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CULTURE

The small coastal town that was Spain’s capital for a day

A small upmarket town on the Cantabrian coastline was the Spanish capital for one day in 1881, changing its future forever.

Comillas, Cantabria
Comillas was once the capital of Spain for a day. Photo: Nacho Castejón Martínez / Flickr

Madrid has been Spain’s capital since 1561 – and there was one day during the last 460 years when it wasn’t.

The title didn’t go to the likes of Barcelona, Valencia or Seville.

No, it was handed over to the small town of Comillas on the Cantabrian coast – a ”pueblo’ that many in Spain might have not even heard of.

Comillas is situated just west of the capital of the Cantabrian region, Santander and is home to just over 2,100 inhabitants, hardly worthy of the title of capital, right?

Why did Comillas become Spain’s capital?

In the summer of 1881, Comillas’s 1st Marquess (a marqués is a member of Spanish nobility below a duke but above a count) Antonio López y López, who made his fortune trading slaves and tobacco in Latin America, invited King Alfonso XII of Spain to come and stay with him in his charming Casa Ocejo.

For months beforehand, López had ensured that the property was fit for royalty by calling in many artists and architects from Catalonia, who at the time were known for their incredible modernista constructions.

statue of Marqués de Comillas Antonio López

Statue of Marqués de Comillas Antonio López. Public Domain/ WikiCommons

One of these was Antoni Gaudí, considered by many to be Catalonia’s greatest architect, but at the time unknown. Some sources say the brains behind Barcelona’s unfinished Sagrada Familia was brought in to design the chimney and the living room of López’s palatial property, others claim it was to set up a smokers’ kiosk in the garden.

READ ALSO: Five Gaudí gems you’ve probably never heard of

When King Alfonso and his royal family arrived in Comillas at night, 30 lanterns lit their path across the town to the 1st Marquess’s abode.

But these were not ordinary gas-lit street lights; they were Edison’s first electric light bulbs on Spanish soil, making Comillas the first town in Spain to have electric street lamps – the town’s other claim to fame.

And so on August 6th 1881, King Alfonso presided over Spain’s Council of Ministers at Lopez’s palace, attended by the president of Spain’s Council and important generals of the time Pavía and Martínez Campos.

This meeting of Spain’s political rulers outside Madrid effectively made Comillas Spain’s de facto capital for one day.

Yes, it’s a stretch, but the accolade is a source of pride for the Town Hall of Comillas to this day, and it’s not the first time it’s happened in history either. The city of Allahabad (now Prayagraj) in Utter Pradesh became capital of India for a day when the administration of the country was handed over by the East India Company to the British Monarchy in the city.

King Alfonso XII of Spain

King Alfonso XII of Spain painted by Federico de Madrazo y Kuntz

How did this change the future of Comillas?

The King repeated his visit to the town the following year in July, and while Comillas may have only remained the capital for that one day in 1881, these royal visits cemented its popularity among Spain’s elite, even to this day.

Many other wealthy nobles and aristocrats followed López’s example and had their own grandiose mansions built in Comillas, most of which are still standing today. 

One of these was the magnificent Sobrellano Palace, also commissioned by López and which was used as his summer home. Another of these was El Duque, an English-style mansion constructed between 1899 and 1902.

But the most famous mansion to be built in Comillas was El Capricho, designed by none other than Antoni Gaudí again, as a summer home for the Marqués’ sister-in-law’s brother.

El Capricho de Gaudí

El Capricho de Gaudí in Comillas. Photo: Tirithel / WikiCommons

Made from red brick, it’s covered in small green and yellow ceramic blocks, which from afar, look not unlike pieces of lego stuck onto its surface. Up close they are of course rows of bright lemon-coloured sunflowers and green leaves.

Visiting Comillas today

Since this time, Comillas has been a favourite holiday destination of the Spanish royals and nobility, attracted because of its quiet nature, seaside location and grand mansions. 

For a relatively small town, Comillas has more than its fair share of incredible architectural feats, many of which can still be visited today.

