The Jewish Quarter: A Walk through History

By far my favorite parts of the trip to Spain was exploring the Jewish history in the region. It was so inspiring for me to see that there have been efforts to preserve what is left of an erased culture due to expulsion. We have spent the semester learning about the contributions of Spanish Jewry to one of the greatest civilizations of all time, the great era of Muslim Spain, and to see just a select few of those contributions revered publicly in today’s Catholic Spain was simply beautiful.

Our first encounter with the living history of Spanish Jewry was at our first stop in Cordoba. We had a wonderful tour of the Mezquita, the huge Mosque with a Catholic Cathedral inside. I was left wondering, okay, this is clear Muslim and Christian legacy: what about the Jews?

My concern was quickly answered as the second part of the tour led us on a historical time warp through the Jewish quarter.

We were greeted in the quarter by Maimonides, arguably the most famous Jewish man from the Andalusian period. His works, from philosophy, to medicine, to commentary on the Talmud are still influential today.

It is supposed to bring good luck if you rub his lucky foot. So of course, that’s exactly what I did!

We then walked to the only remaining Synagogue in the area. Seeing the one small room with scanty decorations was slightly disappointing after seeing one of the largest Mosques in the world. However, it was still beautiful to see what remains of Jewish culture that has survived through so much chaos, pain, and persecution. We gazed upon the intricate wall details, Hebrew writing, wooden ceiling structure, a Menorah, and the space in the wall which would have served as the ark, the Torah’s resting place.

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride as I stood in that room. No matter how hard the Inquisition attempted to rid Spain of its Jews, here was the evidence of their survival. I read the Hebrew letters on the wall, an ancient language now revived that I have the opportunity to understand. I took in the power of the Menorah, one of the oldest and most important Jewish symbols, and its seven branches representing the seven days of creation. Within those seven branches, I felt and I knew that the Sephardic Jewish community had created so much there in Cordoba, and had contributed to Spain’s flourishing during its golden age.



Walking around, I felt that sense of pride and also curiosity as I noticed the nuances of Jewish remembrance in Spain today. Most of it is quite hidden. For example, on the ground or on buildings anywhere in Spain, you can find the seal of the Sephardic foundation, indicating that, in the past, Jews had lived and contributed there. We would be walking along a random street and all of a sudden see the seal, on a wall or between bricks in the ground. It was a subtle, curiosity inducing reminder that Jews were indeed here, and no form of cultural erasure or persecution can change those facts. The Sephardic community’s work to commemorate what was once forced out of their countries is a brave and beautiful act of existence that I very much appreciated during our trip.

Arabic Influences in Granada

By Sama Elmahdy

On our trip, we visited three cities in Southern Spain: Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granada. The cities were all so full of history and culture, that I have decided that I want to return. I hope to spend my semester abroad in Seville or Granada. Those cities were just absolutely splendid, with something new around every corner. However, I was most surprised by Granada.

While all the cities were at one time ruled by the Moors, present-day Granada has the most visible Arab influences in public areas. The city has a prominent old Arab quarter called Albayzin, which is best viewed from above in the Alhambra. The Albayzin is made up of narrow dwindling streets and mostly white houses and walls. It was exciting to see this area, and imagine the Arabs that roamed the streets, going about their daily lives.

I didn’t have to stretch my imagination too far. Present-day Granada has a large Muslim population. I was shocked to find that shawarma shops and Moroccan restaurants were common and prevalent throughout the city. On our first night in Granada, we ate at a Moroccan restaurant, where I ordered Harira soup and a beef tagine, which are both typical (and delicious) Moroccan dishes.

I studied abroad in Morocco last summer, and so the Arab influences were a welcome surprise. I saw Arabic on signs around town and heard it in the streets.  The Alcaiceria, a large street full of Arab-style shops, was maybe the greatest thing that reminded me of Morocco. The shops reminded me of the souks that I used to walk through on my way home from my Arabic classes in Morocco’s capital of Rabat. 

