By Sara Irving
La Giralda, the towering minaret of a 12th century Almohad mosque
The Islamic kingdoms of medieval Spain are legendary for their artistic and architectural glories. They are also famous, although perhaps at times through rose-tinted spectacles, for centuries of co-existence between Muslims, Jews and Christians, and for the flowering of a rich culture which drew on the best of the Religions of the Book.
Nowadays, the best-known (and most visited) of the cities of these medieval kingdoms are Granada, home to the Alhambra palace, and Cordoba, site of the breathtaking Mezquita mosque with its forest of red and white arches.
But Seville, now a sprawling modern city, also deserves recognition for its Islamic-influenced cultural heritage.
Centuries of Islamic Architecture
The most prominent remnant of Seville’s Islamic past is La Giralda, the towering minaret of a 12th century Almohad mosque, which became the city’s Catholic cathedral after its conquest by Saint Ferdinand in 1248. At 320 feet high, La Giralda was once the tallest tower in the world. Modeled on the minaret of the Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakech, it has a sister in the Hassan Tower at an uncompleted mosque in Rabat.
The modern-day cathedral was begun in the late 14th century, after the Great Mosque was pulled down, but it still holds the tomb of Saint Ferdinand. The tomb’s inscriptions celebrate Ferdinand’s achievements not only in Castilian and the monastic language of medieval Christianity, Latin, but also in Hebrew and Arabic. And Ferdinand’s son, Alfonso, tried to make Seville a centre for Arabic scholarship and translation, losing out to the long-established academia of Toledo.
Floodlit at Night
La Giralda’s golden stone glows softly, towering over the busy nightlife of the old quarter of Seville whose narrow streets remind visitors of their original character as the city’s souk. In the square around the foot of the tower are citrus trees, bearing the Seville oranges famous the world over.
Just seconds’ walk away – close enough for first Muslim and then Christian kings to reach their place of worship through a private tunnel – is the site which has been home to several generations of royal palaces, of the Almohad dynasty and the later Christian kings.
The present occupant of the site is the spectacular Alcazar palace; its name is a corruption of the Arabic al qasr. Its ornate plasterwork – which incorporates repeated Arabic scripts, including the phrase Wa la ghalib ill Allah – “There is no victor but Allah” – is a reflection of the splendors of the Alhambra in Granada, and its tile work also draws heavily on Muslim Andalucian designs. No casual visitor, wandering the Alcazar’s courtyards, would be likely to guess that it was commissioned by a Christian monarch.
But the palace – although built around structures which may date as far back as the Umayyad period of the 10th and early 11th centuries, when their Caliphate centered on Cordoba – was completed by workmen who had spent several generations building Granada’s Alhambra, and who were then lured west by the Christian king Pedro the Cruel.
Ibn Khaldun, the great philosopher of history, whose distant ancestors hailed from Seville before they fled the Almoravid conquest of the city in the 11th century, visited Seville during his travels around Andalucia in 1364-5, when the ornate plasterwork of the Alcazar was only just dry. Pedro the Cruel tried to persuade him to stay, offering him his family’s historical lands, as well as high office – but his interest in the one remaining Muslim kingdom in Spain, Granada, won out.
The Andalucian Melting-Pot
The Alcazar’s cultural, artistic and religious mixture epitomizes the blurring of religious and cultural lines in Andalucia, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked alongside each other and where Muslim and Christian armies often fought alongside one another against rival small kingdoms, or taifas.
One of the most famous figures of the period was El Cid (a corruption of the Arabic sayyid, ‘lord’), described by writer Maria Rosa Menocal as “this Christian warrior with the Arabic name [who] was leading troops into battles between one Muslim and another,” who fought for the King of Seville in late 11th century battles against Granada. He became the hero of a great epic poem in medieval Spanish, and finally of a Hollywood movie.
Another was Samuel the Nagid, the Jewish vizier of Granada, who helped maintain his city’s military strength under the Berber King Habbus al-Muzaffar in the 11th century, and who conquered Seville in 1039 for Habbus’ son Badis.
For centuries this patchwork of Muslim and Christian kingdoms, with their shifting alliances, fostered a vibrant artistic life. It did not, perhaps, rival the scale of the Madinat as-Zahra in Cordoba, built by Abd ar-Rahman III at the height of the Caliphate and lost for a millennium after it was sacked in the civil war that brought down the Umayyads in Spain. But its creations do include the Alhambra in Granada, the Alcazares of Seville and of Segovia and Carmona, and the fashion for Mudejar craftsmanship lived on even after the Christian conquest of Spain was completed in 1492, with noble palaces commissioned in this style for decades to come.
According to Professor Maria Luise Fernandez, of Caracas University, the strength of Islamic artistic traditions even carried it to the Americas. Mudejar designs can, she says, be found in Spanish colonial architecture in cities such as Mexico City, Quito and Caracas, and in the ‘azulejo’ style of blue tilework – from al-zulaij, colloquial Arabic for ornamental tiles – which became associated with towns such as Puebla in Mexico.
Poet-Kings and Philosophers
But the glories of Seville’s Muslim past are not only in its visual architecture.
In her book on the centuries of Muslim kingdoms which made up medieval Andalucia, Ornament of the World: how Muslims, Jews & Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain,Menocal refers to 11th century Seville as “the poetry-mad Abbadid taifa of Seville.” The rivalry between Seville and the neighboring taifa of Toledo was, says Menocal, as much about the cities’ cultural profile as their military strength.
“Military and cultural ambitions were purposefully intertwined and their Seville became the new haven for poetry in al-Andalus,” continues Menocal. “The Abbadid-sponsored academy of poets played all sorts of important roles in poetic history, attracting poets from inside and outside the peninsula and leaving us an important diwan, or anthology, of the poetry of the period.”
Mutamid Ibn Abbad, the last king of the Abbadid dynasty, was not only a great patron of the arts, but is considered one of the greatest Andalusian poets in his own right. Andalucian poetry spanned topics from romantic love to political satire, and al-Mutamid’s own work ranged from praises of his wife:
“Invisible to my eyes, thou art ever present to my heart.
Thy happiness I desire to be infinite, as are 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 lightest wishes”
[The Poems of Mu’Tamid, King of Seville, translated DL Smith, 1915]
And to celebration of his own military victories:
“I have won at the first onset
The hand of the lovely C?rdoba;
That brave Amazon who with sword and spear
Repelled all those who sought her in marriage.
And now we celebrate our nuptial in her palace,
While the other monarchs, my baffled rivals,
Weep tears of rage and tremble with fear.”
[The Poems of Mu’Tamid, King of Seville, translated DL Smith, 1915]
A monument to Seville’s “poet-king” and his “sad overthrow” by the Berber Almoravids, who he had supported against Christian rivals in the naïve belief that he could then expel them from his own lands, is still to be found in the grounds of the Alcazar.
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