Brand-new museum celebrates Madrid as the only European capital with Islamic origins

Author: Leah Pattem

Madrid’s new Museum of Royal Collections has unexpectedly become home to the most significant Muslim heritage site in the city. Next month, the King and Queen of Spain will unveil a recently rediscovered section of the founding settlement of Madrid – the oldest known part of the 9th-century Islamic wall. The find has prompted a shift in the narrative around the capital’s origins as an Islamic outpost, confirming that Madrid did indeed start out as a Muslim settlement.

The chance archaeological discovery during works on the new royal museum will be displayed behind a glass screen on the ground floor. It features a gateway that includes two towers standing around two metres high, as well as 14th- and 15th-century remnants of houses that were anchored to the Islamic wall during the Christian period.

Photo © Patrimonio Nacional

“Madrid is the only European capital with Islamic origins,” says Álvaro Soler, archaeologist and curator of the royal museum. Opinion has long been divided on whether, prior to the founding of Madrid by Mohamed I in the 9th century, there had been Visigothic and Roman settlements at the same site. In 2009, the discovery of a lone 8th-century Visigothic skeleton near the cathedral cast further doubt on whether the city had Muslim origins – a story spun by right-wing newspapers such as El Mundo and ABC.

However, excavations around the newly discovered gateway to Madrid – then called Maŷrīṭ – revealed a complete absence of archaeological remains from Roman Spain (218 BC to 472 AD) and Visigothic Spain (418 to c. 721), indicating that Madrid was in fact founded during Spain’s Muslim era.

Between 711 and 1492, almost all the Iberian Peninsula had been under Muslim rule at some point. The various emirates, caliphates and taifa kingdoms were collectively referred to as al-Andalus and, for much of their history, existed in conflict with Christian kingdoms to the north. As the Christian Reconquista advanced, Islamic Spain would eventually face complete territorial defeat in the late 15th century.

But despite Muslims ruling Spain for more than seven centuries, Soler explains that there have been moments in Madrid’s history where its Muslim past has been deliberately omitted. For example, King Felipe II, who ruled Spain leading up to Madrid’s transition as capital “was a champion of Christianity,” he says.

“This was the quintessential Christian monarchy,” says Soler. “But remember we’re talking about the mentality of 400 years ago – at that time, recognising an Islamic past in the capital wasn’t considered ideal.”

Soler goes on to explain that “Madrid didn’t have much political importance, unlike Cordoba, which was the seat of the caliphate, or Granada, which was the seat of the Nasrid sultanate. Nor did it have as large a population.” Madrid wasn’t much more than a citadel built to protect Toledo from the Christian armies to the north.

While it is true that Madrid was historically of lower standing, Aicha Fernandez, an archaeologist and local Islamic-heritage guide, believes that the lack of knowledge of the city’s Muslim past wasn’t just a result of its insignificance as a place but that this past was deliberately concealed:

“Madrid’s historical narratives around Christianity and Islam simply don’t add up,” she says. “The true stories of Madrid run counter to popular legend. Therefore, if you were to recount this Islamic history, people might be quite surprised.”

The lack of visibility of Madrid’s Muslim community spaces is something Fernandez is concerned about. “I feel like they’re afraid to give us funding to build a mosque because they think it’ll open the door to us spreading our ideology into every part of society.” 

Soler argues that, although it gets much less attention than that of other parts of al-Andalus, Madrid’s Muslim past is certainly acknowledged:

“When a previous section of wall appeared around 60 years ago, it was considered so important that its demolition was stopped and building on top of it was prevented.” This section now features as part of Emir Mohamed I park. “In other words, in modern times, there is by no means a denial [of the city’s Islamic history],” says Soler.

Fernandez, on the other hand, feels that there have been efforts over the centuries and in recent decades to obscure Madrid’s Muslim past, and that these efforts have had the desired effect: “It’s Muslims from other parts of the world that are more interested in Madrid’s Islamic history – they’re the people who come on my tours,” she says. “The Muslim community in Madrid isn’t interested, particularly in the case of young Spanish Muslims, who don’t feel like this is part of their heritage – they separate the past from the present.”

Soler is optimistic about the new exhibit’s impact: “For any madrileño, regardless of their ideology or creed, I think this is a very important contribution.”

Fernandez also believes that this new archaeological find may encourage young Muslims to explore their own past: “Paired with the work of Muslim guides like me, it’s possible to spark curiosity – and that’s important because Madrid’s Muslim history is part of our history too.”


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