The Aljaferia Palace in the Middle Ages. A sentimental history
The Aljaferia Palace, in Zaragoza, is one of the few Hispanic Muslim buildings reused after the Christian occupation that has been preserved, at least partially, until nowadays. Its history is marked by many different uses and interventions, including the hosting military barracks, the addition of a Neoclassical facade and the construction of the Cortes de Aragón (the regional parliament) within the premises in the 1980s.
The first palace was erected in the second half of the 11th century, when Zaragoza was the capital of one of the taifa kingdoms resulting from the collapse of the Caliphate of Córdoba. None of the Taifa kingdoms achieved the greatness of the Umayyad Caliphate, but the most important of them became the main focus of Islamic cultural activity in the peninsula. The Taifa ruler in Zaragoza at the time, Abu Yafar al-Muqtadir, built a country residence around a courtyard, following the typically Arabic disposition in which the stark outward appearance encloses luxurious rooms and beautiful gardens. The main building is surrounded by a wall with towers. One of the towers was pre-existent and it is known nowadays as the Troubadour Tower. The two longitudinal facades of the palace open to two open spaces that were increasingly occupied after the Christian conquest.
In 1118, Alfonso I of Aragón entered the Aljaferia on the same day his troops conquered the city. This monarch provided a source of income and donated the building to the Abbey of St. Mary of Lagrasse. A community of Benedictine monks settled there and in 1129, the bishop of Zaragoza gave his authorisation to build a church on the premises of the palace. Unfortunately, no remains of this building have been preserved.
There are just a few historical documents related to the Aljaferia in the following 130 years, except for infrastucture maintenance works, especially in the irrigation channels. From the mid 13th century, though, the palace is increasingly present in the documents produced by the Aragonese Royal Court. For the first time, in 1259 there is documentary evidence of the king of Aragon, Jaume I, staying at the Aljaferia and from then on, and probably long before, it was used as the royal residence while the kings of Aragón were staying in Zaragoza.
In 1292, just a couple of years after his accession to the throne, Jaume II sent a letter from Barcelona to his governor in Zaragoza in which he gave him instructions to restore the Aljaferia since it was, literally, “in need of repair”, so the building had been probably neglected in the previous years. Nine years afterwards, he also confered the title of “Head Master Builder of our Aljaferia” to Mahomat Bellito, who we know for the same document to inherit the position from his father Jucef Bellito. Mahomat Bellito was descended from a Muslim family of builders. Documentation of the period show that not just his father, but his uncles and his grandfather were also builders at the aljama of Zaragoza and worked at least occasionally for previous monarchs.
Jaume II was the first king that we know of who refurbished the palace. It seems that he was really fond of the Aljaferia, which by the time consisted mainly of the Islamic building, and stayed there many times. During his reign he ordered general maintenance works but also specific changes for his personal comfort, like opening a window with a gate in his bedroom or reparing and conditioning his bathroom.
However, the first Christian monarch to take a personal interest in his residence in Zaragoza was his grandson Pere IV the Cerimonious. He granted the palace the title of Palau Reyal Mayor or Grand Royal Palace and carried out the most extensive Christian works in the Aljafería thus far, which included an extension of the original building. Most of his palace was erected in Mudejar style in the 1350s. Afterwards, the level of building activity was substantially reduced due to multiple difficulties, including the effects of the Black Death, a growing economic crisis and the War of the Two Peters between the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon.
In spite of this situation, he made sure the works went on even during these dark periods and devoted constant effort to supervise all the details. In a letter, for instance, he commanded that the marble pavement of one of the Moorish rooms was replaced, and personally gave specific instructions to use the extracted slabs of marble to repair damaged areas of pavement in other Moorish rooms and to safely store the spare slabs.
Pere IV also improved the defence structures of the palace, rebuilt a pre-existing chapel in Mudejar style and made alterations to the Troubadour Tower. In addition, he built a collection of rooms added to the north side of the Islamic palace, respecting to a certain extent the Islamic construction. According to the few account books of the works that have been preserved, these new rooms included, among many others, the Great Hall where the king eats, the Marble Hall, the Red Hall, the Green Hall, the Golden Hall, the archive where the king keeps the documents and the oratory where the king sleeps.
It is important to notice that in his letters, Pere IV clearly differentiates the “chambers of the Moorish palace” from the “palace I commanded to build in the Aljaferia”. He even had two different administrators, Blasco Aznárez de Borau, who directed the “new works at the palace”, and Johan Eximiniz d’Osca, who dealt with the renovations and alterations made to the Islamic rooms and gardens. In one of his letters, Pere IV even gives a reprimand to Borau for interfering in Johan Eximeniz’s dominions.
His interest in the palace is also evident from his relationship with the master builders. In the 1330s he granted the privileges that had been previously given to the Bellito family, whose members had inherited the position of Head Master Builder of the palace at least for 3 generations, as I already mentioned. In addition, and maybe after Mahomat Bellito’s death, he decided to designate a new Head Master Builder, Jahiel de Terrer, that was succeeded by Farach Allabar. Farach Allabar was also a Muslim builder and directed the works of the palace for more than 25 years. Pere IV had a great respect for the master builders and also appreciated their abilities. In 1382, for instance, Farach Allabar and another Moor master from Zaragoza were summoned to Valencia to learn a “very useful and undemanding technique to work with plaster and bricks that is being used in the building of the Valencia Royal Palace”.
