Torre Albarrana (2) - Origins of Detached Towers in Spain

MontearagonAlbarranaThe Iberian peninsula is the home to a unique feature of fortified architecture, the detached external mural tower. These detached towers are found all over Spain and southern Portugal and are incorporated into the curtain walls of castles and fortified town walls. The arrangement of these towers that makes them unique to Iberia is the linking bridge that attaches the tower to the main curtain wall.

These detached, linked, defensive towers are not found anywhere else, although, there are some superficially similar towers at various places around Europe and the Middle East (see further discussion below).

In Spain the towers are known as ‘Torre Albarrana’ or Albarrana Towers. The word is of Arabic origin, which the ‘al-‘ element of the word suggests, and seems to be derived from the word ‘barranu’ meaning ‘exterior’.

In addition to the linked bridge the albarrana towers are often built as a series of towers placed at regular intervals thus forming a line of detached towers. This feature further distinguishes the type from other forms of tower.

The detached and linked mural tower seems to be one of the many distinctive and highly individual features of ‘Andalusi’ art and architecture of the middle ages. Al Andalus was the name given to the Iberian peninsula under Muslim control. This represented most of the peninsula from the 8th  to the 10th century at the height of the Muslim expansion and, following the Christian ‘Reconquest’, gradually contracting to the small kingdom of Granada on the southern coast of Spain prior to their final expulsion from the peninsular in the late 15th century.

Caceres Torre The cultural mix of Islamic peoples originating from many different parts of the Muslim world that came together in al-Andalus produced during these centuries a particular Andalusi style in many things and these detached towers seem to be one of those.

The first use of these towers was in Muslim fortifications in Spain, probably in the late 12th century. There are various theories about which is the earliest example still remaining with several contenders. Amongst these are the albarrana towers of the defensive walls of Badajoz (c.1180), those on the walls of Merida and also those on the castle at the southern coastal town of Tarifa.

A more general statement that can be confidently made is that these linked-detached towers were first introduced by the Almohad dynasty; Berber tribes-people from southern Morocco, who came into al-Andalus in the mid 12th century with very warlike and expansionist tendencies and quickly became the dominant power there. They had a militaristic and strong religious culture and built many castles and other defensive buildings throughout southern Spain and Portugal.

Although the Almohads originated in Morocco their building of albarrana towers seems to have been an original concept as there are no surviving examples or any record of examples (at least not known by this author) to be found in Morocco.

Alquezar TowerCompletely detached towers of a defensive purpose were well established within the Iberian peninsula much earlier than the late 12th century, but they performed a watch-tower function, standing alone beyond the curtain wall of a castle.  Good 11th century examples of these detached watch-towers can be seen at the castles of Loarre and Alquezar in the north east of Spain. They were not albarrana towers however as they did not have connecting bridges nor were they positioned defensively along a stretch of curtain or by an entrance gate. The Muslims constructed many stand-alone watch-towers all across Iberia from their earliest occupation in the 8th century, often on high ground, some associated with a larger fortress complex, others as independent structures.

Other parts of the Islamic world such as the Middle East, also saw the building of defensive stand-alone towers from an early date and such towers go back into antiquity with the Byzantines in the east, the Visigoths and before them the Romans in the West, all known to have created such towers.

Aleppo SyriaOne of the most spectacular medieval Islamic fortifications to be found anywhere is the  magnificent citadel of Aleppo in Syria. The stone paved glacis or outer encircling ditch has a single detached tower on each side, the north and south bastions. These were added to strengthen the defences of the citadel in the 14th century and originally attached to the wall with a drawbridge. With superficial similarities of purpose the detached towers of Aleppo appear late in the story and are very different to Andalusi detached towers appearing as mini ‘keeps’ and substantial in their scale.

Looking to the non Muslim world for detached towers once more finds no examples of albarrana towers being used in the same way as the Iberian ones, but again as in the Muslim world, there are some superficially similar examples (with one notable exception at Pontefract Castle, Yorkshire, see: Castle Studies Group Journal 19 (2006) pp239-244. Peter Burton, Pontefract and Castles in Spain.).

The castle built by Edward I at Flint in north Wales in c.1280 has a detached cylindrical keep or great tower, encircled by a wet moat with water from the adjacent River Dee, and attached to the inner bailey of the castle by a bridge walkway. This of course is clearly a detached defensible tower but it is not an albarrana tower.

