05 August 2013

Five Fascinating Facts about Moorish Spain

By Lisa J. Yarde

Centuries ago, when Moors ruled the Iberian Peninsula, they ushered in an age of discovery and enlightenment that would not be repeated in Europe until the Renaissance. 

Nearly eight hundred years of Moorish rule significantly influenced the culture of Spain. To appreciate the impact of Moorish rule, consider the language of Spain, where the city of Almeria (derived from the Arabic al-Mariyah), and Alhambra (derived from the Arabic al-Qal'at Al-Hamra for 'the Red Fortress'), alquería (Spanish for farmhouse, from the Arabic al-qaria for 'the village'), and aceña (Spanish for watermill, another Moorish invention, from the Arabic as-saniyah), indicate Arabic roots. Arabic was the language spoken in Moorish courts. The Moors encouraged musical forms such as flamenco and the development of musical instruments like the guitar. They also enriched daily experiences through the introduction of the toothbrush, the cultivation of oranges and lemons, almonds, coffee, bananas, eggplants, and the development of cottons and silks. Through translations of Ptolemy, Archimedes and Pythagoras, and the introduction of a new numbering system, Arabic and Moorish society improved and altered our modern understanding of medicine, mathematics  and astronomy.
Abbas ibn Firnas, a ninth-century Cordoban, made one of the first known attempts at human flight in Europe. Born in the Andalusian region of Ronda, Ibn Firnas became noted as a physician, engineer and an inventor of a water clock, which he called al-Maqata, as well as a process for cutting rock crystal. He is also known for his failed attempt at gliding. According to the Moroccan historian al-Maqarri, who wrote about the events seven centuries afterward, Ibn Firnas pursued the idea of flight for humans by scientific means. Aged  65 or 70 at the time, he invited the people of Cordoban to the Jabal al-arus (Mount of the Bride) area outside Cordoba, where he had "... covered himself with feathers for the purpose, attached a couple of wings to his body, and, getting on an eminence, flung himself down into the air, when, according to the testimony of several trustworthy writers who witnessed the performance, he flew to a considerable distance, as if he had been a bird, but in alighting again on the place whence he had started his back was very much hurt." The injury supposedly plagued him for the rest of his life. The lunar impact crater Ibn Firnas is named for him.
Tenth-century Cordoba existed as one of Europe's largest and most sophisticated cities. Cordoba became the undisputed capital of Moorish Spain in the eighth century. At night, lighted lamp posts lined the narrow, clean streets, paved with cobblestones. There were pedestrian sidewalks alongside the streets. Running water ran through pipes into reservoirs and fountains, to be distributed throughout the city's nine hundred baths, mosques and private homes, all equipped with latrines. Cordoba's Great Mosque, the palace of Medina Azahara and the library of al-Hakam II drew visitors from across Spain and the rest of Christian Europe. Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Maimonides were born in Cordoba during its golden age. 
The hospitals (maristan) of Moorish Spain were open to people of all faiths, regardless of economic status. Within Moorish tradition, there was the concept of free care for anyone who was sick.  Along with providing care for the infirm and well, poor and wealthy alike, the hospital also served as an asylum. Beginning in June 1367, the hospital of Granada built in the Albaicin, dwarfed by the Alhambra along the right bank of the Darro river, became a renowned example of compassionate care for its residents. The Nasrid ruler Sultan Muhammad V ordered the hospital's construction beginning in September 1365. Glazed mosaic tiles, marble and stucco lined the interior. Plaster encased the brick facade of the two-storied structure. There were two staircases on the longer sides of the building giving access to the second floor. Recessed galleries and square rooms surrounded a courtyard featuring a long pool with two fountains on either side, decorated by lions similar to those figures in Alhambra's Court of Lions. Those from Granada's Moorish hospital are now housed in the Alhambra Museum, the palace of Charles V.

The Giralda tower in Seville became Spain's first observatory. Completed during the reign of the Moroccan ruler of Spain, Almohad caliph Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, construction began on the tower under the architect Ahmad ibn Busa. Stones within the Giralda date back to Spain's Visigothic and Roman periods. There was no staircase built within the tower; instead 34 gradually ascending ramps provided access as the tower soared to 320 feet. Four bronze spheres plated with gold rested atop the Giralda until a 14th century earthquake destroyed them. After the conquest of Seville in 1248, the observatory became a belfry.  The Giralda remains the bell tower of the cathedral of Seville, where the bones of Christopher Columbus have rested since the 19th century.
Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.