Though modern pilgrims cite various reasons for undertaking the Camino de Santiago – ranging from adventure to spirituality to physical exercise – the journey is, at its heart, a Christian pilgrimage with roots deep in the Middle Ages.
The medieval era in Spain is not simply a Christian story, however. On the contrary, the period is characterised by two seemingly contradictory phenomena: convivencia, or coexistence, between people adhering to the three major monotheistic faiths after the Moorish invasion of 711, and the reconquista, which saw Christian forces slowly advance south over a period of centuries and eventually end nearly 800 years of Muslim presence on the Iberian peninsula at the dawn of the Renaissance.
The legacy of Muslim rule in Spain — and on various routes of the Camino de Santiago — is nothing short of extraordinary. These are six of the best examples of Islamic architecture on the camino, including five UNESCO World Heritage attractions.
The Alhambra, Granada
As the last stronghold of Muslim Spain until the final victory of the Christian reconquest in 1492, Granada is one of the most famous cities of the Moorish era. The most tangible legacy of its Islamic past, and the most visited attraction in Spain, is the spectacular Alhambra, a fortress-palace originally built in the ninth century and modified by Muslim and Christian rulers for centuries afterwards.
Dramatically perched on a hilltop overlooking Granada, the Alhambra’s 13th-century walls conceal an artistic and architectural jewel within. Among the palace’s best-known features are the fountain of the lions and the stunningly intricate alabaster motifs and calligraphy found in the rooms and courtyards.
To visit the Alhambra, some advance planning is required. The number of daily tickets is limited, and visits to the Nasrid Palaces are only at designated times indicated on the ticket and can sell out. To avoid missing out, buy tickets online in advance as soon as you know the date of your visit.
Finally, bear in mind that only one of the three branches of the Camino Mozárabe — the one beginning in Almería — passes through Granada. If you begin in Jaén or Málaga, you will join up with the other branches well after Granada, but the Alhambra is well worth a visit before or after your camino.
The Real Alcázar, Seville
Vía de la Plata
Famous as a film and television set for titles such as Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven and Game of Thrones, the Alcázar (from the Arabic al-qasr, meaning castle or palace) is one of the can’t-miss highlights of Seville.
As with the Alhambra, the Alcázar is a fortified palace that was modified under Moorish and Christian rule for centuries. It doesn’t retain as much of its early Muslim form as the Alhambra, but the subsequent Christian additions honour the Alcázar’s origins in their Mudéjar style.
The best example of this Muslim-inspired architecture is the tranquil Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens), an oasis of peace in the centre of Spain’s fourth largest city. Built in the 14th century during the reign of Peter of Castile when Seville was already back under Christian rule, the courtyard dazzles with its arches and decorative carvings that are reminiscent of the madrasas of Morocco.
Beyond the palatial elements of the Alcázar, one of the most interesting features of the complex is a rainwater tank dating from the Muslim Almohad rule of the 12th and 13th centuries that was subsequently named after Peter’s mistress as the Baths of María de Padilla. Beyond its practical function, the tank is an evocative and eerie vaulted tunnel that recalls other elaborate water storage facilities in the greater Mediterranean world, including the Byzantine-era Basilica Cistern in Istanbul and the colonial Portuguese cistern underneath the walled city of El-Jadida in Morocco.
The Mezquita, Córdoba
For all the praise heaped on the Alhambra as the most famous Islamic site in Spain, the 8th-century Mezquita in Córdoba may be even more spectacular. In both its interior and exterior, the harmony of the arches and the artistic detail combine to produce one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe.
Built as the principal mosque in the capital of Umayyad Spain, the Mezquita was completed in under two years in the 780s. Its innovative system of double-tiered arches on top of a forest of columns lifts the ceiling closer to the heavens and remains one of the building’s most distinctive and beautiful features.
The jewel of the Mezquita, however, is the 10th-century mihrab (prayer niche) that still glimmers a millennium later even in dim light. The exquisite horseshoe arch is decorated with mosaics featuring golden floral motifs, surrounded by decorative carvings, mosaics and beautifully rendered text from the Quran. Above the mihrab, a stunning shell-shaped dome offers an appropriate coincidence for pilgrims on the Camino Mozárabe.
In the 13th century, Córdoba was recaptured for Christianity and the Mezquita was immediately converted into a cathedral, a status it retains to this day. Alterations that have taken place since have Christianised parts of the building, but the unique atmosphere of the original medieval mosque remains.
Medina Azahara, Córdoba
As if one extraordinary Islamic monument in greater Córdoba wasn’t enough, there is another: outside the city lies a 10th-century governing palace that served as the beating heart of the Caliphate of Córdoba during the Umayyad period.
Unlike the Mezquita or the other beautifully preserved Muslim buildings in Andalusia, however, Medina Azahara is in ruins. Far from being a disappointment, the abandoned state of the palace adds to its atmospheric nature as arches and gates appear to rise out of the earth while roofless halls seem even more vast when set against the backdrop of the deep blue Andalusian sky. Yet despite the palace’s ruined appearance, the extraordinary decoration that typifies the Muslim buildings of the region can still be appreciated and marvelled at.
The camino doesn’t pass by Medina Azahara, but as it’s just over 6km from Córdoba — and since Córdoba is ideal for a rest day to visit the Mezquita and its other attractions anyway — the ruins can easily be added to a pilgrim’s itinerary.
The Aljafería, Zaragoza
Camino del Ebro
Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain and contains the country’s finest Islamic monument outside Andalusia: the Aljafería, an 11th-century fortified palace whose imposing towers dominate the surrounding landscape.
Like the Alhambra and Real Alcázar, the Aljafería became a royal residence after the reconquest and has had significant Christian additions. What makes it unique is that it is the only known major Islamic monument built in Spain during the fractured taifa period, and that its more northern location meant the reconquest, and subsequent Christian modification, came earlier, in the 12th century.
While the Aljafería is a magnificent monument in its own right, it falls short of the more famous Muslim complexes further south in artistic detail. The most evocative part of the interior is the oratory, a small private mosque with a mihrab that, while not the equal of the one in the Mezquita, is impressive nevertheless.
The Islamic Town of Martulah (Mértola, Portugal)
Caminho do Este
Despite a 550-year Muslim presence in Portugal from the beginning of the eighth century to the middle of the 13th century, there is little visible cultural heritage from this era, especially compared with the superb sites of Andalusia. Castles in Lisbon and nearby Sintra have Moorish foundations but were greatly modified later, leaving the capital with a Muslim legacy that can be difficult to capture.
In the riverside town of Mértola in the Alentejo region south of Lisbon, however, visitors can glimpse Portugal’s Muslim past. The town’s church was built over a mosque, and it still retains some architectural and artistic features from its earlier incarnation, including vestiges of the mihrab. It is the only mosque to have survived in any form in Portugal from the period of Islamic rule.
Additionally, there is an Islamic collection within the town’s museum that is considered the most important in Portugal and ruins from the Muslim period that are still being excavated.
To really appreciate Mértola’s Muslim history, however, time your visit to coincide with the biennial Islamic Festival that takes place in May in odd-numbered years. The festival’s North African vibe and the exhibitions, storytelling and waft of spices emanating from the souq enticingly transport visitors — and even Christian pilgrims — back to Portugal’s long-forgotten Muslim past.