Close your eyes and imagine Spain. What comes to mind?
For me, it was tall, sky-scraping cathedrals, palm trees, cobblestone streets, and flamenco dancers in glimmering, cherry-red heels. This is actually a good description of Seville, though not all-encompassing. However, something most people might miss is the incredible influence of Islamic culture. The same colorful flats and religious towers you’re thinking of are standing artifacts of Spain under Muslim rule. It’s one of the most interesting aspects of Seville, especially when visiting from other parts of the country.
The Umayyad conquest of Hispania began in 711 A.D. and continued through 1492. It wasn’t one homogeneous period, but a collection of eras marked by different rulers. Andalusia is considered the heartland of the greater cultural time frame, and today, the impact of Muslim forces is one of the most characteristic features of the region.
It’s hard to understand smaller architectural remnants without witnessing Seville in person. With a quick Google search, I found many detailed explanations of famous landmarks, like the Alcázar and the Giralda. But these aren’t the only hints of Islamic influence throughout the city. My favorite is the scatter of bright, intricate ceramic tiles covering the exterior of almost every home. They caught my attention because they reminded me of my mother’s family apartment in Kolkata, another place that has been heavily affected by Muslim rule — which actually ended in betrayal and British colonialism (but more on that another time).
During our excursion to Seville, my study abroad program attended a ceramics class at Espacio BarroAzul. Not only did I develop a newfound admiration for whomever produced each and every tile in the south of Spain, I learned that they have a purpose. Ceramic tiles are a form of protection for white, heat-absorbent buildings that quickly deteriorate in torrid weather.
Another innovation from Muslim rule is the porch, shaded with a strong arch overhead. Behind the arch, there is a gate blocking entry to the front door. These are common in India as well. Though I have not traveled to other areas of Andalusia, I have never seen this concept in Barcelona. It’s an invention brought to Spain by the Muslims, who worked around the constant sunlight in this dry territory. They also built narrow, curvy roads made to channel the breeze, confuse invaders, and allow residents to roam on horseback.
Climate was a big factor in the planning of Seville. A great example of this is the multitude of fountains around cathedrals and terraces. For a group of people from an arid geographical location, having a reliable source of water was important. Now, they serve as modern-day gathering spots to get together with friends and family, just like the Spanish plaza.
Since arriving in Barcelona, I hadn’t traveled outside of Catalonia, so getting to know Seville with my program was a privilege I’m thankful for. From tasting traditional tapas to watching a flamenco show, I realized how multicultural Spanish history is. Islamic influence doesn’t stop at planning and architecture: an estimated 8% of the Spanish language comes from Arabic. So the next time you generalize Spain as a Catholic country with a predominantly Catholic background, think again.