Stunning turquoise hues, intricate Arabic calligraphy, astonishing mosaics inspired by nature–the beauty and depth of Islamic architecture never fails to be awe-inspiring. Though I may fail to be objective as a Muslim when it comes to this topic, I truly believe that the work of Islamic artists and architects are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen.
The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Citadel of Aleppo, and other notable historical Islamic landmarks all reside in the Middle East. Although these destinations are well-known, Spain and the Iberian Peninsula also have a significant amount of Islamic history and architecture, which many people are still unfamiliar with.
I recently toured Spain through my university program, “Islam in Spain,” and was struck by the exquisite spots we visited. On a small bus packed with fellow students, we wound our way through Córdoba, Seville, and Granada soaking up the glaring Spanish sun and unforgettable sights.
Inspired by the beautiful exposure of what the world has to offer, I made a list of 6 places to visit if you love Islamic history.
1. The Great Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (Mezquita Catedral)
The Great Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (or, as it’s locally known, Mezquita-Catedral) is a stunning architectural mosaic of the two religions that have largely defined the Spanish region of Andalusia for centuries: Christianity and Islam. It represents a place of cultural fusion, as it merges aspects of a Renaissance church with parts of a historic Islamic Mosque.
It includes a column-filled prayer hall, a minaret tower encased by a bell tower, a courtyard with a fountain in the center, and a walkway encircling the courtyard. The expansive prayer hall, formed of red brick and stone, is magnified by the repeated geometry of the two-tiered, symmetrical arches.
A mihrab’s purpose in a mosque is to indicate the wall that faces Mecca, the city Muslims face during their prayers.
Easily, one could argue that the focal point of the hall is the famed horseshoe-shaped mihrab (prayer niche). A mihrab’s purpose in a mosque is to indicate the wall that faces Mecca, the city Muslims face during their prayers. The Mosque-Cathedral is one of the most significant buildings of the Western Muslim world and an astonishing architectural feat in and of itself.
2. Royal Alcázar de Seville
The Royal Alcázar de Seville is an expansive, magnificent royal palace located in the southern Spanish city of Seville. It was originally constructed under the reign of Muslim rulers who gained control of Spain in the 8th century. To this day it is considered one of the most prominent monuments of Mudéjar art.
The palace, like Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, includes elements of Gothic and Renaissance art; it boasts beautiful salons filled with tiled walls and plasterwork, courtyards with sparkling pools, and serene gardens. The Alcázar has been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco and is the oldest palace in Europe to still be in use.
3. The Alhambra in Granada
Granada’s Alhambra might be my favorite spot I visited during my trip. Although the Alcázar was gorgeous, the breadth of the Alhambra was on a much larger scale. Its name stems from Arabic, meaning “the red one.” This most probably refers to the reddish, sun-dried brick of the outer walls. This palace of the Muslim Monarchs was constructed during the 12th and 13th centuries, on a plateau above the city. It has three central courts filled with many water basins and fountains. My group’s tour guide emphasized the importance of water in the palace, explaining it was meant as a symbol of life and health to the rulers.
4. The Blue Mosque
Shifting our focus to the Middle East, The Blue Mosque, or as its officially known, The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is in Istanbul, Turkey. It was built under the rule of Ahmed I, hence the name during the 17th century. Contrary to the Mosque-Cathedral, The Blue Mosque is a functioning prayer space for Muslim worshippers, attracting large amounts of tourists annually.
It mixes Ottoman and Byzantine artistic choices; hand-painted blue tiles cover the interior of the mosque and make for a stunning sight in the evening when the space is bathed in blue light. The masjid includes five domes, eight secondary domes, and six minarets. Additionally, there are over 200 stained glass windows and multiple chandeliers within the mosque. It is in close proximity to The Hagia Sophia, both of which are renowned World Heritage Sites.
5. Hagia Sophia
As mentioned, The Hagia Sophia is also located in the city of Istanbul. Also known as The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, it was originally a Greek Orthodox church until the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453. The site was briefly transformed into a museum, but as of 2020, it once again serves as a mosque. The Hagia Sophia was an important central space for politics, religion, and the arts in the Byzantine World. During the Ottoman reign, a prayer niche, pulpit, and grand chandelier were added to the mosque.
6. The Citadel of Aleppo
Since we’ve largely discussed mosques and palaces, I’d like to end by describing the fortified Citadel of Aleppo, located in northern Syria. Globally, it is considered one of the oldest and largest fortresses (military strongholds), with its usage dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. It has been occupied by the Greeks, Byzantines, Mamluks, and Ottomans.
The Citadel is one of the best examples of Islamic military architecture that still stands today. Inside there are supply chambers, residences, wells, and prayer spaces. It also sustains a massive entrance block, built to keep out unwanted intruders and rivals. During the recent Syrian Civil War in the 2010s, The Citadel suffered physical damages. It reopened in 2018, with repairs well underway.
It is abundantly clear that the impact of Islam has had far-reaching effects across the globe.
Whether in Syria, Turkey, or Spain (and many other countries) a tourist can easily find incredible palaces, castles, and mosques with a rich Islamic historical background. It is abundantly clear that the impact of Islam has had far-reaching effects across the globe. One would be remiss to undermine the positive architectural and artistic contributions Muslims have made across cultural and geographical boundaries.
The multicultural nature of most of these buildings are worth noting. When you consider the architectural fusion of Islam and Christianity, of the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, of the Muslims and the crusaders – it offers a certain level of hope that these groups can learn to socially coexist with one another in peace. Having acknowledged the architectural beauty, let us celebrate the diversity and the history that make these sites unique, and create a mental checklist to designate these places spaces we must preserve.