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Giralda – the Minaret and Tower

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

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La Giralda is one of the important monuments in the city of Seville, Spain. It is the former minaret of the city`s main mosque until it was converted to a bell tower when the city was taken by Fernando III in November 23, 1248. Today, it measures 105 meters high and is one of the most important historical sites in Seville. The Great Mosque, which La Giralda was part of, was also converted into what is known today as the Great Cathedral of Seville.

The Almohad Empire which spanned the southern half of the Iberian peninsula and much of eastern Africa, moved their capital to Seville. In 1170, the Almohad empire moved their capital to Seville. The tower was first conceived by the architect Ahmed bin Baso in 1184. After his death, with the tower still incomplete, it was taken over by Jabir. It was finally completed in March 10, 1198. The original minaret measured approximately 140 meters (around 33% taller than it is today) and had two copper spheres on the top of the minaret, the lower one being larger than the upper one. It was customary for the muezzin, the person who performs the Muslim call to prayer, to climb to the top of the minaret times a day to perform his service. Since the tower was 140 meters, this would be physically strenuous on the average person (equivalent of climbing up and down 100 flights of stairs each day!). To make it easier on the muezzin, the steps of the minaret were made wide and strong enough so that a person on horseback can climb up and down the minaret.

The Almohads fared reasonably well bringing order to their empire and stability at their northern borders halting the Christian southern advance. Almohad`s reign in Seville coincided with two great scholars emanating from that region: Ibn Rushd (Averros) and Musa Ibn Maymum (Maimondes). Averros was born in 1126, under Almohad rule. He was a well accomplished physician and philosopher. Among his greatest works were a line-by-line commentary on Aristotle`s work, and “Incoherence of the Incoherent” which was an answer to al-Ghazali`s earlier work about the co-existence of faith and reason. In his treaties he explains how reason and logic do not contradict religion. Desperate for a more rational thinking that was acceptable by the Catholic Church, his teachings became the foundation of learning in the University of Paris. Averros was also well-known for his medical knowledge. He often traveled from one city to another offering free medical services to the poor and needy.

Maimondes was a well accomplished Arab Jewish (Sephardic Jewish) philosopher. He was responsible in reviving the Hebrew language by producing the first lines of Jewish poetry since the times before the Roman expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem 1,100 years earlier. His time was known as the Golden Age of Jewish literature. It is important to note this was achieved at the time of Almohad rule, which many criticize as being religiously intolerant.

Almohads golden age ended abruptly in 1212. In that year, , Almohad army was defeated in a surprise alliance of all Christian states – Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morena. Terrible crimes were committed in neighboring villages in the name of Christianity after this battle. After the defeat of the Almohads in 1212, the Almohad empire in Iberia reverted back into three main Taif kingdoms: Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. The Catholic church began a system of “Church of the Purifed”, which was a crusade against Christians that had a weak faith. In 1233, the Papal Inquisitions – a precursor of Spanish Inquisitions – was established, especially in the Iberian peninsula.

In 1247, Fernando III besieged the city for 17 months. Betrayed by their Muslim neighbors from Granada (who were hoping to secure their own safety by siding with Fernando III) and by Seville`s Jewish population (who were hoping to extract preferential treatment once the city is taken), Seville`s defenses began to buckle. By November 1248, it was clear that the city was being overrun. The inhabitants rushed to demolish the minaret of the Great Mosque rather than see it converted to a church bell tower. Fernando III, aware that the main prize of the city is the Great Mosque with its minaret, declared that he would spare the population from slaughter only if they left the tower intact. It has only been three decades since the massacres committed in the name of Christianity by the Castilians and their allies in 1212 in the aftermath of the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Merena. Well aware that the Castilian conquerors are capable of such atrocities, the local population left the tower unmolested and Fernando III kept his word as well.

When the city was taken by Fernando III, the Castilians declared that they would fit La Giralda with the largest church bell in Christendom. In 1356, however, agitated by an earthquake, the stress from the weight of the bell collapsed the top third of La Giralda. A smaller church bell was subsequently installed. In 1401, construction project of demolishing the Great Mosque and building a new cathedral in its place took place. Once completed in the 16th century, the cathedral contained the largest enclosed space of any cathedral in the world, even larger than the Hagia Sophia.

Today, La Giralda is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists. A plaque at the entrance of the Giralda written in Arabic was installed in 1984. The plaque outlines the major milestones of the construction of the minaret, which later became the Giralda. Although, the Old Mosque was completely destroyed and replaced by the Seville Cathedral (except for its foundation, which is visible to this day), the Giralda structure has remained essentially the same. Perhaps the reason why the minaret was not demolished in the reconstruction of 1401 is the deep fear that Fernando III instilled into the psyche of Seville`s population centuries ago!


  • [1] Menocal, Maria Rosa, Ornament of the World, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002.
  • [2] Gazanfar, S.M., “Spain’s Islamic Legacy: A Glimpse from a Muslim’s Travelogue” 2003.
  • [3] Bishko, Charles Julian, The Spanish and Portuguese Reconquest, 1095-1492 in a History of the Crusades, vol. 3: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, University of Wisconsin Press: 1975.
  • [4] Kelly, John N. D., The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, Oxford University Press, 1986.
  • [5] Reilly, Bernard, “The Kingdom of Leon-Castilla under King Alfonso VI,” The Library of Iberian Resources Online, 2003.
  • [6] Swidan, Tariq, The Pictorial History of Al-Andalus, Kuwait: Ibdaa Fikry, 2006.

  • Keywords: Spain, Seville, Giralda

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