As he meanders through the spectacular Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, tour guide Yasin Maymir hones in on a section of ornate patterning on the interior walls.
“Arabic letters, Arabic phrases. There are more than 10,000 all around Alhambra,” he proudly says of the inscriptions.
Maymir continues through perfectly manicured gardens and grandiose rooms, occasionally stopping to speak of Islamic philosophies and architectural techniques incorporated into the design.
His fascination is obvious. Yet he believes the finer details of this history may be unfamiliar to many Spaniards.
“In Spain, in the schools,” Maymir says, “they would never teach you about the (country’s) Islamic history.”
While the Spanish government has taken steps to enable school students to learn about the Islamic faith in recent years, Maymir – whose Italian mother and Cuban father were converts to Islam and moved to Granada because of its rich Islamic past – says he began to understand this other side of his country’s history by studying the secrets of the Alhambra.
With its exquisite marble columns and elaborate horse-shoe arched windows, the Alhambra is one of the most notable surviving examples of the Islamic influence on Spain.
Visitors to Granada, meanwhile, can still wander through the former Arabic and Jewish quarters located in the shadow of the building.
Islamic forces, which came to be known as the Moors, invaded Spain from North Africa in 711.
They rapidly conquered the Iberian peninsula, pushing out the ruling Visigoths and laying the foundations for centuries of Muslim rule.
Known as Al Andalus, the territory they captured stretched as far as Spain’s north-east coast at its peak.
This period is often described as unique in terms of its relative religious harmony, with Muslims, Jews and Christians believed to have co-existed side by side for centuries in a multi-faith society.
But some have noted that non-Muslims may have have been regarded as being of inferior social standing at various times. Historian Bernard Lewis cites a document from 12th century Seville in his 1984 book “The Jews of Islam” which stated: “A Muslim must not massage a Jew or Christian nor throw away his refuse or clean his latrines. The Jew and the Christian are better fitted for these trades, since they are the trades of those who are vile.”
Spain’s Muslim epoch came to an end in 1492 with the conclusion of the “Reconquista,” a centuries-long campaign which saw Christian states across Iberia retake full control of territories previously captured by Islamic forces.
Today, Spain is a largely Catholic nation, and not a place widely associated with Islam. Just 2.1% of Spain’s 46 million population are Muslim according to 2010 Pew Research Center figures (although this is expected to rise to 3.3% by 2020).
Yet look closely and its Moorish heritage can still be glimpsed in the nation’s rich cultural fabric.
“It’s very difficult to go to Spain, especially south of Madrid, without being very aware of the Islamic presence,” says Dr Elizabeth Drayson, author of “The Moor’s Last Stand: How Seven Centuries of Muslim Rule in Spain Came To An End.”
“People live surrounded by Moorish architecture, especially in (the southern region of) Andalucia.” But this influence can also be seen in buildings “as far north as Barcelona and towards the Pyrenees,” adds Drayson, who is also a specialist in Spanish literature and history at the University of Cambridge.
It’s this heritage that Maymir hopes to help visitors to the Alhambra rediscover.
And he’s far from the only one. Musicians, foodies and travel guides, to name a few, are also looking to explore the enduring Islamic influence that has helped shape modern Spain, with some even providing their own modern twist.
Echoes of flamenco
High up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range which looms over Granada, the pleasant notes of a flamenco guitar filter through the the picturesque town of Ferreirola.
This distinctive and quintessentially Andalucian musical genre expresses “many different emotions,” explains flamenco artist Amir John Haddad, who is more commonly known as El Amir.
“Of course, it’s a big mix of cultures that influences that (sound which) has gone through … India over to the Middle East, over North Africa to Andalusia.”
El Amir is the son of a Palestinian father and Colombian mother.
He believes there are numerous similarities between the musical traditions of flamenco – with its distinctive guitar, dancing and percussive hand clapping – and the sounds of the old Islamic world.
El Amir points to the oud, a stringed instrument of Middle Eastern origin that looks like a cross between a guitar and a oversized wooden pear, as a case in point.
“In the old days, the oud was played with fingers especially with the thumb and that’s where many of the traditional flamenco techniques come from,” he explains.
