A road trip through the centuries in southern Spain | Travel

II’m trying to calculate how much olive oil I can physically take home when Manuel Jimenez holds up a bottle of the rich, cloudy, dark green liquid. “With water and salt, the history of Spain is based on that,” he says proudly.

His oil mill in Ubeda does not use the same methods of pressing olives as the Moorish or Islamic engineers of the 11th century, but their influence is profound. When Jimenez’s father started the business in the 1960s, he had to join alporchon — an Islamic system of water rights in which each village was limited to a given day so that the rivers never dried up.

“The olive trade played a huge role in the expansion of Islamic empires, with 66 million olive trees planted in Andalusia alone,” says Jimenez.

Driving from Murcia to Andalucia – via the Alpujarras, Granada, Cordoba and Seville – you see miles and miles of olive trees arranged in neat rows on rolling hills. In Lorca, where my journey begins, a 10th century water tank (reservoir) is built into the mountain under the impressive alcazar. It marks a key point of defense against the Muslims during the Reconquista, and even for non-engineering nerds it’s a dropper. There are also reservoirs in the Alcazaba of Malaga, Medina Azahara (outside Córdoba) and Alcala de Guadaira (de los Panaderos, or “of the bakers” – named for its centrality in flour milling, becoming a hub for top bakers; think Pastry shoptenth-century style).

Today Alcala de Guadaira is a dreary industrial suburb, but it’s not hard to imagine the qanat — the Arab irrigation system which transformed the Guadalquivir basin from a semi-arid nature into an agricultural center, which became a testing ground for imports from Baghdad and Damascus, including dates, almonds and rice (the mainstays of paella, the national dish).

From Lorca, I head to Ubeda, site of museums of pottery and leather goods of Islamic origin and a hidden synagogue. Andrea Pezzini, historian and director of the Jewish Museum of Ubeda and Baeza, explains that the Catholic-Islamic divide was not only religious – it was also a political, cultural and propaganda conflict.

Pezzini leads me down the claustrophobic and dangerously steep stairs of the newly discovered synagogue, to an underground mikvah, or Jewish bath, discovered when builders were renovating a townhouse. “What is amazing is that every time we do excavations, we find Catholic churches built above mosques, and sometimes even above synagogues,” says Pezzini. “These were vicious wars, and the Catholics either co-opted and adopted the mosques, as in Cordoba, or destroyed them and built on top of them.”

Castaras, village of the Alpujarras


I’m taking the extremely slow route up to the Alpujarras, and there’s a hint in that name – at its height, Islamic rule extended as far as Narbonne in France, and any “Al” or “Ben” prefix indicates the origin of Arabic words (alchemy, algebra, algorithms, Algeciras, Alicante and Benidorm among them).

The first Islamic traders arrived in Spain from Baghdad via North Africa in 711 AD, beginning the Islamic Golden Age, a period of intense intellectual, scientific and technical progress that left a bewildering legacy. This included the replacement of papyrus with cotton-based paper and the advent of free education, leading to a literacy rate of 99%. In ninth-century Spain, there were 17 universities and 70 public libraries, including the largest library in Europe, in Córdoba, with over 600,000 books.

It provided around 8,000 Arabic words in Castilian Spanish, and Islamic brains were behind discoveries and advances ranging from analytical geometry and an accurate world map to pulmonary circulation and pioneering surgical procedures. eyepiece – all while their northern European contemporaries dragged each other. by the hair in a pre-literate fug.

The road takes me to Cordoba, often overshadowed by Granada, its flashier sister. But my guide, Imma Lazara, argues that this city at the bend of the Guadalquivir is actually the epicenter of Spain’s Islamic heritage – from the Mezquita, an eccentric mix of mosque and gold-plated cathedral with 1,200 marble columns built at the top, up to the Albolafia, where the 20 m high noria nuria sits enthroned.

The Mezquita, Cordoba

The Mezquita, Cordoba


At the Casa de Andalus and Alchemy museums in Cordoba’s Jewish quarter, jasmine wraps around intricate silk tapestries and sumptuous tiles. Listen closely and you’ll almost hear the classical guitar of Ziryab, the charismatic ninth-century musician, social influencer, and polymath credited with creating everything from toothpaste and deodorant to a three-course meal. He popularized Islamic and Jewish practices of ritual purification in the hammam and the mikveh.

At Paco Morales’ Michelin-starred restaurant Noor, you can savor a tasting menu of Islamic-inspired dishes like almond-based salmorejo or stuffed pigeon with raisins. At the other end of the spectrum, visit the Mercado Victoria food hub and devour Arabic dishes of chickpeas and chicken for a tenth of the price. A business owner there tells me about his family’s departure from Tunisia 500 years ago.

A dusty right-hand bend on the A431 just west of Córdoba leads to its Islamic heyday: the ruins of Madinat al-Zahra, the 10th-century palace, the convention center, the mint and the garrison of Abd al -Rahman III, the first caliph of the city. Like an ancient Dubai, this is where the eunuch Ja’far met ambassadors from China, Africa and Europe, at the multi-columned eastern gate, and led them past thousands of fountains, caged beasts and a pool of mercury at the exquisitely and deliberately impressive Salon Rico. It will take you at least three hours to explore this exercise in megalomania and its magnificent museum (£1).

The route ends in Seville, where the Arabic influence is particularly strong – slippers and henna, dates and beans, Arabic road signs in a city dotted with botanical gardens where newcomers to Spain once grew , including cucumbers, mint, saffron, eggplant, oranges, lemons, green beans, ginger, tea and onions. The earthly paradise the Arabs had set out to create was achieved, but like my journey, Moorish Spain was coming to an end.

Madinat al-Zahra, near Cordoba

Madinat al-Zahra, near Cordoba


Sitting in the Arab gardens of the fabulous royal camp of the Alcazar of Seville, I reflect on this journey through eight centuries. In 1236 Cordoba was in Christian hands. Muslims converted (becoming Moriscos) or practiced in secret. Catholic officials held feast days on Fridays and cooked food in pig fat, watching who did not show up or eat, and “flush out” people who in turn fled to the Alpujarras. It was two centuries before the Inquisition in 1478 and the death of Torquemada. Clear of bloodor purification of blood, which put the final nails in Islamic and Jewish coffins.

Seville fell in 1248, and Granada survived only by becoming a vassal of the Castilian monarch. In 1482 King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I declared war on Granada, and a decade later Islamic Spain was no more.

Dr Thembi Mutch is a Global Studies Fellow at SOAS Universities of London and Sussex. She was invited by the tourist offices of Spain, Andalusia and Seville. Martin Randall Travel offers a nine-night tour of Eastern Andalusia: Caliphs to Kings of Malaga, Granada, Ubeda, Jaen and Cordoba from £3,370 pp, B&B including flights, transfers, guides, activities and a few other meals, departing March 28. For tailor-made tours contact Gijs Van Hensbergen, Imma Lazaro or Andrea Pezzini