Introduction to Spanish Castles

photo merida alcazar

A word must be said of the geographical region of Spain before we begin. Spain as a political and economic unit was not established until the unification of Castile and Aragon on the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella and the subsequent expulsion of the Moors from Granada in the late 15th century. Before this time the whole Iberian peninsula was divided into several and ever-changing territories and kingdoms. It could be argued that the establishment of a modern Spain was much later than this with final the agreement on the Portugese territory in the 17th century.

Spain is a large country with a long and eventful history. It contains a wealth of fortresses and castles from all periods. The earliest with visible remains must be the remarkable Bronze Age fortified settlement of Los Millares in the south-east of the country. photo los milaresProtected with stone walls, gateways and defensive fortlets, this site, still retaining primitive arrow loops in the walls, dates from 2700 BC, and is situated in the high mountain plateau of the eastern Alpujarras of Almeria.

There are also many impressive defences from the Roman period in Spain, perhaps the most complete being the town walls of Lugo in the northern region of Galicia. Still completely encircling the old town for 3 kilometres, the walls contain 85 semi-circular interval towers and stand to their original height. photo lugo walls

However, the most impressive and the most distinctive, are the medieval castles found throughout the country. The invasion of Spain by the ‘Moors’ of North Africa in the 8th century brought to the region an eastern, Islamic culture of fortifications and building techniques. The Christian ‘Reconquest’ of the Iberian peninsula lasted for over 700 years and during that time a more northern European castle building tradition was introduced to Spain. The overlapping areas of occupation ebbed and flowed for many years between the Islamic and Christian peoples and there was considerable exchange of ideas and styles.

As a result of this long period of eastern and western cultures occupying the same lands and frequently working together on building projects, a unique range of castle architecture has developed within the country. The castles of the late middle ages in particular, when the military role of the castle was becoming overshadowed by more a symbolic and exuberant expression, have amongst them some very uniquely Spanish examples. In particular the castles of Coca and La Mota are perhaps the most familiar. Built in the La Mancha region, an area of central Spain rich in castles, these two buildings, made from a warm red brick, typify the ‘Mozarabic’ style. Built usually for Christian owners complete with chapels and ‘keeps’ in the northern tradition, many local Arabic craftsmen were employed in their design and construction. The result is a mixture of wonderful Islamic or ‘Mudejar’ geometric shapes and patterns applied to a functional and strong defensive structure with spectacular results.

photo la mota

Many castle sites in Spain, including the two mentioned above, have a long history of occupation, being rebuilt and modified over many generations. Foundations from the Roman period are common, as are early Islamic fortresses of the 8th and 9th century. During the periods of occupation and reoccupation, Islamic castles would be taken over by Christian rulers and Christian castles would be captured by the Moors. The complex and at times turbulent in-fighting between the Muslim dynasties within Spain and North Africa, and between the Christian Kingdoms resulted in castles changing hands many times in certain areas.

Sometimes modifications would be made to suit new tastes and requirements and sometimes the structures would be retained and used as they were found. As a result there do not seem to be many exclusive castle features employed by one or the other culture in isolation, showing perhaps the degree of social, artistic and cultural assimilation that had taken place during these 700 years. Useful innovations from whatever source were embraced and employed.



Photos on this page: Top; Alcazar de Merida. Middle left; Los Milares. Middle right; Lugo. Bottom; La Mota