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THE ARCHITECTURE OF AL-ANDALUS IN SPAIN

The Caliphate of Cordoba

The Moorish conquest of the former Hispania by the troops of Musa ibn Nusair and Tariq ibn Ziyad, and the overthrowning of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus, led to the creation of an independent Emirate by Abd ar-Rahman I, the only surviving prince who escaped from Abbasids, and established his Capital city in Cordoba. It was to become the cultural capital of Occident from 750 to 1009. The architecture built in Al-Ándalus under the Umayyads evolved from the architecture of Damascus with the addition of aesthetic achievements of local influence: the horse-shoe arch, a distinctive of Spanish Arab architecture was taken from Visigoths. Architects, artists and craftsmen came from the Orient to construct cities like Medina Azahara whose splendour couldn't have been imagined by the European kingdoms of the era.

The most outstanding construction of the Umayyad Cordoba is the Great Mosque, built in consecutive stages by Abd ar-Rahman I, Abd ar-Rahman II, Al-Hakam II and Al-Mansur.


The Taifas

The Caliphate disappeared and was split into several small kingdoms called Taifas. Their political weakness was accompanied by a cultural retreat, and together with a quick advance of the Christian kingdoms, the taifas clung to the prestige of structures and forms of the style of Córdoba. The recession was felt in the construction techniques and in the materials, though not in the profusion of the ornamentation. The lobes of multifoil arches were multiplied and thinned, transformed in lambrequins, and all the Caliphal elements were exaggerated. Some magnificent examples of the Taifa architecture have reached our times, like the Palace of the Aljafería, in Zaragoza, or the small mosque of Bab-Mardum, in Toledo, later transformed into one of the first examples of Mudéjar architecture (Cristo de la Luz hermitage).


Almoravids and Almohads

The Almoravids invaded Al-Andalus from north Africa in 1086, and unified the taifas under their power. They developed their own architecture, but very few of it remains because of the next invasion, that of the Almohads, who imposed Islamic ultra-orthodoxy and destroyed almost every significative Almoravid building, together with Medina Azahara and other Caliphal constructions. Their art was extremely sober and bare, and they used brick as their main material. Virtually their only superficial decoration, the sebka, is based in a grid of rhombuses. The Almohads also used palm decoration, but this was nothing more than a simplification of the much more decorated Almoravid palm. As time passed, the art became slightly more decorative. The best know piece of Almohad architecture is the Giralda, the former minaret of the Mosque of Seville. Classified as Mudéjar, but immersed in the Almohad aesthetic, the synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, in Toledo, is a rare example of architectural collaboration of the three cultures of Medieval Spain.


Nasrid architecture of the Kingdom of Granada

After the dissolution of the Almohad empire, the scattered Moorish kingdoms of the south of the Peninsula were reorganized, and in 1237, the Nasrid kings established their capital city in Granada. The architecture they produced was to be one of the richest produced by Islam in any period. This owed a great deal to the cultural heritage of the former Moorish styles of Al-Ándalus, that the Nasrids eclecticly combined, and to the close contact with the northern Christian Kingdoms. The palaces of Alhambra and the Generalife are the most outstanding constructions of the period. The structural and ornamental elements were taken from Cordobese architecture (horse-shoe arches), from Almohads (sebka and palm decoration), but also created by them, like the prism and cylindrical capitals and mocárabe arches, in a gay combination of interior and exterior spaces, of gardening and architecture, that aimed to please all the senses. Unlike the Ummayad architecture, which made use of expensive and imported materials, the Nasrids used only humble materials: clay, plaster and wood. However, the aesthetic outcome is full of complexity and is mystifying for the beholder: The multiplicity of decoration, the skillful use of light and shadow and the incorporation of water into the architecture are some of the keys features of the style. Epigraphy was also used on the walls of the different rooms, with allusive poems to the beauty of the spaces.

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