Skip to main content

Mudéjar in Cáceres: Islamic Architectural Influence in a Small Spanish Town

Audrey holds a BA in Art History, and takes special interest in the Iberian Peninsula’s art and architecture and Civil War era America.


Throughout history different populations have occupied the Iberian Peninsula, including Iron and Bronze Age tribal societies, the Celts, the Visigoths, and the Romans. The most influential group that occupied what is now Spain were the Middle-Eastern and North African Islamic peoples that entered from the Maghreb1 region and took control in the eighth century AD. Many of these groups built on the sites of previous Celtic, Roman, and Christian hamlets in their own way, using cheap materials like wood, gesso, ceramic, mud, stone, and brick, as well as floor plans they were familiar with, such as those of mosques and minarets. Even after the Catholics came back into power, this type of construction was still used for religious and secular structures. Guilds were established to perpetuate this tradition, and it remained the predominant way of building in the southern half of Spain until the 1500s.

This way of building has been assigned the term Mudéjar Architecture. While there is still debate as to whether it is an actual style, there is no mistaking its prominence in most Spanish cities. Most Mudéjar structures in Spain are found in the southern region of Andalusia. However, the region that interests us is above Andalusia, and is known as Extremadura. Within Extremadura is a province called Cáceres (Arabic, Qazris), with a capital city of the same name. Today, Cáceres is a buzzing city of several hundred thousand with all common first world amenities. Almost directly in the center of this modern city is an archeological goldmine—the Parte Antigua, literally translated as “The Old Part”.

The Old Part of Cáceres is surrounded by a rectangular wall with towers and battlements. Inside this wall, we find religious, civil, and domestic structures3 interrupted by narrow, stone streets. Dead-ends and breaks in the serpentine, complex roads promote the feeling of a secretive society’s secluded way of life, now long gone.

Because of its more northern location and its rapid change of religious identity from Muslim to Christian, many claim that there is not much Mudéjar architecture in the province of Cáceres. However, I found that in the Old Part, several Mudéjar gems remain, as well as some later architecture that is definitely indebted to Mudéjar. The purpose of this paper is to present Mudéjar and Mudéjar-inspired architecture in the Old Part of Cáceres. To do this, it is necessary to understand the Islamic occupation of Spain throughout the middle ages, the term Mudéjar, and the characteristics that pertain to this style.

1 The Maghreb refers to a region in northwest Africa comprised of the mountains and coastlands of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

2 Its name literally means “extreme and hard” because of the extensive dry periods and scorching summer sun. Another possible meaning is the "extremes of the [river] Duero" referring to the area around this river that cuts through Spain.

3 Structures are from different stylistic periods including Romanesque, Islamic, Gothic, and Renaissance.

A Brief History of the Islamic Presence in Spain

In 712, ten thousand Muslim men entered the Iberian Peninsula through the Maghreb and conquered Hispalis (Seville). With a rapid advance they took control of almost all of Hispania (Spain)4. The Muslim army crossed the Pyrenees and entered into France before being overpowered at Poitiers in 738. They were obligated to retreat back into Spain and immediately fixed their capital in Seville. In 742, the Arab nomads dethroned the reigning Berbers5 with the help of Syrian soldiers. The Arabs in turn gave the Syrians land in southeastern Spain. Around 750, a Syrian prince named Abd Al-Rahman passed through the Maghreb and settled in these lands. He used his power to create the famous emirate of Al-Andalus6, which united all Islamic lands in the peninsula. The capital then moved from Seville to Córdoba. In the 9th Century immigrants from the Maghreb, Persia, Egypt, and various other countries arrived in Cordoba, which quickly grew to a population of 100,000. Cordoba was now one of the most significant cities in the Muslim world. In the year 929 Abd Al-Rahman III named himself Caliph, which made the three Caliphates of the Islamic world those of Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba7. The location of this Andalusian Caliphate would be critical for Islamic influence in the neighboring region of Extremadura and in the city of Cáceres during and after Muslim rule8 The Muslims thrived for several centuries. However, in the 11th Century, the Christian Kingdoms in the north of Spain slowly expanded southward in hopes of reclaiming what they considered to be territory lost to the Muslims.

