ISLAMIC ART-Minarets and “Alcázares”

The minaret is an essential element of a mosque as it serves to remind the congregation about the hours of prayer. The psalmody or exhortation made from atop the minaret by the mu’addhin* replaces the ringing of the bells. The oldest Umayyad minarets, such as those of the Damascus mosque, were squared towers with overlapping levels; its shape seems to derive from the stepped pyramids of Assyria and Chaldea. There is no doubt that the Arabs occupying the Euphrates valley must have been impressed by the towers that stood out over the ruins of the ancient Chaldean cities. Some scholars believe that the minarets retain some of the level overlapping of the Chaldean ziggurats, and so the Sevillians might be told that their famous tower –the Giralda– could be a copy or imitation of another older and more famous one: the Tower of Babel, with its staggered overlapping levels. But there are archaeologists who insist that the Muslim minaret began to be used in Egypt and reproduces the stepped tower of the Alexandria Lighthouse with only three levels. The aforementioned minarets of Marrakech (in the Koutoubia mosque) and Rabat (in the Mosque of Hassan), both of the twelfth century and brothers in style with the Giralda tower, have their walls decorated in the Almohad style with blind arches, traceries and geometric reliefs reminiscent of the decoration that the Seljuks employed in their buildings in Asia Minor.

The three minarets of the Great Mosque of Damascus or Umayyad Mosque (Damascus, Syria). Left: The Western Minaret or “Minaret of Qaitbay” was built by Mamluk sultan Qaitbay in 1488 and is octagonal in shape. Center: The Minaret of the Bride is the oldest minaret of the mosque and is located on the northern wall. It is believed to have been constructed sometime in the the 9th century, and according to local legend, the minaret is named after the daughter of the merchant who provided the lead for the minaret’s roof who was married to Syria’s ruler at the time. Right: The Minaret of Jesus (‘Isa’) is the mosque’s tallest minaret and is located on the southeast corner of the complex. It probably dates from the 9th century. It is known as “minaret of Jesus” because according to Damascene tradition, the day Jesus descend from heaven before the Day of Judgement to confront the Antichrist, He will reach earth via this minaret.

The capital work of Arabian civil architecture, as was in all Eastern towns, was the prince’s residence; and as before Muhammad’s preaching and first conquests, they had no precedents of any kind because of the Arab’s transhumant life, and in consequence, they had to learn how to build palaces from the nations they were conquering. The vaulted buildings of the Persian palaces were then imitated by Muslim artists. These palaces were in the middle of delightful gardens with large ponds, bordered by myrtles and rose bushes and watered by ingenious fountains, and with retired places full of rare plants from which the giant marble kiosks emerged. Within their pavilions, the plaster reliefs, gilded and polychromed, were the unique wall decoration, and although they later also decorated the rooms’ ceilings, at first they were covered with wooden frames of ingenious shapes whose coffers* were covered with gold and glazed glass. This same type was adopted in all Arab residences beginning in the eleventh century. In Sicily there are remains of the palaces that the Arab monarchs had built outside of Palermo, which were later enlarged and inhabited by the Norman kings and that don’t differ much from the palaces of the Muslim East.

The Arab Muslim palace-city of Medina Azahara (meaning “the shining city”) was built by Abd-ar-Rahman III al-Nasir, the Umayyad Caliph of Córdoba, and is located on the western outskirts of Córdoba (Spain). The complex was the de facto capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. Building begun between 936 and 940 and the complex included ceremonial reception halls, mosques, administrative and government offices, gardens, a mint, workshops, barracks, residences, and baths. Top Left: Aerial view of the ruins of Medina Azahara. Top Right: The Portico of the House of Ya’far. Bottom Left: The Basilical Hall. Bottom Right: The “Salón Rico” or Reception Hall of Abd-ar-Rahman III.
Arabesque panel decorations of Medina Azahara. Left: The Tree of Life in the Salón Rico or Reception Hall. Right: Arabesque with ornamental plant decorations.

A first Arab palace of the time of the Caliphate of Cordoba seems to have been the suburban palace of Ruzafa  -which means “from the way”-, ordered by Abd al-Rahman I, of which there’s no remains. The palace of the caliphs of the time of Abd al-Rahman II inside the capital was in the place that occupies the present episcopal palace. On the other hand, there are important remnants of the “Versailles” of Córdoba, Medina Azahara, built near Córdoba at the foot of the mountains at the site called Córdoba la Vieja. Abd al-Rahman III, caliph from 912 to 961, built it to consolidate his political power in the Iberian Peninsula. Zahara means “shining, radiant or blossoming” in Arabic so the palace’s name communicates aspirations of power and status. Although intended to serve as the residence for the favorite, it could house the entire court. It is believed that the architects of Medina Azahara came from Egypt and it is clear that the emperor of Constantinople sent fountains to decorate its gardens.

