Sunset view at the Alhambra palace and fortress in Granada, Spain

Arabic influences in Spain and Portugal: The art and architecture Islam left behind

The Mezquita and Alhambra are as Spanish as flamenco and paella, but they owe a huge debt to the Moors. These Arab tribes from Northwest Africa travelled across the Gibraltar Strait early in the 8th century, intent on conquering the Iberian Peninsula, that’s modern-day Portugal and Spain.

It was a losing battle almost from the start. The Christian Kingdoms fought back in what became known as the Reconquista, the reconquest, slowly but surely pushing the invaders south. By the mid-13th century the Moors were down to one last stronghold, Faro on the Algarve coast but Portuguese king Alfonso III put paid to that.

By 1492 the remaining Moors had either converted or been exiled, yet more than five hundred years later, their architectural and design influence lives on.

Interior of La Mezquita Cathedral built inside of former Great Mosque. Cordoba, Andalusia, Spain

1. The Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

The Mezquita started out as a simple Muslim prayer hall built on the site of an earlier Christian basilica in the 8th century by Abd Al-Rahman I, founder of the Umayyad Dynasty in Cordoba. Red and white arches made from new materials and a mix of leftover Greek and Roman bits from the original church and other buildings in Cordoba and even Constantinople were laid out in 11 rows.

They look like date palms clustered around an oasis, and this was intentional. Traditional mosques had lofty central domes, but the Mezquita is flat and horizontal, similar to outdoor prayer spaces. Incorporating this idea into a formal design was considered revolutionary at the time.

Over the centuries, the rows of columns were extended, a new qiblah, the wall indicating the direction of Mecca was built, and the existing mihrab, the prayer niche, was enlarged. It glitters almost surreally with 1600 kilos of gold mosaic tiles sent by Byzantium emperor Nicephorus II Phocas.

The Mezquita now houses Cordoba Cathedral, built right in the middle of what was once the third-largest mosque in the world. Construction started in the 16th century and took two decades to complete.

It incorporates different architectural styles such as Gothic vaulting, a Carrara marble altarpiece, Renaissance dome and majestic 18th-century mahogany choir stalls covered in carved images.

Despite the different aesthetics at play and the number of tourists it attracts, the Mezquita feels spacious and calm. Just like the Patio de los Naranjos outside, where devout Muslims used to wash before prayer, full of orange trees and humming bees.

Reflections in a pool in the Praca al Mutamid in the Alhambra, Spain.

2. The Alhambra, Granada, Spain

In the 13th and 14th centuries, a powerful Arab dynasty, the Nasrid, expanded an existing walled city to create the Alhambra. Set atop a hill above narrow streets and hidden caves, at sunset its sombre and imposing reddish outer brick walls take on a sand-coloured hue.

Inside, there’s a lot to see: a palace, residence, courtyards and gardens. Wherever you wander, remember to look up. Intricate decorations and stucco mouldings cover ceilings, columns and arches. Calligraphic renderings of Koranic verses and panels of traditional Arabic strapwork vie for attention with flamboyant glazed Arabesque tilework.

However, the muqarnas, mocárabe in Iberian architecture, are the star of the show. These honeycomb-shaped stalactites visually blur the solid lines of the stonework so it appears light enough to float away.

Look out for them in the El Cuarto o Palacio de Comares, the private residence of the Nasrid leader, and in the Patio de los Arrayanes where arrayanes, myrtle shrubs, border a central rectangular pool.

The layout of the Courtyard of the Myrtles is deceptively simple but the rationale behind it was well-thought out. The glass-like water of the pool reflects the surrounding buildings, creating the impression of a much grander space. Until the end of the 16th century, this courtyard was known as the Court of the Pool, and was used as a venue to impress visiting dignitaries and guests.

The visual riches continue in the 14th century Patio de los Leones. It gets its name from the fountain in the centre formed by a large alabaster basin sitting on the back of twelve lions carved from white marble. Colonnades with filigreed panels atop 124 white marble columns wrap around the courtyard. Pavilions fitted with wooden domed ceilings project out into the central space at either end.

The formally laid out gardens of Generallife, the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers delight with the gentle sounds of bubbling water and cool green topiary.

The Cathedral Santa Maria in Teruel, Spain

3. Teruel, Spain

Moors and Christians fought over Teruel in the Valencia region of Spain for half a millennia, yet after Christian King Jaime I recaptured the city in 1238, the two populations continued to lived together in harmony. This cultural mix is thought to have been the catalyst for Mudéjar, a combination of Gothic and Islamic design only found in Teruel. 

Early 14th-century towers decorated in Mudéjar tiles dominate the narrow laneways of the old town. Green and white ceramics in all manner of shapes, such as herringbone, eight-pointed stars, columns and discs, cover their surfaces.

Two of the towers, San Martin and San Pedro, were built by Muslim architects Omar and Abdala, good friends keen on the same woman. She couldn’t decide which man she loved the most, so her father came up with the idea of a competition.