Kwidzyn Poland DanskerThe brick built castles in Prussia (present day Poland) built by the Military Order of Teutonic Knights in the 13th – 15th centuries often contained detached, fortified, ‘Dansker’ towers. Again these towers have a superficial similarity to our albarrana towers, being defensively built, with a covered bridge walkway linking the tower to the inner curtain. Dansker towers however were built as free standing latrine towers, usually situated over a fast running stream below to allow the waste to be quickly removed from the site, and can be seen as the Teutonic Knights equivalent of the separate latrine block or reredorter often found at non military monastic sites and especially those of the Cistercian order.

As we have seen, what make the albarrana towers of Spain and Portugal unique is their linked wall or bridge and we must look for influences that may have led to their development.

Drawing of CorachaA possible influence may have been the defensive water pumping systems of early Islamic fortified settlements known as ‘coracha’. A fine and rare surviving example is at the important castle of Calatrava la Vieja, north east of Cuidad Real in the La Mancha region of central Spain. This fortified site dates back to the earliest period of Muslim settlement in Spain and became a major settlement along the important trading route between Cordoba and Toledo. It is likely to have been a Caravanseri for a time, these establishments  being created along trading routes throughout the Muslim world to house and protect travelling merchants and their stock.

The corachas at Calatrava are first noted in the 9th century and were advanced water engineering systems used to bring water from the adjoining river Guadiana. With historic links to the Umayyad Caliphate of the middle east, the water wheels of Syria know as Norias were well known throughout the Muslim world and the type of coracha discussed here was a development of those traditional water wheels. The river Guadiana  lies below the level of the fortified city of Calatrava, so water had to be carried or pumped from the river up into the enclosure. Corachas achieved this through a series of hydraulic pumps encased within a tower and driven by water wheels in the river. Once raised to an appropriate height above the river bed the water pumps discharged the water into a canal system to flow into the enclosure and all contained within a defensive wall structure linking the river to the city. A tower by the river was linked to the enclosure walls by a wall and bridge. Calatrava la Vieja has the remains of four ancient corachas.

These linked and defended external towers, designed to secure the essential water supply to a fortified site, may have provided the inspiration to the Almohads of the 12th century in Spain to develop the Torre Albarrana we have been discussing here.

Paderne Portugal AlbarranaAs we have discussed above the albarrana towers of Spain and Portugal are a Muslim innovation and we have considered inspirations and similar structures elsewhere in the Islamic world.

The Christian kings and lords who gradually expelled the Muslims from Iberia in the centuries long ’Reconquista’ appear to have appreciated the benefits of albarrana towers as they were retained and added to castle sites won from the Muslims.

This may be due in part to the probability that Christian lords who managed to overthrow a town from its Muslim defenders and perhaps rebuild or strengthen the defences would use the local and therefore Muslim craftsmen to do the work. Their building traditions would inevitably be brought to bear.

However the castle of Ponferrada in Castile was taken from the Muslims in the 12th century and substantially rebuilt. This castle was on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela and therefore of some significance. It became the seat of the Knights Templar in the region for a while and continued to be the centre of a large and important estate for many years. The rebuilding in stone of this major castle included the addition of albarrana towers in the new design and not simply the repair of existing Muslim examples. The appreciation of Muslim architectural forms as well as art and culture by the new Christian rulers must surely have been present in their minds. The commissioning of new works would have been an opportunity to create any form or style that was wanted. The fact that often within Spain at this time Muslim styles were chosen within these new works cannot convincingly be argued on the grounds that this was because Muslim artisans were the only available workforce. A positive choice to employ these styles must have been taken.

The accompanying photographs within this article show the unique appearance of albarrana towers that form such a distinctive aspect to the study of Iberian castles, as well as some examples of detached towers that may resemble them but are of different purpose..

Sites to visit

Remains of castles and fortified towns with albarrana towers are very common throughout Spain and Portugal. There are too many locations to form a complete list here but what follows is a selection of sites with good examples to be visited today.




Paderne (Remains of very rare original external plaster and paintwork on the albarrana towers)
Vila Vicosa

This article first appeared in Postern magazine, issue 23, Spring 2011. Postern is an independent magazine on castles and fortifications published by Malfunction Press. Several editions of Postern are produced each year. For information on Postern magazine contact the publishers at Malfunction Press, Rose Cottage, 3 Tram Lane, Buckley, Flintshire, CH7 3JB, UK. or by email via this link


Photos on this page: Top to Bottom. Montearagon; Caceres, Torre de la Yelba; Alquezar; Aleppo, Syria; Kwidzyn, Poland, Dansker Tower; Coracha, reconstruction drawing; Paderne, Portugal..