The Alcazar of Seville, which was both fortress and residential palace, was surely begun by the Umayyads, but it underwent many reconstructions and modifications since the time of Alfonso X the Wise and especially during the reign of Peter “The Cruel” of Castile (Pedro el Cruel), beginning in 1350, that today is almost impossible to qualify that monument of authentic Muslim. Nevertheless, there can be recognized some elements of the original work in spite of the transformations. All its dependencies are located around a rectangular patio; only at one end there is another small patio called “courtyard of the dolls“, a name that, like so many others, owes its origin to details now ignored that popular fantasy used to baptize each of the rooms of this splendid palace.

The Alcázar of Seville (Seville, Spain) was originally developed by Moorish Muslim kings. The complex is renowned as one of the most beautiful monuments in Spain and one of the most outstanding examples of Mudéjar architecture found on the Iberian Peninsula. Top Left: The “Courtyard of the Maidens” (Spanish, “Patio de las Doncellas”) is a rectangular patio surrounded by four galleries, at the center there’s a small pool. Top Right: The “Courtyard of the Dolls” (Spanish, “Patio de las Muñecas”) was dedicated to the queen. Bottom Left: One of the two gates with marble columns and three horseshoe arches that lead to the Ambassadors’ Hall (“Salón de los Embajadores”). The Ambassadors’ Hall is the most sumptuous part of the palace, its floor plan is squared and is covered by a hemispheric gold cupola. Bottom Right: The golden cupola of the Ambassadors’ Hall, this type of cupola is called “half orange” (“media naranja”). The cupola was built by Diego Ruiz en 1427.​

The decoration of the Alcazar of Seville is in Mudejar style, that is the style of the more or less Christianized moors vassals of the Christian king. The oldest parts of this Alcázar still have horseshoe arches, while in those restored or built in the time of the Almoravids the arches are of the ogee* type, often with stucco lace and perforated walls.

The Alcazar of Seville must have been much more larger than it is now, because it used to reach up to the famous “Torre del Oro” (Tower of Gold), a strategic construction that was the first fortress’ defense on the river side. According to tradition, this tower also served to keep the treasure of Pedro the Cruel. The name “Torre del Oro” comes from the gleam of lime mortar and straw of the construction which shines under the sun, giving it a metallic appearance.

Left: View of the Alcazaba* of Mérida, a 9th-century Muslim fortification (Mérida, Spain). It was built by emir Abd-ar-Rahman II of Córdoba in 835. It was the first Muslim alcazaba and includes a big squared line of walls built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite. Inside is an aljibe, a rainwater tank including a cistern. Right: The “Torre del Oro” (“Tower of Gold”) in Seville (Spain). It is a dodecagonal military watchtower erected by the Almohad Caliphate in order to control access to Seville via the Guadalquivir river. It was constructed in the first third of the 13th century.

The palace in Mérida, located on the banks of the Guadiana river, was rebuilt in the year 835 over the old walls of the Visigoth palace. The Alcázar of Zaragoza, still called the Aljafería, and restored in the time of the Catholic Monarchs, was later turned into a convent and later into barracks. It had a central patio with lateral galleries and in the far end a large room with additional rooms on each side. The decoration was carved in soft gypsum stone, which allows for the most delicate carving works.

The Aljafería Palace (Zaragoza, Aragón, Spain) is a fortified medieval Islamic palace built during the second half of the 11th century. It was the residence of the Banu Hud dynasty during the era of Abu Jaffar Al-Muqtadir. The structure holds unique importance as it is a magnificent example of a construction from the time of the Caliphate of Córdoba (also including the Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra of Granada). Top Left: External view of the Aljafería palace. Top Right: Interior view of the royal residences at the north side of the palace which give access to the Golden Hall (Spanish, “Salón Dorado”). Bottom Left: View of the first level with horseshoe arches from the 9th or 10th centuries. Bottom Right: The Courtyard of Saint Isabel (Spanish, “Patio de Santa Isabel”), so called because infanta (princess) Isabel de Aragón was born in this palace.


Alcazaba: A Moorish fortification in Spain and Portugal. A walled-fortification in a city.


Coffer: A series of sunken panels in the shape of a square, rectangle, or octagon in a ceiling or vault.



Mu’addhin: The person appointed at a mosque to lead and recite the call to prayer for every event of prayer and worship in the mosque. The mu’addhin’s post is an important one, and the community depends on him for an accurate prayer schedule.



Ogee: A curve (often used in molding), shaped somewhat like an S, consisting of two arcs that curve in opposite senses, so that the ends are parallel. It is a kind of sigmoid curve.


Ogee Arch:  An arch composed of two ogees, mirrored left-to-right and meeting at an apex. Ogee arches were a feature of English Gothic architecture in the later thirteenth century.