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The oud was likely invented in Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq and Iran. Inevitably, it made its way across the Islamic world to Moorish Spain.
“There was one very interesting artist who came from Baghdad called Ziliap,” El Amir says. “(He) was sent to Cordoba to work for the caliphs and the sultans … and that was a big influence on Spanish guitar.”
Today, El Amir plays his own brand of flamenco music on the oud.
The aim of his band, which features singer Jose Salinas, percussionist Miguel Hiroshi and dancer Joaquin Ruiz, is to fuse old and new to create something unique.
Numerous other cultures, including those of Roma gypsies and Sephardic Jews of Andalucia, are believed to have influenced the development of flamenco over the years.
But it is the sound of the old Arabic world that always echoes for El Amir.
“I was brought up with an oud and the flamenco guitar and for me they are two similar instruments,” he says. “They’re like two like brothers from the same family but brought up in a different country.”
In recent years, fears have grown among some right-wing groups in Europe that the continent’s myriad cultural identities could be eroded by an influx of outsiders, particularly from the Islamic world.
This point of view has been voiced by the likes of the National Front in France and the AFD in Germany.
Yet Drayson believes there is an unwitting irony to these concerns given the Moors contributed to the development of Europe over hundreds of years.
Drayson says that the Moors brought agricultural improvements, sophisticated new foods as well as knowledge of medicine, architecture and mathematics to Spain.
These “unquestionably” had an impact on neighboring civilizations on the continent, she asserts.
While Spain today is home to numerous upstart political groups, the country has largely resisted the right-wing populism which has come to the fore in other European nations.
A 2016 report from the Elcano Royal Institute think tank found Islamophobia was “relatively weak in Spain.”
However, conservative politician Esperanza Aguirre stirred controversy earlier this year when she tweeted that “with Islam we would not have freedom” on the January 2 anniversary of the fall of Granada to Catholic forces in 1492.
A Pew study from 2014, meanwhile, found that 46% of Spaniards had an unfavorable view of Muslims in their country.
According to Drayson, Spain has a complex relationship with its Islamic past.
She adds that some right-wing groups would rather say Spain has always been “an entirely Latin, European (and) Christian” country, than face reality.
Others, however, are far more open and secure about exploring the melting pot of their nation’s history.
Taste of the past
One man comfortable with the Moorish contribution to his home nation is food expert turned gastronomical guide, Diego Gil.
He specializes in teaching visitors to his native city of Cordoba about the influence the Moors had on the local food.
“I don’t think many people know this huge heritage we have from the Moors,” Gil says, “(certainly) not in the cuisine.”
Among the wide variety of foods the Moors introduced to Europe were aubergines, apricots and pomegranates. According to Drayson, they also brought with them the concept of dinner courses and cutlery.
Gil even points to the introduction of rice and saffron to the region by the Moors, the base for the popular Spanish dish of paella.
Moorish-inspired cuisine is the philosophy behind chef Paco Morales’ popular one Michelin star restaurant Noor in Cordoba.
Morales says he wanted to create a place where the history of Cordoba could be tasted.
Islamic era “cuisine is very fresh, exciting and was very flavorful, very special, with lots of nuances,” Morales says.
On the menu at Noor are dishes rich in “fresh turmeric, vanilla, saffron, (all of) which was brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Muslims from India,” Morales says.
As well as a taste of the past, Morales hopes that his patrons learn a little more about the contribution of Andalucia’s old Spanish rulers.
“We know that the Muslims did a lot of important and good things in this region, and we wanted to tell a bit of that story to the world through our food,” he says.
While they may be exploring different areas of Spain’s past Islamic connections, that’s a sentiment shared by Alhambra tour guide Maymir and musician El Amir.
Back at the Alhambra, Maymir says he can feel the presence of past rulers and historical figures each time he explores its palaces.
He hopes others will come to share in his enthusiasm and seek to discover this side of Spain’s past.
“I actually have the strong intention to connect again with our ancestors. It doesn’t mean you have to become a Muslim. It doesn’t mean you have to change your life,” he says. “Just know about where you’re coming from.”