Sunday, March 19, 2017

Islamic Influences in Colonial Latin America

San Francisco Acatepec, Puebla, MX
Bell Tower of San Francisco Acatepec, Puebla MX 
Colonial Latin American material culture is full of elements that are usually termed Arabic or Islamic.  One instance is the tile-covered façade of the Puebla, Mexico church in the above photo  (please click photo to enlarge).  The Spanish word for these tiles,azulejos,is derived from an Arabic word meaning "polished stone".  

What typically are termed  "Islamic influences"  in the material culture of colonial Latin America and the mother country, Spain, are really much more than just that.  Spain as a completely Catholic nation has only existed since 1492, when the last bastion of Muslim control, Granada, fell to the forces of the Ferdinand and Isabella.  The reconquista, which began as early as 718 when Christian Asturias opposed the Moors, proceeded and receded piecemeal over the next  seven and a half centuries.  Toledo fell to Catholic forces in 1085 and in 1212 most of what had been Al-Andalus (Islamic Iberia) became Catholic controlled.  

However, even when Muslim rulers were no longer actually in charge, Muslims and their long-standing culture remained in Spain as the dominant cultural aesthetic force.  Arabic had long been the written and spoken lingua franca for citizens of all religions, Jews, Christians and Muslims.  In fact, when Columbus and his crew first landed in Cuba, a crew member used Arabic to try and communicate with the Taino chieftain; it was assumed that Arabic was a universal language.  

Such continuation of the Islamic style can be seen in the church of   San Roman in Toledo. This church was built in the 13th century, well after the 9th century reconquest of Toledo and yet the mudejar influence is clear.  Mudejar style emerged in the 12th century in the Christian areas of Spain and continued to be a strong influence even after Muslims were no longer involved in architecture.

Church of San Roman, Toledo Spain

Compare the form of this Toledo church window to that of the niche in the Fez, Morocco building below.  Arches, such as this horseshoe arch below are a design element in Morocco and throughout the Islamic world.

Niche in building, Fez Morocco

The nunnery, the Royal Convent of Santa Clara in Tordesillas Spain was built in 1363 in an area that was long out of Muslim control.  The architecture is mudejar and the Christian inscriptions in the tile-work are in Arabic.  

Monastery of Santa Clara , Tordesillas Spain

Monastery of Santa Maria la Real de las Huelgas, Spain

The minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville had a notably tall minaret (tower used by muezzin to call faithful to prayer) that was admired by the Castilians when they took 
Seville in 1248.   This minaret was incorporated into the Cathedral of Seville as its bell tower with some redesigning in 1568.
La Giralda, Seville Spain
As it was, there was a kind of dialogue between the old faith (Islam) and the new, conquering faith (Christianity) that was carried out on the level of material culture.  
The victorious Christian Castilians kept and re-used elements of Islamic culture, which had once been the dominant culture of the Iberian Peninsula.

Latin American Examples:  

The Spanish brought their aesthetic styles with their pervasive Islamic residue along with them to the New World.  Craftsmen were imbued with what had been the dominant aesthetic of the Iberian world for so many centuries that it became a part of the vernacular architecture of the New World in Mexico and elsewhere.


Elaborate geometric tile-work is pervasive in the architecture of the Islamic world, as in this Fez, Morocco building.

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Notice the similarities in the work of this Puebla, MX church. Throughout Mexico, geometric tile-work is found alongside figural art.  

San Francisco Acatapec, Puebla, MX  


The two photos below are of a ceiling in 16th century Oaxacan church, the ex-Convento of Santo Domingo, Yanhuitlán.  The Spanish term for them is artesanado and ceilings like them are found throughout the colonial Latin American world.  They are based on a type of wooden ceiling found in Spanish Moorish architecture; some are more simple, consisting of horizontal wood ceilings structured through beams that can be either plain or ornamental.

Artesanado-Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca MX
Artesanado-Yanhuitlan, Oaxaca MX

 Enclosed Balconies:

Called Mashrabiya in Arabic, these enclosed porches are found throughout the Islamic world to offer privacy to the occupants of a house.  

Below, the same type of wooden enclosed porch is seen:

  Interior Patios:

Courtyards are an ancient feature of building design, but the house built around a central patio originated in Greece and was adopted by the Romans. Fully-enclosed patio houses offered privacy to occupants and were functional for cooling and heating. 
Islamic Spain used this style of building and it became the vernacular architectural style in colonial Latin America.

Riyadh interior, Fex Morrocco
House interior, Puebla,MX


What we today call Islamic architecture is a product of the Muslim conquest in the 7th and 8th centuries.  Elements, Persian, Roman Byzantine and others, from lands conquered formed the basis of the style that came to be known as Islamic.  These elements underwent a further transformation in contact with the North African Moors resulting in the mudejar style of the Iberian peninsula and, later, Spanish colonies. This mudejar had become so entrenched thoughout much of the Iberian Peninsula, that it became the dominant Spanish style even after Islamic Spain no longer existed.                                                                                                                  

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