Horses on a Minaret

During my recent trip to Sevilla (Spain) for my participation and attendance of the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies, hosted by the Three Cultures of the Mediterranean Foundation, it was once again confirmed that horses are always everywhere.  Not only were there numerous actual horses pulling authentic looking carriages filled with tourists  all over the beautiful city center, but at most historic sites across Sevilla depictions of horses can be found.

However what most fascinated me were the horses we can no longer see, namely those that ascended the 104.1 m (342 ft) Giralda tower!  The minaret was part of a mosque commissioned in 1171 by the second Almohad caliph Abu Ya`qub Yusuf. The mosque, which was built to replace the existing Umayyad mosque because the congregation had grown larger than the prayer hall could welcome, was completed in 1176 but construction of the minaret did not start until 1184.

Moulay Yacoub , also known as Al-Mansur, was the third Almohad caliph and in 1188 he picked up where his father had not been able to see the construction of the minaret finished.  He recruited several architects from Sevilla, Rabat and even Sicily to build the tower we now know as the Giralda. It was finally finished ten years later and looked slightly different than it does now. It had four balls or spheres made of precious metals (bronze, copper or gold) at the top.  It is said they were a symbol of al-Mansur’s victory over the Christians four years earlier, at the battle of Alarcos.

In 1248 Sevilla fell in Christian hands during the Reconquista and of course the mosque was turned into a cathedral. Following an earthquake in 1356 the damaged cathedral and tower were renovated, the spheres removed and replaced by a single bell and a cross at the top of the tower. During the renaissance the top of the tower was once more altered and assumed the shape we can still admire today.

The Giralda is magnificent, inside and out, but what caught my attention was the fact that the tower is very different from most minarets. It has ramps instead of stairs for those wanting or needing to climb it. The caliph had ordered the 35 ramps instead of endless steps so that the muezzin could ride a horse (or donkey?) to the top in order to call out the adhan (call for prayer). To my knowledge only two other minarets have this feature;  the sister tower to the Giralda, the Hassan Tower in Rabat (Morocco) and the Malwiya Minaret in Samarra (Iraq).

The Hassan Tower was also commissioned by al-Mansur so it is no surprise that it would have the same structure, sadly the minaret was never completed as the caliph passed away in 1199 and the tower reached only about half of its intended height.  The Malwiya minaret in Samarra however is much older than both the Almohad towers. It was built as part of the Great Mosque of Samarra between 848 and 851 as ordered by Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil.  Although the minaret was used for the call of prayer it is said that the caliph used to ride his donkey (or horse?) up the ‘snail shell’ to enjoy the view from the top. Whether or not the Malwiya minaret served as an example for the other two towers, I have not yet been able to figure out. But it was rather special to climb inside the Giralda and imagine a horse going up the steep ramps on its way to make sure the Muezzin had enough breath left at the top to call for prayer.

2 thoughts on “Horses on a Minaret”

  1. An interesting topic that integrates architecture, middle eastern studies ,horses and history. I loved how the author integrated horses in history and architecture.

  2. Now I understand why the ascend to the north gallery of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has a ramp: the Roman Emperor probably entered the church and climbed to the gallery on horseback.

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