Orange Blossoms and Minarets in al-Andalus

Since their arrival in 711 CE and long after their expulsion in 1614, Muslims (and people of Arabic descent) have influenced the Iberian Peninsula culturally, socially, and economically. Under Muslim rule, the peninsula (formerly known as Hispania under Roman rule) became known as al-Andalus. Coincidentally, the southern autonomous community that contains Sevilla is now called Andalucía, because it was the center of medieval Moorish power. The influence of Moorish culture on Spain can be seen (and heard) everywhere. A whopping 8% of the Spanish language derives from Arabic, the second largest lexical influence after Latin. Arabic words as varied as  hasta (until), asesino (assassin), almohada (pillow), azúcar (sugar), and adobe (sun-dried brick), all found their way into the Spanish language after nine centuries of Muslim occupation. Certain cities and regions of Spain were affected more strongly than others, particularly the south. Sevilla (a name that originated from the Arabic Ishbiliya), a city near the Muslim capital of Córdoba, became a center of trade and Muslim influence. The Moors brought the distinctive bitter orange trees to the city, and the word azahar (orange blossom) comes from Arabic. Even today, the air of Sevilla smells like oranges.

The “bitter orange,” or “Seville orange,” can be found throughout the city. These orange trees in front of La Giralda cathedral are connected by miniature aqueducts for irrigation. (Warning: the name is no joke–apparently the oranges, sour like lemons, are too bitter to eat. Instead, they are used for marmalade.)

The Moors also inspired the medieval mudéjar style of architecture, which can be seen in the Real Alcázar of Sevilla, originally a fortified royal palace built by the Almohad dynasty. (Click through to read my post about my visit to the Alcázar, with pictures.) The Alcázar is one of the best preserved Moorish forts in Spain, and it is beautifully maintained. The palace contains shards of Moorish ceramic tiles and pottery, as well as tapestries and intricately carved ceilings of Arabic calligraphy. Outside, peacocks can be found wandering among the orange and cypress trees in the palace’s lavish gardens.

La Catedral de Sevilla is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. La Giralda is a daunting 34-floor climb (but with ramps instead of stairs).

La Giralda is another important symbol of Muslim rule in Sevilla. Originally built as a minaret for a mosque by the Muslim Almohad dynasty, a Renaissance bell tower top was added by the Christians during the Reconquista. La Giralda is a proud Sevillan symbol of both Moorish and Christian heritage to this day. The cathedral and its bell tower harken back to a time when Muslims, Christians, and Jews all coexisted in relative peace in al-Andalus. Today, long after the Catholic monarchs expelled the Muslims from Spain, only about a million Spaniards are Muslim. That’s about 2.3% of the population, compared to the nearly 88% Catholic majority. Of the Spaniards who immigrated here, 71% are from Morocco. According to my host mom, most of these immigrants reside in southern Spain because they provide cheap labor for the invernaderos (greenhouses) and construction industry. Muslim immigrants are also concentrated in Ceuta and Melilla (autonomous cities within Morocco, but legally part of Spain), and in Almería.

Abd Al-Rahman III and his Court in Medina Azahara by Dionisio Baixeras Verdaguer

For the most part, because Muslim immigrants make up such a small portion of the Spanish population, they exist in relative peace. However, my host mom told me that she does not like Arabic culture “because of the way it degrades women.” She said that Islamic culture scares her much more than Chinese culture or any other immigrant culture, because of the extremism that can come from Islam. She called the way Islam divides men and women “dangerous,” expressing a common sentiment among Western non-Muslims, especially Americans. While I disagree with Raquel’s opinion, since I know that Muslim women (at least those in countries where they have legal rights) are free to choose whether to don the hijab (headscarf) and follow the tenets of Islam. Just as with any other religion, Islam is a choice, and some would view the strict dress code for women (and men) as a sign of respect–putting women on a pedestal. Some would also call the revealing clothes many American women choose to wear “degrading.” Whether a culture is “degrading” or “wrong” all lies in the eye of the beholder.

The Great Mosque at Córdoba is an example of Muslim architecture, particularly the Moorish “horseshoe arch” seen here.

To me, the influence of Arabic culture and all the wonderful inventions, knowledge, and art it brought to Spain far outweigh the discomfort some Spaniards may feel when confronted with believers in Allah. After all, isn’t the Catholic god the same “God”?

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