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23.04.04 García Porras (ed.), Manifestaciones materiales del poder en al-Andalus

23.04.04 García Porras (ed.), Manifestaciones materiales del poder en al-Andalus

Under the direction of Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, the series Documentos de Arqueología Medieval, published by the Universidad del País Vasco (Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea), has increasingly established itself as an important forum for the archaeological study of medieval Europe, especially medieval Iberia. The book under review is volume 15 in the series, and it continues the same focus on medieval archaeology and material culture found in previous volumes.

The twelve essays collected here--all but one (in English) written in Spanish--stem from a conference entitled “Manifestaciones del poder en al-Andalus” held in Granada, Spain in November 2016. That conference, in turn, was part of the annual Jornadas de Arqueología Medieval organized by el Grupo de Investigación “Toponimia, Historia y Arqueología del reino de Granada.” The essays retain much of the vitality and the unevenness of an academic conference. According to the book’s editor, Alberto García Porras, these essays all attempt to illuminate the often overlooked or hidden juxtaposition of power and resistance to power from an archaeological perspective. Although few of the essays attempt to theorize or even define “power” in any extended way, all do, in various ways and to varying degrees, suggest how “material culture can explain processes that involve structures and relationships of power and resistance” (19).

After an introductory, historiographical essay, the remaining contributions are organized around three distinct themes, namely urban spaces, Andalusian fortifications, and objects or material remains. These groupings testify to the wide-ranging interests and methods of the authors and of the “archaeological register” (to use Miquel Barceló’s phrase) more generally. Throughout, the essays argue implicitly or explicitly that archaeological evidence (broadly understood) serves as a valuable source of information about the forms and the exercise of religious, political, and military power.

García Porras uses his fine introductory chapter to survey salient developments in the field of archaeology from the nineteenth century to the present, including the recent trend toward “arqueología simétrica” that proposes a non-dualistic, more holistic interpretive model for material culture. This introduction provides the historiographical and theoretical context for the subsequent contributions.

In their study of Madīnat al-Zahirā, David Govantes-Edwards and Chloe Duckworth argue that not only material objects themselves but also the very processes of their production (including where they are produced) can serve the symbolic and propagandistic purposes of politicians and rulers. As they write, “the palace and medina [at Madīnat al-Zahirā] in their entirety...were part of the symbolic programme” (42). In their research, Govantes-Edwards and Duckworth employ important geophysical techniques such as magnetometry, magnetic susceptibility and portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry. These techniques serve as very useful complements to aerial photography, and underscore the relationship between archaeology and innovative technologies.

In her essay on commerce, shop ownership, and royal patrimony in Nasrid Granada, María del Carmen Jiménez Roldán notes the lack of any Granadanrepartimento and thus the need for scholars to rely on other sources of evidence, such as bienes habices or rentas de la hagüela. Her mapping of the commercial and artisanal spaces in Granada suggests an important relationship between these spaces and political power in the Nasrid era.

Juan Cañavate Toribio focuses not on commercial spaces but on sacred topography in medieval Granada, specifically on rabitas and zawiyas. Here again the libros de bienes habices figure as an important source of information about these sacred sites, and Cañavate rightly suggests that, used together, archaeological and documentary evidence can help identify these sacred spaces more precisely. His essay underscores the importance of such sacred sites in al-Andalus in the thirteenth and fouteenth centuries. Cañavate argues that, although often noted mainly for their military function, rabitas in particular served multiple socio-economic purposes. Finally, he also connects these sites with trees and with water, and thus with larger urban networks.

In her contribution, Laura Martín Ramos studies Alhama de Granada and its geographical context from an archaeological perspective. Geography matters in this case because Alhama was an important crossroads, and its mountainous location also gave it an abundant water supply. Martín discusses the “domestication of water” at Alhama focusing on the town’s aqueduct and its coracha. She concludes with some discussion of the thermal baths of Alhama. Interestingly, although Christian attitudes regarding the morality of these baths were often sharply critical (83), the baths remained in use into the sixteenth century. Here we have some glimpse into how archaeological evidence can illuminate cross-cultural or inter-religious relations.

The move to the second section or topic, Andalusian fortifications, is initiated by Pedro Gurriarán Daza’s valuable essay, based on his 2018 doctoral dissertation, on the tenth-century conflicts between the Umayyads and the Fatimids in al-Andalus and North Africa. Gurriarán describes the building projects on the southern Andalusian border and into North Africa as expressions of the Umayyad caliphate’s power and prestige (“arquitectura prestigiosa,” 99). His essay emphasizes the use of construction programs as a propaganda tool or weapon.

