Madrid — the only European capital with Islamic origins

Spain appears to be embracing its Muslim history as an essential period of Madrid’s Islamic heritage goes on display for the first time at the end of this month.

A new museum, the Galeria de Colecciones Reales, opens to the public in the Spanish capital.

Among its prominent exhibits is Madrid’s original Umayyad fortified wall. Although the medieval wall’s discovery is not recent, the city is now open to using words highlighting its Muslim heritage.

Based on recent archaeological findings, the museum supports the widely accepted academic view that Madrid was founded by Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba in the ninth century.

“Madrid is the only European capital with Islamic origins,” Álvaro Soler, the archaeologist and curator responsible for the exhibit, told Al Jazeera.  

Soler explained why Muslim history had been buried over the years: “When Felipe II decided to establish the capital in Madrid [in 1561], he was embroiled in religious wars against the Turks.  

“He found himself facing the paradox that he was going to put the capital in a Muslim city. And that’s how the whole process of manipulating the city’s history began.”

The museum stands on the location of the original fortified wall, next to Madrid’s Royal Palace. It is situated on the site of the city’s former “alcázar,” an Arabic term for an Islamic castle or palace in Spain.

During the construction of the building in 1999, archaeologists uncovered the ninth-century Moorish wall, three towers, and the remnants of a gate.

On the museum’s website, it says: “On the -1 floor is the archaeological room, where vestiges of the Arab wall of great historical importance have been put into museums, because they include the door that gave entrance to Madrid.  

“They are remains of the origin of the city located and dated that can be visited and understood thanks to an audiovisual that explains the historical evolution of the area.”

Madrid’s Islamic past

Al-Andalus was a region ruled by Muslims for over seven centuries, from 711 to 1492.  

At its largest, it encompassed a significant portion of the Iberian Peninsula, which includes present-day Spain and Portugal.

Madrid, known as Mayrit in Arabic, was a strategic fortress to protect the nearby centre of power, Toledo.

It played a significant role as a frontier city, protecting the Muslim territories from the Christian kingdoms to the north.

During this period, Madrid thrived as a cultural and commercial centre, with mosques, palaces, and markets dotting the city’s landscape.

Following the reconquest of Spain by the Catholic monarchs, Madrid was converted into Spain’s royal court and capital in 1561 by Felipe II.

Much of the Islamic architecture was modified or replaced by Christian structures. But remnants of Madrid’s Islamic past remain in place names, street layouts, and archaeological remains.  

The capital city’s Muslim population is currently around 300,000. It reflects the growth of Spain’s Muslim population, which has reached two million in recent years.

This is primarily due to migration from mainly Morocco but also Algeria, Nigeria, Senegal, and Pakistan.

Image credit: Patrimonial Nacional

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