Europe Picturesque

Tales of Alhambra: Part I

Written by Ammar Akhtar

A recent visit to Portugal and Spain allowed a young traveler to capture some of the architectural beauty and legacy of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. 

When I was younger, I always gravitated to hearing the ‘uncles’ speak of the wonders of the past at parties (or ‘dawats’, as we say in Urdu). Stories with their foundations set firmly in truth, or tales that were far more exaggerated. The stories were always set in exotic destinations, with characters of strong moral consciousness. Thanks to Google, we can view the sites and ruins of the past without taking a step outside our bedroom doors. However, to experience and witness these sites in person is another experience in itself, as one is left gaping in awe of how the people of the past could have constructed magnificent buildings and indulged in such beautiful art and poetry glorifying either man or God.

When an opportunity arises, I have followed the mantra to go with the flow. In the summer of 2015, two friends and I decided to go on a 4,416 km trip to experience the Iberian Peninsula and visit Andalus. We traversed four countries in 19 days, and I present to you some of the pictures that were captured.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

(1) The view of Castelo de Sao Jorge from Santa Justa Lift. A Moorish castle in the centre of Lisbon, it was built by the Muslims in the 10th century during the height of their rule after having conquered southern Portugal in 719. The castle was built over Roman fortifications whose origins date back to 48 BCE. Along with the castle, the Muslims built the Cerca Moura, city walls encircling the city to protect it. The walls start from the castle and lead to the River Tejo. Much of the wall has been adapted into the modern city, being converted into homes and buildings.

Jeronimos Monestary

(2) The Jeronimos Monestary, built in 1601, was funded from tax proceeds on goods from Africa and Asia. King Manuel choose Hieronymite monks to preside over the monastery to provide spiritual guidance to sailors departing from the port. At this point, Portugal’s naval exploration was in its golden age.

Torre del Oro

(3) The Torre del Oro (Tower of Gold) was built in 1220 by the Almohad dynasty in Seville, Spain. The tower has served many roles over the centuries, first as a watchtower protecting the Alfonso Canal and blocking access through chains, then as a chapel after the fall of Muslim rule in 1248, then as a prison, and finally as a treasury for the Spanish mint. The tower gets its name from the golden reflection from the river.

Seville Cathedral

(4) In the city of Seville, in the Seville Cathedral (formally a mosque) lie the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus. The controversial Italian explorer who sailed to North America led the waves of European naval expeditions to the ‘New World’. Having passed away in Spain, his remains were transferred to the Dominican, then Havana, then back to Spain. I write that the picture above shows the site of Columbus’ supposed remains because each city that interred his remains claims to be Columbus’ final resting place. Columbus’ expeditions to the Americas paved the way for slavery and genocide. I write about Columbus for one crucial coincidence in time. Since 1485, Columbus had visited the monarchs of Portugal, Genoa, Venice, and England, desperately trying to convince them to finance his voyages, without any success. However in April of 1492, 3 months after the fall of Muslim rule in Granada (and with it all of Islamic Spain), Spain’s Queen Isabella financed Columbus’ expeditions. In fact, the Queen received Columbus to tell him the news in Cordoba in the palace built by the Umayyads. I also write about Columbus as he was sort of an inspiration for my trip, embarking on a 4,416 km journey with no concrete plans. Along that journey I was able to give my salām to other individuals that continue to inspire me.

Cathedral of St. Mary of the See


(5) The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See in Seville, Spain began its life as a mosque built between 1172 and 1198 by the Almohad dynasty. The mosque was converted into a church in 1402 and was completed in 1506. Many original building materials were reworked to build the church to make it the third largest in the world, and the largest cathedral in the world. The two pictures you see are the ‘Giralda’ (Bell Tower), and a view of the cathedral’s courtyard from the Giralda with orange trees providing shade. The Giralda is originally the minaret of the mosque, built to resemble the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech, Morocco.

Reales Alcazares de Sevilla

Reales Alcazares de Sevilla

Reales Alcazares de Sevilla

(6) The Reales Alcazares de Sevilla is the royal palace in Seville, Spain built by the Almohads in 1161 (they originally called it the Al-Muwarak). The palace is considered a great example of the Mudejar style of architecture, referring to work influenced by the Moors. “Mudejar” is derived from Arabic meaning tamed, in reference to the Muslims who were subjugated after the Reconquista of Iberia. The palace began its conversion after the Reconquista in 1364 and is located across from the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. The palace is famous for its gardens (which you can see above). The golden dome you see is in the Ambassador’s Hall and is made of wood and gold with mother of pearl. You may recognize the palace, especially the dome, in the latest season of Game of Thrones, or from the movie Kingdom of Heaven.

Dar al-Jund

(7) The picture shows the Dar al-Jund, or the Upper Basilical Hall which housed the administration offices for the Umayyad dynasty under Abd ar-Rahman III. The city of Madinat al-Zahra, built half an hour west of Cordoba beneath the Sierra Morena, provided it with a defensive advantage. Built in between 936 to 940, the city was to become the new capital for the Umayyads and became the largest city to be built from scratch in Europe at the time. In 1010, the city was sacked in a civil war, which led to the downfall of the Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba. At present only 10% of the original city remains. The city was an experiment in Islamic-inspired Andalusian architecture that would later flourish. On a trip to Boston over the winter holidays, I was able to see a fresco from Madinat al-Zahra and was excited to see how small the world truly is.

Great Mosque of Cordoba

(8) The arches of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, now the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. A Basilica built by the Visigoths, this architectural marvel was split into a mosque and church by Abd ar-Rahman I in 711. In 784, Abd ar-Rahman I purchased the building and land and converted the building to a mosque in its entirety, and his descendants continued its construction until it was completed in 987. The Great Mosque of Damascus was used as a model for the new mosque. Once Cordoba was conquered by King Ferdinand III in 1236, the mosque was converted into a church with additions such as the church nave, and the minaret was converted into a bell tower.

The Alhambra

(9) The Alhambra palace viewed from Mirador de San Nicolas plaza in Granada, Spain. Translated as “The Red One”, the Alhambra complex was built as a fortress in 889. In the 13th century the Emir of Granada, Mohammed ibn al-Ahmar, expanded the fortress to include a palace and walls. In 1333, the sultan of the time, Yusuf I, converted the entire complex into a palace. The palace is dotted with intricate frescos, windows, arches and columns added on by sultans in time following the theme of representing paradise on earth. Early expansions were influenced by Byzantine and Abbasid architecture. After the fall of Granada in 1492, future expansions were designed in the Mudejar style (as explained in earlier descriptions). The main sections in the Alhambra are the royal complex, Court of the Myrtles, Hall of Ambassadors, Court of the Lions, Hall of the Abencerrajes, and the Generalife.

About the author

Ammar Akhtar

“A successions of images, ideas, emotions, and sensations occur as I stand among columns and arches that have stood for centuries to glorify man or God. I feel small, knowing the footsteps of those greater than me walked the same paths, and I gawk in wonder. I travel to relive these feelings to learn more about the past, to surmise what could have been and what can yet come.” – AA

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