Whoever built the highest tower in the shortest time would be her husband. In a matter of months Omar declared himself the victor, but his tower, San Martin, had a slight tilt and was deemed less awe-inspiring than San Pedro. Joy turned to despair and Omar jumped to his death from the top of his own creation.

San Pedro Church, next to Abdala’s tower, contains the tombs of another pair of thwarted lovers, poor man Diego de Marcilla and his wealthy beloved Isabel de Segura. Teruel’s history isn’t all grim though. There’s an ornate cathedral, picturesque streets and Escalinata del Óvalo, a grand staircase built in Neo Mudéjar style that gives Gaudi a run for his money.

In the main square, a little statue of a bull watches over Spanish tourists snacking on Jamón de Teruel, flanked by 20th-century modernist buildings Casa El Torico and Casa La Madrileña, styled like elaborately iced wedding cakes in architectural form.

People in the vestibule of Sao Bento Railway Station, decorated with approximately 20,000 azulejo tiles, in Porto, Portugal

4. Azulejo, Portuguese tiles

Many Portuguese cities and towns are full of squat, whitewashed buildings where the only colour comes from thick window frames painted in yellow, orange or blue. Inside is another story.

Hallways, walls and entire rooms pop with vibrant designs, patterns and a rainbow of shades decorating ornamental tiles called azulejo. The name comes from the Arabic word al-zulayi, meaning polished stone.

The earliest geometric patterns are derived from Arabic sensibilities but as the tradition spread, azulejo developed a more Portuguese flavour, combining flamboyant Baroque touches with elaborate Manueline detailing. The main hall in Porto's São Bento railway station is covered in large panels of blue and white tiles depicting scenes from Portuguese history including battles, rural settings and daily life.

Spectacular as it is, the railway is only a taster for what you’ll see in the National Tile Museum in Lisbon. It’s housed in a former convent built in 1509 and contains displays of Portuguese azulejo tiles dating from the 15th century right through to the present day.

People visit Mouraria district (Moorish Quarter) in Lisbon, Portugal

5. Mouraria, Lisbon, Portugal

The streets leading off 14 Largo do Intendente, a square in Mouraria at the base of the slopes around Castelo de Sao Jorge, bustle with hipster cafes, Chinese grocery stores, Bengali restaurants, African café bars and Portuguese eateries. It’s home to migrants from more than 50 countries, but the name refers to a much earlier group of newcomers, the Mourar, Portuguese for Moors.

Today Mouraria is part of Lisbon, but when Afonso I conquered the city in 1147 and sent Arab Muslims and Jews to live here, it was outside the city walls. Modern Mouraria is a largely working-class area. Fadista still sing Portugal’s hauntingly mournful music in small tile-lined unrenovated bars, just as Maria Severa Onofriana, Lisbon's first fado singer did, back in the 19th century.

World-famous Mariza grew up here after her father migrated from Mozambique. Around lunchtime on Fridays, more recent arrivals shut up shop and head for a small mosque in the basement of a building on a nondescript street up an impossibly steep hill.

Follow your nose to dine on Nepalese dumplings, African meat stews or gorge on seafood. Do note that while the area is undergoing gentrification, it was once notorious as a hangout for drug dealers and home to pickpockets, so always pay attention to your surroundings.

Historic buildings in Silves, Portugal

6. Silves, Algarve region, Portugal

Silves, 15 kilometres inland, has a very different vibe to Algarve’s coastal towns. All the streets lead up from the banks of the Arade River head towards the 7th-century castle on the peak, but none is direct.

Instead, they wind from left to right and up and down, ensuring enemies seeking to capture this former 10th-century Moorish capital would fail. The spoils were plentiful as the land on the surrounding plains was rich and fertile.

Red brick fortifications were added to the castle in the 12th century when the most ferocious battles between Christians and Moors in this part of Portugal took place. I can easily imagine weary soldiers trudging up the cobbled streets and I'm sure the smell of rich broth from javali, wild boar stew, emanating from the tiny blue walled houses was just the same then as now. 

After you’ve visited the Sé Cathedral, walk through the Torreão da Porta da Cidade, the only surviving city gate out of four leading into the former Muslim medina. Cross over the Ponta Romano bridge dating to somewhere in the mid-14th (or possibly 15th) century to see the Cruz de Portugal, a large stone cross around 500 years old, before heading back to the centre for lunch.

BBQ chicken, Frango da Guia in Portuguese, is a local speciality, and every establishment has their own take on it. Some marinate the chicken in a spicy mix of malagueta chilli peppers, garlic, herbs, and olive oil, then cook it over the coals, while others add the sauce later. Either way, it’s delicious.

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Lisa Morrow

Author - Lisa Morrow

Australian-born author and travel writer Lisa Morrow has lived in Istanbul and other parts of Turkey for almost 15 years, allowing her to travel extensively in Europe. She has a master’s degree in sociology, has written five books on Turkey, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN Travel, World Nomads and elsewhere.  

Last Updated 4 January 2024