ISLAMIC ART-Spain and the Visigoth influence

We’ve seen that the Arabs learned a lot from the traditional architecture and decorative styles existing in the Eastern territories they occupied. The same must have happened in Spain. In the first buildings projected by the Arabs in the Iberian Peninsula, they not only took advantage of the local materials, but also of the teachings of the Visigoth architects.

It is certain that the horseshoe arch, so characteristic of the Arab Mediterranean monuments, was found by the Muslims in Spain, particularly in the buildings of the Visigoth period that were preserved intact. Although in the first Egyptian Arabic monuments the stilted arch predominated and there were even some examples of the horseshoe arch, these last were indeed pointed arches; meanwhile in Spain (where the Arabs used the horseshoe arch with preference) the arch silhouette was circular as in a proper horseshoe arch. The Mosque of Cordoba is the capital work of the Spanish Arab style from the first centuries after the invasion. It is filled with a large number of reliefs, friezes and capitals from old Visigoth buildings which the Arab conquerors surely dismantled to build “the house of prayer” of the new capital of the Caliphate*. The use of the horseshoe arch later extended to North Africa, which depended on the Caliphs* of Cordoba, and has continued to be used in modern buildings in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria.

The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba (also known as the Great Mosque of Córdoba) is currently the Catholic cathedral of Córdoba dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and located in the region of Andalusia (Spain). The construction is considered one of the most important monuments of Moorish architecture. The Great Mosque was begun in 784 by orders of Abd al-Rahman I and was later expanded by other Muslim rulers. Córdoba returned to Christian rule in 1236 during the Reconquista, and consequently the building was converted to a Roman Catholic church with the insertion of a Renaissance cathedral nave in the 16th century. Top: External view of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba. Bottom: View of the prayer hall with the superimposed arcades.

In the first years of the Muslim occupation it is known that the Arabs took advantage of the Visigoth monuments existing in Spain, not only to be used as administrative headquarters, but also for the Muslim religious cult. In some places in Spain old cathedrals were transformed into mosques, in others only half of the cathedral building was reserved for Christian worship. This happened in Córdoba, a city also important during the Visigoth period, but when the Umayyad caliphate was established there trying to compete with the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad, the caliphs endeavored that their capital’s mosque  not only shouldn’t detract from its famous Eastern counterparts, but that it should continue the architectural tradition started with the mosque of Damascus, a city that they had to abandon in 750 when it was taken by their enemies the Abbasids. When Córdoba capitulated under the Muslim power, only part of the cathedral dedicated to St. Vincent was reserved for Christians. That servitude was not compatible with the projects of Abd al-Rahman I (that reigned from 756 to 788) who planned to enlarge the mosque and as a consequence the Christians were indemnified in order for the Muslims to have the whole rights of the building. We don’t know what has been preserved of the walls and columns of the old basilica of St. Vincent; in its primitive plan, the mosque of Cordoba had only eleven naves of which the central one, arranged towards the mihrab, was wider as in the Mosque of Kairouan. Even today this structure is visible in the oldest part of the mosque built from the year 785 by Abd al-Rahman I. In 840, Hisham I added other lateral naves, built the current minaret, and decorated the courtyard with a magnificent ablutions font*. According to Arab historians, Hisham II added eleven more naves (rows of columns), and when in the time of Almanzor at the end of the tenth century due to Berber immigration there was no space in the mosque to hold the growing congregation, other rows of columns were added.

Superimposed arcades where also used in the ancient Roman aqueduct of Merida (Mérida, Spain) ca. 1st century AD.
Top: View of the prayer hall of the Mosque of Córdoba highlighting the rows of ancient columns and the superimposed arcades. Bottom: Detail of the decorative horseshoe blind arches on the west facade at the Door of the Saint Spirit (Puerta del Espíritu Santo).

This multiplication of naves raised a new visual/structural problem for the mosque’s facade. When the mosques had only one portico on the side of the mihrab, or at most a series of three or five naves, these naves were sufficiently illuminated; but when the naves multiplied as in the mosque of Cordoba, the vast extension of the galleries forced to raise the roof because otherwise the building would be a dark and low area. On the other hand, the Arab architects of the Mosque of Cordoba (who took advantage of many columns and capitals taken from ancient buildings) weren’t able to gather equal number of gigantic shafts with which to raise the ceilings to the desired height, and to solve this difficulty they adopted the same system that the Romans had used in the aqueduct of Mérida: the superposition of arcades. Above the first columns, they raised a new row with other horseshoe arches forming a second and even sometimes a third order of arches. In Córdoba the section that forms the lobby in front of the mihrab was closed with a vault. This mosque is also decorated with mosaics sent by the emperor of Constantinople, friend and ally of the Umayyad* caliph of Cordoba, while Charlemagne and the Carolingian emperors made alliances with the Abbasid* caliphs of Baghdad. The so-called Maqsurah* de Córdoba, a kind of richly decorated anteroom of the sanctuary, is covered with crossed trefoil arches*.

