Guest lecturer Hugh Ellwood provides us with a very interesting blog today, looking at kings and caliphs: Arab conquests and a masterpiece of cooperation between the Christian King and the Islamic Caliph. It all centres around Spain and a time when in Western Europe, the ‘Dark Ages’ were upon us. However, at the same time in Spain, it was an entirely different picture, one of a brilliant and sophisticated civilization with a vibrant culture.

The ruins of Medina Azahara, a fortified Arab Muslim medieval palace-city near Cordoba, Spain

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century AD the period that followed for the next 600 years is known as the ‘Dark Ages’, but not in Spain.

Two years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad in the 7th century, the Arab conquests began, and they reached a climax in 714 under the first Caliph – just 80 years to conquer an area larger than the Roman Empire, stretching from the border of India to the border with France. As well as a world religion, this Arab Empire, known as the Islamic Caliphate, was a civilization and culture of art, architecture and science and for nearly eight centuries the Iberian Peninsula was part of this Caliphate.

When the Arabs invaded Spain, they made the city of Cordoba the capital of the peninsula and its mosque was the earliest significant building. A massive buttressed stone wall forms a compound, of which half is a covered prayer-hall. The main hall was used for a variety of purposes; prayer, teaching, and administering law. The Arabs used the horseshoe arch which they had picked up from the Visigoths. The roof is supported by interlocking horseshoe arches with voussoirs of alternating colour. To gain extra height, they used a system of double arches, one on top of the other.

Mezquita Mosque

The Alhambra had been a fortress dominating Granada from the 9th century. It was a palace, a citadel, a fortress, and home of the Nasrid sultans, with some beautifully decorated spaces. The bay windows in the dressing room of the Sultana form a delightful retreat, overlooking the gardens. The tiled lower wall is complex, rhythmical and subtle, with very small pieces. Throughout the palace, walls and floors are covered with intricate patterns of tiles or mosaics. In the Hall of the Two Sisters, because of the dome of stalactites and the treatment of light, the effect is that of richness, luminosity and enchantment. The court of the Lions has been compared to a grove of palm trees, but the slender niches of triple arches make us think of the cloister of a medieval monastery. The patio’s gallery is supported by 124 slender marble columns, producing a delicate lacework oriental effect.

Decorated room inside Nasrid Palace in the complex of the Alhambra

In the 11th and 12th centuries the Arab texts were being translated into Latin. Scholars were coming from all over Europe to encounter many of the greatest works on medicine, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy and theology of ancient Greece, Persia and India, all translated, assimilated and developed by the Muslims.

In the centre of Seville is the Alcazar, a masterpiece of cooperation between the Christian King and the Islamic Caliph. At the heart of this palace is the wonderful Courtyard of the Maidens. The whole patio is laid out in the traditional form of a double storey cloister with beautiful arches and exquisite plasterwork and tiling. The Hall of the Ambassadors is the centre-piece of the Alcazar. We see a combination of Roman Composite capitals on the columns, Visigoth horseshoe arches and all the surfaces covered in rich, applied decoration. We also see the use of Arabic script as decoration – it is a unique feature of the integration of calligraphy and architecture.

The courtyard of the maidens situated inside of the Royal Alcazar Palace in Seville

In those centuries of the ‘Dark Ages’ in Western Europe, in Spain there was a brilliant and sophisticated civilization, a vibrant culture, scientifically and artistically advanced, commercially dynamic, literate, urban and cosmopolitan.