Islamic Castles of Spain (page 2)

Tapial masonry

A characteristic feature of Islamic castles everywhere, and no more so than in Spain, is the use of Tapial or rammed earth.

Tapial is made from clay and earth taken from the site and mixed with water, lime and hard loose material such as pebbles, wood, brick and other stone. The walls were made between wooden boards in sections, into which was pressed the mixture as described. This was left to set after which time the retaining boards were removed and repositioned to continue the walls construction.

photo padern portugalIn Tapial walls remaining today the exterior plaster render is often missing revealing the very hard core (some are over 1,000 years old) and also the regularly spaced holes where the wooden retaining bars were placed onto which the exterior wooden boards were fixed. The holes were left in situ (i.e. not filled in) to allow expansion and contraction of the fabric.

There is some evidence that the plastered outer face of the walls and towers were painted, although the examples I have seen are in Portugal. A fine example of original painted walls is at Salir in the Algarve where we can see remains of paint on the original plaster in the form of white painted lines forming a pattern of large oblong blocks – perhaps designed to represent stone masonry from a distance. Another example of painted surfaces is at the 12th century Islamic castle of Padern, again in the Algarve.


It is difficult to propose specific stylistic antecedents when examining Islamic military architecture in Spain in other than the most general terms. There is ongoing research into this area. The first builders of military architecture in Spain came to the peninsula with ideas and techniques from other parts of the Islamic world, notably the Middle East ( especially the areas of present day Syria, Iraq and Egypt).

Research into early Islamic military architecture in that area shows a number of similar styles and techniques in use in the wider Muslim world such as the use of Tapial construction, ‘dog-leg’ entrance gates, decorative gateways etc. But without doubt by the 11th century a particularly Iberian style was developing that was the result of many influences combined with an Andalusian creativity and therefore unique.

As the greatest period for the building of castles and military structures generally in Spain was during the Almoravid and Almohad periods (late 11th C to mid 13th C) and as these two great dynasties originated in Morocco it might be reasonably presumed that some influence arrived in Spain from that kasbah morocco

However, there is no obvious evidence for this, and the building of Kasbahs and other mud built fortified structures bear no relationship to those found in Spain. It seems that Almoravid and Almohad Berbers from Morocco, once settled in Spain, absorbed some of the sophisticated scientific and cultural Islamic society that had long existed under the Caliphate from the 8th century and brought this back to Morocco.

The Christian reconquest of Spain brought northern castle building techniques into the Andalusian Islamic sphere and some influences undoubtedly occurred between the two traditions. The visible remains we see today lean to a view that Christian architecture in Spain was influenced by the Islamic people they conquered rather than the other way around – the Christians in Spain for example adopted the detached or albarrana towers.


photo aracena mosqueAs elsewhere in Europe and the Middle East there was no progressive development of castle architecture of one style or feature leading to another. Castles and fortresses were built for many reasons and by many people and no evolution of military architecture existed.

As we have seen the Islamic architecture of the area developed into its own unique style as a result of the varied set of circumstances and influences that existed within Spain.


The Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula gradually withdrew southwards over a long period of time. From the 10th century to the 15th century the contraction of the occupied areas left frontier zones between the Muslim and Christian held land. The frontier areas were in a varied state of flux from being rather fixed for very long periods (e.g. the frontier formed by the River Dureo in north-central Spain that remained fixed for many decades). Frontiers in other times were often more fluid with the actual frontier being ill defined and changing with the ebb and flow of local political and military situations.

photo ciezaCastles were built in the highest densities along these frontier zones and areas where the frontiers were stable (e.g. the Dureo River) had numerous substantial castles at regular intervals along the frontier. In addition to the great castles a large number of stone watchtowers were built. These were often constructed on high ground, mountain passes, hilltops etc and were used as additional outposts of a fortification nearby. Many survive to this cieza medina

The frontier zones were not always turbulent hostile areas as many such frontiers within Spain during these 800 years were settled and peaceful for many generations. An interesting frontier zone that has a number of fortified farmhouses and small fortresses still remaining is in the area of Torredelcampo in the south of Spain and these are of Islamic origin (see here for more detail on the fortified farmsteads of Torredelcampo).

Reconquest and Departure

The great Islamic Iberian empire that occupied virtually the entire peninsula in the 9th century was reduced to the tiny but still significant Kingdom of Granada by the 15th. Occupying the most southerly part of Spain the Kingdom was centred on the city of Granada itself but also included the important coastal stronghold of Malaga in the west. The castle and walled city (alcazaba) of Malaga was strong, sumptuously provided with gardens and other luxuries and was only marginally less magnificent than the remarkable stronghold, palace and final flowering of the Muslim culture in Spain, the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra embodies all of the culture, artistry and sophistication of late medieval Islam but it was also the heart of a military complex and walled city. Many of the defences of the castle and walled town still remain and can be traced through the heart of Granada today.

The reconquest of Islamic Spain by the Christians was completed in 1492 when Granada was finally taken and the Moors expelled from the country. This brought an 800 year history of Islamic castle building and society in Spain to a close.

This article is a shortened and updated version of a paper ‘Islamic Castles of Iberia’ printed in the Castle Studies Group Journal, No 21 2009, published December 2008.

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Photos on this page: From top. Padern, Portugal; Kasbah Alt Ben Haddou, Morocco; Aracena, mosque; Cieza; Cieza, Islamic Medina under excavation.