Re-use of Roman masonry in Islamic Castles of Spain

Jimena gatewayBefore we move into the discussion it must be stressed, particularly for those readers who are using translation tools, that the meaning of Roman masonry in the context of what follows means the Roman period, not what is often referred to in European languages as Roman-esque or 11th/12th century Roman style masonry. This article is referring the 1st- 4th century Roman masonry.

The technical term for this reuse of older masonry is Spolia and is a well known and common practice that spans the whole of the ancient world with all cultures reusing masonry pieces, both decorative and functional building blocks, from an earlier time.

It has been noted on several pages of Castles of Spain that Roman masonry is commonly reused in Spanish castles, particularly the early Islamic ones. In the case of ashlar blocks and building stone in general this is to be expected. Many existing Roman buildings, including their fortified sites and watchtowers, were used as the location of new Islamic castles as the Muslims moved through the Iberian peninsula.

The fact that substantial remains of many Roman buildings were still commonly encountered in the country, as well as later Visigothic buildings, themselves often built over Roman structures, meant that a ready supply of building stone was available to the builders.

Some Islamic castles based upon existing Roman fortifications actually used the same footprint and lower courses of walls and buildings, adding new courses and extending as required. There is nothing unusual in this as societies throughout the ages have made use of building materials from earlier periods and many buildings throughout the Old World have been constructed from materials taken from ruined older buildings close by.

The subject of this article concerns not the stone ashlars or blocks but the decorative ornamental building materials which adorn so many Spanish Islamic castles.

Palmyra columnsRoman columns for instance were often reused in Middle Eastern castles around the time of the Crusades and were frequently employed in both Islamic and Christian buildings of the period particularly if an ancient Roman site was nearby.

Palmyra SyriaThe magnificent Roman city of Palmyra in Syria was re-occupied by the Muslims in the 7th century and became the site of a Muslim fortified structure or castle in 1132 when the temple of Ba’al was turned into a fortified enclosure. Many Roman marble columns were used in the construction of the walls of the re-fortified city, placed often at right angles to the wall face, bonding the masonry and showing as circular features mixed in regular courses with more typical squared ashlar blocks. The columns were simple building materials to hand, freely available and in large quantities. Similar building construction techniques using these columns are found in many sites around the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa.

Cordoba MezquitaThe famous Great Mosque in Cordoba with its remarkable ‘palm tree’ double arched interior structure used hundreds of Roman and Visigothic marble columns and capitals to hold up the red and white distinctive arches. So when we look to Spain, like so many other more eastern areas, the reuse of Roman columns takes on a more decorative and ornamental aspect and are seemingly not simply reused at random.

Of course, the reuse of plain Roman ashlars does occur throughout Spain. The magnificent city walls of Avila for example show many Roman blocks within the fabric of the walls, several of them distinguished by Latin inscriptions and Roman period decorative carvings. At the Islamic castle of Merida, built upon the ancient Roman city there, and many other places within Spain, these ashlar blocks often seem to be randomly positioned and appear to be used as simple, convenient, ready dressed stone blocks.

It is to the more purposefully positioned stone that our attention now turns. Jimena de la Frontera castle in Andalusia is a Muslim castle built upon the remains of a much earlier Roman settlement of Oba. Jimena remained in Muslim hands until the final period of the Kingdom of Grananda when it succumbed to Christian forces in 1431. The castle was a frontier outpost of great importance for many years and provided a highly visible reminder to the nearby Christian lords that the Muslim territories were strongly protected.

Jimena has many points of interest (link here to more information on Jimena) from 10th century onwards. The magnificent Almohad water cisterns or ‘Aljibes’ are of particular interest.

Jimena archHowever it is the 13th century horseshoe arch main entrance gateway that dominated the castle. This gateway, with its double horseshoe arch, machicolated to allow defensive action from the gallery above, appears to be both a strong defensive feature and a symbolic statement as well. The masonry around the gate contains several reused inscribed Roman stones. The stones are placed around the gateway itself and are on a level that matches the level of pedestrians and horse bound visitors passing through the castle gates.

The outer archway itself, formed in characteristic Muslim fashion of this period has the decorative plaster and painted upper register typical of the form. Jimena is particularly interesting in this respect as some of the original paintwork survives giving a glimpse into the appearance of the original medieval entrance. Below the level of the archway, in the gateway jambs and walls themselves, can be seen these Roman ashlars.

The concentration of them in this area and the deliberate positioning of the stones at the most visible parts of the gate strongly imply that visitors were expected to notice these stones as they passed into the castle. Was this a method by which the Islamic builders of the castles made a statement of strength and permanence?. That they were the successor to the Roman Imperial territory and were the masters of it?.

Jimena RomanThe fact that many inscribed Roman stones were laid upside down or otherwise off axis could also be interpreted to show the domination of the previous Roman world, the disapproval of the words of the Latin text (often of a religious nature), and of mastery of it.

A counter argument to the above hypothesis could be made by reminding ourselves that many Islamic castles were built of rough masonry and tapial and then plastered over and painted in strong geometric patterns. This process would completely hide any underlying stonework and so make an argument for deliberate display of Roman masonry invalid. However not all Islamic castles were plastered and painted, at least not completely. There are many examples of the decorative use of coloured masonry and of masonry details, carved features etc. to show that the stone face of walls were designed to be seen, in some cases.

Jimena capitalA further point in favour of the argument that the Roman masonry was expected to be seen is that at Jimena and elsewhere Roman columns and carved capitals were also placed at visible locations. At Jimena a Roman white limestone capital is placed as a quoin stone on the corner of the gateway tower, again at a height level with the visiting person passing through. This capital, surrounded with double courses of Roman tile and dark stone make a decorative feature and difficult to envisage being produced only to be plastered over. This decorative feature must have been prominent and obvious to all.

The use of Roman carved columns prominently located at the entrances to Islamic castles and palaces cannot be more strongly portrayed than at the castle or Alcazaba of Malaga. Here there are many decorative and elaborate gateways filled with carved and monumental Roman masonry. Columns set into the gateway arches and jambs form an almost processional entrance into Malaga and their prominence within the Royal palace with its wealth and significance within Muslim Spain is difficult to see in anything other than statements of continuity and power over the Roman legacy.

This is the briefest of introductions to what this author at least finds an interesting topic. Malaga roman columnsThe reuse of Roman masonry or spolia has been noted across many countries and periods. The precise purpose of doing so and the thinking behind it can now only be speculative. We know that medieval travellers commented, in documents that have come down to us, that the reuse of such architectural features were seen as attractive. We also know that there was a practical building purpose in recycling good building stone.

On the matter of symbolism and  statements of continued authority over the land we can only guess. There are records of the incorporating of pagan statues into later buildings and placing the statue on its side in order to remove its ‘power’ and status. Could something similar be happening with the Roman inscribed stones and altars found in Muslim castles?.

I would as always be pleased to hear from anyone who has thoughts on these matters via the ‘contact us’ page.


Photos on this page: From top to bottom: Jimena de la Frontera, gateway; Palmyra, Syria, Temple of Ba'al (x2); Cordoba, Mezquita; Jimena de la Frontera, painted Islamic arch; Jimena, re-used Roman Masonry (x2): Malaga, Alcazaba with reused Roman columns..