However, it wasn’t just the aesthetics that brought Morocco to mind. It was the general atmosphere that surrounded me. Inside the shops, I was greeted by welcoming Moroccan shopkeepers. When they realized I spoke Arabic, they would get excited and ask me where I was from. I was able to practice my Arabic, especially the Moroccan dialect (which is quite unique), and befriend the shopkeepers while I was at it. They even gave me discounted prices, which I gladly accepted.

I think I loved Granada so much because of the instant familiarity and nostalgia it enticed. However, it wasn’t exactly like Morocco. The presence of cathedrals, chapels and bars throughout the city reminded me I was in an exciting new place–One I can’t wait to return to one day!

Gardens of Paradise

By: Ines Jordan-Zoob

Some of the most beautiful moments we had on our trip were within the magnificent Islamic gardens of the Alcázar in Córdoba, the Alcázar in Sevilla, and the Alhambra in Granada. Gardens are mention in the Qur’an as a means of representing paradise. The abundant presence of water and shade was very important to this paradise. Beyond faith, these gardens also conveyed the affluence and authority of the rulers they were built by. Finally, these gardens existed as feats of science and engineering, demonstrating irrigation capabilities and early hydraulic engineering, as well as botanical and agricultural variety and research.


Stepping into these gardens provided a sense of what life was like  in Muslim Spain, functioning as a didactic tool to better understand the values and pleasures of Muslim society on the peninsula. The gardens are sprawling, containing a plethora of flora and fauna, and of course. many orange trees. Fountains are omnipresent, often with perfectly geometrical layouts. There are lots of courtyards and small pavilions that one could sit in.

The Gardens of the Alcázar in Córdoba are over 50,000 square meters, and they contain palm, cypress, orange, and lemon trees. The garden is organized on three levels: the upper garden, the middle garden, and the lower gardens. The so-called King’s walk is a central avenue through the gardens lined by perfectly trimmed cylindrical cypress trees. The water features are the focal point of the gardens, and there are circular, rectangular, and square fountains. Highly-organized and geometric, these gardens were a pleasure to walk through. We spent just under an hour taking the beauty in.

In the Gardens of the Alcázar in Sevilla, one can bear witness to the multitude of changes and extensions that took place as a result of changing political leadership. One of these changes were the transformation of the old Muslim palace wall into a loggia from which one can admire the view of the palace gardens. This change was undertaken by Italian landscaper Vermont Resta during the 16th century, under the reign of Philip II.

Alhambra: The Red City

By Sama Elmahdy

This class and trip has easily been the highlight of my Duke career so far. Being able to witness firsthand the complex relationships between the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim influences that we learned about was extremely enlightening. We were able to walk around the streets of Cordoba, Sevilla, and Granda, and point out the remnants of the Jewish and Muslim life that had once been so vibrant in Muslim-ruled Spain. We witnessed the beautiful Jewish quarters that are still present in many southern cities. We were able to experience the extravagance of the alcazars and the Alhambra. While, today many of the Muslim and Jewish artifacts are outshined by the Christian cathedrals and churches that abound, the intermingling for the three religions are undeniable.

Spain was first invaded by the Muslims in 711. Muslim rule would flourish and decline for over 700 years until 1492, when Granada was conquered. Granada was the last Andalusian city we visited during our trip. Granada is a beautiful city, and even presently, has a large Muslim community as well. The city also contains several cathedrals. One of the most notable being The Royal Cathedral, which houses the tombs of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand, the so-called Catholic Monarchs. The Cathedral is located right next to Albayzin, which is the prominent Arab quarter in Granada, and Alcaiceria, an area full of Arabic souks. While all these areas were vibrant, I found the Alhambra to be indescribably enchanting.

The Alhambra is an ancient palace and fortress created in the eighth century. It is the largest remnant from the Nasrid dynasty, the last Islamic kingdom in Western Europe. The Alhambra translates to “The Red,” named for the red walls and towers that surround it. The Alhambra consists of several palaces, seemingly never-ending gardens, and the civilian villages. All in all, the Alhambra spans nearly 26 acres.


