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G - 67 : Muslim Heritage in Mallorca

Part of the Arab Pipe Network which distributed Water from the Aqueduct underground

The almost complete disappearance of Muslim culinary traditions from Mallorca made me wonder whether there was any Muslim legacy left at all on the island. Everybody knows Cordoba’s Mezquita, the famous mosque turned cathedral, and Granada’s beautiful Alhambra, the palace of the last Muslim rulers in Andalusia. Would we find anything similar in Mallorca?

The answer is no and yes. Almost 800 years of continuous Spanish rule fundamentally changed the fabric of the island. Muslim buildings and structures were re-used, re-shaped and refurbished by the new Christian rulers. After centuries of Spanish rule they now look genuinely Spanish. But on closer look there are many hidden Muslim features.

The Arab Baths in La Palma's Old Town on 13 Calle Serra date back to the 11th Century

The best place to start with is Palma de Mallorca, the town the Muslim rulers chose as capital in 902 AD. They built it on the ruins of Palmaria. The Roman town was deserted by the time the Muslims arrived. With the collapse of long-distance trading at the end of the Roman Empire, it had lost its purpose. No export markets, no ships, no jobs, no money, no people. Most of the town’s buildings had decayed. The wide streets were filled with rubble and weed. The ruins became a giant quarry for the new Muslim city, called Madina Mayurqa.

Artist Impression of Mayurqa - the Mosque close to the Water in the Town Center

One of the first buildings to go up in 902 AD was the Mosque. The building has disappeared since, but its presence is still felt. On its site stands La Palma’s Cathedral – the Basilica de Santa Maria de Mallorca. Its Gothic style leaves no doubt that this is a Christian Church. Churches, however, are oriented towards Equinox, the geographic East, where the light of the day arises. Santa Maria de Mallorca is oriented towards Mecca though. Excavations show that it was built on the Mosque’s foundations. For the Christian Kings from Aragon, who came to the island in 1229, expediency in construction was more important than the correct alignment. In a way, Santa Maria still “pays” tribute to the Prophet.

The Almudaina Palace stands on the Foundations of the old Muslim Alcazar

The same can be said for Almudaina Palace, one of the residencies of the Spanish Royal Family. Located just next to Santa Maria, it once was the Muslim rulers’ seat of government. The name alone – “city” in Arabic - gives away its past. In the 13th and 14th century the palace was extensively rebuilt by the Aragon Kings but retained important elements. The foundations are Muslim and many style elements like pointed arches or the balconies are copies of previous structures. Christian architects refurbished the Almudaina Palace but you instantly feel the Arab influence.

The Streets in Old La Palma are narrow as in any Arab Town

Almost hidden but in plain sight – just north of Santa Maria - lies another Muslim legacy: La Palma’s old town. The maze of streets with the narrow passages reminds me of Fez or Marrakesh in Morocco. Arab town planers liked their streets narrow to keep the heat out and maximize the interior space of houses. In the Arab culture, much of daily life happens inside. There was no public life like in Roman times.

Old Mayurqua is a Maze with narrow Streets and large Interiors - Photo from Google Map

When La Palma was conquered by James I from Aragon, the old town did not change. Many Muslims and Jewish people stayed. The early Aragon rulers were tolerant and did not mingle with religion.

The Catalan and Italian architects who refurbished these houses over the centuries kept the original footprint and converted the interior space into atriums. Some of them are accessible and we shall have a look. They are quiet oasis of peace.

Map of the Arab Aqueduct from La Vila to La Palma

Also in the old Muslim town, on 13 Calle Serra, there are Arab baths which survived to this day. Not as spectacular as you might expect but still. Their photos are on every holiday prospect. However, nobody explains how water got to these baths. Mosque and bath need large amounts of water. Had these baths already existed in Roman time, there would be an aqueduct. But Palmaria was too small. It has no theatre nor racing course either. The Muslim rulers though built an 8 km long aqueduct that brings water from the Font de La Vila to La Palma. Much of it underground to prevent water from evaporating. The aqueduct was used for centuries and is still visible albeit not in the best shape. The Mallorquin government listed it recently as national heritages. The La Vela source still supplies 70% of Palma’s fresh water. It is pumped in modern pipes though today.

Many Parts of the old Muslim Aqueduct are in bad shape buy are now being restored

Last but not least, Arab engineering is also visible in the Jardines de Alfabia, 17 km north of La Palma. To my knowledge it is the only Arab Garden which survived the arrival of the Spanish. The Muslim viceroy swor allegiance to King James I before he invaded Mallorca and was allowed to keep his mansion and garden. It was later rebuilt into a Spanish Palace but its original style is still visible. The garden is a marvel of water engineering. Fed by a spring 60 meters above, the water cascades and gurgles through the gardens. The place is a botanical paradise and home to more than 40 plants – an excellent example of Arab gardening culture as you also find at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

The Arab Gardens of Alfabia 17 km north of La Palma are a botanical Paradise

It takes a little effort to find the places of Muslim heritage. It is worth the effort though. Mallorca would not be the island it is today without its Muslim past. They brought it back to life.

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