Built during the second half of the 12th century by the Almohads, a Moroccan-based Berber Muslim empire (1121-1269). When the Almohads took over Marrakesh in 1147, they destroyed many monuments credited to the Almoravids (their predecessors who they considered heretics). One of the causalities was a previously-built mosque that was taken down and replaced with the Koutoubia Mosque. Subsequently, the Mosque metamorphosized into its present form throughout the second half of the 12th century, with the vital works being carried out during the reign of Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184-99).
Its name, ‘Koutoubia’, is derived from the Arabic word ‘Koutoubiyyin’ or ‘bookseller’ as there were many booksellers plying their trade in a nearby souk (market). The mosque has beautiful, verdant gardens surrounding it and has a distinct minaret which merges Berber, Arab and Andalusian architecture to create a dazzling monument. Built with sandstone, the minaret stands at 70 meters and overlooks the Jema el-Fna, the centre of the old city in Marrakesh.
The Almohads would go on to build other momentous building throughout Morocco and Spain that would share similarities with each other; the Koutoubia’s counterparts can be seen in the form of the La Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower in Rabat. (see below).
Ibn Rushd or Averroes as he is known in the West was a 12th century Andalusian polymath most famous for his philosophical works. Whilst his talents ranged from geography to astronomy, much of his renown comes from his defence of Aristotelian philosophy. Born in 1126 to a prominent Cordoban family, he received an excellent education. In the 1160s he met Ibn Tufayl (the man who wrote the world’s first philosophical novel), who introduced him to the Almohad ruler Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who made Ibn Rushd the Qadi (chief judge) and later the chief physician. It was actually the Almohad ruler who commissioned Ibn Rushd to write a new commentary on Aristotle, and it’s this work which has subsequently become his defining work.
He was alive during a period when much of the Islamic world was beginning to turn away from the study of philosophy, largely due to the works of al-Ghazali (1058-1111). Al-Ghazali’s pivotal works included the ‘Incoherence of the Philosophers‘ which criticised the role played by Muslim philosophers, e.g. Ibn Sina, during the 8th-11th centuries for what he saw as them rooting their intellectual inspiration in Ancient Greek philosophy. Critically, the book further underlined that each and every event was the will of God; Ibn Rushd rebuked this notion in his book ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘ and put forth his belief that God had created the natural law which allowed every event to take place but that every act was not a manifestation of God’s direct interference.
In 1195, many of his books were burned, he was stripped of his position and forced into exile because of public pressure against his ideas. Nonetheless he was soon re-established and died shortly after in Marrakesh in 1198.
After his death, his legacy followed a strange path. He was held in very high regard in the West, even being called “The Commentator” for all of his commentaries on Aristotle’s work. The philosophical school of thought Averrorism was popular through European educational institutions in the 13th century. His works even had a great impact on Jewish philosophers. But amongst Muslim societies his legacy did not gain the same level of appreciation, primarily because al-Ghazali’s ideas about religion’s relationship with philosophy still hold sway over much of the Islamic world.
The magnificent palace-fortress complex of the Alhambra had very humble origins. A small fortress had existed in its place since at least as early as 889 AD and was most likely built on the site of Roman fortifications – the continuity of the site’s usage demonstrates its strategic location, being situated on top of a hill overlooking the city of Granada. It came to be known as ‘Qalat Al-Hamra’, or the ‘Red Fortress’, most likely due to the red bricks used in its construction.
It fell into obscurity until the mid 11th century when Samuel ibn Naghrela (994-1056), a Jewish vizier to the Emir of Granada, reconstructed and made it his residence. Samuel was succeeded as vizier by his son Joseph who further expanded the fortress out of fear inspired by the rising anti-Semitism in the taifa of Granada (see 1066 Massacre of Granada). Ironically, when the Christian kingdoms completed the Reconquista* in 1492, the Edict of Expulsion, which forced the Jewish population of Spain to leave the country, was signed in 1492 in the Alhambra – the same place which owed at least part of its roots to Spanish Jewry.
The current shape of the Alhambra is owed to the rulers of the Nasrid Emirate of Granada who transformed it into a royal palace. From the mid-13th century onward the Alhambra was expanded and embellished to its current grandeur over the course of the next century and a half. These improvements included the famous Patio of the Lions, the Baths and extension of some of the towers.
When Granada fell to the Catholic Monarchs, the Alhambra retained its place of prominence as it became the site of their royal residence and was even the place where Christopher Columbus received royal support for his expedition to the New World. Charles V, Emperor of the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, was keen to place a Christian imprint on this feat of Islamic architecture and decided to build a palace which required the removal of some aspects of the original complex. Although the palace was not completed, it has left quite an impressionable mark on the entire complex.
From the mid-16th century onward, the Alhambra was virtually abandoned until the 19th century when it was re-discovered by British intellectuals. Since then, the site has benefited greatly from reconstruction works done on it after centuries of neglect and disrepair.
Muslim Spain is a great example of how artistic achievements can transcend differing religious outlooks. Even though the Islamic presence in Iberia precipitated a clash of civilisations between Islam and Christendom, the Christian kingdoms still kept certain remnants of al-Andalus. Some of these Muslim feats of architecture and culture, with the Alhambra being the best example, have left indelible marks on Spanish and Portuguese culture. In turn, this has provided both Spanish and Portuguese culture with an extra layer of richness that is now being utilised to help the countries materially, in the shape of tourism.
* The Reconquista – the resistance of the Catholic kingdoms of the northern Iberia towards Muslim rule, started almost as soon as the Muslims took power in 718 and ended with the fall of the final Muslim stronghold of Granada in 1492.
Check out our YouTube video on the Alhambra!
All these amazing pictures have been provided courtesy of EduArtGranada, a talented artist from Granada – go check him out on