Seville to 1500
“Quien no ha visto Sevilla, no ha visto maravilla” (Loosely, “If you haven’t seen Seville, you haven’t seen a marvel”). Residents of Córdoba and Granada might have something to say about that (in fact Granada has its own turn of phrase: “Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada” -“If you haven’t seen Granada, you haven’t seen anything“), but there’s little doubt that it is Seville that evokes the most recognized images of Andalusia and indeed, for many, of Spain: sun, orange groves, carnations, jasmines, olives, tapas, flamenco, guitars, bullfighting, siestas and fiestas, mantillas, religious processions, black haired señoritas whose eyes flash provocatively behind deftly handled fans… Love and passion, too. This is the city that gave us the iconic seducer, Don Juan Tenorio, and the fiery gypsy Carmen. Both flirt with love, violence and death, and both die violently.
Is there a grain of truth in these evocative generalizations? You have to decide for yourself, but so many swear that Seville seduces with its charm, its atmosphere, its alegría (joie de vivre) that it’s hard not to believe it. Even the famous 16th-century saint, Teresa of Avila, recognized the city’s dangerous enchantment and warned against the crimes committed there against God. She herself wasn’t immune, and admits having fallen under the city’s charms: Never did I find myself as weak as I did there; truly, I didn’t recognize myself. So, beware!
The beginnings of Seville are lost in obscurity. According to one legend, it was founded by Hercules, another claims that Tartessus is buried beneath it, and yet another maintains that it is the site of Atlantis.
It was settled by Iberians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. Under the Carthaginians, it was eclipsed by the city of Gadir (Cádiz), and under the Romans by neighbouring Itálica (now in ruins), and by Córdoba, the capital of the Roman province of Baetica.
Although an important city under the Visigoths, Seville again played second fiddle, this time to Toledo, named capital of the Visigothic kingdom in the 6th century AD. Loss of political clout was compensated, however, by Seville’s intellectual pre-eminence thanks to the voluminous works of the 6th-century scholar and archbishop, St Isidore (San Isidro).
Known as Hispalis to both Romans and Visigoths, Seville was called Ishbiliya by the Muslims (Moors) when they occupied it shortly after defeating the Visigoths in 711. It missed being capital of al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) when Córdoba was chosen as seat of power in 756. But when Córdoba’s power collapsed in 1031, al-Andalus broke up into a number of mini states called taifas. The taifa of Seville then quickly established itself as the most powerful state of al-Andalus; by 1080 its control stretched from the Algarve (in Portugal) to Murcia.
Nevertheless, constant threats from the expanding Christian kingdoms to the north placed enormous pressure on the taifas. The fall of the taifa of Toledo in 1085 precipitated the arrival of a fundamentalist Berber sect from Morocco, the Almoravids. Invited by the ruler of the taifa of Seville and some of his fellow taifa rulers to help stop Christian advances, the Almoravids actually conquered the taifa kingdoms and united al-Andalus under their rule. Although they selected Seville as their centre of power in al-Andalus, they ruled Islamic Spain from their capital, Marrakesh, in Morocco. Their rule, however, was short lived and they were replaced in 1145 by a yet more fundamentalist sect, the Almohads.
Unlike the Almoravids, the Almohads made Seville co-capital (with Marrakesh) of their empire, which included Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. They built a large mosque where the present cathedral stands and a magnificent minaret which now serves as the cathedral bell tower.
The tower, better known as La Giralda, is one of the two striking architectural gems left by the Almohads in Seville.
Nearby, on the banks of the Guadalquivir River, stands the other jewel, the Torre del Oro, a 12-sided watchtower originally linked to the Reales Alcázares (Royal Residences).
Reconquest of Seville
Almohad rule was short lived as Christians pressed further south. Following the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, just south of the Sierra Morena, in 1212, Muslim cities fell quickly: Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Seville in 1248. Only the taifa of Granada remained in Muslim hands.
Seville was a favourite city of successive Castilian kings, especially of Pedro el Cruel (Peter the Cruel, ruled 1350-69). To him we owe the most beautiful parts of the Reales Alcázares: the Palacio de don Pedro, also known as the Palacio Mudéjar, built by craftsmen from Granada and Toledo. Pedro’s decision to build a Moorish style palace reflects an attachment to Spain’s Islamic architectural tradition at a time when Gothic architecture was the norm in Christian lands*. Indeed in 1254, soon after the conquest of Seville, Alfonso X had built an early Gothic Palace in the Reales Alcázares. Of that Palace, only the curiously named Salones de Carlos V remain, so called probably because of alterations carried out under Charles (Carlos) in the 16th century.
If Pedro’s Mudéjar Palace represents an attachment to Spain’s Islamic architectural tradition, another building rose shortly after that pointed to Spain’s Christian heritage: the cathedral.
Begun in 1401 where the Great Mosque had once stood, Seville’s massive cathedral was a statement of Christian presence, power and confidence when the frontier with the remaining piece of al-Andalus, the taifa of Granada, was not far away.
Said to be the largest Gothic church in the world (and the 3rd largest Christian temple after St Paul’s in London and St Peter’s in Rome), it retained the slender Almohad minaret, converted into a bell tower. Seen together, cathedral and minaret offer a similar –although not as dramatic contrast between Islamic and Christian architecture that we see in Córdoba’s cathedral within a mosque, and Granada’s Renaissance palace within the Alhambra.
The completion of the cathedral in 1504-6 coincided with an event that changed completely the course of Spain and Seville’s history: the “discovery” of America (1492). But that takes us to the 16th century.
Fletcher, Richard Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard The Cross and the Crescent London, 2003
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London, 1994
Herrero Garcia, Miguel Ideas de los españoles del siglo XVII Madrid, 1966
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London, 1990 Nash, Elizabeth Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History Oxford, 2005