Written by Louis Werner Photographed by Kevin Bubriski
hen an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 struck the city of Puebla, Mexico on June 15, 1999, it damaged many of the arches and vaults of the fine churches and civic buildings near the zócalo, or main square. Less noticed was the harm done across the river to a humble Guadalupe
chapel in the late 17th-century church of San Juan del Río, whose ribbed dome sustained
several structural cracks.
One of only two in Puebla that date from that period, the dome tells a fascinating story about the architectural legacy of the city and the surrounding region—a legacy that blends indigenous Mexican, Spanish and Moorish traditions into a beautiful yet practical whole. The type of ribbed dome at San Juan del Río, along with many of the city’s other colonial architectural elements, are of the mudéjar style. The name probably derives from the Arabic mudajjanun (“those permitted to remain”), and the construction technique can be traced back to al-Andalus in southern Spain, the region ruled by Muslims from the eighth to the 15th centuries, and to North Africa. It was brought to the New World by the Spanish and built by Native American craftsmen.
The Public Autonomous University of Puebla recently established a Center for Hispano-Mudéjar Studies, led by architecture professor Dolores Dib Alvarez, whose maiden name, Dib, is that of her Syrian grandfather. The center’s mission is to bring together Mexican, Spanish and Moroccan scholars to document the continuities, lineages and growth patterns between and among their cultures. “We Mexicans always say our country is a melting pot,” she says, “but we often argue over which flavors are dominant. In Puebla, both in its architecture and its bloodlines, I think the Arab flavor is unmistakable.” Indeed, a monument in the zócalo honors Puebla’s Syrian-Lebanese immigrant community.
Dib Alvarez grew up very near two other reminders of her city’s Arab roots. One is a minaret, the other a house inspired by the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Both are examples of what she calls neo-árabe architecture. At the turn of the 19th century, a Moorish Revival fashion based on the traditions of al-Andalus came to Puebla. Orientalist smoking rooms, minarets as architectural follies and public buildings inspired by elements of Spain’s famed, multicolumned Córdoba mosque—including buildings as important as the Congreso del Estado—can be found all over town, holding up a kind of funhouse mirror to Puebla’s mudéjar inheritance and to the classic Moorish materials of carved stucco, wooden inlay and ceramic tile. Even a newspaper kiosk, now sadly demolished, reflected this style.
The term mudéjar, in its primary sense, refers to the Muslims who stayed in Spain after the reconquest of the peninsula by Christian forces, which was completed in 1492 with the capture of Granada, and to their descendants after the forced conversions of the 16th and 17th centuries. But it also has a cultural sense, referring to the esthetics and the artistic techniques that went into building such Moorish landmarks as the Alhambra. In the years following the reconquest, this stylistic inheritance was fully embraced by Spanish Christians, who in turn carried it across
Even in the name Guadalupe, the locality associated with the Catholic patroness of the Americas, one can hear the echo of Arab, Native American and Spanish voices. As tradition has it, in December 1531, just 10 years after Cortés had conquered the Aztecs, an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared before a young Indian man and spoke her name. When the man repeated the name to the bishop of Mexico, he recorded it as “Guadalupe,” a toponym from the Extremadura region of Spain, derived from the words wadi and lupus, respectively Arabic for “river” and Latin for “wolf.”
Of course, two Indians speaking Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, were entirely unlikely to have recited a Spanish name to the bishop. And the bishop was equally unlikely to have heard them correctly when they gave him the name in their own language: coatlaxopeuh, or “she who crushes the serpent”—a name loaded with both Christian and Aztec religious symbolism. Thus the name Guadalupe, both in the way it was first understood and the way it was immediately misunderstood, itself braids together three Mexican cultures.
In fact, the country’s tri-cultural architecture is obvious whenever a Mexican architect opens his mouth. The Spanish arquitecto comes from the Greek word for “master builder.” Albanilería, the craft of masonry, comes from the Arabic word al-binaa’ (“construction”). And when his job is complete, an architect may have to go to the tlapalería (“paint store”), a word derived from the Náhuatl tlapalli (“color”).
An archaic Spanish word for architect is alarife, from the Arabic al-‘arif, “the one who knows,” or master—as in the title of a builder’s manual published in Seville in 1633, the Breve Compendio de la Carpintería de lo Blanco y Tratado de Alarifes (A Brief Compendium on Wooden Joinery and a Treatise for Architects). In the Mexican architectural dictionary, the terms aljibe and amanal, both meaning “cistern,” are next to one another, the former derived from the Arabic al-jubb, with the same definition, and the latter a Náhuatl compound of atl (“water”) and manalli (“dam”).
