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(2024 - Spring/Summer Issue)


On one sultry afternoon in Granada, I lay in bed in a stupor of near-sleep. Through the haze of the siesta came the clip-clop of donkey hooves and the strange quarter-tone hum of a passing man. There was a smell of roasting garlic and dust, and the heat was just south of feverish. Perhaps it was the almond tart I had just eaten, or the rose water I had bought from the merchant at the gates to the Alhambra, but the scene belonged as much to fantasy as reality, and, as I slipped in and out of consciousness, it was easy to believe I had been transported to some fabled Arabian land.

Spain, jutting from the west of Europe like a clenched fist, is an absolute. For centuries, it has followed no fashion but its own commitment to tradition and dignity, remaining unique in its association with bulls, flamenco, paella and duende (a heightened state of emotion brought on by the arts). Yet as emblematic as these things may be to the country, they draw from deep historical roots, which run south from Andalusia, across North Africa, and over the Nile to the Levant.

The germinators of those roots were the Moors—a Spanish name for the blend of Arabs, Syrians, Egyptians and Berbers who made up the conquering force—who crossed the Mediterranean in 711 AD and remained rulers over Iberia for 700 years. Moorish Spain, while not peaceable, was a place of enlightenment and learning. Under the Moors, it was the enjoyment of life, rather than the afterlife, which was glorious. With new leadership came a turning tide on illiteracy and cultural stagnation—universities and libraries were founded, food and art were elevated to the level of virtuosity, while poets and musicians attained celebrity status. Córdoba became the Western answer to Baghdad, a place of education and culture. From Zaragoza, majestic and alone on the Ebro River, came the philosopher Avempace, a leader of medieval thought.

I was making my way across the Andalusian plain, what the Moors called Al-Andalus, moving west from Granada to Seville, but taking the distance slowly. There is a general time lag in Spain; holiday parades are solemn and spectral, and supper might not begin until late evening. The towns, separated by long distances over flat plains and rugged mountains, feel more like city-states; each one demanding the tribute of a night well spent, each one open long into the night in return. And so, when I made an impetuous detour to Úbeda, where I ate soup of eggs, ham and bread, and plate after plate of fried calamari in the shadow of the Eras del Alcázar, revered as one of the most important archaeological sites of Andalusia, I had to spend the night. Likewise in Ronda, which is one of the pueblos blancos, the white villages of ancient Al-Andalus. Ronda’s chunky bridge, wedged into a crack in the cliff atop which the town sits, made it famous, but there are older, Moorish buildings here, too: the Arab baths, the Laurel Castle and the Mondragón palace, now a regional museum.

Architecture was one of the Moors’ prime contributions to Iberia. They were great engineers, and their trademark arches, domes and tile work are found across Iberia: in the pink obelisk of the Giralda rising above Seville Cathedral, in the peppermint arches of Córdoba’s Mezquita and in the al-Zahra medina on the outskirts of that city, in the forts and watchtowers that dot the rolling hills of Andalucía. This style was adopted by the Mozarabs, the Christians living under Muslim rule, who, over time, gave their religion’s culture—everything from religious buildings to paintings and literature—a Muslim twist. The preference for Moorish patterns and flair remained even after the Christian reconquest of Spain, and the subsequent era of Mudéjar saw Christian buildings fitted with Moorish stylings.

Three days after leaving Granada, I arrived in Seville. I spent the evening loitering in the higgledy-piggledy centre, maze-like as a Moroccan kasbah, full of leather and spice shops. I popped into a bar to refresh myself, and while standing at the counter, it dawned on me I’d stumbled upon a private birthday party. I made to leave, but one of the guests stopped me. “Don’t go,” he said. “The party’s just beginning!” That kind of hospitality is rare in Europe, but common in Muslim countries, where it’s a tenet never to turn a stranger away.

Later, rounding the immensity of the Seville Cathedral, I saw the Giralda for the first time. Built as a minaret for the Great Mosque of Al-Andalus, and repurposed as a bell tower after the city’s Christian reconquest, it is not only one of the finest examples of Moorish architecture in the country, but as much an example of the alloy of Spanish culture. At its base were two star-crossed lovers, leaning against each other, lost to the world beyond them. “Where is Seville and the pleasure it contains?” wrote the Al-Andalusian poet Abu al-Baqa’ al-Rundi. The lovers had found it, and so had I. It is still there, waiting as ever, in splendour both ancient and modern.

Fun Fact: The Creation of Spanish Cuisine

Besides sowing the seeds of modern Spanish culture, the Moors were also germinators in a literal sense; they used their experience with irrigating deserts to turn Spain green and make it a place of produce and shade. A new cuisine followed, one underlaid by the staples of the Mediterranean diet—wheat, wine and olives—but given its particular primacy by ingredients brought north from the Middle East and North Africa: spinach, rice and eggplants; cinnamon, cumin and saffron; dates, pomegranates and apricots. One of the oldest surviving cookbooks is Ibn Razīn al-Tujībī’s Fiḍālat al-Khiwān fī Ṭayyibāt al-Ṭaʿām wa-l-Alwān (Best of Delectable Foods and Dishes from al-Andalus and al-Maghrib). Recently translated into English, it contains among its hundreds of recipes directions for mustard sauce, cured meat and yoghurt.

The City of Three Cultures

The city of Toledo is recognizable through its most famous resident, the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco, who painted the city narrow, slender, almost pinched by the deep gorge that borders it on three sides. For centuries before the Moors’ arrival, the city was famous for sword-making and supplying armies from Roman to medieval times with “Toledo steel.” But it was also a place for peace—during Moorish reign, within the city walls existed a tolerant and rich civilization where Christian Castilian, Jew and Moor coexisted for centuries. Visitors can still feel the pre-eminence of the spiritual here in the “City of Three Cultures,” by visiting the Cristo de la Luz Mosque, the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca or the Toledo Cathedral.

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