A skyscraper eight centuries old

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The Giralda reflects Seville ’s history through its mix of Arab and Christian architecture as one of the city ’s most iconic buildings.

The flipping of pages creates a gentle breeze as Julia Villalón, a 6 year old living in Seville, turns to find the section in her book about the Giralda. She is reading a children’s guide to Seville – a book that is practically torn to shreds from use. Upon finding the appropriate page, Julia looks up.

“Here it is!” she exclaims excitedly.

She opens the book to show two colorful pages full of information. Julia continues to read each word enthusiastically, with eyes opened wide. She lists off various fun facts about the tower’s architecture and its history. When asked if she’d like to climb to the top of the Giralda, she shouts, “Yes! Because I want to see the crocodile that was a gift from the sultan of Egypt!” She pauses, contemplating what to say next. “And also because at home, I have two terraces, which are very high, but I want to go up even higher and see the city.”

The main section of the skyscraping bell tower of the Seville’s Cathedral was designed in 1196, during the Almohad period, as the minaret of Isbiliya’s Great Mosque by Ahmad Ben Baso. The minaret, which has a square base, showcases the brick trelliswork and arched windows characteristic of Almohad architecture. A series of 35 ramps lead to the top of the tower, which, in its earliest days, allowed the muezzin of the mosque to climb to the top on horseback and call the faithful to prayer. His reward was a lookout point over the city that no one else had.

In 1248, following the reconquest of the city by the Castillians under King Ferdinand III, the mosque became a church and the minaret its new belfry. In 1568, the architect Hernán Ruiz the Younger added four more levels to the top in Renaissance style, as well as the bronze weathervane sculpture, locally known as el Giraldillo (the figure that turns), thus lending the name to the entire tower, La Giralda. Since then, the Giralda has become the symbol of Seville.

On any given day, thousands of tourists visit the Cathedral and climb the Giralda, which is Andalusia’s third most visited monument, after the Alhambra in Granada and the Mosque in Cordoba. At the base of the old minaret, tour groups of school kids from France and England, young couples from Switzerland, and elderly couples traveling together from Canada, all patiently wait in a line that extends out the door and wraps around the neighboring plaza.

Marí and Joel, a couple from Gerona in Catalonia are on their second visit together to Seville, but it is their first time climbing the tower. “We have friends that have told us it’s very beautiful and worth the climb. As we are here for three days, we wanted to enjoy ourselves as best we can”, Marí explains.

Once at the top, one can see with great detail the Gothic style architecture of the Cathedral below, as well as miles of the white painted buildings that comprise Seville. Clearly visible are other important monuments of the city, such as the Maestranza bullring and the Torre del Oro, the Gold Tower.

What does this tourism mean for the economy of the surrounding area? Víctor, a waiter from the Bar Giralda, in calle Mateos Gago, who has worked here for eight years, answers, “The Cathedral and the Giralda are the life of this zone. Without them, half of these bars and restaurants wouldn’t exist. Seventy to eighty percent of our business comes from tourists.”

Andrés Cid is a renowned architect who’s stirred many debates about the urban planning and the architectural heritage of Seville. He feels that not enough people know about the rich historical value of what he calls “the only authentic monument in Seville.” He describes the Giralda as a bocadillo or sandwich because just as a sandwich can’t exist without bread, the Giralda would lose its luster without the Almohad base. “Yet what is most amazing about the Giralda is how the Christians incorporated the Renaissance style of the bell tower on top of the main body of the minaret. It is a wonderful conjunction, a union, of two completely distinct worlds”, he says.

The Giralda has two “twin sisters ” Almohad minarets that exist in the Moroccan cities of Marrakesh and Rabat. The Koutoubia in Marrakesh is part of the city’s largest mosque and is the oldest of the three great minarets. The design of the Koutoubia was highly influential in Moroccan architecture, and it led to the subsequent building of the two other minarets. The wide band of ceramic tiles at its top is particularly notable and has been replicated in many other buildings across the city.

In contrast to its two sisters, the minaret of Rabat, known as Hassan Tower and last of the three minarets, remains unfinished. Its construction came to a halt with the death of its commissioner, Almohad leader Yacoub El Mansour, in 1199. The tower is part of what was intended to be the second largest mosque of the Almohad empire. This tower and the Giralda in Seville are both Unesco World Heritage Sites.

These three unique minarets embody signature features that distinguish the Almohad architectural style, including the rectangular shape, Islamic calligraphy, and unified structure. During their time, these towers represented the culmination of civilized taste, culture, and knowledge.

The Giralda ’s influence has extended to other parts of the world. The United States is home to at least five replicas of Seville’s icon. One is found in the great tower that dominated the structure of the first Madison Square Garden in New York City. Architect Stanford White was inspired by the Giralda’s Moorish feel and incorporated its likeness into the garden. Unfortunately, the event center was torn down in 1925 due to its lack of financial viability. Other examples are visible in San Francisco and Kansas City.

As Andrés Cid describes, the Giralda is more than just a tower. It is an awe-inspiring symbol of Seville, a “jewel”, as he repeats, that extends not only across Arabic and Spanish cultures, but also touches those in other parts of the world as well. One has not truly seen Seville until he or she has visited the Giralda, and has contemplated the city from above.