The Guadalupe chapel’s dome, or media naranja (“half-orange”), as it is called in Spanish, is divided into lobes just like the sections of a real orange, and is modeled closely on those
of the mosques in Córdoba and in Kairouan, Tunisia. And the fact that masonry domes and vaults suffered greater earthquake damage than wooden ceilings did tells about another kind of mudéjar legacy—the joined wooden ceilings called alfarjes in Spanish, a word derived from the Arabic al-farsh (“carpet”), which can still be seen today in the madrassas of Fez and Marrakesh in Morocco and in several rooms of the Alhambra.
The two remaining churches near Puebla that have retained their original 17th-century alfarjes—one the convent church of San Francisco in the adjacent state of Tlaxcala and the other the church of San Diego de Alcalá in the town of Huejotzingo—both emerged from the earthquake unscathed. Their ceilings were both probably erected in the 1660’s by the brothers Juan and José de Mora, whose names are in the registry of Puebla’s carpenters’ guild. In fact, most of Mexico’s earliest colonial churches—including the first cathedrals in Mexico City and Puebla—were built with this kind of ceiling, which is economical and fast to put up. But as the communities they served grew more prosperous, most were replaced by higher and more ostentatious—and more rigid—masonry vaults and domes that needed repair every time Mexico was shaken by its frequent earthquakes.
Both these alfarjes are in the par y
nudillo (“pair and knuckle”) style. It consists of a three-plane, tent-like construction that follows the roof line and whose face directly overhead is called the almizate, from the Arabic word al-masqat, meaning “a place where things fall from above.” The design in the nudillo consists of small wooden pieces called almarbates (from the Arabic al-mirbat, meaning “tie” or “rope”) in the shapes of squares, diamonds, chevrons, narrow rectangles and the like. They are fitted and joined to make a pattern of stars set within a dense array of over-and-under strapwork, or banded design, that is not unlike the art of zillij (cut-tile mosaic) in Fez.
Tlaxcala boasts two other signature mudéjar elements: On the zócalo is the façade of the 16th-century alhóndiga, or public storehouse, a word derived from the Arabic al-funduq of the same meaning; and over the church’s main portal is an arch circumscribed by a square in a shape called an alfiz, from the Arabic al-hayyiz, a geometric term meaning “boundary” or “limit.”
Rafael López Guzmán at the University of Granada has extensively studied mudéjar carpentry in the New World. He calls Tlaxcala’s alfarje ceiling, which measures 41 by 11.5 meters (135 x 38'), “the perfect mudéjar architectural space.” He also notes how its assembly exhibits certain parallels with pre-Columbian carpentry skills. The Aztecs often constructed their decorative ceilings with wood, using thin, planed boards called tejamanil that could be placed across beams and rafters and brightly painted.
In 1596, the Franciscan Gerónimo de Mendieta was in charge of building his order’s convent in Huejotzingo, just across the town square from where the church of San Diego was soon to be built. He praised the building acumen of his native artisans, writing, “The Indians already had technical skills, just as they have learned from the Spanish to perfect their talents. Then just as now, there were ironworkers, roofers, stonecutters, carpenters and carvers.”
After the 1999 earthquake, Puebla established a training center for the arts of restoration, the Escuela Taller de Capacitación en Restauración. It is led by Leopoldo García Lastra, an architect who has made it a personal mission to seek out his city’s less-obvious mudéjar references—such as the lone horseshoe arch in the early 17th-century patio of the San Pedro hospital, or the three- and five-lobed arches in Puebla’s churches, similar to the blind arches in the Córdoba mosque’s prayer niche and its Hakim II portal.
García Lastra likes to tell his students about the earliest Mexican treatise on mudéjar design. Written by the Carmelite brother Fray Andrés de San Miguel in the late 1630’s, it contains instructions on how to create octagonal strapwork patterns with triangular templates. His accompanying geometric analysis of stalactite-like mocárabes—in Arabic muqarnas—is interesting because the mocárabe is not actually found in Mexican colonial architecture. The only explanation might be Fray Andrés’s birthplace, Medina Sidonia in Andalusia, where he would have seen such decoration in any number of Moorish buildings. The terminology he uses to describe the mocárabes’ various three-dimensional solids and two-dimensional faces—adaza, atazia, jayri—are otherwise unknown in Spanish and presumably have Arabic origins.
