The Moorish architecture refers to the articulated Islamic architecture that’s predominant in North Africa and certain parts of Spain. To understand how this architecture spread across two distinct continents, let’s start from the beginning.
The Moors were some of the most influential nomadic people in North Africa, between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries. Originally inhabiting Mauritania, these nomads were famous for their business acumen and military prowess. They invaded various regions, overrunning them and asserting their military dominance. But colonisation wasn’t their chief interest. All they wanted was to establish successful business enterprises wherever they settled. In fact, the Moors were rather tolerant people. Even after settling in their newfound lands en masse and taking control of trade and governance, they tolerated other cultures and faith. In Spanish Moor, for instance, members of other religious groups, such as Christian and Jews lived harmoniously with their Muslim overloads.
The Moors mostly conquered North Africa regions. However, their exploits led them to the Iberian Peninsula, ostensibly due to its close proximity to Africa. Between 711 and 1492, the Moors invaded Spain, taking with them their Islamic religion and culture. They defined nearly every facet of Spanish civilisation during the Middle Ages. From arts to trade, governance and even architecture. The Moorish architecture has stayed on as a constant reminder of a people whose history the world has largely forgotten.
Moorish architecture is primarily an Islamic architecture. Therefore, it’s defined by rounded arches, vegetative design, Arabic calligraphy, and decorated tilework. The arches come in different shapes, sizes, and designs.
Great Mosque of Cordoba
As the Moors were predominantly Muslims, most of their architecture are immortalized in mosques. An example of such a mosque is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, also known as the Mezquita-Catedral. Located within a two-hour train drive south of Madrid, Spain, this mosque has stayed on as one of the country’s physical reminders of the successes of the Spanish Moors. The Great Mosque of Cordoba is a tourist haven, hosting thousands of visitors from all over the world.
The building has seen expansions for over 200 years now. It features an expansive hypostyle prayer hall, an orange grove, a courtyard, and a covered walkway that circles the courtyard. There’s also a minaret, which is a unique tower from where the faithful are called to prayer. True to all buildings inspired by the Moorish architecture, the interior of the Great Mosque of Cordoba is lined with elegant patterns of Arabic geometry.
The prayer hall features a mihrab. This is a horseshoe-arched section that Muslims use in a mosque to identify the wall facing Mecca. It’s highly significant, as all prayers must be made facing Mecca. The mihrab features gold tesserae that create a sparkly ambience, thereby amplifying the graphics on the wall. Indeed, the Great Mosque of Cordoba is an excellent example of the Moors’ impressive architectural abilities.
Besides the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain is home to numerous other buildings inspired by the Moorish architecture. Examples include The Alhambra, Grenada which is nestled on a hilltop fortress. Its location offers a picturesque view of the snowy peaks and the rolling landscapes of the Sierra Nevada.
Another grandiose evidence of the Moorish architecture in Spain is the Royal Alcázar of Seville. The building was constructed for King Peter of Castile. The Royal Alcázar of Seville is characterised by its ornate interiors. Present-day Spanish royal families still use the building as their official residence. Still on palaces, there’s the Aljafería, Zaragoza which boasts a history that dates back to the 11th century. The palace is located north-east of Zaragoza. At one point, it hosted the Aragon Christian kings. Today, the Aragon regional parliament operates from the Aljafería. Other notable Moorish buildings in Spain include the Mesquita del Cristo de la Luz, Toledo, The Medina Azahara, Córdoba, and the Giralda, Seville.
Great Mosque of Kairouan
In North Africa, the Moorish architecture is evident in mosques such as the Great Mosque of Kairouan. This mosque is situated in the town of Kairouan, Tunisia. By virtue of its location in a UNESCO World Heritage town, the Great Mosque of Kairouan is one of the world’s most visited sites in the country. The history of this iconic structure can be traced back to 670 AD when the mosque was established as the foundation of Kairouan city. The mosque isn’t only one of the oldest places of worship in North Africa; it has also been a great inspiration behind the modelling of similar buildings around the region. Over the years, the building has seen expansions and upgrades to maintain its structural integrity. It presently occupies a 97,000 sq ft area a 1,329 ft perimeter.
Like many Moorish architectural designs, the mosque’s perimeter features a hypostyle prayer hall, a square minaret and a marble-tiled courtyard. Historical records suggest it’s one of the first mosques to have been constructed using the horseshoe arch design. As its popularity rose, the mosque was no longer used only as a place of worship. It also served as an education centre, offering all manner of courses from religious teachings to secular sciences.
Besides the Great Mosque of Kairouan, North Africa boasts many other Moorish-style mosques. Examples include the Kutubiyya Mosque located in Marrakesh, Morroco. There’s also the Hassan Tower, located in Rabat, Morroco. The Great Mosque of Tlemcen and The Great Mosque of Algiers, both located in Algeria, are other worthy mentions of mosques in North Africa that may have been inspired by the Moorish architecture.
It’s important to remember that the Moors did not necessarily take an active part in constructing these buildings. However, the designs were all inspired by Moorish architecture.
It’s also important to remember that not all of the Moorish architecture is preserved in mosques. Besides, not all structures that started as mosques are still used for that purpose. Others have since been converted into private homes, palaces, and even churches. For instance, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba is actually now a Catholic cathedral.