The Muslim Almoravids ruled in Seville from 1041 until another violent religious era started in 1090: the Almohad dynasty. The Almohads forced themselves into Al-Andalus, complicating the political situation. In the early twelfth century, the Christians took advantage of this power split and were able to drive out the Almoravids. A century later, with the Christians slowly gaining territory, the reigning Almohads prepared an enormous army to fight the Christian advance. Determined, the Christian kings made an alliance and joined their armies. On July 16, 1212, the Christians overpowered the Almohads; the Reconquista9 was established10. Alfonso IX subsequently annexed Islamic cities11, attempting to expel any Muslims that were left.12 Cáceres was annexed in 1229.

Despite the annexing, for almost 300 years there was still a widespread Muslim presence in Spain due to political disagreements among Christians.13 These Muslims did not emigrate, and still practiced their faith and their customs. Muslims who were not artists or architects became more like Christian citizens of the lower class, becoming vassals of more powerful lords. Many lived obligatorily in Moorish Quarters and could not compete for jobs with Christians.14 Many of the Muslims who did not emigrate were artists and architects that continued to build churches, palaces, walls, and other structures.15 Guilds were established to teach Mudéjar techniques in Granada and Seville. Students entering the guilds would specialize in one of several trades16: Geometry (vaults), knot work (for roofing), carpentry, sculpture, and music trades. The decorative arts were also passed on from generation to generation17. The architectural result of the Islamic occupation of Spain is Mudéjar.

4 Cities like Toledo and Granada were easily conquered because they did not present any resistance to the invading armies. Antonio Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano. Ladrillos, Azulejos, y Azahar. Ministerio de Defensa: July 2006. Madrid, Spain. Pp. 54-84.

5 The Berbers are native to the Maghreb region and Morocco.

6 Hence the modern word Andalusia. The Syrians wanted to call their city Hims-al-Andalus, but Hispalis was more widely used, and changed to Seville over time due to the mix of Vulgar Latin, Arabic, and North African Creole. Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

7 The new Caliph’s city was referred to as Madinat al-Zahra, which was called the Radiant City because of its wealth. It was burned in a civil war in year 1010. Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

8 Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

9 Refers to the campaign begun by the Catholic kingdoms in the north of Spain against the Islamic south of Spain with the intent to gain all territories for their own kingdom and religion and expel all people of other faiths.

10 Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

11 Granada remained as the only Muslim territory in the peninsula. It was annexed in 1492.

12 Rafael López Guzmán. Arquitectura Mudejar. Ediciones Cátedra: 2000. Madrid, Spain. Pp. 23-366.

13 Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

14 López Guzmán, 2000.

15 Torremocha López, Miguel A. “Arte Mudéjar”. From Qué es: La arquitectura y la escultura. Los grandes estilos. E y D, S.A.: 1991. Granada, Spain. Pp. 69-73.

16 López Guzmán, 2000.

17 Mudéjar flourished until the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century Mudéjar recovered its importance.


Many words are employed to describe Mudéjar architecture, and most of them are not entirely correct. For example, a modern definition of an Arab is one who is, or is descended from peoples native to the Middle East or North Africa. Originally, the term Arab referred to the nomadic Bedouins18 who were commonly believed to be bandits.19 Over time, people began describing all Muslims or people from Arabic speaking regions as “Arabs”, even though the majority was not nomadic, nor Bedouin. Describing something as Moorish is also usually incorrect. It is logical to reserve the term Arab, if solely in this paper, for the nomadic Bedouins of the Arabian Peninsula, and the words Moorish and Moor to refer to people and influences from Mauritania, a small country in Northwest Africa.20 In this paper, the term Mozarabic will be used to refer to the overlapping of the Christian and Muslim worlds in the lives of individuals and in certain structures.

Religious terms do not apply to all Mudéjar structures, because many, in fact, are not religious. Mohammedan, Muslim, and Islamic all refer to someone or something that aligns with the Quran or Sharia21. These terms should be reserved for urban planning and worship structures because both were based on the Quran. While it is wrong to refer to all Middle Eastern and North African dwellers in Medieval Spain as Arabs, it is correct to call them Muslims. Despite their varying ethnic origins, the unifying factor was their faith in Allah. However, the structures they built are only sometimes Islamic, and are never Arab, since the true Arabs did not build.