I remember when we first spotted the Alhambra, we were on the main street and had to strain our necks to get the view of the enormous fortress located in the mountains. The beauty and power that emanated from it were enchanting. However, we also realized it would be painful as we treaded up the incline to the main entrance. We met our tour guide at the gate. Honestly, the Alhambra needs a tour guide; without one, it’s so easy to get lost in the grandeur that surrounds you. Our tour guide was able to explain the historical context of everything we saw, and made sure we didn’t overlook anything as we went through the tour.

Our tour started with a tour of the Muslim palaces that made up the fortified city. At first glance, the palaces didn’t look too impressive. From the outside, the buildings were bare, with minimal if any decorations. However, once inside the palaces, we saw the magnificence and splendor of Islamic art that overtook the walls and pillars of the rooms. Our tour guide later explained that according to Islamic tradition, one shouldn’t show off their wealth and beauty, and that it should be something saved for the inside.

We went from palace to palace, marveling at the carvings and the tile art that was prevalent in the architecture that surrounded us. I found the ceilings to be extremely gorgeous as well. Once upon a time, the ceilings also contained stain glass windows. However, our guide explained that all of windows were destroyed or removed, except for one. Most of the art had references to religion and served to praise God. The calligraphy that lined the walls centered around the central message of “la ghalib illa allah” which translates to “there is no victor/conqueror except God”.

We moved from the Muslim palaces to the Christian ones. As Granada was conquered by the Christians, King Charles V started the creation of some Christian palaces. This was an attempt to re-establish Christian  dominance, and undermine the powerful Muslim leadership that had once existed. Once we toured all the palaces, we walked through to see the civilian city of Alhambra and the complex and gorgeous Generalife gardens that surrounded the fortress.

As the tour ended, our feet were undeniably sore, but the tour of Alhambra was well worth it. The abandoned city came to my life as I walked through it. As our tour guide painted a picture of the rulers residing within their palaces, overlooking the civilians living in the city below, I found myself transported to another time entirely. To me, the Alhambra was the most surreal experience on this trip. Despite the end of Muslim-ruled Spain, the Alhambra stands proudly as a beacon of the power and culture that the Muslims left behind.

History Builds on History

By Jordan Diamond

At the Mezquita-Cathedral of Córdoba, we were able to see how conquerors built on the earlier structures at this site. Underneath the Mosque, we saw remnants of a Roman-era Visigothic church. The original mosque component was expanded by later Islamic rulers, who hoped to make their own impact on the site. Once Christian Spain claimed Córdoba, rulers began work on a massive Cathedral to reshape the identity of the site to their cultural, political, and religious interests.

The remnants of the Visigothic church were clearly visible.

The remnants of the Visigothic church were clearly visible.

The experience left me thinking about how religious and cultural traditions build on the past. This idea is seen throughout the religious groups we have studied throughout our course: Just as the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is built on the ancient Jewish Temple Mound, Christianity builds off of the scripture of Judaism, and Islam builds off the scriptures of the earlier two religions. As we’ve explored in our class, too, Islamic poetry borrows from the themes and styles used in earlier pre-Islamic Arab poetry, and Jewish poetry from the Sephardic Golden Age borrows the themes introduced by Islamic poetry.

In this way, Andalusia served as a melting pot of cultural diffusion—a convivencia, as some would say. Few other places in medieval Europe experienced such rich multi-cultural works and thought exchanges that almost foreshadow the interconnected world we live in now. Even as we studied government policies of expulsions and inquisitions, seeing this exchange in person was inspiring and brought to life the themes of our class.

The Arabic writing in the Mosque section of the building shows its Islamic identity.

The Arabic writing in the Mosque section of the building shows its Islamic identity.

The stunning Cathedral, a later addition to the building, was part of an effort to claim it as a Christian site.

The stunning Cathedral, a later addition to the building, was part of an effort to claim it as a Christian site.

Spiritual Experiences at the Seville Cathedral

By Thalia Halloran

The second city of our Spanish sojourn was Seville, where pastel castles leaned against one another for support and narrow brick streets were shared by pushy pedestrians and cars alike. On our first full day there we explored the Seville Cathedral, the largest cathedral and third largest church in the world, and the final resting place of (part of) Christopher Columbus.

