In a previous post about Spanish castles I wrote six years ago, I talked about the Castillo de Alameda de Osuna, a fifteenth-century castle on the northeastern fringes of Madrid. Back then it was rather neglected, standing as an enigmatic ruin in the middle of a field. Now it’s been restored and has opened as a museum.
The site first became important in the 12th century with the founding of two towns in the area, Barajas and La Alameda. Together they became the manor of the Mendoza family in 1369, only to be transferred to the Zapata family in 1406.
Madrid is a walkable town. Most of the city’s interesting barrios are clustered close together, and even if you have to take a quick trip on the bus or Metro, you’ll find that each barrio has all you need within an easy stroll. That makes Madrid feel a lot smaller than it is, because you can shop, dine, drink, work, and go to school all in the same barrio.
Several tour companies offer interesting walking tours of the city, focusing on Madrid’s history, nightlife, or culture. The latest addition is The Making of Madrid, which specializes in history. I recently took a tour of the working class barrio of Lavapiés, known for its left-leaning politics and large immigrant community.
In my last post, I talked about an early Christian church and some Visigothic remains in Toledo in central Spain. Toledo was a mix of cultures during the Middle Ages, with Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities all leaving their mark. The city is home to an excellent Sephardi Museum housed in a medieval synagogue.
The synagogue was founded in 1356 by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia, Royal Treasurer to King Pedro of Castile and León. It was attached to Abulafia’s palace and intended as a private house of worship.
Portion of a Visigothic sarcophagus, with scenes from the Bible
Enough about the Western Desert of Egypt! Let’s pull the sand out of our teeth, bid the mummies goodbye, and go to Toledo, Spain. You can eat pork, drink wine, and see some historic churches.
One of the most interesting is the Iglesia de San Román.
This church dates to the early 13th century, and like many buildings in town was built atop earlier structures. Before the church there was a mosque, and before that a Visigothic church. There may have been a Roman building before that. Its interior is in the Mudéjar style, a Moorish influenced architectural style that has continued in Spain until the modern day.
Funerary stela, Roman, middle of the first century AD
In past weeks we’ve looked at the historic city of Córdoba, Spain–its famous mosque/cathedral, its castle, and other sites. To wrap up this miniseries, let’s look at the city’s excellent archaeological museum. Like many local museums in Spain, it covers a broad range of history from the Paleolithic to the Renaissance. It is especially strong in Roman artifacts, and is in fact built on some Roman ruins that can be seen in the basement.
I love these local museums because you get to see just how long people have been living at some of these places. The museum in Córdoba is especially well presented and has some interesting pieces from the city and the surrounding countryside. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
The mosque interior, showing the famous series of double arches. The column on the left has a Corinthian capital reused from a Roman building. The one of the right has a Moorish capital.
I am fortunate to live in a country that has preserved remains from a wide variety of civilizations. From Roman cities to medieval castles, Spain’s got it all. One culture that has left an enduring legacy on Spanish architecture, cuisine, and language is that of the Moors. For much of the Middle Ages, large portions of the Iberian Peninsula were ruled by Muslims from North Africa and the Levant, who built one of the country’s most beautiful buildings.
Invading Muslims took Córdoba, then a rather minor Visigothic city in southern Spain, in 711 AD. They destroyed most of it but spared the church, which was then divided and used as a house of worship for both faiths. The city languished until the arrival of Abd al-Rahman I in 756, who took power in Muslim Spain and made Córdoba his capital. In 784 AD he ordered a great mosque to be built on the site of the church. Later Muslim rulers expanded it until 1236, when Córdoba was recaptured by the Christians and the building was converted into La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption).
The result is an amazing hybrid of various periods of Moorish and Christian architecture.
Last week I wrote about the Alcazaba Castle in Málaga, Spain. As I mentioned, it’s only one of two castles protecting the Mediterranean harbor. Up the hill from the Alcazaba, on top of the Gibralfaro Mountain, is Gibralfaro Castle.
The summit was originally home to a Phoenician lighthouse, hence the name in both Arabic and Greek, gebel-faro meaning “rock of the lighthouse”.
In 929 AD, Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Cordoba, built the first castle here. It was later expanded in the 14th century by Yusef I, Sultan of Granada. He also connected this fort to the Alcazaba by adding a double wall down the slope to make one continuous fortification. You have to buy a ticket for each, though. Poor old Yusuf is spinning in his grave.
The fort as seen while approaching along El Puente de Las Bolas,
“the Bridge of the Balls.” Cannonballs, that is.
As I mentioned my last post on Lanzarote’s Piracy Museum, Spain’s Canary Islands are dotted with historic forts. As a stopover on the way to and from the New World, these islands off the west coast of Africa naturally became a target for piracy. Every port had at least one fort to protect it.
Statue of a Lusitani warrior, 1st century AD.
Note the torc and arm bands, indicating high rank
It’s the start of the summer exhibition season here in Madrid, and the National Archaeological Museum is offering a free exhibition called Lusitania Romana, about the Roman province that took up much of what is now western Spain and Portugal.
The province got its name from the native Lusitani, who were either a Celtiberian people or an older ethnic group culturally influenced by the Celts, depending on which historian you read. The Romans fought these people from from 155 to 139 BC, eventually defeating them. The Lusitani continued a guerrilla war for another century.
When the province was created in 27 BC, the capital was set as Emerita Augusta, now the modern city of Mérida in Spain, which still retains some fascinating Roman ruins including a well-preserved theater, plus an excellent museum. With pacification came acculturation, and soon the region had several sizeable cities with all the usual Roman public works, and the countryside had numerous villas with some fine mosaics that have survived to this day.
Morocco is a country of many parts. While most visitors go down the the Atlas Mountains and the important cities in the interior like Fez and Marrakesh, or strike out into the southern desert, the Moroccan coast is well worth a visit. The Atlantic coast in particular has some interesting historic ports.
Larache is an hour and a half drive along the coast from the Strait of Gibraltar and makes for a good day trip from Tangier. Nearby is the Roman city of Lixus, the main reason we went. Lixus used to be a harbor until the Oued Loukos estuary silted up, marooning it inland and forcing the residents to build the newer city of Larache around the 15th century AD.
For many years it was an important fishing port and was the main shipbuilding center for the Barbary corsairs. Local artisans used wood from the nearby Forest of Mamora, which still stands today and makes a good place for a peaceful stroll.