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Andalusian Spain for HIST 211 World Cultures I

This material is the result of a grant funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council 

Andalusian Spain was the period 711–l492 when Muslims controlled large portions of mostly Southern Spain. This was a period when Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted relatively peacefully for much of the time especially in those parts of Spain controlled by the Muslims. Muslims usually tolerated Jews and Christians because they considered these groups to be “Peoples of the Book”, worshippers of the same God. The Dhimmi system allowed Jews and Christians to retain their own religious and cultural traditions while living under Muslim rule. Commenting on pictures taken in the historic districts of Toledo, Cordoba, Medina Azahara (a one time “Versailles” outside of Cordoba, today in total ruins), Seville, Granada, and Segovia, Dr. Adams explained some of the architecture and culture of Andalusian Spain.

Toledo was divided into three distinct sections: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. During the day people could interact throughout the city then returned to their sections (which contained their homes and religious institutions) at night. Toledo was Muslim from 711 until 1085 when it was conquered by Christians. The fall of Toledo to Christians from the north loosened Muslim control over central Spain. However, the Christians of Toledo were tolerant. Even in the Christian period when the ability to read Arabic disappeared, Arabic calligraphy continued to be used in building decorations. As in other cities such as Cordoba, it was Muslim artisans who usually decorated these buildings. In fact, one main reason for toleration among the three religious groups was the value they had to each other in terms of occupational expertise.

The School of Translation no longer exists. However, it was of vital importance in the translation and transmission of Aristotelian philosophy to the west. The Muslim world had translated Aristotelian works and written commentaries in Arabic. The translations had to be put into Latin in order for them to be used in the west. These translations (which often went from Arabic to Spanish or Arabic to Hebrew and then into Latin) are one of the legacies of Andalusian Spain.

Cordoba was conquered by the Moors (Muslims) in 711. However, surrender of the city was based on an agreement which allowed Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live peacefully. The Great Mosque, the oldest building still in use (now as a Cathedral) has an interesting history which illustrates some toleration. It was built on land that had been part of a monastery. The Muslims paid for the land. The Mosque was built in the 8th c., and Cordoba remained Muslim until Christians from the north took over in 1236. The Christians built a cathedral inside the mosque. Interestingly, the Mosque was not destroyed except for those portions of the interior where the altar, choir and other parts of the Cathedral were placed. There are no walls to the Cathedral. It simply was placed inside the much larger mosque. Over the centuries, families paid for small chapels which line one wall of the former Mosque. A Christian bell tower was also added. The Mosque/Cathedral is in the heart of the historic district surrounded by narrow streets of the former Jewish Quarter. Today the former Mosque functions only as a Cathedral as it has for many centuries. A nearby Jewish synagogue has been preserved for its historic value, but is not used.

Medina Azahara (Madinat al-Zahra) was a palatial retreat outside of Cordoba. Medina means “city”. The full name means “city of Zahra” who was a favorite concubine of the Caliph who built this site. Today Medina Azahara is in total ruins, having been destroyed in the early 11th c. by fanatical, foreign Muslim mercenaries (Berbers from North Africa) who resented the Ummayyad Caliphs who ruled at that time.

The programs focused on two closely related sites in Granada. The first was the Generalife, the summer palace of the Alhambra. The Generalife contains magnificent gardens originally constructed in the l4th c. The second site was the Alhambra also built in the 14th c. This is the best preserved Muslim palace of its period. The Nazrid Dynasty ruled Granada 1238–1492. By the late l3th c. the only part of Spain under Muslim rule was Granada. The Generalife and the Alhambra are the most outstanding examples of Moorish (Muslim) architecture in Spain.

For maps and additional reading see:

  • Al-Andalus, the art of Islamic Spain (closed reserve under Dr. Adams name in the U.C. Library)
  • Menocal, Ornament of the World (general circulation, U.C. Library)
  • Search “Islamic Art” on ARTStor from the library’s online databases page for more images.

View a presentation about Analusian Spain. (PDF 4.64 MB).