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Sevilla and Its Alcázar: Moors and Columbus

Sevilla, Spain

Sevilla reflects its rich heritage. When Christians booted the Moors out of Sevilla in 1248, they seized the Alcázar palace for the king, and replaced much of the mosque with a huge cathedral, now housing Columbus’ tomb.

Complete Video Script

In the year 711, the Muslim Moors swept in from Africa and conquered the Iberian Peninsula. They ruled Spain for five centuries, inspiring a Europe-wide crusade among Christians to reconquer this land. Muslim rule stretched as far as France. But bit by bit the Moors were pushed back — expelled from Sevilla in 1248 and finally pushed entirely out of Western Europe by 1492.

The Moors left a distinct mark on Andalusian culture. While in Sevilla, they ruled from here…the Alcázar.

More than six centuries later, this magnificent building still functions as a royal palace. The Alcázar provides a thought-provoking glimpse of a graceful Moorish world that might have survived its Christian conquerors — but didn’t.

What you see today is a 14th-century rebuild — done in Mudéjar style. This was a Moorish style done by Moorish craftsmen but for Christian rulers after the reconquest.

This became the king’s palace. Its centerpiece was the elegantly proportioned Court of the Maidens. It was decorated Mudéjar below, and Renaissance above. The king hired Muslim workers to give Moorish elegance to what was a stark fortress. They built what’s considered the finest Mudéjar building in all of Spain.

The intimate Dolls’ Court was the king’s living quarters. Imagine the royal family lounging around a reflecting pool in this courtyard.

The stylized Arabic script — a standard feature of mosques — created a visual chant of Quranic verses. But the decor is clearly Christian. You’ll see animals, buildings, and kings that you wouldn’t find in religious Muslim ornamentation, which forbids images.

A century or so later — just after Columbus’ New World discoveries — Queen Isabel built a more European style wing to the palace. Anticipating a big business in plunder and trade, she built this to administer Spain’s New World ventures. The chapel is dedicated to Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires. St. Mary of the Good Winds was the patron saint of navigators and a favorite of Columbus.

This altar painting dates from shortly after Columbus died and features what’s considered the first and most accurate portrait of the great explorer, on the left. It’s also thought to be the first painting of Indians done in Europe. The Virgin’s cape seems to protect everyone under it — even the Indians.

Like the palace, the gardens reflect a mix of cultures. The intimate geometric Moorish gardens lead to the later much more expansive back yard of Spanish kings. The gardens are full of tropical flowers, cool fountains, and — in the summer — hot tourists. I’m thankful we’re here in late April…beating the brutal heat of the Andalusian summer.

The Moors were relatively tolerant of other religions. During their rule, Christians, Jews, and Muslims shared the city peacefully. After the Christian reconquest, Sevilla’s thriving Jewish community was concentrated here…in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Today, only a few peaceful squares surrounded by a tangled web of alleys survives from the days when this was Sevilla’s Jewish Quarter.

Explore, wander among lanes too narrow for cars, whitewashed houses corralling peaceful squares, and wrought-iron latticework. Regardless of who lived here, the design of the neighborhood seems to have one goal — stay cool. The narrow streets — some with buildings so close they’re called “kissing lanes” — were designed to maximize shade.

Homes faced an inner courtyard, offering a welcome refuge from the bustle and summer heat. The Moors gave Andalusia its characteristic glazed tiles with only geometric patterns. In later centuries, Christians decorated their tiles with livelier scenes. Either way, the tiles kept buildings cooler. Residents here spend winters upstairs and move down to the cooler courtyard level in the summer.

Concepción: These orange trees are great for shade. They never lose their leaves.
Rick: Refreshing too, on a hot day.
Concepcion: Well, not to eat. These are sour orange trees. We just use them for vitamins, perfume, or that kind of marmalade the British like…
Rick: Oh, that bitter English marmalade, yeah…
Concepción: …it’s made with our oranges.

The Santa Cruz neighborhood comes with a timeless beauty…savor the simple elegance of Sevilla.

The delicate charms of Santa Cruz are just a few steps from Sevilla’s immense cathedral. It’s the third-largest church in Europe (after St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and St. Paul’s in London) and the largest Gothic church anywhere.

When they ripped down the mosque that stood on this site in 1401, the Reconquista Christians bragged, “We’ll build a cathedral so huge that anyone who sees it will take us for madmen.”

You could fit a soccer field in here. Everything is supersized. The towering main altarpiece is covered in gold leaf. Constructed in the 1480s, it’s composed of hundreds of figures. It tells the story of the life of Jesus in 40 scenes from his birth to his resurrection.

The choir — an enclosure within the cathedral for more intimate services — surrounds a spinnable music rack. It held giant hymnals — large enough for all to chant from in an age when there weren’t enough for everyone.

In the transept, four pallbearers carry the tomb of Christopher Columbus. They represent the four medieval kingdoms that became Spain: Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and León — each identified by their team shirts.

Columbus even traveled a lot after he died. He was buried first in Sevilla, then moved to Santo Domingo, then to Cuba, and after Cuba earned its independence from Spain around 1900, he sailed all the way back here to Sevilla. Is he really in there? Sevillanos like to think so.

All that survives of Moorish Sevilla’s main mosque is its courtyard of orange trees and a towering minaret. The tower offers a brief recap of the city’s history — sitting on a Roman foundation, a long Moorish period capped by the Christian age.

The Moors built its spiraling ramp to accommodate a rider on horseback — somebody climbed this tower five times a day to call Sevilla’s Muslims to prayer.

Today, tourists gallop up for fine city views. And the former minaret functions as the cathedral’s bell tower. It’s topped with a bronze weathervane — a statue that symbolizes the triumph of faith.