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Volume 16, Number 6November/December 1965

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Majorca's Moorish Memories

Written and photographed by Eric De Mare

When the sun rises over Majorca's highest mountain, the Puig Major, to warm the Sóller Valley far below, you may still sometimes hear a sweet and plaintive folksong from the orange groves which is as oriental as a Persian miniature. For in the music of the people of the Balearic Islands, as in their architecture and customs, and even in the inflections of their local dialect, is the indelible imprint of three centuries of Moorish rule which gives a new dimension to the oft-repeated assertion that "Africa begins at the Pyrenees."

That any influence whatsoever remains from those days long past is remarkable. It bears silent witness to the strength and durability of the Muslim occupiers' spirit. Next to the Spaniards themselves, who after all have been calling Majorca their own for the past 700 years, it was the Moors who left the most lasting physical and cultural landmarks on this beautiful Mediterranean "Isla de la Calma."

Hanging on the terraced mountain slopes above the Sóller Valley, for example, are settlements whose names give instant testimony to their Arab origin: Binibasi, a charming little cluster of dwellings interspersed with a variety of palm tree the Moors brought from their native Africa; the small, stone town of Fornalutx which looks down upon Binibasi toward the valley's head; and far across the valley, beyond the sparkling torrente splashing out from a hidden spring, the village of Bibiaraitx. The mountainous northwest, reminiscent of the Atlas mountain region so familiar to the Moorish invaders, abounds in Arab place-names: Biniatzar, Teix, Alcudia, Alaró, Andraitx, Felanitx and Benisalem, to mention a few. And the town of Valldemosa where Frédéric Chopin and George Sand spent their brief and tempestuous exile from France, traces its name to the wealthy Moor, one Sayyid Mousa, who dwelt there.

If their heritage is less apparent, nevertheless many other warrior peoples were tempted by the balmy climate and strategic location of Majorca—midway between France and Africa, Spain and Sardinia—to wage war over a verdant island scarcely larger than present-day Rhode Island. The victor's reward was command of the sea commerce of the Western Mediterranean.

The earliest recorded conqueror of Majorca was that redoubtable city-state of merchant seamen, Carthage, which planted a pioneer colony in the Balearics in 654 B.C., squeezing out first the Phoenicians and then Greek traders with the same colonial ideas. The Carthaginians in turn were rudely shouldered off the islands by the Romans who, like Hannibal's commanders, drafted Majorcan youth into their legions to make use of their famed skill with the slingshot. As the Roman Empire in its turn declined as a warlike power, the Vandals succeeded them in Majorca, only to yield in time to the troops of Count Belisarius, fighting in vain to restore the glory of Rome under the eastern Emperor Justinian.

And then came the Moors, sweeping up the length of Spain from Africa under the Omayyad viceroy Tariq, in whose honor the Pillars of Hercules were renamed Jabal Tariq, the "Mountain of Tariq," now fused and molded to its present denomination—Gibraltar. From 903 until they were expelled by a resurgent nationalistic shock-wave spearheaded by King James I of Aragon in 1229, the Moors settled down as if they were going to stay forever. In a sense, they have.

Surprisingly, the architectural remains that most dramatically point to past greatness are relatively rare for the Moorish period. The only complete Muslim structure which survives is the thermal bath at 13 Calle Serra in the Old Town of Palma. Its square basin is now filled in, and covered by a dome supported by horseshoe arches resting on 12 columns. Not far away, spanning the street called Almudaina (and could any name be more Arabic?), is a lofty stone arch which once formed an entrance through the ramparts to the Moorish city. Other visual evidence of Muslim occupation is scant: an occasional inscription in Arabic script carved on a stone lintel, a cool vault below some rural manor.

Yet across the whole island echo intimations of Islamic culture, and nowhere more bountifully than across the countryside itself, for the Moors were splendid cultivators. They did much throughout Iberia to render sterile land productive. They terraced the slopes and built irrigation systems with great reservoirs and cisterns, often underground, where the winter rains could be collected and later carefully distributed during the dry summer season to cultivated land over a network of channels. Since a water supply was, and still is, one of the major problems of Majorca, the Muslims' Spanish successors diligently preserved and improved Moorish methods of terracing and irrigation, so that the original works survive to this day. Water wheels are still finding practical application in the fields and wonderfully picturesque windmills, seen in numbers on the road from Palma to Pollensa, supply the power to lift water for irrigation. Both mechanisms were introduced to the island by the Moors.

Thus great areas of Majorca are today very much as they must have been in the eyes of their Moorish lords seven centuries ago. Many of Majorca's olive trees, stunted giants with swirling grey trunks and dusty green leaves, were in fact planted by Arab cultivators, and it is at least possible that some which still bear yielded their first fruit to Phoenician settlers before the Christian era.

To the Arabs, accustomed to long journeys across burning desert sands, green fertility was symbolic of life itself, and from their skill in agriculture applied to the problem of survival in arid lands, developed the art of horticulture. Garden craft became one of the foremost arts of Muslim civilization, and so highly regarded that particularly elegant specimens were considered a foretaste of paradise. Under the Omayyads, Cordova, in southern Spain, was said to measure 20 miles across and contain no less than 50,000 gardens, while Granada in the Sierra Nevada mountains nearby was described as "a goblet full of emeralds" because of its floral sumptuousness.

