some of the charm and majesty for which Alhambra has been renowned.  Entering through the Reales Alcazares (the Royal Palaces), then the Mexaur (old council chamber), the first stop would be the Court of the Myrtles, also known as the Patio de la Alberca, an Arabic word meaning ‘the pool’.  In this courtyard of stately trees and reflecting waters, one can glimpse the artistic ideas of the Muslim architect who built courtyards for the eyes to enjoy.  Leaving the Patio de la Alberca one should halt a few moments in the Hall of the Ambassadors with its cedarwood ceiling and walls of plasterwork with Arabesque designs, to admire this, one of the finest works of Muslim art.

After the world of Arabesque, the Hall of the Two Sisters with its azulejos walls and sublime stalactitic ceiling, deserves some of the traveller’s time.  But he should not tarry long in this colourful room for the heart of Alhambra beckons.  Known as the Court of the Lions, this courtyard, once the hoe of the women in the court, is the jewel of Alhambra and is the last and finest achievement of Muslim art in Alhambra.  In this courtyard, the many delicate, slender marble columns with capitals supporting horseshoe arches delights the eyes and has inspired many poets to eulogize Alhambra.  In the centre is a fountain supported by twelve lions spouting water from their nostrils.  It is said that in Muslim days these twelve lions were a part of a water clock which the Moorish engineers had constructed to be operated by water brought in water mains from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The water flowing through the gardens of Alhambra today still come through these mains laid by the Moors so long ago, but how the clock operated has been forgotten.

The Court of the Lions is the gem of Alhambra, but there are many other rooms, halls, gardens and towers which deserve visiting should the visitor have the time.  But if time is of essence, these other parts of Alhambra can be neglected for the Generalife Gardens, the summer residence of the kings of Granada. 

Generalife, from the Arabic jannat al-carīf (the architect’s gardens), is situated on a slope overlooking the palaces of Alhambra and the city below.  These green terraced gardens, cooked by running water, are one of the most magnificent gardens in the world.  The well-trimmed hedges, the seductive charms of the flower gardens, the majesty of the tree-lined avenues and the spraying fountains whose water sparkles in the sunlight, makes Generalife a series of delightful gardens of incredible beauty.  Well-kept roses, jasmin, yew, cypress, and orange trees seem to be set in perfect harmony.  No one who walks through these gardens will forget their magnificence.

Alhambra and its Generalife is the most well-known of Granada’s Moorish historic monuments but here are many others.   Covering the slope facing Alhambra is the section called Albaicin.  This part where the Moors built their first fortress is today the most Arab part of Granada.  The whitewashed houses, cobbled narrow lanes, tiny stalls with artisans working and minarets of mosques, now church steeples, retain for this part of the city, the original Moorish atmosphere.  To savour this atmosphere a visitor should walk its streets, visit some of the churches which were former mosques, stop awhile at the Moorish baths and spend some time at the Casa del Chapiz, a Moorish palace which is now a school of Arab studies.  Before leaving Albaicin, it is a must to view Alhambra in the twilight across the gorge, from a high point in this former Arab section.

It is impossible for a traveler who has only a few days in Granada to visit all the monuments from the Moorish past, but these should not be missed:  Alcaicera, a silk market in Moorish times, which still retains some of that era’s flavor; the cathedral, built on the site of the great mosque of Granada; El Corral del Carbon or better known as Alhoniga Nueva, from Arabic which in translation means the new hostel, rebuilt recently as it was in Moorish times; Puerta Elvira, a gate still existing from Granada’s Moorish walls and; Plaza de Bibarrambla, from an Arabic phrase meaning the gate of sand, a square where Cardinal Ximenéz, who wanted to purify Spain from Muslim evil, burned, it is said, 1,500,000 Arabic manuscripts in the 15th century.

For a traveler, especially an Arab, enamoured with Moorish Spain, it is hard to leave this city where the Muslims were finally defeated.  When Abu cAbdallah, the last Moorish king of Granada, surrendered to the Christian forces, his heartbroken soul found a lasting echo in Arab hearts.  In all the losses they suffered in Spain, the Arabs deplored most the loss of Granada.  Even today in the Arab lands many still long and pray for this fallen city.

The most scenic route to take from Granada to Malaga, our last stop in our journey back to Moorish Spain, is by way of Motril and the seacoast.  A few miles past Granada is El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro – The Last Sigh of the Moor.  At this spot now commemorated by a plaque, Abu cAbdallah, who had been forced to leave this city of his fathers, turned with tearful eyes to have one last look at his beloved Granada with its Alhambra.  His mother, Aysha, who was watching his tears flow, became angry.  Admonishing him she said: “Why cry over a kigdom lost which you could not defend as a man?”

Beyond Suspiro del Moro the road passes through the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Motril then turns and runs along the seacoast toward Malaga.  n these mountains the Moors after being defeated rebelled again and again but were always overwhelmed.  In 1609 all the Moors, even the ones who had converted to Christianity, were expelled from Spain forever.  From Motril the road passes through a coastline of breathtaking scenery.  Gian cliffs, lush sugarcane fields, gardens of date palms, and fruit orchards all are intermingled.  It is a pleasant drive through a country not only rich in history but also in its scenic view and fertile lands.

Malaga today is a city of 400,000 inhabitants set in a countryside of luxuriant vegetation and backed by a semi-circle of hills.  Orchards of olives, lemons, oranges and pears, intermingled with vineyards of grapes and fields of sugarcane, surround this city which is today the queen of Costa del Sol.  Most of the fruits which grow around Malaga were introduced into Spain by the Moors, and from this land spread to the rest of Europe.

Malaga fell to the conquering Spaniards a few years before the defeat of Granada.  The Arabs lost this city, as they had lost all their cities and kingdoms in the Iberian Peninsula, not so much as a result of Christian power but to warring amongst themselves.  It is strange that the remains from the Moorish era of this city, lost at such a late date, are meager.  The most imposing is Gibralfaro, from Arabic meaning ‘Mountain of the Lighthouse’ – an Arab fortress, built in the same style as Alhambra.  Although some renovation has taken place, it has not been restored int eh same fashion as that famous Granada landmark.  From this former Moorish fortress, the view of Malaga is splendid.  

Halfway down the hill on which Gibralfaro is built is the Alcazaba, a Moorish citadel connected to Gibralfaro by fortifications.  This castle-fortress has been newly rebuilt and its lovely flower gardens are well kept.  In these gardens filled with well-trimmed shrubs, palms and flowers, the sound of running waters seems to be everywhere.  Anyone can spend serene hours walking through or stopping to rest here and there in this Moorish replica of paradise.

Besides Gibralfaro and Alcazaba, there are only a few other remains from the Muslim past.  Perhaps, the cathedral built on the site of the great mosque and the Museo de Bellas Artes, a former Moorish building which still has some parts remaining from the Muslim past, are worth visiting before ending our journey back to Moorish Spain.

The four cities of Andalusia we have discussed are only the main locations where one can find some of the Moorish remains.  There are many others:  Ronda, Almeria, Tarifa, Jaen and Ubeda.  These are a few other Andalusian cities which any traveler wishing to enjoy the flavor of Moorish Spain can visit.

Travelling through this Andalusian land one must remember that the castles, palaces and fortresses are only the visible remains left by the Moors.  In music, dancing, food and ways of life, the Moorish influence can also be felt and seen.  Last, but not least, the Spanish language has thousands of Arabic words inherited from these noble Moors who as conqueror and conquered remained in Spain for 900 years.