It took only a few decades for the noble message of Islam to reach Andalusia (Spain) in AD711 and it lasted for eight centuries. One remarkable heritage the Muslim civilisation left in that region – besides the great influence on social bonds and enhancing good manners – are the beautiful palaces, mosques, minarets and fortresses in Andalusia, which was always the heartland of Al-Andalus. These buildings make Andalusia visually unique in Europe and have to be classed as its greatest architectural glory. The first Muslim rulers in Andalusia were the Omayyads who enriched the architecture by unique styles and techniques. Noticeable among these was the horseshoe arch, which has become the hallmark of Spanish Islamic architecture. The name of these styles is selected (horseshoe) because it narrows at the bottom like a horseshoe, rather than being a simple semicircle.
The Mezquita of Cördoba
This is the oldest significant surviving Spanish Islamic building and is also arguably the most magnificent and the most influential. It was founded by Abd ar-Rahman I in AD785 and underwent major extensions under his successors Abd ar-Rahman II in the first half of the 9th Century, Al-Hakim II in the 960s and Al-Mansur in the 970s. Abd ar-Rahman I’s initial mosque was a square split into two rectangular halves: a covered prayer hall, and an open ablutions courtyard where the faithful would wash before entering the prayer hall. The Mezquita’s prayer hall broke away from the verticality of earlier great Islamic buildings such as the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Instead it created a broad horizontal space recalling the yards of desert homes that formed the original Islamic prayer spaces, and conjured up visions of palm groves with mesmerising lines of two-tier, red-and-white-striped arches in the prayer hall. The prayer hall maintained a reminder of the ‘basilical’ plan of some early Islamic buildings in having a central ‘nave’ of arches, broader than the others, leading to the mihrab, the niche indicating the direction of Mecca (and thus of prayer) that is key to the layout of any mosque.
The Alcazaba at Malaga
For almost 100 years – between the mid- 11th and 12th centuries – the Berber from Morocco ruled Andalusia and had amazing building styles of which remain as a great heritage of the Muslim architecture. The Alcazaba at Malaga, which still has a group of rooms with a caliphate-style row of horseshoe arches, is a fortified palace at the foot of Gibralfaro Hill which was built in the 11th century. The site overlooking the harbour was a coveted location which was ultimately occupied by the Moors. It was here that Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the Moors after a four-month siege in the 15th century. The building’s military components make it one of the most important Muslim works in Spain today, despite its machicolations, turrets, arrow slits and battlements. Perhaps the most effective defence was its location overlooking the city and bay. In its day it was surrounded by a neighbourhood that no longer exists, with latrines in every house and its own sewage system, it is proof of the high level of civilisation achieved at the time. It was restored several times, most recently in the 20th century, and today the building and its important archaeological legacy can be visited.
The Nasrid Palace
This is the most important palace among those which were built by the Nasrid emirate of Granada, which was the last Muslim redoubt on the Iberian Peninsula, enduring for two and a half centuries (1249-1492). The palace has its unique style that is the Nasrid architects refined existing decorative techniques to new peaks of delicacy, elegance and harmony. The palace was divided into three main independent areas namely the Mexuar, which corresponds to the semi-public part of the palace or selamlik, for justice administration and State affairs; the Comares Palace (Palacio de Comares), which was the official residence of the king and the Palace of the Lions (Palacio de los Leones), which was the private area of the palace, where the Harem was located. These areas had different architectural designs that match their
function within the palace. Despite the several restorations that have taken place over the passage of time, the Nasrid Palace has always maintained its character of a Muslim palace.
The Giralda Minaret
Even though it is part of the Seville Mosque, the Giralda Minaret gained more fame than the mosque itself. It was one of the tall, square, richly decorated minarets that started to appear in the 12th century. The Giralda dates back to the period when Almohads, Muslims from the North Africa, ruled the region and made Ishbiliyah the capital of Al-Andalus. The work in building the mosque and the minaret continued for almost four years. The outer surface of the minaret was decorated with a pattern of interlaced arches in raised brickwork, and glass panes were set in the windows. Access to the top was by a series of 34 gently sloping ramps. The central core consisted of seven rooms, which were used for storage and as quarters for guards, for the minaret also served as a watchtower. The Giralda, once part of the Great Mosque, now serves as bell tower of Gothic cathedral. Of the original mosque, only the minaret, a wall, the Gate of Pardon and part of the Patio of the Orange Trees remain.