When we entered the cathedral we proceeded to split up, taking audioguides and choosing our own path through the enormous site. Upon entry I found myself tearing up—any one of the columns holding up the massive building was larger around than my dorm room. No words could describe the enormity of this place, the splendor of the tiling, the stained-glass, the sculptures and paintings and metalwork all on display. Soon enough I stopped paying attention to the audioguide and allowed myself the chance to marvel instead. Everything was enormous, five or ten times the size of what I was used to, as though some giant commissioned this worship space.

This building could easily fit eight of my childhood parish within it and still have room for a crowded Mass. There was no spot lacking detail—the ceilings were intricately carved or tiled, the pillars stretched into magnificent sloping arches, and priceless oil paintings hung throughout the whole space. Even the floors were lovely. Anything that could be edged in gold was. Any space with room for carving was carved. Some of the rooms were even rounded, in swirling, hypnotic ovals. Everywhere, enormous wealth and splendor were on display. I saw more silver and gold in the Cathedral than I have in the sum total of my life up until that point. I was overwhelmed and in awe. More than anything else I’d seen so far, the Cathedral showed me an idea which we’d touched on in class but only now gained real weight: this place had been here longer than I could imagine and would last longer than I could imagine, and hundreds of thousands of people had worked here, worshipped here, built this place into what it is with care for every detail.

I was particularly drawn to all the representations of the body of Jesus. As with all Catholic churches there were a number of crucifixes present, in mournful dark colors, celebratory golden ones, or bloody crimsons. The presence of a number of silver monstrances served to illustrate the remarkable reverence to the body of Christ in another form.

Behind the cathedral was a courtyard lined with orange trees and fountains, very reminiscent of the mosques we’d seen thus far and studied in our class. Here we could look up and see the Giralda, or bell tower, in full force. We’d learned that the Giralda had once been a minaret of a mosque on that site, but now it is full of bells that ring every hour. I was part of a group that missed the tours up to the Giralda by three minutes, but we returned the next day to climb the 35 ramps and 17 stairs and look down at the city around us. This marvelous town that seemed so lively and vibrant from street level was quiet and small from above, a collection of matchbox houses and papier-mache stores, all in shades of white.

On our way out we encountered an entire Dumpster full of bitter oranges that had fallen from the trees inside. The caretakers must have collected them all here to keep the courtyard grounds pristine. It was a strangely grounding moment, to see all these oranges here and remember that the space we’d just been in was created and maintained by humans who grew decorative fruit that were no good for eating. We were back in the city now, squarely in the present moment, and it was good.

The Cathedral and Royal Chapel of Granada

by Julia Ryskamp
During our one full day in Granada, following a tour of the Alhambra—whose stunning palaces and fortresses, courts and gardens attest to the architectural and artistic achievements of the Muslim rulers of Granada—we then toured two of the city’s other great historical and religious sites—the Royal Chapel and Cathedral of Granada. The night before, while strolling the streets of Granada, we had stumbled upon the Cathedral without knowing what it was. Walking around to the front, which opened into a cute square (La Plaza de las Pasiegas) near la Alcaicería (the Arab quarter), we were amazed to find such a beautiful and grand church right in the middle of the city. Boxed in as it is by shops and bustling streets, it is hard to predict the immensity and grandeur that await you inside. It is easy to be carried away by the beauty of the Cathedral and Chapel, which both hold immense historical, religious, and artistic value for the people of Granada, yet for those who understand Granada’s complex religious history, the centuries-long tension between Christian and Muslim Spain that shaped the construction and iconography of these buildings is clearly recognizable and felt; the victory of the Christians over the Muslims is here put on full display.
(Note: Click on the images to open them full size).

I was amazed to learn that the Cathedral of Granada is the second largest cathedral in Spain (after, of course, the Cathedral of Sevilla) and also the first Renaissance cathedral in Spain. The whole interior of the cathedral is filled with luminous marble arches, and light streams in from all around; it is so much more open and spacious than any other cathedral I have been in. While the Cathedral and Royal Chapel are connected to each other, they are actually built in different architectural styles (the Cathedral in Spanish Renaissance, the Chapel in the Spanish Gothic style known as Isabelline). The reason for this is significant: after the conquest of Granada, a makeshift cathedral was built on the location of Granada’s Great Mosque (very similar to what occurred with the Mezquita in Córdoba). After the Royal Chapel was completed, the mosque-cathedral was actually torn down and rebuilt (over a period of 181 years, from 1523-1704) in the new styles of the time, Renaissance with a touch of Baroque. 

