Moorish palace in Malaga, The Alcazaba, and Ibn Gabirol

Alcazaba of MalagaAlcazaba of Malaga

The main reason I'm in Spain right now is to do research for my historical novel the, The Road to Santiago, which I wrote about before here. My first research stop was the Alcazaba of Malaga.

In the  8th century Malaga was the principal port of the Moorish kingdom. That's when construction was begun on the Moorish palace that dominates the city's profile from above. The Alcazaba dwarfs even the later Gibralfaro ("the lighthouse castle") that has stood above it since antiquity and which is now a parador.

Path from Alcazaba to GibralfaroPath from Alcazaba to Gibralfaro

Each Moorish Castle Moorish castle has its own unique name, usually based on the name of its first builder. Granada has it's Alhambra, Toledo it's Alcazar, and Zaragoza its Aljaferia. The Alcazaba is Malaga's.

The Arabs set up housekeeping in Malaga in 711 A.D. The Alcazaba was originally built over Roman ruins -- a Roman ampitheatre still exists at the foot of the Alcazaba's hill. It's designed  to follow the contour of the mountain spur it is built on. The Taifa king Badis el Ziri rebuilt the fortified enclosure, which gives the Alcazaba its doubly- fortified character, between 1057 and 1063. In his day there was a lower set of walls which divided the castle from the sea. Now the castle is landlocked, but it's easy to imagine the Mediterranean lapping at the lower gate.

Entrance to Alcazaba, MalagaEntrance to Alcazaba, Malaga

The inner palace area is from Nasrid times, the 13th and 14th centuries. Arab kings from Granada remodeled yet again and gave the interior palace courtyard and gardens, like the Patio de los Naranjos and the Patio de la Alberca (pool), that are reminiscent of the Alhambra's. 

Bride in the Patio de los Naranjos, AlcazabaBride in the Patio de los Naranjos, Alcazaba


These inner gardens and courtyards are very pleasant, but still, I can't imagine that the palace, with it's steep paths that twist and turn, would have been a very pleasant place to live.


I try to imagine what it would have been like for a Moor like Ibi, the Moorish character in my novel, to come from Al-Andalus and go north. I'm not really sure where Ibi is from, except that he's from Al-Andalus.  But  even if he isn't from Malaga, the tradition of Moorish castles would be something that he would claim as part of his cultural heritage, the way all French people claim the Eiffel tower or all New Yorkers the Empire State Building. By comparison Jaca, the town in Huesca where he ends up, must have seemed provincial to him, though very green and fertile. I wonder if it would have been unusual for someone like Ibi to travel that far. In a way that question was answered for me by Ibn Gabirol.


I was introduced to Ibn Gabirol by my host here in Malaga, Paco Grinan, whose research on early cinema I've written about elsewhere. But after Paco sent me Gabirol's bio, I realized I'd already met him. 

Ibn GabirolIbn Gabirol

After exploring the Alcazaba one is grateful to find the Bar Pimpi at the foot of the Alcazaba's hill, a stone's throw from the Roman ampitheatre. Like many bars in Spain, the bar Pimpi has lovely curved plaster walls, reminiscent of the wine cellar it once was, and numerous wooden casks of sweet Malaga wine autographed by celebrities from the bullfighter El Cordobés to Antonio Banderas. Amor Olveiras, Paco's wife (women don't change their name here when they marry and children carry the surnames of both parents -- it's always been like that) has brought us here and is introducing us to various Malagan culinary delicacies. We sit outside under the illuminated parapets of the Alcazaba and I notice a statue of a thin, turbaned old man just beyond the bar 's seating area. It's Selomoh Ben Yehuda ibn Gabirol, a Jew known to the Arabs of his day ( he was born in Malaga in 1021) as Sulayman ibn Yahya ibn Yabirul, and to Latins as Avicebron. 


Ibn Gabirol was from a family that escaped from Cordoba after the revolutions there brought an end to the Cordovan caliphate. He was orphaned young and ended up in Zaragoza, where the Jewish  vizier of King Mundir II, Yekutiel ben Isaac, became his protector. Ostensibly Ibn Gabirol was worth protecting because he was a precocious poet, but later scholars see the relationship as a homosexual one. Ibn Gabirol did dedicate many of his most beautiful poems to Ben Isaac, and was bereft when Ben Isaac was assassinated in 1039 during Allah ibn Hakam's coup that took down Mundir II. 

