Islamic Walled Towns

Walled Towns or Alcazabas

Some of the most important towns in Islamic Spain were walled and defended by strong gates. These towns were called Alcazabas and were often built on a large scale and most commonly, in the south of Spain. Good examples of these are to be found at Malaga, Almeria and Seville.

photo toledo bisagra gateThere are many others scattered about the peninsula with an excellent example, continuously occupied from the earliest period, being the city of Toledo. This city was one of the most important towns and strongholds in the Islamic world from the 8th - 11th century, and a cultural and artistic centre at the heart of all medieval society in Spain – Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Toledo has large stretches of medieval walls and gateways still in excellent condition. The Christians took the city in 1085 and stretches of Islamic town wall from before this date are still to be seen.

The dates of the walls range from 11th century to 13th with the earlier stretches made up of massive stone blocks and impressive gateways in parts, tapial walls in others and highly decorative gates of the later period. The post 1085 walls are made in the Islamic styles and Moorish artisans were almost certainly involved in their construction

photo malagaFrom the time of the Almoravid occupation of Spain from the mid 11th century the defensive circuit of walls was becoming more elaborate. In particular, impressive gateways into the town were being constructed. These gateways were sometimes embellished with decorative patterns in Tapial, stone or brick, often with gateways shaped with ‘Moorish’ or horseshoe arches but also with increasingly sophisticated defences.

The use of the turned entrance through the gateways was becoming the normal arrangement whereby the visitor had to turn through 90 degrees once and sometimes twice, before entering the open space inside. The gateways were usually defended by strong gates at each turn and were covered by defensive firing positions above and in front of each door.

An inner defended castle was usually present within the walled town enclosure, often at the highest part of the site, where the lord and his palace was located. The Alcazaba of Malaga is a particularly good example of this.

Once again the trends we see in Spain were reflected in other parts of the Islamic world and the siting of royal or dynastic palaces within the enclosure of a fortified town from the late 11th century can be found elsewhere.

photo niebla gateAnother fine example is the Andalusian town of Niebla on the road between Seville and Huelva in the SW of Spain. Niebla was an important Islamic centre and Alcazaba, built upon the remains of a Roman town and possibly an interim Visigothic one too. The Islamic town was taken by the Alfonso X in 1262 during the Reconquest and from that time some alterations have been made to the fabric. However, much from the original Alcazaba remains and the walls follow the later Islamic line, incorporating stretches of tapial masonry and original Islamic gateways. Some Roman masonry is also incorporated within the curtain walls overlooking the Rio Tinto.

Within the long period of Islamic occupation (8th – 13th centuries) the Alcazaba underwent rebuilding and enlargement. It would appear that the earlier structure had stone built walls similar to the Roman ones and later rebuilding used tapial more extensively. Remains from all periods are incorporated in the surviving fabric making exact dating rather difficult.

photo toledo puerta del solOne of the Mosques from the Islamic period still remains – now the modified Santa Maria Church, and other remodelled Mosques can be found in Niebla.

As with many of the Islamic castles and towns taken during the Christian Reconquest they were largely left as they were and repaired to begin with and only gradually, as fashions and local demands dictated, were remodelled. Thus many later Christian towns retained their Islamic form and extent well beyond the medieval period and sometimes, right into the present day.



Photos on this page: From top. Toledo, Bisagra gate; Malaga; Niebla; Toledo, Puerta del Sol.