It also deserves mentioning that, although the Head Master Builders of the Aljafería were Muslim, labourers from different communities and professional categories worked together at the building. Three documents from october 1397 with lists of builders working at the palace at that time, include Muslim masters and apprentices and also Christian masters, Christian apprentices and Christian women. The Jewish community was also related to the building. We know the Jewish quarter of Zaragoza was ordered to fabricate and provide tables and benches for the Aljafería in 1373. But curiously enough, the dominant role Jewish workers served at the palace was as guardians and carers of the king’s lions at his menagerie.
Pere IV had a difficult relationship with his son Joan I, who continued the works. His greatest contribution, though, was the replacement of the heraldry his father had created for the building. He removed most of the heraldry, except the two coats of arms of the Crown of Aragon with slight modifications. In order to reaffirm himself as the legitimate heir in front of this father’s fourth wife, he added the coats of arms of his wife and his mother, Eleanor of Sicily, and the Alcoraz cross, which was an ancient Aragonese royal symbol.
After Joan I’s reign and until the end of the 15th century, just maintenance works were occasionally carried out in the palace. The eastern expansion of the Crown of Aragón resulted in the following kings increasing absence from the peninsula to take care of their Italian kingdoms.
Things changed with the irruption of the Catholic Monarchs, in 1479. As would become usual at the European courts during the Renaissance, they commissioned the best artists and thinkers to help them create their public image. They founded many civilian and religious buildings, but they also took an active interest in some of the main palaces of Islamic origin preserved in the peninsula at their time, as the Alhambra and the Aljafería.
Zaragoza was favoured by Fernando, partly because Alonso of Aragón, his illegitimate son, was the archbishop of Zaragoza. Many major works were carried out in the city, especially in the cathedral and the Aljafería, which underwent the most extensive works since the time of Pere IV. But unlike him, it is evident that Fernando was not especially fond of the palace and that his approach to the building was part of a general political strategy.
The Catholic Monarchs’ palace is crammed with their coats of arms and their personal emblems. In particular, the bundle of arrows for Isabel, and the Gordian knot for Ferdinand. Furthermore, these signs and the symbolic purpose of the palace, were adapted to the political situation of each moment. When the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada was conquered, for instance, a pomegranate – “granada” is the Spanish word for pomegranate – was added to the shields and emblems to commemorate the historic victory over the last Arab stronghold in the Iberian peninsula. Likewise, the inscriptions at the palace bear the completion date 1492, year of the conquest of Granada, even if the works finished a year later.
The works commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs in the Aljafería were qualitatively different from the interventions made in the past. To begin with, all the new rooms were on the second floor and an elegant staircase was built to access them, so the pre-existing structures were completely overshadowed. The disregard for them was such that the Islamic rooms and portico in the north side were hidden behind a new façade, most of Pere IV Mudéjar rooms were demolished, and the dome of the mosque, preserved until that moment, was destroyed just to make space on the upper storey.
That is probably why the German humanist Hieronymus Münzer does not mention any of the primitive structures of the palace in the chronicle of his trip to the Iberian peninsula, during which he had the chance to meet Fernando and Isabel. Regarding his visit to the Aljafería in 1495, he acknowledged that it was originally built by the Moors, but reported just on the Catholic Monarch’s rooms.
The new palace was composed of three private rooms and a public area organised in the manner of an itinerary. The staircase, covered by a Mudejar roof ceiling, goes up to a corridor overlooking the main courtyard which leads to three antechambers to the Throne Room. The Throne Room is located precisely over the Islamic throne room, and it was the result of joining three rooms from Pere IV palace. The coffered ceiling of the Throne Room is probably the most outstanding element of the new palace. Under the roof there is a gallery of arches for the guests to contemplate the royal proceedings taking place below.
Fernando named a Head Master Builder for the Aljafería, Farach Gali, who was succeeded in 1500 by his son Mahoma Gali (Juan Gali after his conversion to Christianity), and later on by his grandson, Felipe Gali. We know that Fernando had a personal relationship with the Muslim master builders of Zaragoza, since in his letters to his administrator, he calls them by name and knows their specialities. Luckily, the contract for he construction of the ceiling of the Throne Room has been preserved, so we know the king gave precise details about the ornamentation, heraldry and inscriptions. It was commissioned to Farach Gali along with Ybrahem Moferriz and Mahoma Palacio. The latter was called Jerónimo Palacio after his conversion to Christianity, and was a carpenter at the queen’s service, so he especially went to work to Zaragoza.
The Catholic king also increased the salary of the Moor labourers of Zaragoza, who had the legal obligation to work in the palace. He did it, according to his own words, “out of clemency”. But on the other hand, he also urged his administrator to punish these Moor labourers if they refused to work. After all, it was a difficult period for the Jewish and Islamic communities in the peninsula.
To sum up, we may say that the changing economic and political circumstances, as well as the personal preferences of each monarch, conditioned the attitude towards the Aljafería Islamic palace over time. On the other hand, the preservation of the structure of the Taifa palace across the Middle Ages is highly significant.
Unlike most of the significant Hispanic Muslim buildings, which were demolished at some point, the Aljafería enabled the builders to have access to traditional Taifa architecture first-hand during the Late Middle Ages. This was essential for the development of architecture in the area. Beyond the reuse of material and the transfer of Hipanic Muslim building techniques, this process took place on a deeper level, and consisted of the adoption of the formal compositions and decorative motifs and an entire visual culture that was common to all the communities living in the region.
The Aragonese Mudéjar has much more primitive and distinctive designs than the ones found in the South. Different patterns from the Taifa architecture of Zaragoza in the 11th century, such as the nets of octagonal stars, Salomon knots or the juxtaposition of mixtilinear arches, were reinterpreted as essential elements of the Mudejar ornamentation in the area in the 14th and 15th century, and assumed as part of a cultural identity that transcended any ethnic or religious associations.