Simon Doubleday


“Among the excellent qualities of Seville,” wrote Abū ‘l Walīd Ismā’il ibn Moḥammad al-Shaqundi in the early thirteenth century, “are its mild climate, the magnificence of its buildings, the adornment both of the city itself and its surroundings, and that high degree of refinement which leads to the popular saying: ‘If you ask for bird’s milk in Seville, they will find it for you’.”

Ishbilya (Seville) had been one of the two capital cities of the Almohad empire, which in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries had spanned much of Northwest Africa and southern Spain. Its walls, fortified palace, and great mosque had all been rebuilt under the caliph Abū Ya’qūb, perhaps stimulated partly by an earthquake that had razed parts of the city in 1170, and gardens filled with fruit trees had been built at the royal palaces of Buhayra.

Alfonso was spellbound by Seville, and above all by the soaring minaret of the Giralda, a tower that had a virtual twin at the Koutoubia mosque in Marrakech. “With such mastery was it made, and so fine is the staircase by which they go up to the tower, that kings and queens and important men who want to go up there on horseback can go up to the top when they wish. On top of the tower there is another tower, which is about forty-eight feet high, made most marvelously. On top of this there are four spheres placed one on top of the other; they are made so large and with such great labor, and with such great nobility, that in the whole world there cannot be any so noble, or any equal”.