Alluring Andalucía: Explore Islamic Art and Architecture in Southern Spain

By Mariam Ottimofiore
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By Mariam Ottimofiore

It all started with a rather ordinary conversation with a neighbour. She had just returned from a week in Turkey, and was talking about her impressions of Istanbul. It seemed Turkey had not lived up to her expectations. Having been to Istanbul myself and seen the beautiful Haya Sofia and the dazzling Blue Mosque, I admit I was surprised. It was what she said next though, that made me sit up: “Well, when you´re from Spain, and have seen the amazing Islamic architecture in southern Spain, then Turkey just doesn’t compare!”

It was an intriguing thought. Having come across amazing Islamic architecture in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, I wondered if it was possible that I could find a more impressive display in, of all places, Spain. Spain – land of flamenco dancers, bull fighting, tapas and paella? Well, there was only one way to find out. I couldn’t help the excitement as we landed in Barcelona two months later. The plan was a short stopover in Barcelona, before descending upon the mystical and alluring heart of Southern Spain: the province of Andalucía.

GRANADA:

It was in search of an authentic experience that we reached Granada in the heart of Andalucía, and beheld the splendour which my neighbour had regaled me about. Legend has it that when the Moors were finally ousted from the Kingdom of Granada in 1492, their defeated King Boabdil could not contain his tears as he looked back at the magnificent city his Arab ancestors had spent nearly seven centuries to forge, and which he was now compelled to surrender. Visitors to Granada will understand why; this magnificent city leaves an impression that pushes one to truly appreciate the fascinating Spanish past dominated by the conquests and surrenders of the Christians and Muslims – cathedrals built into mosques, mosques built inside cathedrals, mosques built where churches one stood.

Must-Visit for Islamic Art and Architecture:

The Al-Hambra Palace, Granada

Having never seen anything like it, a visit to the jewel of southern Spain, the Al-Hambra, is simply amazing. No other monument in Spain has exerted such fascination over travellers and historians over the centuries, or inspired so many poets, composers, painters and writers. The palace fortress has a truly ephemeral quality to it, and an elegance; it is a fantasy of delicate arches, intricate Quranic carvings and trickling fountains. The surrounding gardens are deemed the most beautiful in Spain, a claim my visit certainly confirmed.

The rest of Granada is equally charming, with its erratic streets, steps and alleyways. With its 30 mosques and 12th-Century-founded Arab university alongside the magnificent renaissance cathedral, it is quite easy to imagine what Granada must have been like as the hub of Moorish domination. We left Granada only with the lure of seeing Cordoba next.

CORDOBA:

Cordoba is the furthest north of Andalucía’s great Moorish cities, and is not easily accessible (Read: less American tourists!). Partly for this reason, and also due to its peculiar charm, Cordoba is the city that people who DO end up visiting end up liking the best. One of the oldest cities in Spain, Cordoba was raised to the status of a caliphate in 929, the year that ushered in a golden period.

Must-Visit for Islamic Art and Architecture:

Cordoba’s magnificent mosque La Mezquita is the third largest mosque in the world and the oldest building in day-to-day use in the Western world. The architectural style and elegance, combined with its technical mastery, renders it a sight to behold. What makes the Mezquita really stand out is what lies in the middle of the mosque: a Christian cathedral. Centuries after Cordoba was reconquered by Fernando the Third, small Christian chapels were added to the landscape, culminating into this magnificent cathedral built into the center of the Mezquita. Whether deliberate or not, the incongruous mix of architecture and culture results in a place of utter fascination. To top it all off, you step out of the mosque-cathedral into the middle of charming Jewish quarters containing the oldest medieval synagogue in Spain. Can it get more serendipitous than this?

Cordoba is full of narrow streets and elegant courtyards, making it a charm to explore. On our last day there, we were lucky enough to get tickets to the hottest flamenco dance show in town, making our visit truly unforgettable.

SEVILLE

I had the least expectation to be impressed by Seville, and was therefore, blown away by the grandeur on display.  Seville is a beautiful city, and far more charming than Barcelona or Madrid. If Andalucía is the embodiment of the Spanish clichés of flamenco, gypsies, fiestas and bull fights, then Seville is its capital at heart: a city of undeniable beauty.

Must-Visit for Islamic Art and Architecture:

The most marvellous architectural jewel in Seville is the Alcazar, a fortress-palace of both Muslim and Christian rulers. The Moorish architecture found in the Alcazar is surpassed only by that found in the Al Hambra. The horse-shoe arches, tranquil courtyards, ornate carvings and beautiful tile work give the Alcazar a distinctly Islamic look. A thousand pictures later, we still wanted more of Seville.

I had certainly seen enough to be convinced that for anyone truly interested in Islamic art, architecture and culture – Spain deserved to be on the top 5 list of places to visit. That, in combination with its the perfect Mediterranean climate, the sumptuous paellas, the extremely friendly locals and the unlimited supply of fun and frolic – also equally good reasons to go and enjoy all that this diverse country has to offer.

Hotel Recommendations:

Choose the Spanish chain NH Hoteles for a comfortable stay in each city:

  • Granada: Hesperia Granada (Plaza Gamboa, s/n, Centro, Granada 18009)

  • Cordoba: NH Amistad Cordoba (Plaza de Maimonides 3, Cordoba 14004)

  • Seville: NH Central Convenciones (Avenida Diego Martinez Barrio 8, Sur, Sevilla 41013)

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About Mariam Ottimofiore

Mariam Navaid Ottimofiore was one of Fuchsia's founding members, its first content editor and a regular writer and contributer for the magazine. Mariam holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Holyoke College in the United States, and has 7+ years of experience in the finance and corporate world. She is also the Co-author of the book "Export Success and Industrial Linkages in South Asia" published in 2008. She is a travel enthusiast and a long-term expat, having lived in 7 countries in the past 12 years, but is still hopeless at packing suitcases and an expert at getting lost in every new city she calls home. She currently resides in Dubai with her husband and two children. To follow her expat adventures, you can read more on her blog "www.andthenwemovedto.com".