Add this to its stunning coastal location and delicious seafood, and you’ll soon see why it’s worth a visit. 

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HISTORY

‘What did the Moors ever do for us?’ How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

Fans of Monty Python's Life of Brian will be familiar with John Cleese's laughable dismissal of Roman influence over Judea. But how about the progress Moorish conquest and rule brought to modern-day Spain? It's not to be taken lightly.

'What did the Moors ever do for us?' How Spain was shaped by Muslim rule

The Moors ruled much of Spain for almost 400 years from 711 to 1086, before they were driven south and continued their rule of southern Spain and the Kingdom of Granada for a further 400 more until 1492.

The series of century-long battles when the Christians tried to expel the Moors were known as the Reconquista (Reconquest), a term first coined in the 19th century.

However, many historians question the use of this word as Spain wasn’t formed as the nation prior to the Moorish conquest, and Muslim culture and knowledge contributed to what Spain is today.

Most of Spain wasn’t unified in fact until the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragón and Isabella I of Castile, after the fall of the Kingdom of Granada in 1469.

It may have been long ago, but the Moors most certainly left their stamp on Spain, evident today from vestiges of their culture we can see in everything from the Spanish language and food, to its architecture and music.

Spanish painter Manuel Gómez-Moreno González’s 19th-century depiction of Muhammad XII’s family in the Alhambra moments after the fall of Granada. Painting: Public Domain

Staunch Spanish nationalists, most notably far-right party Vox, would like to have everyone follow the narrative that Asturian hero Pelagius (Don Pelayo) and other medieval warriors took back Catholic Spain and restored it to exactly what it once was, shrugging off any benefit Muslim rule brought.

That, of course, does not tell the full story. So, what did the Moors ever do for Spain?

They developed Spain’s irrigation systems

The Moors built (and improved on those built by the Romans) thousands of kilometres of irrigation channels or acequias across Spain. These were not only used for agricultural purposes but also brought water to the cities and neighbourhoods, filling public fountains, providing drinking water, water for cleaning and water for washing before prayers at the mosques. Water was also an important symbol of purity in the Islamic rules and integral to their religion too. 

They were great pioneers in medicine, pharmacology and science

The Moors founded modern hospitals, where they combined schools and libraries, as well as gardens for the cultivation of medicinal plants, and separate departments for ophthalmology, internal medicine and orthopaedics. Many modern health centres are still based on these models. The Muslim surgeons of the 11th century even knew how to treat cataracts and stop internal bleeding. They kept lists of plants to be used for medicines and pharmacology. One of the Moors responsible for one of the most important lists was Ibn al-Baytar, born in Málaga in 1197.

As for science, the Moors influenced all facets of the subject, from physics and chemistry to astrology. They were the first to provide more scientific information on substances such as alcohol, sulphuric acid, ammonia and mercury, and were also one of the first people to create the distillation process. They were pioneers in the use of dams for the production of hydraulic energy and in the development of water clocks, which recorded time. With regards to astrology, they built the world’s most important observatories in Córdoba and Toledo (as well as in the Middle East) and studied phenomena such as solar eclipses and comets. 

They influenced the traditional music

The Moors greatly influenced Spanish music, particularly the soulful flamenco tunes. It’s said that the Spanish guitar can trace its roots back to the Arabic oud – a four-stringed instrument brought over by the Moors. Later, this was replaced by the guitarra morisca, the ancestor of modern Spanish guitars. The guttural sad tones of flamenco songs were also greatly influenced by the Moors and even today you can hear a strong resemblance to Arabic music.

The Spanish guitar has its origins in the Arabic oud or lute. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

They created a sewage system and public baths

Like the Romans before them, the Moors built many public baths. Hammams were very important to them both for ritualistic cleaning and social gatherings. At the height of the Moorish Empire in the 10th century, Córdoba was its capital and historians estimate that the city had around 300 public baths. Today you can see evidence of these bathhouses, all the way from Girona in the north, down to Málaga in the south. Several Moorish hammams have even been restored or faithfully recreated in cities such as Granada, Sevilla, Córdoba and even Barcelona.