Understanding this great problem of terminology, famous Spanish historian José Amador de los Ríos suggested the word Mudéjar.22 In its general form, it describes Islamic, North African, or Middle Eastern influence in art, decoration, and architecture.23

Recent debates have arisen because Mudéjar is said to be the quintessential Spanish architectural style, yet it is difficult to define. Mudéjar is not always Islamic, and it is not always Christian. Indeed the first structures (from the eighth to thirteenth centuries) were built by Muslims occupying Spain. Yet, after their expulsion, structures were built and commissioned both by Christians and by Muslim architects who remained in Spain. Recent academics have suggested yet other terms to describe Mudéjar, seeing that the term is a bit general. Some have suggested Christian-Mohammedan, or Mestizo. Others have suggested the term Arabic.24 Another cause for debate is the use of one word for such a large canon. While constants exist across the peninsula, a work in Andalusia is not the same as a work in Castile, for example. Styles within Mudéjar vary from city to city, and possibly from architect to architect.25

It is also not clear if the term Mudéjar refers to a style or to ornamentations. When the Christians built, they added Mudéjar characteristics to Gothic and Romanesque buildings, popular due to French influence. Sometimes it is impossible to know if a building is Mudéjar with Gothic elements, or vice versa. It is because of this mixing of elements that one could argue that the Catholics combined two distinct styles. But, because the decorative elements appear so consistently for so long and overtop so many different architectural styles, one could also interpret Mudéjar to merely represent a set of architectural elements instead of a style of its own.

Whatever Mudéjar is, the form has survived longer than any other style in Spain. It is now rooted to the peninsular character.26 If only in this paper, the working definition of Mudéjar will be a style of architecture directly influenced by Muslim, North African, and Middle Eastern groups who occupied Spain—a style which was also adopted by the Catholics in Spain in the middle ages, and which still reverberates in current day architecture. It has the appearance of wealth, but is made using cheap materials such as gesso, brick, wood, mud, ceramic, and stone. It is very geometric and simple in its execution, yet displays surpassing beauty in decoration.

18 The first historian to cite the Arabs was Herodotus and he speaks of a place, Arabia, situated to the east of Syria where nomadic peoples lived.

19 The nomadic Bedouin Arabs had no problem burning and pillaging cities to acquire goods. For them, nomadic life represented good and city life represented evil. This is whom the term Arab refers to when used in the Quran. Ramos-Yzquierdo Zamorano, 2006.

20 In Spanish, the word moro has been incorrectly used to refer to Mudéjar architecture and to any member of the conglomerate of Muslim nations, languages, and cultures represented in Medieval Spain.

21 According to Muslims, Sharia is God’s law. It is composed of two parts: principles of the Quran, and the example set by Mohammed.

22 Amador defined Mudéjar in his entrance speech presented to the Real Academia de San Fernando in 1859.

23 The term was initially widely accepted. Only recently have new debates about the definition of Mudéjar arisen.

24 Pilar Mogollón Cano-Cortés. El Mudéjar en Extremadura. Institución Cultural El Brocense- Universidad de Extremadura: 1987. Salamanca, Spain.

25 Pilar Mogollón Cano-Cortés. Mudejar en Extremadura. Gráficas Varona: 1987. Salamanca, Spain. Pp. 63-141

26 Mogollón Cano-Cortés. Gráficas Varona: 1987.

Putting This Information in Context

Mudéjar in the Region of Extremadura

As we have discussed, from the eighth century to the thirteenth century, Extremadura was under Muslim rule. This is why it is altogether not surprising that Mudéjar architecture is also found in regions like Extremadura, and not just in Andalusian cities. In fact, Extremadura’s proximity to Andalusia made Mudéjar the most utilized architectural style.27 Many Extremaduran Mudéjar buildings were directly influenced by similar structures in Seville, but not all Mudéjar in Extremadura is indebted to other peninsular focus points. Some works are merely the result of a long Islamic tradition, many being completed by the Almohads themselves.28 During the fourteenth century, Mudéjar extended to the entire region of Extremadura. It was used to realize diverse projects, including works of religious character, as well as military, civil, and domestic buildings. Half of Mudéjar architecture in Extremadura is found in the province of Cáceres, with most having a military character.29

