The reign of Roger II (r. 1130-1154), who had began his rule as Count of Sicily in 1105, became Duke of Apulia and Calabria in 1127, and then King of Sicily in 1130, has long fascinated everyone interested in Mediterranean history. It marks a particularly significant period for the consolidation of Norman rule in both Sicily and southern Italy. Roger II instituted a strong royal administration, overcame various challenges to his authority (in the form of rebellions) and inaugurated an expansionist foreign policy that resulted in the incorporation of substantial territories in North Africa into his realm (discussed further here).
In addition to overseeing the transformation of the Norman kingdom into a Mediterranean power that controlled Sicily, southern Italy and parts of modern-day Tunisia and Libya, Roger II’s reign is also distinguished by his patronage of a courtly culture colored as much by Arab-Islamic and Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) influences as by Latin Christian culture. This is unsurprising, given the rich Islamic and Eastern Roman history of Sicily in the preceding centuries. Indeed, the island’s large population of Christians, Muslims and Jews was predominantly Greek and Arabic speaking during the early 12th century. This variety of cultural influences and convergence of diverse communities is indicated by the distinctive culture of the Norman kingdom, perhaps best embodied by the wonderful architecture patronized and constructed by Roger II and his successors during the 12th century.
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.
One of the most important Andalusi cultural and historical monuments in Zaragoza is the Aljafería Palace (or Qasr al-Ja’fariyya). This fortress-palace complex was built between the ninth and eleventh centuries and was the political and administrative center of the northern parts of al-Andalus (thaghr al-‘ala). Although most of it was built during the second half of the 11th century during the period of the ta’ifa Kingdom of Zaragoza of Al-Andalus, later additions were made by Christian monarchs, who made it their northern residence in Spain. In the 11th century, it was the residence of the Banu Hud dynasty during the era of Abu Ja’far al-Muqtadir (r. 1046-1081). The palace reflects the splendor attained by the Kingdom of Zaragoza (1013-1110) at the height of its grandeur and provides a magnificent example of Islamic architecture during the early period of al-Andalus. The Aljafería Palace is one of the only royal residences from 11th-century Iberia to have been preserved almost perfectly until the present. The palace currently contains the Cortes (regional parliament) of the autonomous community of Aragon. This makes it one of the oldest structures in the world with a continuous use as a political center
The following are some pictures taken during my trip to the site in 2012 (I’ve also included a few higher-resolution pictures found online):
About three years ago, when I was in Spain, I had the opportunity to visit the south-eastern coastal city of Almería. 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.