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Andalusia's Journey

Perhaps the most striking feature of Andalusia historically was the care lavished on such aspects of urban life as running water, leafy gardens, viewing places (miradores), and graceful wall and ceiling designs. Medieval Europe, all rough skins, drafty rooms, and meaty cuisine, was barbaric by comparison. This is worth noting, since the interiors of Andalusia's palaces today are presented as out of time, stripped of their luxurious silks and divans, their heady perfumes and spices, their counterpoint of din and lyrical poetry.

Except for Cordova's immense Mezquita, the choice spaces of what has been known historically as Muslim Spain are generally not very large. Even Seville's Alcázar, big enough as a castle or palace, doesn't dominate at all. The Arabs who gave Andalusia its characteristic features generally used architecture to refashion and enhance nature, to create symmetrical patterns that echo Arabic calligraphy. Streets are pleasant to saunter in, rather than utilitarian thoroughfares. Curved ornaments—such as highly patterned vases and metal utensils—abound, all part of a wonderfully relaxed worldliness.

That worldliness, which reached its apex between the 9th and 12th centuries, testifies to the extraordinary diversity of Islam itself, so often thought of today as a monolithic block of wild-eyed terrorists, bent on destruction and driven by fanaticism. Yes, there were feuding factions, but rarely before or after did the Islamic kings and princes produce a civilization of such refinement with so many potentially warring components. Consider that in Cordova's heyday the Jewish sage Maimonides and Islam's greatest thinker, Ibn Rushd (Averroës), lived in Cordova at the same time, each with his own disciples and doctrines, both writing and speaking in Arabic. Part of the Damascus-based Umayyad empire that had fallen to the Baghdad-based Abbasids in 750, the Spanish territories always retained an eagerness to be recognized by, and an ambition to surpass the achievements of, their Eastern cousin.

Quite soon, Andalusia became a magnet for talent in many arenas: music, philosophy, mysticism, literature, architecture, virtually all of the sciences, jurisprudence, religion. The monarchs Abd ar-Rahman I (731-788) and Abd ar-Rahman III (891-961) gave Cordova its almost mythic status. Three times the size of Paris (Europe's second-largest city in the 10th century), with 70 libraries, Cordova also had, according to the historian Salma Kahdra Jayyusi, "1,600 mosques, 900 baths, 213,077 homes for ordinary people, 60,300 mansions for notables, officials, and military commanders, and 80,455 shops." The mystics and poets Ibn Hazm and Ibn Arabi, Jewish writers Judah ha-Levi and Ibn Gabirol, the colloquial but lyrical zajals and wonderful strophic songs, or muwashshah, that seemed to emerge as if from nowhere and later influenced the troubadors, provided al-Andalus with verse, music, and atmosphere such as Europe had never had before.

The Arab general Tariq bin Ziyad and his desert army streamed across the Gibraltar straits in 711; on later forays he brought with him many North African Berbers, Yemenis, Egyptians, and Syrians. In Spain they encountered Visigoths and Jews, plus the remnants of a once thriving Roman community, all of whom at times co-existed, and at times fought with one another. No harmony was stable for very long—too many conflicting elements were always in play. Andalusia's reign of relative tolerance (three monotheistic faiths in complex accord with one another) abruptly ended when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella seized the region and imposed a reign of terror on non-Christians. Significantly, one of the towering figures of the Andalusian cultural synthesis, Ibn Khaldun, a founder of sociology and historiography, came from a prominent Seville family, and was perhaps the greatest analyst of how nations rise and fall.

The last king of Granada, the luckless Boabdil (Abu Abd Allah Muhammad), was expelled along with the Jews in 1492, weeping or sighing—choose your version. The unhappy Moor quickly became the emblem of what the Arabs had lost. Yet most people who are gripped by the pathos of the king's departure may not know that Boabdil negotiated very profitable surrender terms—some money, and land outside Granada—before he left the city to the Castilian monarchs.


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