The era of Al-Andalus, the Islamic Spain spanning from the 8th to the 15th centuries, marked one of the brightest periods in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. The cultural, scientific, economic, and social dynamism turned Al-Andalus into the main hub of knowledge in the Western world. In contrast to the rather dark period in European history known as the Middle Ages, Al-Andalus experienced an Advanced Age and a splendor corresponding to the Islamic Golden Age.
During Muslim rule in Spain, art, culture, and science thrived, particularly in architecture. Most certainly, witnessing magnificent examples of Islamic art such as the Mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra is one of your main goals when visiting Andalusia. However, one of the best surprises awaiting you in this marvelous region, the southernmost area of the Iberian Peninsula, is discovering that the legacy of Al-Andalus is alive and much more prevalent than you could have imagined. What's even more fascinating for a traveler: it can be savored with all five senses.
Here are 4 wonderful manifestations of Al-Andalus' living legacy that you can enjoy today during your visit to Andalusia.
Image Credit: ISTOCK (Street in the town of Nerja, in the province of Málaga.)
One of the most charming and distinctive features of many historical centers in Andalusian cities and towns is the layout of their streets, sharing similarities with other Islamic and Mediterranean cities: narrow, winding white streets seemingly made for leisurely strolls. In the absence of motor traffic (at the time they were designed, not today!), this urban layout has many advantages: these streets provide shade, lessen the wind, make a large city accessible to pedestrians and facilitate social interactions. When you walk through the streets of the Albaicín neighborhood in Granada, in the historical centers of Córdoba, Seville, or Marbella, you're strolling streets just as they were laid out during the Al-Andalus period.
Check out: 6 Best Destinations In Andalusia For Muslims
Image Credit: TURESPAÑA (Pastry shop with traditional sweets inherited from Al Andalus in Granada)
Arabs introduced new plants and crops to the Iberian Peninsula. They not only made these plants adapt but flourish to such an extent that a true agricultural revolution occurred. This was achieved through studies by scholars and botanists, as well as the refinement of irrigation techniques and better land utilization through crop rotation. Sugar cane, Asian rice, bananas and plantains, eggplants, spinach, watermelons, apricots, and date palms, among others, arrived on the peninsula during that period. Eggplant recipes, for example, are now among the most popular in Andalusia.
Numerous spices were also introduced (saffron, cinnamon, anise, cardamom, ginger, pepper, sesame, and more) which led to various methods of seasoning and cooking meats, fish, and vegetables, creating a range of flavors previously unknown in these lands, still present in many recipes today. Also from this period comes the practice of combining meats with elements like fruits (plums, dates, quinces), almonds, or pistachios.
Especially noteworthy is the survival of pastries in preparations such as fruit preserves, sweet fried dough, marzipans, or “turrones” (nougats), which have remained almost unchanged to this day.
Image Credit: TURISMO Y DEPORTE DE ANDALUCÍA (Orange trees next to the cathedral of Seville)
This is one of the most beautiful sights in the streets of some Andalusian cities, especially in Seville and Córdoba: the thousands of ornamental bitter orange trees adorning the streets and exhaling its wonderful aroma when they bloom.
It was the first citrus fruit introduced and adapted by Arabs in Al-Andalus, originating from the East (it seems to have come from the province of Sindh, northwest of India). Later, lemon trees, lime trees, and what we now call grapefruit arrived. In the 10th century, orange trees replaced the initial palm trees, olive trees and cypresses in the courtyard of the Mosque of Córdoba, and it was later also used in the courtyard of the Great Mosque of Seville, which later became the Cathedral of Seville. It's no coincidence that both courtyards are called “Patio de los Naranjos” (Courtyard of the Orange Trees).
Image Credit: TURESPAÑA (A taracea artisan in Granada)
Many of the most representative crafts of Andalusia trace their roots to Al-Andalus. This is the case with “taracea”, which comes from the Hispano-Arabic word tarsi, meaning inlay. It's a decorative technique dating back to Córdoba during the Caliphate period but was very popular in Nasrid Granada. It still survives today in the city of Granada: it involves embedding tiny pieces of select woods into wood, combined with other materials such as bone, ivory, mother-of-pearl, or even silver, forming geometric designs. With this technique, everyday wooden objects were enriched and turned into noble pieces. When you visit Granada, you'll find several craft shops specializing in”taracea”. The most famous one is Laguna Taracea, very close to the Alhambra.
Another technique inherited from the Islamic period is the Cordovan filigree. It's a delicate jewelry technique involving interlacing fine metallic threads, generally silver and gold, into elaborate designs. This ancient technique also came to Al-Andalus from the East and had its day in Caliphal Córdoba. Today, you can find it in jewelry pieces with traditional or modern designs in shops like Plata Cordobesa.
Image Credit: CASA DEL GUADAMECÍ OMEYA (An artisan of the 'Umayyad guadameci' in Córdoba)
Another luxury craft you'll find in Córdoba today, originating from the Caliphal period, is the decorative embossing and polychromy on high-quality leather used to cover everyday objects such as chests, jewelry boxes, and more. This is called "cordobán" when used on everyday items or “guadamecí", when purely decorative.
Ceramics were also one of the most developed arts, with specific techniques like the so-called 'dry rope', glazed ceramics, and tiles. Ceramics are highly prominent in Seville and also in Granada, where there's a unique style called "Nasrid". There's hardly a souvenir and crafts store in Andalusia where you can't buy beautiful ceramic pieces.
As you can see, Al-Andalus can still be enjoyed today in Andalusia with all five senses.