Mosque of Cordoba: Top Left: The Mihrab. Top Right: Byzantine-style mosaics in the Mihrab’s dome. Bottom Left: The trefoil arches at the Maqsurah. Bottom Right: The ablutions font in the inner courtyard.

Towards the year 1171 it began the construction of the mosque of Seville, in the same place that today occupies the Gothic cathedral. All the Arab building has disappeared; today only stands its famous minaret called the Giralda built in 1195 by the almohade*  Abu Yaqub Yusuf. The Giralda is Sevillians’ most esteemed local monument and today serves as the cathedral’s bell tower. It has the simple silhouette of a cubic tower with a smaller upper body on its platform. This is the typical structural solution of the minarets of the Hispano-Moroccan school: the minarets of the mosques of Rabat, Marrakech and Oran have the same shape. According to the General Chronicle of Alfonso X the Wise, the Giralda originally included another tower, a work of a Sicilian architect, but we still don’t know the true Muslim aspect of this minaret after so many structural transformations, and because it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1355 and later rebuilt in 1560 by Hernán Ruiz in Renaissance style.

Minarets of the Hispano-Moroccan school. Left: The Giralda, now the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral (Seville, Spain). The Renaissance style crowning was added by Spanish conquistadors after the expulsion of the Muslims from the area. Center: The Hassan Tower, the minaret of an unfinished mosque in Rabat (Morocco) begun in 1195. Right: The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Morocco).


Abbasid Caliphate: The third of the Islamic caliphates to succeed the Islamic prophet Muhammad. It was founded by a dynasty descended from Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas ibn Abdul-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name. They ruled as caliphs for most of the caliphate from their capital in Baghdad in modern-day Iraq, after having overthrown the Umayyad Caliphate in the Abbasid Revolution of 750 CE (132 Anno Hegirae). The Abbasid Caliphate first centered its government in Kufa, modern-day Iraq, but in 762 the caliph Al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad, near the ancient Sasanian capital city of Ctesiphon. Baghdad became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention in what became known as the Golden Age of Islam. The Abbasids’ period of cultural fruition ended in 1258 with the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols under Hulagu Khan. The Abbasid line of rulers, and Muslim culture in general, re-centred themselves in the Mamluk capital of Cairo in 1261.

Ablutions Font: A fountain used to wash oneself as a ritual purification before the practicing of a ritual religious ceremony.


Almohade:member of a Muslim dynasty ruling in Spain and northern Africa during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Caliph: The leadership of an Islamic steward, a person considered a religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire Muslim community.


Caliphate: A state under the leadership of an Islamic steward known as a caliph. Historically, the caliphates were polities or political entities based in Islam which developed into multi-ethnic trans-national empires. During the medieval period, three major caliphates existed: the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258). The fourth major caliphate was the Ottoman Caliphate, established by the Ottoman Empire in 1517. 

Maqsurah: (Literally “closed-off space”), an enclosure, a box or wooden screen near the mihrab or the center of the qibla wall, which was originally designed to shield a worshipping ruler from assassins. The imam officiating inside the maqsurah typically belonged to the same school of law to which the ruler belonged. There also may have been some spiritual connotation similar to the chancel screen in churches. They were often wooden screens decorated with carvings or interlocking turned pieces of wood. 


Trefoil Arch: Also known as three-foiled cusped arch, is an arch incorporating the shape or outline of a trefoil with three overlapping rings. It has been widely used for its symbolic significance in Christian architecture.



Umayyad Caliphate: From 661–750 CE, was the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammad. The caliphate was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty (Umayya meaning “Sons of Umayya”), hailing from Mecca. Syria was the Umayyads’ main power base and Damascus was their capital. The Umayyads continued the Muslim conquests, incorporating the Transoxiana, Sindh, the Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) into the Muslim world. At its greatest extent, the Umayyad Caliphate covered 11,100,000 km2 (4,300,000 sq mi) and 33 million people, making it one of the largest empires in history in both area and proportion of the world’s population. The dynasty was eventually overthrown by a rebellion led by the Abbasids in 750. Survivors of the dynasty established themselves in Cordoba in the form of an Emirate and then a Caliphate, lasting until 1031.