Islamic Castles of Spain (page 1)



When the invading Muslim army arrived in Spain in AD 711 they found a country largely ruled by Visigoths who had themselves occupied the area after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was a Christian land and even today some remains of Visigothic churches, monasteries and religious artefacts can be seen.

photo tabernasOf the military buildings of the pre-Islamic period however, little now survives. What is clear though is that resistance to the invading Muslim army was slight. Largely because of the fragmentation of a central authority in Iberia and the absence of any co-ordinated response to the arrival of the Muslims their initial success quickly spread throughout the peninsula. There is a view from some scholars that the arrival of the Muslims was a peaceful and even a welcome development and non confrontational, although the construction of substantial military fortifications at the time must question this view.

An eventual total dominance of the area by Muslim lords inevitably meant that the Islamic religion and culture also became the dominant drivers in local society. Settlement by agricultural workers and their families from North Africa quickly followed the military conquest, bringing alternative methods of cultivation of the land and a variety of new crops (e.g. Lemons and other fruits)

The military organisation required to achieve such a rapid and complete conquest was of the highest order. The use of fortifications to hold territory gained and to garrison troops for onward conquest into new regions was an important factor in the colonisation.

photo islamic carving nieblaThe first Muslim colonisers of Spain originated from Syria, Egypt and other eastern areas displaced by internal political discord within the Caliphate (leadership of all Muslims in the Middle East) and settling in North Africa. Eventually they would form a new, breakaway Western Caliphate based in Cordoba in Spain.

This history brought the architectural and military traditions to Spain via North Africa. We should note before going further that the Muslim occupation of Spain and therefore the story of Islamic Castles, is a long one. This period lasted almost 800 years, much longer than the period from the final reconquest of Spain by the Christians at the end of the 15th century to the present day.

The most significant period for the study of castles and fortifications of Spain was during the periods of first the Almoravid and then Almohad invasions of Spain. These two strong dynasties originated in the Berber regions of southern Morocco and were militarily strong with powerful religious conviction and were prodigious castle builders.

The Almorovids ruled in Spain from the mid 11th century to be replaced by force of arms by the Almohads from about the mid 12th century. Under these powers some innovative castles were created.

Design and Construction

photo gormaz horseshoe doorRemains of Islamic Castles are to be found throughout Spain and Portugal save for the extreme north west of Spain. A common thread to the architecture of these buildings was the use of rammed clay, mud brick or ‘tapial’ in the construction of the vast majority. Stone built and especially ashlar built Islamic castles are far from being the norm but stone was used, sometimes on an immense scale, where it was available and where the prestige, the strength or simply the need to impress was greatest.

Tapial as a form of masonry was traditional in the Arabic speaking world, originating as it did, from areas where timber was not plentiful and might it be considered as the common method of construction, comparable in some respects to the widespread use of timber construction techniques used in northern European architecture.

There are many examples of Islamic castle construction using a combination of Tapial and stone with the latter being used for structural details such as doorways, wall junctions, towers etc.

photo banos de la encinaA surprising number of Islamic castles were built upon Roman fortress foundations suggesting that military consideration of defensive position was paramount in the siting of many castles.

The early castles from the 8th & 9th century onwards were purely military structures. Their general purpose was to create an enclosure of strong walls to house a garrison, their horses and equipment and accommodation for the commander or lord.

The construction of fortifications at this period as military establishments is reflected in other parts of the Muslim world (e.g. Syria). The administrative and residential centres of the regions were usually in separate palaces, themselves often fortified.

A good example of an early castle type is at Banos de la Encina which was founded in the 9th century although recent excavations have shown that the present structure is Almohad dating from the 12th century. This castle is in Andalusia north of Jaen. The curtain walls are of Tapial construction with evenly spaced square, open backed, interval towers. The entrance gateway is a simple horseshoe shaped opening. The survival of this building with little in the way of later alteration is remarkable.

photo gormaz viewOne of the largest enclosure castles in Spain is that of Gormaz near the Duero River frontier area of Castile, an area that remained an active border between Muslim and Christian from 10th to the 12th century. The castle itself was founded in the mid 10th century.

Gormaz is built on a high ridge, visible for miles around and dominating the surrounding landscape. It has walls of 1200 metres circumference around a great enclosure within. A castle on this scale not only was able to house a considerable army but also the local inhabitants and their livestock in the event of border warfare.

Gormaz is built of stone and ashlar construction with 26 square interval towers, crenellated parapets and an inner citadel with its own defended walls and originally separated by a dry moat.

These early castles had simple gateways into the enclosure, some of elaborate Moorish horseshoe shape others more simple arched opening but no sophisticated gateways were constructed at this early period. The doors, although strong and well made of wood were barred internally but little else to add strength, beyond the location and external defences.

Islamic castles were usually provisioned with elaborate and often very large water storage cisterns. These were usually contained within the curtain walls and could be deep underground with linked storage chambers and long access staircases. Other types were above ground in specially constructed buildings. The use and management of water resources for agricultural purposes of the period are renowned in the Muslim world and this applied to water management within castles too.

photo biar torreAs settlement became more permanent the castles were places of safety and refuges for the local village that inevitably sprang up below the walls. As with castles of the Christian countries there was no one size fits all as each castle had its unique position that in turn affected its design, its local purpose and social requirements.

Islamic castles that were first established towards the second half of the Muslim period begin to adopt some of the features seen in Christian castles. In particular great towers or keeps (Towers of Homage in Spanish) begin to appear. The Islamic castle of Biar, built on the border of the long established Islamic territory of Zaragoza in the southeast, was built with a great tower from the outset. This tower still stands with only minor later alterations.

It is of Tapial construction on the outer walls and rises to three stories. The ground floor chamber is vaulted with a simple barrel vault but the first floor chamber (the main chamber of the tower) possess a magnificent rib-vaulted masonry ceiling of an Islamic decorative design and clearly was a room of some status.

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Photos on this page: From top. Tabernas; Niebla - carving inside mosque; Gormaz; Banos de la Encina; Gormaz; Biar.