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The Alcazar (from the Arabic al-Qasr meaning palace) is the royal residence of the kings of Spain. The Alcazar is considered a World Heritage Site, like many other extraordinary pieces of architecture in Spain, and is magnificent to behold. It is one of Spain’s lesser known sites, since most visitors often consider the Alhambra in Granada or the Mezquita-Catedral in Cordoba to be more significant. However, the Alcazar is not only an amazing piece of work in its own right, but even rivals the Alhambra as a palace. The palace is built almost entirely in Hispano-Muslim style and, in many ways, resembles the Alhambra. Thus, there is a natural tendency to assume that this was a palace built by and for Muslims. This is both right and wrong. Yes, the palace was initially constructed in the taifa period and served as the royal residence of the Banu ‘Abbad dynasty, whose most famous son was al-Mu’tamid (the poet-prince). However, in its current form, the building was commissioned by a Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the late fourteenth century. Pedro (or Peter) hired a number of Muslim artisans and architects from among his own population in the kingdom of Castile, but also some from the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, to work on the palace. Interestingly, some of the very same artisans who worked on constructing and beautifying the Alhambra were also those who worked on the Alcazar, hence the similarities. Also worth noting is that Pedro I was a close friend and ally of Muhammad V, the Nasrid sultan who commissioned the major parts of the Alhambra palaces(Patio de los Leones, etc.) which have become the hallmarks of the structure. The building itself also integrates northern Spanish influence. As such, the building itself–in addition to underscoring the power and legitimacy of Pedro I–is also a demonstration of the medieval Spanish cultural co-production in which various medieval Iberian Christian, Jewish and Muslim cultures interacted with one another and formed different parts of a unique whole.
After Burgos, I headed for León, a city with an immensely important history for Christian Spain. León was perhaps the single most important contributor to the political and religious identity of the Kingdom of Castile-Leó. Historians and clergymen from this city were instrumental in reinforcing the idea that the conquest of al-Andalus was in fact a “Reconquista”, thereby linking the newly-established Christian kingdoms in the tenth and eleventh centuries with the illustrious Visigothic past. León also had an important identity as an “imperial city” since it was in the Cathedral of León that Alfonso VII (d. 1147) was crowned “Emperor of All Spain” (imperator totius hispaniae) in 1135. Naturally, the first place I headed the evening I arrived was to that very cathedral.
The next morning, the first thing I did was go back to the cathedral to explore it some more. It was perhaps one of the most stunning examples of Gothic architecture I’ve seen in all of Spain.
The rest of the city, like the cathedral, was also bursting with history. Here are some pictures.
Finally, I spent the last couple of hours in León visiting the Basilica of San Isidoro, where Isidore of Seville is buried along with a long list of illustrious Christian kings and queens of Spain.
Burgos is not a very well-known city to most travelers today. But it has immense historical importance. It was the political and cultural heart of the medieval Kingdom of Castile, the entity which conquered the majority of al-Andalus and which was instrumental in laying the legal, cultural, religious, and institutional foundations of the modern Spanish state. The city also lies on the Camino de Santiago, a major pilgrimage route, which adds to its importance.
When I arrived in the city, I could tell it was immensely different than Andalusia. The architecture was obviously the clearest indicator but the cool weather and unique dialect of its inhabitants also made this obvious. As I walked through the city’s gates, the first thing I saw was the massive cathedral. It is within this cathedral that the 11th-century hero Rodrigo de Vivar (“El Cid”) is buried. One cannot help but admire this incredible piece of architecture and the massive effort that went into its construction. Truly one of the wonders of Spain.
