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The Giralda (La Giralda)

The Christian belfry and weathervane, set atop the Islamic minaret in the 16th century.

The Christian belfry and weathervane, set atop the Islamic minaret in the 16th century.

Modern Seville is a city of the Renaissance – the most Italian of Spanish cities, said a Venetian ambassador in the 16th century – and above all a city of the baroque, a style which may be regarded as the antithesis of traditional Islamic taste. Yet the symbol of Seville, endlessly reproduced on everything from key chains to cookie boxes, is the Giralda: once the minaret of a huge congregational mosque, now the bell tower of Europe’s third-largest cathedral. The Giralda dates back to the brief period between 1147 and 1229 when Ishbiliyah, as the city was known to the Arabs, was ruled by the North African Muslim dynasty called the Almohads (al-Muwahhidun), and under them became the capital of al-Andalus.

A great deal is known about the building of this mosque and its minarets, thanks to the chance survival of the second volume of a three-volume history of the Almohad dynasty entitled al-Mann bil-Imamah (The Gift to the Imamate). The author, Ibn Sahib al-Sala, was in the service of Almohad caliph Abu Ya’qub Yusuf and witnessed many of the events he describes. The manuscript, discovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1930, gives precious details of the caliph’s building projects, including the names of the architects he used.

The chief architect of the mosque, and the man who laid the foundation of the minaret, was Ahmad ibn Basu. Ibn Sahib al-Sala says that in April 1172 “the Commander of the Faithful began to mark out the site of this noble and beautiful mosque. The houses near the gate of the palace precinct were demolished and the project put into the hands of the chief architect, Ahmad ibn Basu, and his colleagues, the architects and masons of Ishbiliyah. They were aided by all the other builders in al-Andalus, as well as those of Marrakech and Fez and other cities across the Strait [of Gibraltar]. They all came to Seville, along with various sorts of carpenters and sawyers and other craftsmen in great numbers, each with his own specialty.”

The work went on for three years and 11 months, with the caliph personally supervising the project and visiting the site almost every day. When the huge mosque – as big as that in Córdoba – was finished and roofed, Yusuf was called back to his North African capital, Marrakech. Eight years passed before he returned to Seville.

When he did so, in 1184, it was to attack the well-defended Christian stronghold of Santarem. On the eve of this campaign, Yusuf ordered Seville’s governor to build a minaret for the new mosque, but he did not live to see it. The caliph was killed in the Battle of Santarem and his son, al-Mansur, succeeded him.

Al-Mansur scrupulously carried out his father’s last wish. Once again, Ahmad ibn Basu was named chief architect. He dug deep against the wall of the mosque and at a great depth discovered a spring, perhaps used in Roman times to supply water to the city. He blocked the spring with stone and laid the minaret’s foundation above it. This must have been a long and difficult job, but one well done: The minaret has stood for eight centuries and survived a number of earthquakes.

A view of the south face of the Giralda

A view of the south face of the Giralda, shows the delicate tracery and traditional double windows of original Almohad design. The balconies were later additions.

Stones from the walls of an old palace nearby were used for the foundation. Some of these stones dated back to Visigothic or even Roman times, used and re-used in successive buildings. Two Roman dedication tablets, originally set up by an organization of sailors in the Roman town, are still visible at the base of the structure, and may have been placed there by the architect as a symbol of Islam’s triumph over Roman lands.

When the base of the tower had risen a few meters above ground, work suddenly ceased. Ibn Basu may have died, for when work recommenced in 1188, a new architect, ‘Ali al-Ghumari, was in charge. Al-Ghumari decided to use baked brick instead of cut stone for the rest of the minaret, and the point of transition can still be clearly seen.

Unable to oversee the work personally, al-Mansur sent his trusted advisor, the famous physician and poet Abu Bakr ibn Zuhr – known in the Latin Middle Ages as Avenzoar – from Marrakech to supervise the project. Thus the Giralda is linked to one of the most famous names in Islamic Seville.

The outer surface of the minaret was decorated with a pattern of interlaced arches in raised brickwork, and glass panes were set in the windows. Access to the top was by a series of 34 gently sloping ramps. The central core consisted of seven rooms, probably used for storage or as quarters for guards, for the minaret also served as a watchtower.

The Giralda, once part of the Great Mosque, now serves as bell tower of Gothic cathedral completed in 1506. Of the original mosque, only the minaret, a wall, the Gate of Pardon and part of the Patio of the Orange Trees, depicted in the floor plan (lower) remain. The lower part of the photo shows a clover view of the belfry.

In 1195, al-Mansur won a great victory against the forces of King Alfonso VIII in the Battle of Alarcos. To celebrate his triumph, he ordered four enormous gilded bronze balls – called “apples” – to be placed on the very top of the minaret. The metal balls were graduated in size, with the smallest at the top and the largest at the bottom. Their precise significance is not known, but three similar balls sit atop the minaret of the Kutubiyyah mosque in Marrakech, the largest of them two meters (six and a half feet) in diameter. The ones on the Giralda were much larger, but the exact dimensions are unknown, for they fell to the ground during an earthquake in 1356 and were smashed. King Alfonso the Wise, writing in the 13th century, says that the largest one, whose surface was divided into twelve deep “channels,” was so immense that a gate had to be widened when it was brought into the city. All four were plated with gold under the supervision of the chief treasurer and in the presence of the caliph. They were then wrapped in soft cotton bast to protect them during handling.