The three most common decorative techniques of the mudéjar period—ceramic tile, wooden inlay and stucco, whose names in Spanish also have Arabic etymologies in two cases —can all be found in Puebla’s later buildings, erected at the height of the colonial baroque period. Puebla is perhaps most famous for its ceramic tile, or azulejo, a Spanish word derived from the classical Arabic al-zujaj (“glass”) via the Moroccan Arabic al-zillij. It adorns interior walls, façades and exterior domes, often checkerboarded with terra-cotta bricks or tiles in a pattern called olambrilla. It is said that Puebla, as rich and proud as Mexico City but always in its shadow, chose azulejos as its signature building facing to make itself stand apart from the capital, where carved-stone façades predominate.
The apogee of azulejo art is found on the façade of the mid-18th-century church of San Francisco Acatepec, in an outlying farming district of Puebla, which is covered top to bottom in tiles. In the words of the late Spanish poet and painter José Moreno Villa, it “approaches delirium.... All is color and brilliance.” Although none of the tiles is of typical mudéjar style, the overall effect is of alicatado, or cut-tile decoration. (The word is from the Arabic al-qat’, “cutting.”)
Besides the use of azulejo, most Mexican baroque church façades like Acatepec hide another essential element of mudéjar design, according to John Moffitt, professor emeritus at New Mexico State University and the author of The Islamic Design Module in Latin America. He has used computer analysis to show how Spanish colonial architects, just like their predecessors in al-Andalus, used a grid based on the Pythagorean triangle’s 3:4:5 proportions to generate both the overall dimensions and the component parts of many buildings.
A world away from computers is Uriarte Talavera, a 200-year-old ceramic-tile factory in downtown Puebla that still makes its wares in traditional shapes and designs. Some of its reproductions of plates and jars from museum collections are decorated with typical Arab figures—lute players, horsemen and hunters—all in flowing robes. The artisans’ blue-and-white winding vine design, which they call morisco, is in fact a typical mudéjar motif known as ataurique, from the Arabic tawriq, “the sprouting of leaves.”
The art of wooden inlay—taracea in Spanish, from the Arabic tarsi’—reached its peak in the Puebla cathedral’s choir stalls, made by Pedro Munoz in 1719. Rosewood, ebony, mahogany and ivory were used on the seatbacks to create strapwork designs as complicated as game boards for advanced players. The work reflects a delight in each busy pattern’s juxtaposition with its very different seatmate’s, and the technique itself has antecedents in Puebla’s mudéjar period, as attested by the 16th- and 17th-century inlaid boxes in its Museo Bello y González and by the masterworks in Mexico City’s Franz Mayer Museum of Decorative Arts.
Plasterwork, in Spanish called argamasa or yesería, was rarely carved or molded in Mexico’s mudéjar period. For that, Puebla had to wait for its 19th-century Moorish Revival. Yet on the high baroque façade of the late 18th-century Casa de Alfenique (a word meaning “marzipan” that comes from the Arabic al-fanid), one finds an exuberance of decoration: olambrilla tiles topped by a whipped-up confection of wildly carved stucco above its upper-story windows and along its cornice, almost as if a foaming ocean wave had crashed upon it and frozen in place.
The carved plaster upper walls in the Congreso del Estado’s neo-árabe patio, in the Conservatory of Music’s secret music room and, above all, in the smoking room of a private downtown residence are far closer in spirit to their models in Seville’s Alcázar Real or Granada’s Alhambra than to anything from Puebla’s own mudéjar period. Indeed, it took a team of interior decorators from Seville, the Arpa brothers, and Puebla-born, Paris-educated architect Eduardo Tamariz, who had traveled in North Africa, all working together at the turn of the 20th century, to translate this vision into a suitable Mexican version.
José Antonio Romano and his wife own the house with the city’s most completely imagined Orientalist interior space. Just as in a classic Moroccan interior, the room they use as a salon is divided into two sections by a horseshoe arch supported by delicate Mexican alabaster columns that are topped by cubic Nasrid capitals. The bottom half of the walls is covered with Spanish-made zillij tiles, the top half with plaster that seems hand-carved, although closer examination reveals that its ataurique motif and gilded calligraphic cartouches were stamped from a mold.
In such a room, it would not seem out of place to serve a dinner of mole poblano, the rich dark sauce from Puebla that combines chiles, chocolate and ground almonds. It is the city’s signature dish and has come to symbolize the best in Mexican cuisine. Indeed, such a concoction, invented by the Spanish and mixing Arab and native ingredients, is not far in spirit from the sevillano designers who dared to top a locally quarried column with a Moorish-inspired capital. And, sprinkled atop any mole made by a self-respecting Poblano chef, there must be a handful of ajonjolí, sesame seed, a Middle Eastern and Spanish ingredient whose name too derives—no surprise here—from the Andalusian Arabic.