The roots of Muslim preoccupation with horticulture lie far back in time, and spread by way of Damascus and Baghdad as far east as Persia and India. Pliny noted that "the Syrians are great gardeners, taking exceeding pains." The pains of their Spanish kin reached an apogee of artistry in the courts of Alhambra, where in the city of Granada a late-flowering Muslim culture outlived its Damascene parent by centuries, succumbing only in 1492. In Alhambra can be seen the classic elements of the Muslim garden: the close relationship between buildings and plants, intricacy combined with formality, a shady-green intimacy, and above all, the use of running water in open stone channels. Flowing through rooms, courtyards, cloisters and gardens to bind the elements into a single harmonious whole, like threaded jasmine petals which make the fragrant necklace still worn in southern Spain, the channels had the practical purpose as well of cooling by evaporation the areas through which they passed—an efficient form of air-conditioning used in Spain even today.

Symbols were everywhere: four channels for the Four Rivers of Paradise, the solemn cypress signifying eternity, the jasmine, rose, lily, azul iris, each with its special meaning. But water, glinting in the hot sunlight, running darkly in the cool shadows or springing up suddenly in joyful abandon to moisten the dry mountain air, was the dominant symbol to the Moors who, deprived of it in their home country, prized it the more.

The prototypes of these great gardens have vanished from Majorca along with the Moors themselves, but the forms have survived in the symbolism and the use of water as a decorative medium. In the neighborhood of Alfabia, Raxa and La Granja, all of which still show visible signs of earlier Moorish occupation, gardens can be found which carry on the old traditions.

Alfabia lies a few miles from the Majorcan capital of Palma on the Sóller road, where the mountain range provides protection from cold north winds. It is the finest of the water-gardens and more "Arab" than the others. It was originally the country seat of Benahabet, the island's Moorish governor who, by betraying his countrymen to James I, was allowed to retain his property after the reconquista. The manor house, approached by a grand avenue of plane trees, has a baroque facade with a great central archway. Behind the entrance lies a broad vestibule, flanked by long stone seats and leading into a wide courtyard from which, looking back, one can see over the vestibule a perfectly preserved "honeycomb" ceiling, such as those for which Alhambra and the Persian city of Isfahan are celebrated. Incorporated in the design is the Arabic inscription: "The law is God. Mercy is from God. God is great. Wealth is from God."

To the left of the facade a long, dramatic stairway of pebble-mosaic bordered by water channels, rises gently toward a baroque wall fountain. Above it in earlier times were the harem—the women's quarters—and its gardens, placed at the highest point of the estate for seclusion and to afford the ladies the finest view of the green countryside; and alongside, a pleasantly modern touch, is a stone-vaulted reservoir which used to be the women's bathing pool.

The main feature of the gardens, however, is the 200-foot-long pergola of stone columns and arching foliage and flowers, which runs downhill, from the harem area toward a distant fountain. Here and there openings among the leaves frame panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. On hot days the pebbled pavement is cooled by jets of water sprouting from stone jars. Another pool, shrouded with exotic trees, ferns, tall palms and giant bamboos, provides an atmosphere of oriental luxuriance to the area below the manor house.

Linking the harem garden with the long pergola is a circular clearing surrounded by stone columns on which rests an iron, dome-shaped trellis, intertwined with climbing flowers. It may not be more than 200 years old, but it carries on the ancient tradition of the Moorish glorieta, the arbor gracing many a Spanish garden which is sometimes a circle of tall cypress or bay trees, at others quite an elaborate piece of pavilion architecture. The glorieta is a shady and secluded outdoor room, a refuge from the sun by day, a dining area for the family on hot summer evenings, a trysting place for lovers at night.

A few miles back along the Palma road, a track turns off through the olive groves toward the Raxa gardens. After the reconquest of Spain the estate was presented to the Count d'Aspurias, Sacristan of Gerona, as a reward for his support of Don Jaime's crusade. The big house is typical of the period. An imposing entrance, a tree-filled courtyard, an olive press complement gardens designed by Cardinal Antonio Despuig, Archbishop of Valencia, who imparted a Renaissance flavor to his property with treasures brought back from Rome in the 1790's.

Yet the Cardinal did not entirely muffle the ancient note of Islam. He built a formal staircase up the lower terraces toward the former harem enclosure, and embellished it with urns, columns, statues, lions couchant and bearded Muslim masks. Tier after tier of terraces rising above a formal fountain provide a climax for Raxa's grand stairway. In springtime they overflow with the colors of myriad flowers, and even in the summer's heat they are verdant with succulents, prickly pears, pines and palm trees. At the very top of Raxa's slope a small, classical gazebo surveys magnificent mountain prospects in every direction. Inside this little temple are several plaques of Arabic designs and inscriptions set in plaster, presumably found on the site and preserved by a later builder with a taste for the past.

The garden of La Granja, between Palma and Valldemosa, is unusual in its abundant supply of water and an open first-floor loggia to catch the cool breeze. Overtones from Moorish days are detected in the secluded harem garden, the formal public garden with its long pergola and jet-cooled glorieta. Between the two gardens, an informal pool is shaded by thick foliage, kept perpetually green by a fountain plume rising to an impressive height. Feeding the pool is a cascade plunging down a mossy, tree-lined gorge, adding to the soothing sound of running water heard in every corner of this fertile garden.

The unhurried tempo of Majorcan life has always been its chief delight, a refuge of quiet from the cities of peninsular Spain. This quality is still its great appeal, combined with a sylvan, rural loveliness created in large measure by Muslim masters of long ago to whom the island was a pearl in its Mediterranean diadem.

Eric de Maré, a British architect who turned to writing and photography, has written a number of books and has contributed articles and photography to The Architectural Review, The Guardian and The New York Times.

This article appeared on pages 1-11 of the November/December 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1965 images.