Moorish Architecture in Madrid and Toledo

The Mudéjar style of architecture is a fascinating voyage of discovery, leading back into the country's complex history

Madrid has many significant landmarks, such as the Cibeles fountain, Plaza Mayor, and the Santiago Bernabeu stadium. But there is one monument that could be considered as uniquely expressing Madrid’s history: Plaza de Toros de las Ventas.

Its red brick façade features a lacy pattern of carvings, exquisite arches and ceramic details are reminiscient of Madrid's distant past. There are similarities with the city's oldest buildings, in the small square Plaza de la Villa, where Torre de los Lujanes with its horseshoe arches dates back to the 15th century.

However, Plaza de Toros was built in 1929. It is in Neo-Mudéjar style, a late 19th-century revival. The original style is known as Mudéjar architecture, a term first used by art historian José Amador de los Ríos y Serrano in 1859 to describe buildings that combine elements of Moorish and Spanish construction, with an extensive use of geometric designs, horseshoe arches and elaborate brickwork. It was common from the 12th to the 16th centuries, and it was one of the many contributions that the Moors left in Spain. 

History of the Moors

The Moors settled in Spain in the 8th century, and rapidly gained control of the entire peninsula. By the 11th century, the Catholic kings of Spain, in the North, began to take back control of the peninsula. This process, known as the Reconquista, went on for almost 8 centuries, from about 720 to 1492, and in that period, architecture was dominated by this unique form of fusion.

The city of Madrid was officially founded only much later, in 1561. However, in the 9th century the Moors had established a fortress in the area now occupied by the Royal Palace. This fortress was destroyed during the Reconquista. In the 15th century it was replaced by a Gothic palace that burned down in 1734 and was in turn supplanted by the palace as it stands today. Part of the original fortress wall can still be seen in the Campo del Moro gardens behind the palace.

During the Reconquista, more important than Madrid was Toledo, capital of Spain before the Moorish conquest, and then one of the principal Moorish cities in central Spain. It was taken by King Alfonso VI in 1085, an event that won fame throughout the Christian world. However, it remained an important cultural centre, with libraries conserving and translating classic Arabic, Hebrew and Latin texts. It was only when the Spanish court moved to Valladolid and then to Madrid in 1561 that Toledo decreased in importance.

Just 88 km south of Madrid, it is well worth a visit, and preserves many monuments in the original Mudéjar style. Its architecture in fact reflects the extraordinary situation of the city, where different communities – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – coexisted peacefully and prosperously until about 1500. The Spanish Inquisition forced non-Christian elements of the population to convert or leave.

The subsequent decline in Toledo's fortunes helped ensure the preservation of many of its buildings, and in 1940, Toledo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has often been described as an ‘open-air museum,’ whose sights include the Cathedral in Gothic style with Mudéjar elements. Request access to the chapterhouse for a glimpse of the exquisite Mudéjar ceiling. The Iglesia de San Tomé, a Mudéjar construction, is another must-see, not least because it is home to El Greco’s 1588 painting ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’. The Church of Santiago del Arrabal dates to the 12th century and is remarkable for its intricate ceiling. Next, we recommend a visit to the Sinagoga de Santa María la Blanca, the oldest synagogue in Spain, where you will find the finest examples of Mudéjar arches. Curiously enough, it is now property of the Catholic Church. 

For a taste of unblemished Moorish art, head to the Mezquita del Cristo de la Luz, one of only two Muslim buildings that have remained largely unchanged. The vaults of the mosque recall those of the Great Mosque in Cordoba. Apart from these individual monuments and other sights, Toledo gives the feel of moving back in time. Its history is also reflected in some tasty culinary specialities, such as Toledo marzipan, and Manchego cheese. A great place to stop for refreshment is Plaza de Zocodover, where there are many bars and cafes.

Mudéjar architecture can be seen in many cities all over Spain, such as León, Ávila, Segovia, Seville, Granada, Cordoba, Teruel and Zaragoza. A voyage of discovery that reflects Spain's rich and complex history.