Mudejar towers

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mudejar as a Muslim living under Christian kings especially during the 8th to 11th centuries. It also says that the first known use of the word is from 1829. Soon afterwards it was applied to a style of Spanish architecture in the sense that it still carries. The style is seen in all the photos here.

The main characteristics of the style are brickwork, decoration with tiles, intricate carpentry, and the use of geometrical motifs in decoration. The featured photo is of the grand mosque in Granada, and shows all these features. The mosque was closed because I went there in the afternoon of the last day of Ramzan, so I did not manage to see the interior. Still, the exterior gave a good indication of what the interior would have been like.

In Granada, near one end of Plaza Nueva is the church of San Gil and Santa Ana (photo above), an exemplary piece of Mudejar architecture. Look at the beautiful azulejos (tiles) at the top, above the bells, the woodwork just below it, the beautiful tiles above each of the romanesque arches, and the ornate pillar just below the bells. Again, because I was always there at the wrong time, I could not see the interior.

Notice the beautiful woodwork in these three photos. The one on the left is the exterior of the church of San Nicholas. I climbed up to it on a really hot day, and was too dehydrated to walk in. I sat in the shade outside and drank a lot of water. The other two photos above show the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. Typical Mudejar elements are visible outside. Inside, the ceiling is covered in incredibly beautiful woodwork. A friend told me about his perception of the difference between Islamic and Christian architecture in the Alhambra: that they embody different philosophies of what make something grand. These churches combine these two world views: the high interiors are grand in the manner of churches you see all over Europe, and the beautiful intricate workmanship brings to it the Asian love of detail. One wonders about the missed paths of history; if only the Jews had not been expelled in 1492, and the Muslims had been allowed to stay on after the 25 more years that they did, what kind of new architectural styles would have evolved as engineering improved.

In my mind the Giralda of Seville (photo above) is the grandest of these towers. Technically it does not belong to the Mudejar style, because it was built before the Christian reconquest, and was only converted from a minaret to a bell tower afterwards. However, it has all the elements of this style: brickwork to build up a really high tower and incredibly detailed external ornamentation.

Finally, a moment of duh-ness or serendipity, whatever you may call it. I looked back at the photos I took a year ago inside the Royal Palace of Sintra and realized that I had seen the Mudejar style before. The chapel inside the palace, which you see in the photo above, is an example of this style. And a particularly fine example, one must say.

The National Palace of Sintra

Portugal today is a gentle, laid back, and welcoming country. It seems in keeping with its present character that the towers of the National Palace (photo above) are not battle-armoured turrets but kitchen chimneys. I’m sure there are learned theses which trace the evolution of the militant nation whose atrocities are still remembered in India into the open and welcoming society you see today. Porto charmed us, and Sintra, our last stop before flying out, left us with wonderful memories.

Painting on the wall of the national palace in Sintra

The thousand year old National Palace is the centre of the town. We were nonplussed by the long queues, but both the queues to buy tickets and to enter move fast. The palace was built by the Moors, Portuguese alterations began only in 1281 CE, and more or less ended three centuries later.

Like all European palaces, it is a series of interconnected rooms, each of which is decorated differently. The stone walls and tiled roof are lined inside with wooden planks, beautifully painted. The roof of the first audience hall, the Swan Room, is painted with swans wearing crowns. This is followed by the private office of the king, the Magpie Room, whose roof is covered with paintings of magpies. Off to one side is the Mermaid Room. Interestingly, the many birds and mermaids on each roof are all distinct from each other. Less discussed are the later paintings. I liked a room which was full of painted ships and boats (one example above). Conservation must be hard; painting on wood is not the easiest of art work to maintain.

Music in the national palace of SintraDancing in the Hall of Swans in the national palace in Sintra

The Swan Room was in use. A group of people were playing what I think was Renaissance era music. The musical instruments could have come out of a painting by Botticelli. I’ve paid so little attention to Renaissance music that my memory of Sherlock Holmes having authored a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus covers a very large fraction of my knowledge. The lilting tunes were wonderful, and The Family and I pulled ourselves out of the moving stream of tourists to listen.

A group of people were practising a dance to the music. The movements looked archaic, and the dance was probably also Renaissance. Some days ago The Family and I had noticed that in old azulejo murals the dancers never held each other, even by hand. If they were linked in a dance, then they would each hold a shared cloth. This old Portuguese convention against publicly touching another person was also visible in this dance.

Terrace garden in the national palace in Sintra

All over Portugal we had noticed terrace gardens. When we sighted the terrace garden inside the palace, we realized that the tradition was old. I wonder whether it is a Moorish craft, adopted in Portugal. We walked through rooms full of furnishing brought from Goa and Mozambique, eventually coming to the room where the king Afonso VI was imprisoned for his life. Interestingly, this was the room which was converted to a chapel when Dinis decided to start using the palace as a royal residence. Having seen the circle of history close so neatly, we walked through the last few opulent rooms and left.

Pena palace in Sintra

There are many other palaces in Sintra. Two had been highly recommended: the Moorish castle, which is the second of the original castles built here by the Moors, and later refurbished by the Portuguese kings, and the Pena palace. There was a bus from outside the national palace to both of these. The Moorish castle was a bit of a walk from the bus stop. Since I’d hurt my knee, we decided to skip this. The Pena palace had been highly recommended, but when we reached it we found it was a 19th century Disneyworld. The castle was painted in the bright primary colours of a cartoon. There were imposing gates which had no function. Fairy-tale turrets right out of “Cinderella The Movie” were stuck on to odd corners of roofs. The romanticism of the 19th century gave us Neuschwanstein, the “restoration” of Carcassone and this. We regretted spending our time and money on this. Later we were told that the cost of two tickets on the bus was more than that of a taxi right up to the Moorish castle. Maybe we could have gone there.

The famous earthquake of 1755 flattened the palaces of Lisbon, so the National Palace of Sintra is the only genuine historical house of the kings of Portugal. We were happy to have visited it.