Floor plan of the mosque.

Floor plan of the mosque.

The four “apples” were moved quickly through the streets to the construction site. A Sicilian engineer named Abu Layth was given the job of hoisting them to the top of the Giralda; Ibn Sahib al-Sala is vague about how this was done. A vertical iron bar called a jamur, or “mast,” and weighing 2835 kilograms (6250 pounds) had been installed on top of the Giralda. On March 10,1198, before the caliph, court and people of Seville, the balls were lifted to the top of the minaret and threaded onto the jamur. More than 35 kilograms (77 pounds) of gold had been used to gild the “apples,” and King Alfonso the Wise says that when the sun struck them, the reflection could be seen a full day’s march from the city.

The completed minaret – not counting the jamur and its four golden apples – was 65 meters (213 feet) high and 14 meters (46 feet) on each side, comparable in size to the famous minaret of the Kutubiyyah mosque in Marrakech, which is 68 meters (223 feet) high and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. The Kutubiyyah minaret predates that of Seville, and Ahmad ibn Basu and his colleagues obviously had it in mind when constructing the Giralda. Another famous Almohad minaret is the Tour Hassan in Rabat, 50 meters (164 feet) high and 16 meters (52 feet) wide – an unfinished project begun in 1195 and originally intended to be the biggest in the world. Both the Kutubiyyah and the Tour Hassan are stylistically very similar to the Giralda. In all three, the restrained geometric decoration in raised brick expresses the austerity of the Almohad dynasty.

Although Seville has spread far beyond its medieval confines, the Giralda still towers above the city and can be seen from many miles away. From the top, on a clear day, one can see to Carmona and the plain of the Guadalquivir, and its towns and the far-off mountain ranges. The words of Ibn Sahib al-Sala are still true: “This minaret is beyond description … because of its massive size, its deep foundations, the solidity of its brickwork, the extraordinary skill with which it is constructed and the amazing sight it presents – appearing to the traveler when he is several days from Seville as if it were suspended among the stars of the zodiac.”

When Seville fell to the Christian armies in 1248, after a long siege, its Muslim inhabitants were forced to leave, and the mosque was transformed into a cathedral. Yet Christian Sevillians seem to have been as proud of the Giralda as the Muslims had been, for it often figures on coats of arms and other heraldic devices. Some of these date from before the earthquake of 1356 and show the four “apples” still in place.

In 1400, the first public clock in Spain was installed at the top of the Giralda, and a year later the decision was taken to build a “modern” – in this case, Gothic – cathedral on the site of the mosque. In the course of building the third largest cathedral in Christendom, most of the old Almohad structure was demolished. A section of the wall, the beautiful Patio of the Orange Trees, the Gate of Pardon, with its magnificent bronze-plated door, and the minaret were spared.

Three stages in the life of the Giralda

Three stages in the life of the Giralda: The left tower is the Almohad minaret (1198), with its four gilded 'apples'; the right tower, under Christian control (1400), is topped with a bell; the center tower (1568) features the renaissance belfry of Hernan Ruiz.

By the mid-16th century, Seville had become the richest city in Europe; all the gold and silver of the New World passed through it, first the wealth of the Aztecs and Incas, then the fabulous silver of Potosí (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). It was felt that some symbol of the city’s new prosperity was required. The architect Hernán Ruiz, heavily influenced by Italian renaissance architecture, came forth with an ambitious design for increasing the height of the Giralda by 30 meters (100 feet) and turning the top into a bell tower. It is a tribute to the strength of the Almohad structure that it could support the added weight. Ruiz’s bell tower was in turn surmounted by a colossal bronze statue representing Faith, called the Giraldillo, or weathervane, for it turns to indicate the direction of the wind. It is from this statue that the Giralda takes its name; before that, it was simply called “the tower” or alminar - the Spanish version of the Arabic word for “minaret.”

In a very real sense, the Giralda presents a paradigm of the complex history of the city it adorns. Its foundations are Roman or possibly Carthaginian; the main body of the tower is Islamic, which in turn supports a renaissance structure built according to the norms of classical architecture. The complexity of the image makes it a fitting symbol of a city where classical, Christian and Muslim cultures met and merged.

This article appeared on pages 32-35 of the January/February 1994 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

The following photo has been added later by islamic-arts.org team, taken from wikipedia.

La Giralda at dusk, as viewed from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes in Seville, Spain. Photo by Diliff (2009)

  • architecture of the giralda

About the Author
Historian and Arabist Paul Lunde studied at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies and specializes in Islamic history and literature. He is the author of Islam: Culture, Faith and History. With Caroline Stone, he has translated Mas‘udi’s Meadows of Gold and—forthcoming this fall from Penguin—Travellers From the Arab World to the Lands of the North, a collection of travel accounts. Lunde is a longtime contributor to this magazine, with some 60 articles to his credit over the past 33 years, including special multi-article sections on Arabic-language printing and the history of the Silk Roads, and the theme issue “The Middle East and the Age of Discovery” (M/J 92). He lives in Seville and Cambridge, England, and is working on an Internet project to map pre-modern Eurasian cultural and intellectual exchanges. He can be reached at paullunde@hotmail.com.
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