In addition to baths, they also introduced some of the first sewer systems in Spain, where the dirty or used water was carried away through channels. 

They set up Spain’s first universities 

Islamic universities or madrasas were first created in the 11th century and were the forerunners to modern-day European universities. The first madrasa was built in 1349 in Málaga, which was followed by those built in Granada and Zaragoza, the latter dedicated almost exclusively to the teaching of medicine. In fact, classes here were still taught in Arabic up until the 16th century. The capital Córdoba, once had three universities, 80 colleges and a library with almost 700,000 manuscript volumes.

They shaped the language

Although Arabic and Spanish may seem like very different languages, there are quite a few words that the Moors in fact gave us. A clue is that many of these words begin with the letters ‘Al’, as in almohada (pillow), albaricoque (apricot) and algodón (cotton). According to linguists, it is estimated that around 4,000 Spanish words have some kind of Arabic influence, which equals to around 8 percent of the Spanish dictionary. Approximately 1,000 of those words have direct Arabic roots.

Many commonly used words in the Spanish language can be traced back to Arabic. Image: Cervantes Institute
 
They discovered important mathematical formulas
 
Many of the basic principles of arithmetic, geometry, and algebra today are due to the discoveries of Islamic scholars. We even still use the numbers and counting methods they created. They also brought the concept of the number zero to Spain in the 13th century, which was invented earlier in India. Trigonometry was another branch of mathematics that they greatly influenced. 

They designed incredible buildings

Today, some of the most-visited buildings in Spain are ones that were built by the Moors. The Moors built incredible structures, from regal mosques and ornate palaces to spectacular gardens. The most famous of these is of course Granada’s Alhambra Palace and Generalife Gardens. Built mostly during the 13th century, the Alhambra is one of the best surviving examples of Moorish architecture in the world. Other amazing Moorish buildings you can still visit today include Seville’s stunning Real Alcázar, Zaragoza’s Aljaferia castle-like palace, Córdoba’s grand La Mezquita mosque-turned cathedral and Málaga’s palatial fortress The Alcazaba.

Córdoba astounding Mosque-Cathedral is over 1,000 years old. Alexandra Tran/Unsplash
 
 

They introduced popular games

Believe it or not, it was the Muslim rulers who introduced some of the world’s most famous games to Spain. According to historians, in 822, the Moors brought chess with them, which was originally invented in India. Thanks to Muslim influence, expressions such as checkmate have remained, which is derived from the Persian word al-jakh-mat or “the king is dead.” Another popular game, noughts and crosses or tres en raya as they say in Spanish, also comes from the Arabs, who called it the alquerque.

 

They added flavour to Spanish cuisine

Spanish cuisine may not seem similar to that of Northwest Africa, but there are in fact many ways in which the Moors influenced the food in Spain and even some dishes which remain popular today. The main one is paella, as it was the Moors who first introduced and planted rice in Spain, as well as one of its main spices – yellow-hued saffron. Another dish that is in fact both eaten widely across Andalusia as well as in Morocco today is espinacas con garbanzos or spinach with chickpeas.

More than 250,000 flowers are needed to produce one kilo of saffron. For over a thousand years, inhabitants of La Mancha in central Spain have cultivated the flowers to extract the expensive spice. (Photo by DOMINIQUE FAGET / AFP)

The Moors also introduced aubergine as seen in the much-loved Granada tapas dish – berejenas con miel (battered aubergine drizzled with honey or cane sugar syrup). They even introduced orange and lemon trees, such an important symbol of Spain today and used to flavour many dishes. And if it wasn’t for the Moors, the Spanish wouldn’t fry everything in olive oil.

So to slightly misquote John Cleese in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, apart from the Spanish guitar, paella’s ingredients, irrigation channels, universities, public baths, a sewage system science, mathematics, thousands of words, medicine, architecture and cuisine…what did the Moors ever do for us?

Written by Esme Fox and Alex Dunham

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