Madrid only European capital home to Islamic civilization: Spanish academic

Almost all of Spain's medieval past destroyed in 16th-17th centuries, says Daniel Gil-Benumeya Flores

Senhan Bolelli  | 01.04.2024 - Update : 04.04.2024
Madrid only European capital home to Islamic civilization: Spanish academic Traces of Islamic civilization in Europe: Muslim Walls of Madrid


Madrid remains the only Islamic civilization-oriented capital in Western Europe, although many people first think about Cordoba or Granada when Spain’s Al-Andulus era from the years 711 to 1492 is mentioned.

Of the 2 million Muslim tourists who visit Spain each year, a large number travel to the southern region of Andalusia, home to relics from the Islamic era such as the Alhambra Palace, Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral, Alcazar Palace, and Medina Azahara.

But just 75 kilometers (nearly 47 miles) from Toledo, which served as the most significant northern city during that time despite its ancient Roman origins, Madrid holds importance in Islamic history, in both name and historical relevance.

Daniel Gil-Benumeya Flores, a professor of Arab and Islamic studies at Madrid's Complutense University, told Anadolu that Islamic Madrid began in the mid-eighth century, around 150 years after the establishment of Al-Andalus.

"Madrid was part of Al-Andalus, the Muslim territory of the Iberian Peninsula, for 250 years. Even after being conquered by Christians, it still had a Muslim minority for another 500 years. So there’s a historical Islamic presence in Madrid spanning approximately 700 years," he said.

Underlining that the city back then was sparsely populated, Flores added: "It was not really of great importance.

"Madrid's importance mainly stemmed from being a frontier city, thus in a territory where there were frequent wars, frequent battles, especially between Al-Andalus troops and troops from the northern Christian kingdoms."

"But administratively, Madrid belonged to Toledo. It was a city within the region or district of Toledo," he said.

Named after Arabic 'Magrit'

Flores said the modern name Madrid originates from the Arabic word "Magrit" during the Al-Andulus era.

On theories on the name’s origin, such as its resemblance to the Arabic word for riverbed and its potential connection to North Africa's Barbaria region, he said it came from the Latin "matrice" and Arabic "magrit," meaning a place where abundant water sources converge.

Remnants of Muslim Madrid in haze

The professor said little is known about Madrid from that era, and archaeological remains of Muslim Madrid are few and far between.

"There are very few remains from Muslim Madrid, and the responsibility for that lies in Madrid being the capital," he said.

"When Madrid became the capital, which was in the 16th century, it became the capital of the largest empire of its time and also the empire that presented itself as the defender of Christianity or the Catholic faith against Islam, which at that time was mainly embodied by the Ottoman Empire, against the Protestant Reformation and paganism in the case of the American colonies,” he explained.

"So, it felt odd, uncomfortable, that the capital of such a large empire with such symbolic value had an Islamic origin. Therefore, during the 16th and 17th centuries, practically all of medieval Madrid was destroyed.”

Flores added that despite the need to carry out excavations in Madrid, there have been no systematic efforts to do so.

The park in the city center, named after Emir Muhammed I, the founder of Madrid in the Andalusian Islamic era in the years 852-886, is currently closed to the public due to concerns of potential vandalism.

Flores highlighted the significance of walls uncovered during construction in the 1950s near Almudena Cathedral, where King Felipe VI of Spain got married.

The walls represent the only officially recognized remains from the Andalusian Islamic era, he said.

Saying he believes the park has considerable remains, Flores lamented a lack of funding and permission for archaeological research since its conversion to a park in the 1990s.

The construction of Madrid's walls had begun in the late eighth century, with additions made in the 10th century during attacks by the Kingdom of Asturias.

Flores described the walls as formidable structures, originally 12-15 meters (29-49 feet) high and made of flint stone – a rare choice for that era but also found in Madrid's residential buildings.

He stressed that the nearby Royal Collections Gallery likely conceals important remains, although they are not accessible to the public. Similarly, Flores said remains were discovered beneath the Italian Culture Institute, but were covered up.

Madrid as only European capital of Islamic origin politically uncomfortable

The Spanish scholar said: "There are places where remains of walls have been found, remains of water conduits. In the cemetery, for example, graves have been found in two or three points, but of course, the total extent of the cemetery is unknown."

Flores also decried how the current approach to urban planning does not allocate funding for archaeological excavation.

"The fact that Madrid has an Islamic origin, in fact, it is the only current European capital that has an Islamic origin, is still a bit politically uncomfortable in some sectors," he said.

Spain is currently home to more than 2.4 million Muslims, with approximately 300,000 living in Madrid.

*Writing by Serdar Dincel

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