Life in Medieval Cáceres

Cáceres was a typical Muslim city of the middle ages, meaning it complied rigidly with the ideals of secrecy in the Quran and used it to the fullest in urban planning. Cáceres, like other Muslim cities, opposed the countryside and was surrounded with walls. Inside, there was little street life. The houses seen from the exterior were whitewashed walls with a small hole that served as an entrance to the home’s interior where family life revolved around a central patio. Windows were also very small for privacy. The streets, except for the commercial ones, were empty. Even the commercial streets were curved so that one could not escape his immediate surroundings. The labyrinth of streets encircles what were once the preferred public places of Medieval Muslims.

27 Pilar Mogollón Cano-Cortés. “Arte Mudejar en Extremadura.” From Mudéjar Hispano y Americano: Itinerarios Culturales Mexicanos. Fundación El Legado Andalusí: October, 2006. Granada, Spain. Pp. 97-110.

28 Mogollón Cano-Cortés, 2006.

29 Mogollón Cano-Cortés. Gráficas Varona: 1987.

Introduction to Mudéjar Materials

Mudéjar is defined by the use of very simple, cheap materials that show surpassing beauty in decoration. All of these materials, mud, brick, ceramic, gesso, wood, and stone, can be found in Mudéjar pieces from the Old Part of Cáceres.

Mud was the Mudéjar building material that was most used by the Muslim Almohads during their rule from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries. The Almohads came from the Maghreb region where mud is a staple of construction. It is seen in the militaristic towers and walls of Cáceres, and these sober barriers are the dominant characteristic of Mudéjar in Extremadura.30 Mudéjar mud in Cáceres was made from entirely local clay, dirt, and pebbles which were extremely easy to obtain because of the great quantity in the surrounding countryside.

Brick is considered the quintessential Mudéjar material across the Iberian Peninsula. Scholars suggest the generalized use of brick began in Mesopotamia.31 Mudéjar bricks are very long and flat (10 in x 5in x 2 in), and it is these proportions that make them Mudéjar. When bricks with such proportions were used, only the two inch thickness was visible. Sometimes two inches of gesso was placed between bricks to create a chromatic alternation. Brick horseshoe arches as well as brick and gesso friezes decorate the façades of many Mudéjar buildings. Brick was one of the primary decorative materials of the Mudéjar era. In Cáceres, bricks are most common in arches, structures, battlements, and decoration and are typically red or brown.

Mudéjar ceramics were made with clay molding and firing techniques.32 The usual paintings on the ceramics were geometric or organic in design and tended to be non-representational. The most common color used in Mudéjar tiles was blue on a white background. These particular tiles originated in the Middle East and are commonly known as azulejos. They are still widely used for decoration in Spain.

Gesso was another primary Mudéjar building material due to the abundance and affordability of gypsum in the peninsula. Apart from being used as mortar, gesso was cast, cut, carved, gilded, or painted. Unfortunately, in Cáceres there are few if any examples of the elaborate sebqa33 carvings like those found in Cordoba. Gesso was also applied as a smooth covering for brick or stone, adding to the sobriety and simplicity of Mudéjar in Cáceres. Sometimes this gesso was also whitewashed, creating plain white surfaces.

Wood was used in a variety of ways for support and decoration within the Mudéjar method of building. In nearby Morocco, roofs are traditionally wooden. Also, wood was abundant in Syria. The leaders of the Islamic empire in Andalusia were Syrian. Thus, we can see that at least Moroccan and Syrian émigrés built with materials that they understood. Mudéjar ceilings are made of planking, long vertical pieces of wood laid flat, supported by thicker beams that cut across the ceiling horizontally. These Mudéjar ceilings were often painted or carved with vegetal or geometric designs.

Stone was used in Mudéjar because of its abundance in the region and its durability. The stone was frequently mixed with brickwork in Mudéjar realizations, and it was almost always held together with gesso mortar. The Almohads typically did not quarry. Stone was used in the Islamic world long before the Mudéjar in Spain.