The Cathedral is undeniably beautiful, yet one thing that stood out to me amidst all its beauty was the Triunfo de Santiago, a huge wooden carving of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-slayer), complete with a dead Moor trampled underfoot. Even though I had been expecting to encounter the image of Santiago Matamoros somewhere in Spain, I was nonetheless shocked by such a brutal image in such a holy place. In both the Cathedral and Chapel it was hard to escape from images and reminders of the Christians’ conquest over the Muslims. 

The Royal Chapel houses the remains of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon—the so-called Catholic Monarchs who united the kingdoms of Iberia into a unified Christian Spain, instituted the Inquisition, and funded Columbus’s voyage to the ‘New World.’ Isabella and Ferdinand were a constant presence throughout our trip, and so seeing their tombs was a remarkable experience. The monarchs had originally planned to be buried in Toledo, but after their conquest of Granada in 1492, they changed their mind, viewing the conquest as the crowning achievement of their reign. The grand marble tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand, along with the tombs of their daughter Joanna (Juana la Loca) and her husband Philip I (Felipe el Hermoso) are raised high above the ground and face a magnificent gold altarpiece, symbolic of their close relationship with God. 

This altarpiece is comprised of 34 carved panels depicting religious and historical scenes; significantly, the bottom four depict Boabdil, the last Nasrid king of Granada, surrendering the key to the city in 1492, and the baptisms (i.e., forced conversions) in 1500 of Granada’s Muslim men and women. This is not the only depiction of these events, as in the entrance hangs a copy of Francisco Pradilla’s painting, the Surrender of Granada. These images serve as a reminder of how connected the territorial and political unity of Spain were with Isabella and Ferdinand’s achievement of religious unity throughout the peninsula.

The audioguide we listened to emphasized repeatedly the importance of the conquest of Granada, exalting Isabella and Ferdinand as national heroes who united the kingdoms of Spain, recovered Spain’s territory that had been lost during the Middle Ages, and, through funding Columbus’s discovery of the New World, laid the groundwork for a world-wide expansion of Spanish culture and initiated the Modern Era of history. Isabella’s piety as a leader of Catholicism during her reign is also emphasized repeatedly, yet jarringly absent from the official audioguide’s tour was any mention of the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews, or the forced conversion of the Muslims. There is no doubt that this chapel holds immense historical, artistic, and religious value; Isabella and Ferdinand are perhaps the most important monarchs of Spain, whose reign created lasting impacts into the modern world and whose unification of Spain and funding of Columbus are learned about by students around the world, and for this reason the Royal Chapel is naturally an important and reverenced site. Yet at the same time, it is easy to gloss over the darker side of their reign, which effectively ended the uniquely Andalusian culture of religious tolerance, and initiated centuries-long religious persecutions. While I think that the Royal Chapel is justified in many ways for celebrating Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, at the same time, I think important historical and tourist sites like this have a duty to present to visitors all sides of the history and historical figures that these sites preserve and commemorate.

Real Alcazar in Seville

By Melissa Gerdts

The city of Seville was absolutely stunning in every way. During the Muslim rule in Spain, Seville came under the jurisdiction of the Caliphate of Córdoba before becoming the independent Taifa of Seville; later it was ruled by the Muslim Almoravids and the Almohads until finally being incorporated into the Christian Kingdom of Castile under Ferdinand III in 1248. After the reconquest of the city, the Moors’ Palace became the Real Alcazar, with the first major gothic reforms completed by Alfonso X, which still exist today. King Pedro of Castille later decided to build the wonderful Mudéjar Palace that stands as the dominant part of the Alcazar. The upper levels of the Alcázar are still used by the royal family as their official residence in Seville.

