Yesterday, I got my first real glimpse of mudéjar architecture. Mudéjar basically means buildings in the style of the Moors in Spain, but created by Christians after the Reconquista – a somewhat contradictory concept, and a phenomenon that seems to me counterintuitive. As one of the most complete examples of mudéjar style, the Real Alcázar is proof-positive of the profound Muslim influence in Spain, despite past attempts to eradicate the memory of al-Andalus.
I have to say, I haven’t been all that interested in architecture in the past. The beauty of most buildings escapes me. What I am interested in is people and what makes them do the things they do. So the Alcázar, while unbelievably gorgeous, fascinates me more for the stories associated with it than anything else. It straddles two great empires, one crumbling and the other on the brink of world power, and it’s crazy to see how the two interact.
At its roots, the Alcázar is Arab. The Arab kings built the barest sketch of a fortified palace here in 712 AD, and two or three of the main buildings visible now were laid down in the ninth and 10th centuries.
But by 1248, Sevilla was back in Christian hands, and as a backlash against the Moorish influence Alfonso X ordered three salons in the gothic style – not surprising, considering the Moors still held a decent portion of territory in the Iberian Peninsula. But things got a little interesting in the 1360s – Pedro I de Castilla decided to add something to the mix, and the Palacio Mudéjar was born. By far the largest part of the compound, the main palace is a tribute to the Moorish aesthetic, with horse shoe-shaped arches, intricate tilework, and even entire rooms of plaster walls covered in verses from the Quran.
Our guide Angel, who happens to also teach my Cultural History of Spain class, pointed out what a contradiction this is. At the time, Spain was in the middle of the Reconquista. The great Moorish empire had been pushed back to Granada, and just over 100 years later they would be defeated and those remaining in Spain forced to convert. Tensions between those of Arab descent and “native” Spaniards were so high that soon after the turn of the 16th century, the Moors would be expelled from Spain completely. And yet the Christian monarchy was so fascinated with the culture that they copied it for at least a century! As Angel quipped, the existence of mudéjar architecture seems to say to the Moors, “We hate you, get out of our country, but your style is awesome so we’ll just snatch that up.” (Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but whatever.)
Regardless, both the buildings and the extensive gardens are gorgeous, but I think my favorite part was the bath. Pedro I built them for his mistress, María de Padilla. Obviously a scandal, since he had a wife. I’ve been to a traditional hammam in Morocco before, and it was cool to see the Spanish rendition – even though the water was disgusting – and since the baths are below ground, it was a nice respite from the horrible humidity outside.
By the time we left, my head was buzzing with stories. I wrote part of a historical fiction novel about the Moors in the time of the Reconquista for a class my senior year (thank you OES English), and I’ve been fascinated by their history ever since. But I’ve never thought about the story from the other side – from the point of view of the Spaniards as they pushed the “invaders” back into a corner. Having had just a taste of the clash of cultures for myself now, I can’t wait to get to Cordoba and Granada to see more.