History of Culture and Design – The Moorish Influence in Andalucia

the Alhambra

The Moorish influence was way back when they ruled parts of Andalucia from the early 8th to late 15th centuries, that is an impressive 800 years of history. Their legacy, especially in terms of what we can see today, was considerable, with two of the region’s most important monuments, the Alhambra in Granada and the Mezquita of Cordoba. Both of these are UNESCO World Heritage sites and are 2 of the most visited places in Andalucía in general.

These tribes which came from North Africa left an outstanding cultural legacy behind them in Al-Andalús, or Andalucía as it is today. This complex mix was woven into that of the myriad civilisations which had previously invaded and settled here.The influence of the Moors’ culture reached out far beyond the Spanish borders, with the mighty cities of Sevilla, Córdoba, Granada and Cádiz being recognised throughout Europe and North Africa as centres of great learning. They were renowned for magnificent art and architecture, and homes to eminent scientists and philosophers. In the countryside, the Moors also left behind sophisticated irrigation systems, which are testament to their skilled agriculture, and many pueblos blancos – white-painted hillside villages.

The distances between the cities were vast so numerous towns and villages were built along the routes connecting one to another. These acted not only as staging posts, but were also settled by generations of caliphs and emirs together with their families and entourages, who built the alcazabas (citadels), fortalezas (fortresses) and castillos (castles) that can still be seen today. Some have fallen into ruin, others have been restored to a lesser or greater degree, but all bear testimony to a fascinating period in the history of Spain.

The irrigation systems which had been laid out by the Romans and which had fallen into disuse after their departure at the end of the 4th century, were now recovered and extended by the Moors who brought water into the very heart of urban buildings through a complex network of wells and channels, fountains and pools. This water was not only for domestic purposes, it was used comprehensively in public squares, patios and private gardens, and also for their hammams or public baths, which still can be seen and used in many provincial capital cities throughout Andalucía. Another use of design of course was the fitting of the homes into the harsh southern Spanish climate and this they did very well, thick walls, small windows and the use of water as a cooling agent.

After the Moors left, Moorish history and culture was all but ignored, both by the Arab world and by Europe, with the same fate facing the traditions and culture of the Jews who were expelled around the same time. Relegated to beautiful legends in the annals of history, those eight centuries of Spain’s past were not considered sufficiently important to study or even remember, which is a disgrace to their legacy. However, this legacy has now been brought back to life again by such organisations such as the Fundación Legado Andalusí and the Fundación Tres Culturas It cannot be denied as what the Moors built in Andalucía was a vital part of the shaping of southern Spain.

As Islamic art does not permit the showing of people’s faces, the artists made exquisite drawings of unparalleled intricacy and imagination. The work sometimes took decades to do, for example, the Alhambra was originally constructed as a fortress complex in 889 and then mostly ignored until its ruins were excavated and rebuilt in mid 13th century by the Emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, who built its actual palace and walls. Thank heavens he did. It was then converted into a royal palace by Yusuf 1, Sultan of Granada and head of the court of the Nasrid dynasty. Unfortunately, the beautiful buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, occupied by squatters until rediscovered by European travellers and scholars. The Alhabra is now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, exhibiting the country’s most significant and well known Islamic architecture, together with 16th-century and later, Christian buildings and gardens. It is a wonderful example of the imagination and scope of the people of that time which gave us this fabulous monument.

One other monument to Moorish culture is of course the Mezquita of Cordoba, the former Great Mosque, built during the years of 784 – 978 AD. The work of building the resplendent Mezquita employed thousands of artisans and labourers, and this undertaking led to the development of all the resources of the district. Hard stone and beautifully veined marbles were quarried from the Sierra Morena mountains and the surrounding regions of the city. Metals of various kinds were dug from the soil, factories sprang up in Córdoba amid the bustle of industrial energy. A famous Syrian architect made the plans for the Mosque. Leaving his own house on the edge of Córdoba, Emir Abd al-Rahman came to reside in the city, so that he might personally superintend the operations and offer proposals for the improvement of the designs. What we see today is the work done centuries ago and is still as resplendent as it was then.

In all the famous cities of southern Spain during the time of the Moors, Sevilla’s Alcazar, Malaga’s Alcazaba, culture flourished as did learning. Reading, the writing of poetry, music, and the arts were all cultivated and looked on as being “civilized”. During their very long reign over a large part of medieval Iberia, the Muslims then were known to be a rather accepting group, tolerating and welcoming Jews who had been made outcasts by the northern invaders of Spain, working quite amicably alongside each other. Jews were so highly valued by the Moors that they became merchants and ambassadors and were often taken into the leader’s confidence. Islamic rule in Spain from the early 8th to the late 15thcentury featured a multi-cultural mix of the people of three great monotheistic religions: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. This overall unity of the three faiths became an immensely successful settlement that matched the heights of the Roman Empire and the Italian Renaissance.

Sadly religion reared its head in the form of intolerance from the Catholic king and queen, Ferdinand Isabella. During their reign the dreadful inquisition took place and it was against Spaniards as well as the Moors. The latter, after having endured appalling revenge against their beliefs, left, and took with them their world of culture. In spite of this, the Spanish language has more than 8% of its words rooted in Arabic still today.

We can see the monuments of these peoples all over Andalucia, an amalgamation of the various countries and cultures of the Mediterranean as a whole with their diverse designs and ideas coming to fruition. It is a fascinating route all over the place and one which should be looked at if you are visiting.

Design is vision and there is certainly enough everywhere for us to marvel at.

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