Puerta del Leon (main entrance)

The most striking section of the alcazar was The Patio de las Doncellas, meaning “The Courtyard of the Maidens”, which refers to the legend that the Moors demanded 100 virgins every year as tribute from Christian kingdoms in Iberia. In the center is a large, rectangular reflecting pool with sunken gardens on either side.

Patio de las Doncellas

It is surrounded by beautifully decorated rectangular halls ornamented with carved wood doors, ceilings, and richly painted azulejos (Islamic style ceramic tiles). The lower level of the patio was built for King Peter of Castile and includes inscriptions describing Peter as a “sultan.” His bedroom on the bottom floor used to be the summer bedroom because it was fresh and protected from the heat.


Next, the Salon de Embajadores, meaning The Ambassadors Reception Room, was the main room that King Peter I used for his stay at the Alcazar. This room was the most richly decorated within the entire palace and was used to welcome important royal guests. The magnificent wood cupola with elaborated carvings and geometrical patterns was emblematic of the strength and power of the Christian king. It was absolutely breathtaking to see the detail placed into the small wooden pieces of the cupola, and made you feel so tiny as the dome stretched outwards towards the heavens. A panel of small paintings of all of the Spanish kings since Alfonso X surrounded the entire room.

Furthermore, the Admiral’s Room still holds events for the royal palace and the crest of the Royal Alcazar is engraved in the older wooden benches in the back of the room. The altarpiece preserved in the Admiral’s Quarters is dedicated to the Virgin of the Seafarers. This altarpiece was created by Alejo Fernández in 1536 and is suggested that it represents Christopher Columbus as fulfilling biblical prophecy to bring the Christian message to all the peoples of the world. As the Spanish navy was incredibly powerful, this archetype of the virgin is depicted in many places around Spain.


We also were able to stroll through the stunning gardens where we ran into a lovely peacock, some beautiful fountains, and vibrant greenery!


The Element of Light in Architecture

By: Tiye Flavien


Light has continuously shown its  importance in architecture and said importance is evident in the architectural structures of Andalusia. For Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities alike, light was an essential element to bring the divine spirit of God to worshipers. Light in architectural domains was used to symbolize both philosophical and theological ideology which were two significant areas of study during this time. The connection between light and people were accessible to all individuals bridging class and cultural divides. My time spent in the architectural buildings of al-Andalus intrigued my interest in the dependence on light in these spaces.

Light in Religious Spaces

The use of light in churches, synagogues, and mosques was (and still today) to connect the divine world with the humanistic realm. Light in a sense was a representation of unity between God and his people. In mosques, light often reflected off the painted tiles and colored glass. This evoked a perception of spirituality and divinity. Christian churches utilized stain glass windows to highlight biblical scenes for visual interpretation. Natural light guided through open arches or large windows gave the religious community the sense of perfection and beauty associated with the divine world. The use of light greatly enhanced the religious experience for those in attendance.

Placement of Light

The most apparent placement of light is from far above. Windows and arches would open to the sky allowing light to penetrate from above. Ceilings too were a great location for openings. This gave worshipers the opportunity to bridge the space of Earth and Heaven through the sky. The radiance of light from above would wash over visitors, engulfing them in what could be perceived as the spirit of God.  Light in conjunction with the dome structures of mosques led to an accentuation of space. These already large buildings were made to appear empty and effortless. The interesting part of the placement of light is that us was not only restricted to places of worship.

Use of Light in Other Spaces

An interesting aspect of light in Iberian architecture is that is was not only found as an element in religious spaces. Upon the tour of the region, a notable place I observed light was in bathing houses. This demonstrated the high importance of religion in the everyday lives of Andalusians. In the ceilings of bath houses, geometric openings would allow light to enter from the ceiling. Bathing with light pouring in from above was an act of self-purification. The ability to wash away past deeds in the presence, and possibly interpreted forgiveness, of God.


Light in the architecture of Andalusia was a symbolic art form that resonated with individuals from all walks of life. Light was interpreted to represent divinity, spirituality, and intellect. From the perspective of an outsider of the period, the genius of the architecture is incomprehensible. To create such work without the advancements of today is admirable and has shown me why al-Andalus was a pinnacle of medieval Spain.

