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 of 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 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.
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, but 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 Cordoba, 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 the popular fantasy used to baptize each of the rooms of that splendid palace.
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, which 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 shine under the sun giving it a metallic appearance.
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.
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.