27 February 2011

The Alcázar of Jerez

If you ever visit the splendid city of Jerez de la Frontera (a 45 minute drive from Alcalá) you will probably have at the top of your to-do list a trip round a sherry bodega (complete with sampling session), or a visit to the Real Escuela to see the fabulous thoroughbred Andalusian horses in action.  But there is another, slightly less well-publicised attraction which I urge you to fit in - the Alcázar.

Thanks to Alan Bowman, who visited Jerez in January, for letting me crib the following description and photos from his weekly Bulletin:

Inside the mosque
The Alcázar of Jerez, one of Jerez's most important monuments, is located in the southeast corner of the city, forming, with the walls, towers and gates a complex defensive system. The term Alcázar, from the Arabic al Qasr, defines a set of buildings surrounded by ramparts, which was the seat of political and military power. It was a palace fortress with autonomy, a small town, seat of power that ruled the city and its territory.

The Mosque from outside
The fortress was built in the twelfth century and is one of the few examples of Almohad architecture that exist in the Peninsula.  Jerez became, in that century, one of the most important cities in Lower Andalusia, as evidenced by the monumentality of this palace and the length of the wall, extending to 4 km which contained a city of 46 hectares and came to have a population of 16,000. The original Islamic fortress is preserved: the two gates, the mosque, Arab baths, the octagonal tower and the pavilion patio of Doña Blanca, located at the foot of the tower.

What remains of the Arab Baths shows that personal hygiene was considered to be very important, not only for æsthetic reasons but as a prophylactic especially when the Plague and other fast spreading diseases to which, neither the cause nor the cure were known, were commonplace. Parts of the baths were demolished by the Christians to make way for a baker's oven (inner satisfaction taking precedence over outer cleanliness!) which the Moors would have had outside the walls.

Inside the baths

The baths from outside

The water wheel draws water from the well to the baths' cold-room
As with any construction of this age, archæologists are always seeking to establish its history and the Alcázar is no exception. The remains of a wall have been found suggesting that there was a much earlier pre-Almohad fortress from about 200 years earlier and is one of the oldest constructive remains in the city. Its size and thickness suggests that it was an inner protective wall around the main well to protect the water sources in the event of a siege. Very few constructive elements from the Caliphal period or even from the second Taifas survived the arrival of the Almohads in the mid XII century. Maybe because they had strong political intentions, the Almohads destroyed earlier constructions and reused the materials for the foundations of their buildings. The remains of the pre-Almohad buildings were covered with a layer of clean yellowish river sand, possibly in an attempt to "purify" the site.
Octagonal tower
Patio garden in winter

El Palacio de Villavicencio
In 1664, tenancy of the Alcázar passed, by inheritance, to a member of the Villavicencio family, one of the most powerful in the city. He commenced a series of remodellings in the Alcázar including the construction of the beautiful baroque palace over the ruins of a primitive Almohad palace. On the second floor is now an antique pharmacy from the 19th century and in the tower of the palace is a camera obscura offering views over the city (unfortunately, cameras were not allowed.)

One of the gates
The following photos were taken by me last summer:

The farmacia
Spanish noblemen immortalised on the palace door

Looking down on the mosque

Typical Moorish water feature

The Moors understood the calming effects of water ...

Modern statues 

Palms outside the Palacio

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