31 López Guzmán, 2000.

32 The ovens that were used to fire the pieces were called Arab ovens .Pieces were repeatedly cooked and varnished. López Guzmán, 2000.

33 Elaborate gesso carvings, usually floral or vegetal.

Mudéjar in Cáceres


An example of a Mudéjar mud structure in Caceres is Torre de la hierba (grass tower), located beside one of the original gates of the Roman city Norba Caesarina (figure 1). When the Almohads arrived in the twelfth century, they replaced this gate with the enormous, looming mud wall and towers.34 They connected the wall to encircle the whole city, and it is still standing today.

From a distance, Torre de la hierba and other Almohad towers from the twelfth century35 appear to be completely made of mud, but when seen from a closer perspective, it becomes clear that their bases and walls include bricks, stone, and other structural reinforcements. This mixture of materials is typical of Mudéjar, as they literally used anything that was available to them. The towers are a reddish brown color because of the mud. It must have been applied in a similar fashion to that of modern day cement. It seems to have been applied wet with a flat instrument because it is not caked, but rather it is smooth the touch. Mudéjar towers like Torre de la hierba have battlements and are square-based, similar to towers in Iran and Israel. The Middle-Eastern building type of the towers together with the use of a material typical of North African structures make these Almohad towers perfect examples of the lasting Mudéjar legacy in Cáceres.

The wall built around Cáceres in the twelfth century is also Mudéjar because of its material and the fact that it was built by the Muslim Almohads. Some sections of the wall remain perfectly intact, and others have been restored to what they would have looked like nearly a millennium ago. One of the most interesting sections of the original Almohad wall is on the south side of Cáceres. The typical Mudéjar conglomerate of materials used to produce the mud wall is again visible in this structure, whose outermost layers of mud have almost completely worn away. Rows of crooked bricks run atop thick layers of gesso, and mud is layered over and between local stones. Similar parts of the Mudéjar wall remain in Cáceres and other segments have been stabilized and covered with new layers of mud.


An excellent example of Mudéjar brick work survives in the Parte Antigua. It is simply known as Mudéjar House and is actually one of the best preserved testimonies of the Mudéjar style home in all of Extremadura (figure 2). This structure was built in the fourteenth century by architects trained in the Mudéjar technique. From the foundation to the second storey, the walls are stone and mortar. The entire second storey and the first storey portal are brick and gesso alternations, a two-tone trait that is typical of Mudéjar. Also definitive of Mudéjar are the arches. Twin pointed horseshoe arches frame the wooden doors of the second storey window.

Along the left side of the second storey, a line of small pointed arches serve as openings to ventilate the house. There is also a course of bricks placed in a zigzag on the topmost part of the construction. The zigzag motif is among the rarest of Mudéjar decorations in the peninsula, and this particular example is the only one in the entire province of Cáceres.36 Zigzag made of bricks are found most in North African countries. Other Mudéjar brick patterns are also used on the Mudéjar House. On the bottom part of the second storey, bricks are placed in corner friezes to create little, protruding triangles in a row, a typical Mudéjar frieze style called friso en esquinillas. The Mudéjar House is a preserved testimony of many typical Mudéjar decorations.

Another example of preserved Mudéjar brickwork in the Old Part is a pointed arch portal of what was once a fourteenth century Mudéjar home on Caleros37 street (figure 3). Unfortunately, the only part of this Mudéjar home that remains is the entryway; the rest of the house has been reconstructed through the years according to contemporary architectural techniques.38 The arch is made of the same long, flat bricks alternated in the typical Mudéjar way with gesso about the same thickness as the bricks. They are laid so that they meet at a rounded point, an arch type definitive of Mudéjar, brought to Spain from the Middle East. Above the arch is an outline of the larger arch, made of protruding bricks laid on their sides. The alfiz39 is comprised of regular brick masonry with less gesso in between. The brick proportions, the alternation with gesso, the pointed arch form, and its date of construction all make this arch a Mudéjar structure. Having been painted over, it is impossible to know how it looked originally, but one can assume that it was similar to the Mudéjar house.

