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.

Figure 2: Mudéjar House

Figure 2: Mudéjar House

Brief History of the Region

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.