Architectural Multiplicity in Andalusia

By: Ines Jordan-Zoob

Our trip to Spain meant that we were able to see the architectural treasures from the period focused on in our class, 711-1492. These buildings included mosques, churches, synagogues, palaces, fortresses, and cathedrals. Visiting the cities of Córdoba, Sevilla, and Granada revealed the rich layers of Spanish history, from Visigothic times, to Muslim rule, and to the eventual Christian Reconquista. These histories remain acutely tangible to contemporary audiences because of the architecture of Andalusia, which features Moorish, Amoravid and Almohad styles, as well as Mudéjar, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. Nearly every prominent building we visited revealed layers of history just in their architectural exterior alone, with even more plurality on display inside.

These buildings made me think a lot. I looked up to the bell tower of the Córdoba Mosque-Cathedral and couldn’t help but imagine the minaret that once existed in its place. I couldn’t help but notice how Spaniards simply referred to the building as the mezquita or mosque, rather than as a cathedral. With our tour guide we walked along the ruins of a small Visigoth church, only to end up peering at the 856 columns of the Great Mosque, which was constructed by Abd al-Rahman I in 784. A few steps later, and I was engulfed in an incredibly richly-decorated Renaissance cathedral nave. The juxtaposition of different religious architecture so close together is at once overwhelming and awe-inspiring. There are distinct visual tensions at play here, with immense golden horseshoe arches denoting the mihrab and marble circular arches surrounding the altar.

I struggled to understand how to appreciate this building. Do I think of it as a church? Can it be a mosque if Muslims continue to be restricted from using the space for prayer? Why were these different groups so compelled to transform this space from each of its previous incarnations? How powerful can architecture be in establishing and/or undermining not just political authority, but religious authority too? And perhaps, most importantly of all, does building over something every truly get rid of what lies below? The symbolic conversion of the original mosque lingers in my mind. The architectural multiplicity of Córdoba Mosque-Cathedral was one of the most fascinating things I saw on the trip. It would set the tone for virtually all of the other buildings we would see.

Our arrival in Seville led us quickly to the Cathedral there, the largest Gothic church in the world. Walking around the cathedral was dazzling. It is simply so big, and features such a variety of architectural design that it truly takes a few hours to absorb it all. The first thing one sees are the doors. The Door of the Bapitsm and the Door of Assumption, the Door of Saint Miguel, and the Door of the Prince, the Door of Palos, the Door of Forgiveness…the list goes on and on. Each one seems more intricately carved than the last, all brilliant examples of the Gothic style. And then, my eyes looked up. The giralda or bell-tower looms over the cathedral, somehow making it look small. A Renaissance-style top added by the Catholics after 1492 attempts to hide the original function of this tower, for of course, it was originally a minaret of the 1171 mosque commissioned by Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, but completed by his son, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur.


The inside of the cathedral features a myriad of Gothic and Baroque architectural styles, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 138-foot polychrome wood altarpiece. My audio-guide informed me that it is considered the largest altarpiece in Christendom, and I felt inclined to believe this. As I craned my neck to take in row upon row of relief sculpture, I tried to identify even a few of the saints depicted. After twenty minutes of viewing the altar, my eyes began to strain. I wandered out to the courtyard, known as the Patio de los Naranjos, where the smell of fragrant orange trees awakened my senses. I sat on a bench to take in this courtyard space. Now, it was merely a stopping point for tourist groups between the interior of the cathedral and the steps up to the bell tower. I closed my eyes and imagined what this space used to be, a long time ago. It was the mosque’s sahn, a courtyard for ablutions, where the faithful would come to ritually cleanse themselves before entering the mosque for prayer. I opened my eyes again and looked up to the giralda. I stared at the Christian sculpture that adorns its peak, and then at the Islamic bricks and marble that make up its base. These bricks and marble had been recycled from old Umayyad monuments. The sun was beaming, and for a second, I couldn’t tell which part was what. Histories and layers blurred together.

I am grateful for the opportunity we had to visit Spain and experience these beautiful sights. In less than eight days, we were able to immerse ourselves in this land, its history, its culture, and most importantly for me, its memories.