Although Mudéjar was mostly abandoned in the sixteenth century as architects took an interest in the Renaissance, certain characteristics of Mudéjar were still widely used in Cáceres. A much later work from 1758, Postigo de Santa Ana (Saint Anne’s Wicket), serves as evidence that Mudéjar bricks were still employed by masons in the area. The Postigo’s brick vaults are of clear Mudéjar lineage. Another tradition that continued long past the original popularity of Mudéjar was the use of bricks to build battlements. The Palace of Toledo-Montezuma was constructed in the early seventeenth century from bricks of Mudéjar dimensions and sports brick battlements across the top of the main gallery on the third storey. Other examples of Mudéjar style brick battlements are found randomly throughout the Old City, with some being used as steeples, and others used as vents for home interiors.


In the Old Part of Cáceres, the only example of what could be defined as Mudéjar ceramics is found at Palacio de las Veletas, or, The Weathervane Palace. This palace actually has an original balustrade made of ceramic vases and fascinating ceramic gargoyles that crown its façade (figure 4). The Weathervane Palace was constructed in the fifteenth century when Mudéjar was still used by Christians. The balustrade and the gargoyles were cast in a nearby town called Talavera and are painted in the typical Mudéjar fashion primarily with blue and green linear decorations. The fact that gargoyles, from Catholic traditions, were cast and painted according to Mudéjar techniques outlines one of many Mozarabic traits within the Mudéjar style.

Most of the ceramics in Cáceres, although not technically Mudéjar, are greatly indebted to it. Azulejos still decorate almost all patios and many facades. As mentioned before, animal motifs were common in Mudéjar tiles. A great example of such tiles in the Old Part is the fish sgraffito found around the windows of the Casa de Águila, which was constructed in the fifteenth century. Also, birds and other creatures on solitary tiles on the sides of old homes appear throughout Cáceres, although it is difficult to date them. Other antique tiles remain in the Cáceres Museum, which is in the Palace of the Weathervanes. All of these ceramics are indebted to Mudéjar because the Muslims introduced ceramics to the peninsula.


The Palace of the Weathervanes is not only home to Mudéjar ceramics, but also an original Mudéjar brick structure covered in smooth gesso. This structure is an impressive Muslim era cistern, called el aljibe (figure 5). It is considered one of the oldest Mudéjar relics bequeathed to Cáceres and is dated between the tenth and twelfth centuries. El aljibe was built in the traditional mosque style with four arcades of horseshoe arches that support five stilted barrel vaults, which were largely popular in contemporary architecture from Syria.40

Although the structural support of the aljibe is believed to be a mixture of brick and stones, all of the surfaces have been covered with a smooth layer of gesso, which is typical of Mudéjar architects in Extremadura who wanted to achieve somber, smooth surfaces. This covering would have once been smooth and bright. If it were a mosque, parts of the gesso covering would have non-representational, organic, or geometric decorations painted on it. Over the past millennium, the dripping of water has chipped away at all of the surfaces, giving the appearance that the aljibe is made of rough cement.

In 2009, the Spanish Culture Department sent a team of expert archaeologists to determine the original use of the space. They concluded that the aljibe began as a mosque in the ninth century and was changed into a cistern when the Muslims discovered its orientation was not exactly toward Mecca. The team offered several reasons41 as to why the space could have been a mosque, including severely decayed ornamentation placed on the columns, and invisible remnants of brown and red paint on the gesso walls.42 Together with its floor plan, building materials, and date of construction, the fact that this space was used by Muslims in worship greatly adds to its importance as a preserved Mudéjar building in Cáceres.


The best remaining examples of Mudéjar style woodwork in Caceres were not built during Islamic occupation, but do follow guidelines of Mudéjar carpentry. As appropriate for Mudéjar, most of these examples throughout the Old Part of Cáceres are centuries old wooden ceilings and roofs. Wooden ceilings in the fifteenth century Palace of the Weathervanes adhere to traditional Mudéjar guidelines (figure 6). They serve as an example of what Mudéjar roofs looked like in their prime. They are unpainted, but they are carved with geometric and vegetal designs, which is typical of Mudéjar carvings and decoration in general. The ceilings are built in the traditionalMudéjar way with planking and cross beams for support.