Romantic Moorish Andalusia is Reflected in Three of Its Cities
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Throughout the ranks of the traveling public in the Western world, the name Andalusia is synonymous with dark-haired beauties, flowers, splendid precessions, light-hearted gaiety, the halo of enchanted patios, and romance. Visitors roaming that delightful par of Spain searching for these attributes will be able to find them in abundance in Seville, Cordova, and Granada – thee of Andalusia’s most fascinating cities. The high spirits of the people and the lingering aura of the long-gone Moors continue to impregnate the Andalusian atmosphere and give it a fairytale mystique.
It is best to begin an Andalusian journey by first stopping in Seville, the city associated with the ‘Barber of Seville’ and its fiery Carmen. La Giralda, the steeple of the most massive cathedral in the world, is the city’s most outstanding monument. For more than seven and a half centuries, along with other nearby historic structures, it continues to be a lasting reminder of the Moors and their architecture, drawing millions of tourists to Seville.
From this 97 m (318 ft) high former minaret of the city’s once Great Mosque, visitors can survey the surrounding impressive panorama. Below, the Patio de Los Naranjos of blossoming orange trees once the Mosque’s courtyard, along with its other remaining parts now integrated into the Cathedral, are clearly visible. In the distance, on all sides, the vivid colors of the skyline, dotted with the towering steeples of innumerable churches – many former minarets of mosques – create a delightful picture of an oriental town where it seems that at any minute the Moors would appear to make the picture complete.
The oldest and richest of the cities in Andalusia with an aristocratic history, Seville is a coquettish-cosmopolitan town of some 700,000 – Spain’s fourth largest city and the capital of Andalusia. Before and during Roman ties it was an important urban centre, but it reached it age of splendour under the Moors when it became a dazzling metropolis and the home of kings, musicians, poets, and men of letters.
The Christians recaptured the city in 1248 and after the discovery of the Americas, Seville controlled, for many decades, the trade with the New World. The wealth this generated made the city one of the richest urban centers on earth and n important commercial and intellectual center-a position it retains today.
Nevertheless, the illustrious monuments in the older section of town are almost all the legacy of the Moors. From among these, even more, imposing than La Giralda, is the edging Alcázar, Seville’s fabulous 14th-century Moorish palace built by Mudéjar craftsmen – Muslims living under Christian rule.
The lavishly decorated patio and surrounding chambers incorporate some of the finest examples of Spanish Muslim art, reminding the visitor of Granada’s famous Alhambra. On the outside, its vast well-groomed Moorish-style gardens of shrubs and climbing plants overflow with a profusion of jasmine, lemon, myrtle, and orange flowers, given the palace a ‘Thousand and One Nights’ setting.
Next door to this exquisite reminder from the Moorish age is the Barrio de Santa Cruz – after the Reconquista, becoming the Jewish Quarter. The most intriguing part of the city, it consists of a tangled mosaic of narrow streets and cobbled alleyways. Every inch is covered by charming whitewashed homes, secluded plazas, filled with orange trees, comfortable bars and fine restaurants.
From this Moorish section, it is only a short distance to the imposing Plaza del España with its twin spires dominating the skyline and the nearby María Luisa Park – a large expanse of manicured greenery. Full of flowers, tiled pools, and fountains set amid towering trees, this park has, in the main, been responsible for the labeling of Seville as ‘City of Gardens’.
Hidden amid the park’s colors are the Archaeological Museum, housing an impressive collection of pre-Roman and Roman treasures; and the nearby Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions, located in a splendid Mudéjar pavilion.
If travellers have time to spare, there are countless other sites they can explore. From among these are the twelve-sided Torre de Oro, once a part of the Moorish fortification and now a Naval Museum; Pilate’s House, an outstanding example of Mudéjar architecture; and dozens of other historic palaces and churches.
For many, overshadowing all these tourist spots are the colorful fairs and festivals such as the Good Friday Holy Week followed by the six-day April Fair. Processions of countless floats, endless bands, and the heart-rendering cries of saetas (songs of sorrow) and improvised flamenco lament of those watching, make the city a tourist delight.
From Seville, it is only a short distance to Cordova, the fabled city of Moorish Spain and its six acres world of architectural magic, La Mezquita – once the majestic Great Mosque of Cordova. All around this majestic structure are reminders of the Moors from yesteryears. The ancient streets edged by Moorish-type homes filled with flowers, venerable houses of worship with traces of their Islamic days of yore, and secluded plazas, all point to the city’s Arab-Muslim past.
IN its days of glory, from the 8th to the 13th centuries, Cordova was the capital of Moorish Spain and the cultural and intellectual heart of Europe. Cordovan industry and learning were prized throughout the world. Today, traces of that fabulous age are to be found in its clean-narrow streets; seemingly always newly whitewashed houses; flower-filled courtyards; churches, many of which were once former mosques; the old Jewish quarter, one of the best-preserved in Europe; and a host of other Moorish remains.
Overshadowing all these time-honored remains is La Mezquita, now a cathedral – the city’s crowning jewel. Between the 8th and 13th centuries, it was considered one of the wonders of the world, boasting 1,293 jasper and marble columns, 360 ornate double tier arches, 2,400 lamps and a dazzling mihrab of exquisite design – its walls inlaid with gold and its domed ceiling covered with multi-colored mosaics. A masterpiece of Muslim art, the Mosque is said to have influenced the architecture of Europe’s medieval Christian churches.