The eighteen year old Ibn Gabirol then left Zaragoza and looked for another protector in Semuel ibn Nagrela, the vizier of King Badis, the same king that would later rebuild the Alcazaba of Malaga. He got the job of educating the viziers's son Josef, but his bad temper and his knack at offending everyone meant he had to leave Granada after only a few years and return to  Zaragoza.   However he didn't last long there either, as he made enough enemies in the Jewish community that it eventually put a herem or expulsion order on his head and he had to go into exile once again. He did manage to write two philosophical tracts during this time as well as more poems.

His goal was to go to Palestine but no one is sure if he made it. One legend has it that he ended up in Valencia and was poisoned by a Moor who was jealous of his poetic abilities. The legend says he was buried under a fig tree, which bore sweeter fruits afterwards. 

Here is part of his elegy for Yekutiel, who, as far as I can tell, was the great love of his life:

Fijate en el sol del ocaso, rojo,

Como revestido de un velo de purpura:

Va desvelando los costados del norte y el sur,

Mientras cubre de escarlata el poniente;

Abandona la tierra desnuda

Buscando en la sombra de la noche cobijo;


Entonces el cielo se oscurece, como si

Se cubriera de luto por la muerte de Yekutiel.


Here is my best attempt at a translation:


Look at the setting sun, as red

As if it were enveloped in a purple cloak:

Slowly revealing its sides to the north and the south,

While dressing the horizon in scarlet.

The sun abandons the naked earth

And searches for sanctuary in the shadows of the night;

Then the heavens darken, as if it

covered itself in mourning for the death of Yekutiel.


It astonished me that Ibn Gabirol traveled so much: from his birth place in Cordoba, to Malaga, to Zaragoza, to Granada, back to Zaragoza, and to Valencia, each of which was its own Moorish kingdom with a relatively large and powerful Jewish community, each emblematic in its own way of Spain's renowned convivencia, the ability of three cultures to live together, though there was always a lot of political upheaval, like the revolution that left Ibn Gabirol an orphan. 

Alcazaba, Light and ShadeAlcazaba, Light and Shade

It's also amazing that Ibn Gabirol managed to write as much as he did while moving around so much. In addition to his homoerotic love poems, he wrote sacred poetry and at least two philosophical treatises, one of which, the Fons Vitae, written just before his death (if we accept the legend that says he died in Valencia) was still being discussed by philosophers like Thomas Aquinas centuries later. Poetry, both secular and sacred, and philosophy were the predominant literary forms of the time. 

It also surprised me that Ibn Gabirol dreamed of going to Zion, that the size of the world in his mind was big enough to encompass the idea of crossing the length of the Mediterranean to get to the Holy Land.  Ibi does set out for the Holy Land and nearly reaches it, so I'm pleased to see that such a journey was not inconceivable to someone of his era. 

But a serendipitous event reminds me that the medieval world was delimited too. While in Malaga we are staying in a lovely beach front condo between Marbella and Malaga that belongs to Amor's sister and brother-in-law. The day we arrive it is cloudy but Paco tells us that on a clear day we can see the coast of Africa.

It rains off and on all week, severely curtailing the cofradias or Easter processions that we came to see, including the one that Paco walks in on Good Friday, but on Saturday it clears up and Amor and her sister and brother bring over their entire families for a day in the sun and a big paella cookout. The condo has a solar, a roof deck with an awning where we cook, and afterwards we are too stuffed to move so sit around contentedly listening to the children play below and to the waves lapping up the beach. Then the sun comes out from behind a cloud and we see it: the dim, dark, outline of Gibraltar on the right and then the first peak of the Atlas mountains in Morocco on the left, the two peaks that form the strait of Gibraltar, which Ibn Gabirol would have known as the Pillars of Hercules. Whatever you call it, only a few centuries ago it was the end of the known world.

This picture is very blurry, but if you look hard you can see the Pillars of Hercules emerging from the haze over the horizon to the right right:

The Pillars of HerculesThe Pillars of Hercules