Another place of interest in Burgos for me was the Monastery of Las Huelgas, which is famous for a variety of reasons (namely all the royalty buried there.)…but personally I was mainly interested in seeing the Penon/Banner of the Almohads, captured by the Kingdom of Leon-Castile at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), which is kept in the monastery. This battle was the death knell of most of al-Andalus, since the defeat shattered the Almohad empire and led to the conquest of the vast majority of Islamic Spain: Cordoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Jaen (1246), Sevilla (1248) all fell to Christian rule soon after. As such, the victory (and the captured banner which is the emblem of that victory) is immensely significant in the modern consciousness of the Christian Spain, since it marks THE fateful moment in their history when the tide turned eternally in the favor of the Christian states in the peninsula, at the expense of al-Andalus. Hence, it lies at the heart of the myth of the Reconquista. Each year, in a solemn ceremony, the banner is removed from the monastery by the state’s highest military officials and paraded through the streets in commemoration of that victory against Islam (I’ve found a picture online of the ceremony, which I posted below).
During the rest of my time in the city, I strolled around town and took in a few of the sights, which include the remains of the tenth-century fortress, the statue of El Cid, and the lovely mix of medieval and modern architecture.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the south-eastern coastal city of Almería. It was a great trip! I was drawn by the city’s illustrious history, which extends back thousands of years and, in particular, by its importance in Andalusi history. The city is distinguished by the fact that its Muslim population was almost entirely composed of indigenous converts to Islam, who were later joined by southern Arabian (Yemeni) tribes who settled in the region. In the late eighth and early ninth century, these converts (known as muwalladun) established an important polity based around the town of Almería (and its neighboring town Pechina/Bajjana) which was entirely independent from the central authorities in Cordoba. This polity was based mainly on local agriculture, the cermanics industry, and maritime trade. Almería’s population specialized in sea-faring, as is evident from their extensive ship-building expertise and the fact that they traveled widely in the Mediterranean. There is even evidence, based upon maritime archaeology and historical sources, that the Muslims who established themselves in Provence in southern France (where they ruled for over 100 years from Fraxinetum) originated from Almería. The city is also important because it was the site of a major battle between the Umayyads and the Fatimids, the latter whom tried to invade al-Andalus but were repelled. Following its integration into the Umayyad state, Almería became the central port of al-Andalus, which greatly enhanced its status and wealth. During the time of the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, Almería continued to be regarded as the principal port of al-Andalus and the primary link with the Islamic world.
La Garde-Freinet in southern France, from where Andalusi Muslims ruled a frontier-state, extending across the Alps from Piedmont to Provence, for about a century
When I arrived in Almería during the early morning, the city was completely covered with mist. Although it may look like fog, this was in fact an odd mix of extreme humidity and sand/dust, since Almería (as I found out) is located in the only desert part of Spain. Interestingly, the city’s climate reminded me a lot of that in Kuwait, where I lived a few years ago. However, thankfully the weather cleared up eventually and I was able to enjoy walking through the city’s ancient neighborhoods, churches, and market places. For such an old city, located in one of the more touristy areas of Spain, I was quite shocked at the amount of poverty I witnessed. Entire portions of the city are completely falling apart and I don’t recall witnessing as many homeless people in the rest of Andalusia (Madrid is a different issue altogether) as I did in Almería.
Iglesia de San Juan, one of the city’s most important churches but formerly a mosque. This can be seen clearly from the architecture of the building, and the complete preservation of the mihrab (seen in the image above).
Courtyard of the Cathedral, formerly great mosque of the city
Facade of the cathedral
One of Almería ‘s most distinguishing features, it not its most distinct landmark, is the Islamic fortress overlooking the town. Built in 955 on the direct orders oft he caliph Abd al-Rahman III, this structure is one of the most powerful and extensive fortresses ever constructed in al-Andalus; it also happens to be one of the most well-preserved in Spain. Aside from its sheer complexity (a fact which rendered it impregnable), one of its key characteristics is its hydraulics system which allows water to flow throughout the structure. The fortress is a masterpiece of Islamic military architecture and clearly exhibits Roman and Byzantine influences.
On my way to Almeria. This city was founded in 955 by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman III and was the main port city of al-Andalus. It has a very distinguished history, especially renowned as the major center of Sufism in al-Andalus, and was one of the last cities to fall to the Christian conquista. Its ancient Muslim fortress (the alcazaba) is the best-preserved in Spain.