When, in 1236 A.D., the Spaniards took over the city, the Mosque was converted into a church. Most of the doors and open archways were sealed and 40 chapels were built on the inside of these former openings. Later the center of the mosque, along with some 500 columns, was removed and in this space, a cathedral was erected, transforming the structure into a mosque-cathedral.
A few yards from La Mezquita is Palacio Episcopal, built on the ruins of the Caliph’s palace and next door is the Alcázar, after the Christian conquest, the abode of Spanish kings. Famous for its flower-saturated patios and gardens with their pols and spouting fountains, it is a worthwhile stopover after a visit to the Mosque.
Nearby is a Roman Bridge, rebuilt in Moorish times, spanning the Guadalquivir River – from the Arabic –wadi al-Kabir (large river). Edging it are the ruins of Arab grain mills – one with a renovated waterwheel. Standing guard at the bridge’s end cross the river is Torre de la Calahorra, a former fortress housing the Museo Vivo de la Andalus, where multi-screen shows tell the story of Cordova’s tri-cultural past. Using high-tech virtual reality headphones, a visitor will experience the living culture of Moorish Spain, its people, science, technology, and music.
The best time to travel and see these monuments from the city’s Moorish past is during the first part of May during the Fiesta de Los Patios when the city’s narrow alleyways become delightful flower gardens. Cordova is transformed into balconies and patios overflowing with masses of flowers and the streets are enhanced by elaborately decorated carriages and horses mounted by colorfully dressed riders. Visitors and inhabitants alike get caught up in the air of excitement and join in the celebrations.
The last stop on this three-city tour of Andalusia would be Granada. Once called by the Arabs, an earthly paradise, it was the last city to fall to the Christian conquerors. Ironically, however, the Moorish heritage still impregnates the city.
A true vestige from the Muslim age, Granada rests in eh shadows of Spain’s mightiest massif, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, edged by an extraordinary fertile plain. Even though its 300,000 inhabitants are less than half of those in Arab days, the indelible mark of the Moors in its vibrant streets, mosques turned into churches, tiled buildings, and dainty gardens have made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of Spain.
Overshadowing all its Moorish remains is its famous Alhambra. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, it draws annually some 3 million visitors – the top tourist site in Spain and second in Europe after the Vatican in attracting visitors. Its stately spires command a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Called by the Arabs Qal’at al-Hamra’ (the Red Fortress), after the reddish stone from which it was built, it is a network of palaces filled with exquisite courtyards, delicate marble columns, and handsome arches intertwined with graceful Arabic script, reaching their epitome of splendor in the pavilion known as the Courtyard of the Lions.
Granada’s Moorish kings for their labor, leisure, and pleasure erected this palace-citadel, a beautiful structure of Hispano-Muslim art. For the good life, they turned plaster and stone into lace and blended these with endless fountains whose spraying waters moisten the edging flowering trees and shrubs. Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens with their fountains, neatly trimmed hedges, blooming flowers, and trees of cypresses, jasmine, and yew, best reflect their handiwork. Caressed by the gentle breezes, they draw the visitor into the aura of Moorish fantasy, mystery, and romance.
Yet, this fairy tale complex of palaces with their majesty and the bewitching atmosphere is only one of the delights the Moors bestowed on the city. Albaicín, the old Arab quarter, spreading on a hill opposite the Alhambra, overflows with vestiges from Muslim times.
Museo Archeologico, housed in a renovated old Arab hoe; dar Albaida, better known as Casa del Chapiz, a former Moorish palace and now a school for Arabic studies; Evira and Monaita gates in the old city walls; Aljibe del Frillo, a cistern built during the Moorish age; Casa Morasca, an Old Arab home; the Church of El Salvador, the former great mosque of the Albaicín; Baños Arabes, the best-preserved baths in the Iberian Peninsula; and Dralhorra Palace, the home of Boabdil’s (the last king in Moorish Spain) mother and now part of the Convent de Santa Isabel del Real, are some of the remains from the Moorish centuries to be found in the heart of the city.
Alcaicería, a reconstructed Arab silk bazaar, is a colorful handicraft center not to be missed. In the last century, the original marketplace was destroyed by fire, but it was rebuilt along original lines. Today, instead of silk, its shops have switched to selling, mostly to tourists, handmade flamenco dresses, pottery, jewelry, copperware, ceramics, and embroidery.
Nearby is the Cathedral, built on the site of Granada’s former great mosque. The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, the city’s conquerors, initiated its construction, but it was not completed until the 18th century. The most famous part of the Cathedral is its annex, Cupilla Real where the Catholic Monarchs are entombed.
Edging the Cathedral is the stunningly decorated Madrasa Yusif I – one of the foremost Moorish works of art surviving in Granada. A former Muslim university honoring one of the great Moorish works of art surviving in Granada. A former Muslim university honoring one of the great Moorish rulers of Granada, it was the last refuge of Muslim learning on Spanish soil. Its preserved prayer chamber is a fantastic work of art, which matches in beauty the mihrab (prayer niche) of Cordoba’s former Great Mosque.
After exploring these three splendid cities, a flamenco evening in the gypsy quarters of Granada’s Sacromonte Caves will be a great finale for a tour. In the fiery dances, heart-rendering songs, and haunting music, much of these inherited from the Moors, a visitor can live the nights of Arab Andalusia. A flamenco evening such as this and the Moorish monuments in these three cities will, without doubt, leave a deep impression on the vast majority of travelers.