From Moorish Architecture

From the walls of Galisteo, looking into the back yards of houses in the village. Some are cared for, others abandoned.

Galisteo and abandoned houses

Iberian peninsula from the international space station - photo courtesy NASA

If you were to look at Spain from up high at night, you’d see this, the night lights massed and glowing in the center of the peninsula, which is Madrid. The darkest areas are where Spain’s rural villages have emptied out as anyone who can leave moves to the cities for work. (photo by NASA)

Small towns are left to the elderly and a handful of farmers. There are few children, and many houses have been abandoned. These photos are from Galisteo, a small town in Extremadura, population 2001.

Gallisteo - abandoned houseGallisteo - abandoned houseGallisteo - abandoned house

This house is stone, in the center of town, one story with a low roof that is caving in. One shuttered window was open, and I took these photos from outside in the street. From the debris, a table still set with a cloth, flowers, and bowls, clothes still hanging in the closet, wedding photos fallen to the floor, it looks like the house was abandoned, but not cleared out of personal effects. Perhaps the owners died, and the heirs still have the property but have never used it.

Galisteo, Extremadura - Moorish defence walls and towerGalisteo, Extremadura - Moorish defence wallsFrom the walls of Galisteo, looking into the back yards of houses in the village. Some are cared for, others abandoned.

Galisteo with its Moorish fortification walls is a bit of tourist draw, with school groups coming by to climb its walls and admire the view over the countryside. But other small towns have much less. You can buy an entire Spanish village for a few hundred thousand euros.

This article from NPR explains more.

“Everyone else left, too, or they’ve died, and the local school closed,” Fernandez says. “There aren’t enough children anymore.”

Galicia’s birth rate is 1.1 offspring per fertile woman — one of the lowest rates in all of Europe. The region is on track to lose a third of its population in the next 35 years.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, says Avelino Luis de Francisco Martinez, the mayor of Cortegada, a rural town in southern Galicia. An abandoned hamlet that’s part of his town isn’t for sale. He’s giving it away.

“For free! Someone just has to promise to renovate the 12 ruined houses,” he says. “They’re beautiful — bucolic! Next to a river and an 18th century royal procession path.”

The challenge? “We just need to find someone to live here in this century,” he says.

Give me a few years, I’ll figure it out.

Where the pieces join


Visigoth column in the mosque of Cristo de la Luz, ToledoThis is the mosque of Cristo de la Luz in Toledo, Spain. The square part of the building on the right hand side is the original mosque (mesquita), with the three horseshoe arches on the main level, and the row of striped keyhole windows above. It’s small, only 8m square, and was founded in 999 by Ahmad ibn Hadidi, and known as the Mezquita Bab-al-Mardum. When Toledo was taken by Christian forces in 1085, the mosque was converted to Christian church, renamed Cristo de la Luz, with an added rounded apse. You can see the windows of the apse on the left are a different shape, with pointed window arches.

The brick work of the outside is almost seamless between the Islamic/Moorish section of 999 and the Christian of a century later. Certainly the craftspeople of one century knew the work of the previous–they may have been descendants of the same workers. The Moors were forced to convert to Christianity, or leave. Those who stayed became the Mudejar, the converted. They created a new fusion of architecture and art, joining Muslim and Christian forms.

Inside the mosque, the columns holding up the 9 small domes of the roof are Visigoth. Spolia. From the Latin for spoils of war. Older stone works that are incorporated into new structures, either from a need for building materials, or a desire to visibly overtake the old structure in a literal way, proving the new society’s dominance. Or, as I imagine it, a carver saying, that’s a nice bit of stone work, that is. Best keep it.





A Minaret


Another shard of the Islamic empire, left standing for 700 years in Ronda, Spain. The city was founded by the Romans as a fortified hilltop outpost of the empire, then conquered by the Visigoths, then again by the Arabs in 713. Its population was large enough that there were 7 or 8 mosques. This tower was part of a small mosque, built around 1300. The city was conquered by Christians in 1485 in the Reconquista, and most of the mosques destroyed. But this one tower (alminar or minaret) was preserved and adapted for use by the locals. It’s now known as the Alminar de San Sebastián.

Horse-shoe arch doorway to the minaret San Sebastián, Ronda.It wasn’t open when I went by at sunset in June a few years ago, its greyed wooden door fastened tight. There’s not much to be open, as there is no body of church attached, just the tower. But the history of the minaret is visible in its structure: a stone ground level, horseshoe arch doorway, rising to bricks in an alternating pattern. Zoomed in close there are blue green bricks to be seen on the upper levels. The call to prayer would have been made from the second level. The third level was built later, when the minaret became a bell tower for the church of San Sebastian, now gone.

So the minaret lives on quietly, holding its few metres square of space in this plaza, preserved by the Christian community that surrounds it. The website Ronda Today explains more:

Fortunately the church elders weren’t insensitive to the original design, and the roof of the third level was built following mudejar [fusion of Arabic and Christian art] principles.

Some historians have speculated the church tower may have been altered by Moriscos (Muslims who were forcibly converted to Christianity), and who would not want to destroy all remnants of their former city.

Coincidentally, the church was utterly destroyed in the 1600s during the Morisco uprisings that led to their expulsion to North Africa. It is possible the minaret was purposely left standing as a permanent reminder to Moriscos of all they had lost.

St Blaise Church window - influence of Islamic Architecture

First signs


Here’s the window that first got me interested in Moorish architecture. Walking in France in the Pyrenees in 2009, on the way from Lourdes to the start of the Camino Frances at St Jean de Pied de Port, there’s small town in the woods, Hôpital St Blaise. It’s a few buildings, a restaurant, a tiny hostel for pilgrims, and a solid stone church dating from the 12th century. There wasn’t much more in the middle ages, with the addition of a hospital for pilgrims.

The front of St Blaise church is Romanesque, but its windows and interior arches show an Islamic influence, coming from the long-disappeared caliphate, or taifa, of Lerida, across the Pyrenees in Spain. But here in the mountains of France is a trace of the artisans of the south, 800 years later. If I kept walking south, what more might be seen?