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The Architecture of Andalucia

The Architecture of Andalucia

Stone, gold and iron forged through a multi-cultural heritage

Andalucia has been occupied by different populations for thousands of years: from Romans, to Muslims and Christians. And within those, different powers exerted their influence over the region: Castillans, Galicians, Catalans, Visigoths, Berbers, Arabs, and even Vikings, due of a history of peninsular fragmentation (Spain became a political concept very late) and a commercial orientation towards the Mediterranean.

What better way to start this photo journey than with what one of my Andalucian friends has described as "her favorite town in Andalucia", Ronda, a city whose architecture is as much a product of its geography as its people. First settled by the Celts and Phoenicians, the current Ronda was founded as a Roman fortified post in the war against Hannibal. It then fell into the subsequent hands of Germanic tribes, Visigoths and Berbers. The period after the Reconquista was fraught with suffering and violence, leading up to the Napoleonic war, which reduced Ronda's population significantly and made it a haven for guerrilla warriors and bandits.

With its deep El Tajo canyon sculpted by the Guadalevín River, how could it be any other way? One noble even built a palace on top an old Islamic cave fortress hidden in the cliff; some said a treasure was hidden in it, or that the cave included a secret exit to the river that couldn't be seen from the main entrance bridge to the city, in case enemies invaded. Ronda was a city custom made for Romantic artists!

I'm sharing here photos of the Puente Nuevo, built in 1793 and standing 98 meters over the gorge (Not so fun fact, the chamber above the central arch served as a prison, then as a torture chamber during the Spanish civil war); as well as photos of the older Puente Arabe on a morning walk during golden hour. Ronda is definitely a city I want to go back to and spend more time in to fully appreciate.

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Ronda

Córdoba

Córdoba was in its heyday prior to the 11th century, under the caliphs, before disasters reduced it to a shadow of its former self. A contemporary, Ibn Hawkal had this to tell us: "The biggest city in Spain is Córdoba, which has no equal in the Maghrib, and hardly in Egypt, Syria or Mesopotamia, for the size of its population, its extent, the space occupied by its markets, the cleanliness of its streets, the architecture of its mosques, the number of its baths and caravanserais. Natives of Córdoba who have travelled to Mesopotamia say that it is about half the size of Baghdad." An estimation puts the population at 100,000, which would have made Cordoba roughly equivalent in size to Constantinople, the other great city of the Mediterranean world, and several times bigger than even the largest towns of western Europe in the 10th century.

A lot of important structures remain, from the 2,000-year old Roman bridge, to the  magnificent Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, with its gorgeous patios.

By the year 1000, the proportion of Muslims among the Cordoban population had quickly risen to 75%, as more and more inhabitants converted to the religion of the occupier. What I find fascinating is how historians used architectural insights to help establish the conversion curve. The first mosque in Córdoba -which we know today as the Mezquita- was built in the center of the city near the massive Roman bridge over the Guadalquivir river. The building was enlarged by succeeding Muslim rulers from 833 to 990.  While self-glorification would be a good reason for a ruler to embellish a noble religious edifice, the most obvious and convincing reason for these successive extensions of the mosque was simply to accommodate a steadily growing number of Muslim worshipers.

The mosque was very different from the Roman architecture of Córdoba. It intruded upon and took possession of the open, public space of an antique Mediterranean city. And it was a vehicle for the instruction of the people, its walls not scrubbed clean as they are today for the tourist, but plastered with information and exhortation and instruction from the palace and the chancery next door in handsome Kufic script.

Here is a building which is constructed in accordance with an architectural aesthetic which is utterly different from that governing the design of the places of worship of the Christian west. In a church there is a line of tension which runs from west to east; the eye is led unerringly to the altar. There is no comparable focus in the great mosque. True, it has a mihrab or prayer-niche in the south wall, to indicate the direction of Mecca. The mihrab receives special architectural and decorative emphasis but it does not exert a ‘pull’ in the way that the altar does in a Gothic cathedral.

But the Mezquita is not uniformly calm. At its heart lies architectural evidence of strife. After the Christian conquest of Córdoba in 1236 the mosque was turned into the city’s cathedral. Early in the 16th century the bishop and chapter decided to improve their cathedral by installing what in Spain is called a coro, that is to say the walling-in, in stone, of the area of the choir: the effect is to create a building within a building. When the city fathers heard of these plans they protested to the king. The king of Spain then was the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles had not been king of Spain for very long and he had never visited Córdoba. The corporation’s protest was to no avail. The bishop and chapter went ahead with their plans. A few years later Charles paid his first visit to the city, where the ecclesiastical dignitaries proudly showed off their improvements. Charles’s comment must rank as one of the most crushing royal rebukes on matters architectural ever delivered: ‘You have built here what you, or anyone else, might have built anywhere; to do so you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

Luckily, destruction is not the only outcome of Andalucian architectural melting pot. The fusion of Roman and Arab architecture of the 10th century also gave us the Andalusian patios. These central open spaces are common in palaces and homes, and are decorated with flowers, plants fountains, canals, wells, ponds and frescoes, with the intention by the Muslim architects to represent the Garden of the Paradise, imagined as a walled-in, enclosed garden, excluding the wildness of nature to prefer cultivated and irrigated greenery, providing privacy and security. Iron gates and windows were later added, from which one could see the beauty of the place while preventing the inhabitants from being observed.

Sevilla

The Alcázar of Sevilla is a great example of Mudéjar architecture (referring to the Muslims who stayed in Spain after the Reconquista and who were not forcibly converted or exiled... that is, until the end of the 16th century). While built by the Christian kings on the site of an old Muslim fortress, the Moorish influence is everywhere. Its sprawling rooms, gardens, intricate gates and royal baths are a sight to behold.

While I only stayed briefly in Sevilla, I still had the chance to admire the Torre del Oro, a military watchtower (and later jail) erected by the Almohad Caliphate in the 13th century. Close by stood the 18th century Plaza de toros, the royal bullring, a traditional but cruel emblem of Spanish culture.

Granada

Al-Andalus meant nearly the whole of the peninsula in the 8th century, but by the late 13th it meant the tiny principality of Granada. This was the last outpost of Moorish rule in Spain and it fell to Christian forces of Aragon and Castille in 1492, completing the Reconquista. Throughout the centuries, the convivencia has been the norm, as people from different religions and cultures lived (mostly) harmoniously. While I couldn't get an entrance to the palace of the Alhambra (despite queuing up outside the gates starting at 6am), which you need to book months in advance, I visited the old Arab baths, the Cathedral and meandered in the street maze of the city.