Daniel Ortega López concentrates on a single edifice, the little-known castle of Almogía between Antequera and Málaga. Although textual and archaeological evidence related to this fortification is limited, Ortega provides some tentative conclusions about its dating and construction history. He argues that Almogía was part of a broader military strategy to control and defend the territory around Málaga. As Christian forces advanced and Antequera fell (in 1410), Almogía gained in significance as the “shield of Málaga” (126). Ortega’s emphasis on the dynamic nature of the border between Christians and Muslims points to the shifting structures of power along la frontera nazari.

A study of the tower of Agicampe (Loja, Granada) by Santiago M. Pecete Serrano, Luis José García-Pulido, and Antonio Faustino Buendía Moreno constitutes the longest (40pp.) and most detailed essay in the book. This work represents a project report on archaeological excavations conducted by the authors at the site in 2016-2017. Although most all of the essays in this book include some accompanying charts, figures and/or illustrations, this chapter is especially replete with photographs and drawings. As one would expect from such a report, this essay details the construction materials and techniques employed in the building of this tower and the adjacent structures. García-Pulido has been studying this site as part of an attempt to understand the military structures and the elaborate system of fortresses and watchtowers across al-Andalus. Since space limitations prohibit any adequate summary of this lengthy chapter, it will perhaps suffice for the purposes of this review to note, with the authors, that the tower of Agicampe likely served as a mechanism of control over as well as of protection for rural communities (168). In this regard, the authors cite the intriguing hypothesis (advanced by A. Fábregas García and R. González Arévalo) that, [1] beyond their military function, such tower complexes might also have housed the “recursos tributados” from neighboring villages (161-162). In any event, this tower seems to postdate the aforementioned fall of Antequera that so significantly redrew the borders of the kingdom of Granada.

Juan Antonio Rojas Cáceres’s brief study of the castle of Pesquera (Algarinejo, Granada) offers a similar conclusion that ostensibly military structures not only served external political and defense purposes but also internal economic ones. Rojas uses GIS software to produce a spatial analysis of this castle and its role in the Nasrid defensive systems. According to this analysis, the castle of Pesquera played an important role in the “visual control over access routes to the kingdom of Granada” (177). More than a simple watchtower but less than a substantial fortress, the tower of Pesquera served an ancillary function in the border defense system.

The final three essays in this volume indicate how wide-ranging and varied “archaeological evidence” can be. Here we are dealing with the production of luxury items, with numismatics, and with zooarchaeology.

Building on the work of scholars such as María Jesús Viguera Molins, Manuel Acién Almensa and Juan Zozaya, Rafael Azuar demonstrates how tarifa powers used luxury or “prestige” objects as propaganda tools to legitimize their independence. His focus is on the workshops of Cuenca and Sevilla. Indeed, Azuar contends that of the numerous tarifa kingdoms in eleventh-century al-Andalus, “only three were capable of or had the authority and legitimate sovereignty to produce ‘prestige objects’ for the regime and in terms of numbers one should really only speak here about the tarifas Toledo and Sevilla” (190). Interestingly, like Govantes-Edwards and Duckworth in their essay, Azuar suggests that these tarifas had their own “royal workshops”--in the case of Sevilla within the royal palace--reinforcing the point that, for propagandistic purposes, the place of production could matter perhaps as much as the object produced.

Tarifa resistance to Almohad encroachment in Murcia figures prominently in Alicia Hernández Robles’s study of the dinares minted by Ibn Mardanīš in the twelfth century. Just as ornate boxes and lusterware pottery served the tarifas of Toledo and Sevilla, so too coinage served Ibn Mardanīš’s propagandistic ends in Murcia. As Hernández argues, the Murcian ruler used numismatic production to establish his legitimacy, to create a link with the Baghdad Caliphate and mālikī doctrine in opposition to the Almohads, and even to set up his political successors. Ibn Mardanīš, who sometimes allied with Christians in his conflict with the North African invaders, is an interesting figure in his own right, and Hernández’s study sheds additional light on his political program.

The final essay in this collection focuses on the castle of Lanjarón (south of Granada) as an illustration of the transition from Muslim to Christian rule, from the medieval to the early modern era. In this essay, Moisés Alonso-Valladares and Silvia Valenzuela-Lamas analyze animal remains uncovered by excavations at the castle in 1996 and 1997 to highlight how the husbandry and dietary practices (e.g., the presence of pork) of the garrison within the castle differed from those of the local population. This sophisticated study (“una auténtica rareza en el mundo de la arqueología española,” 203) demonstrates the potential for zooarchaeology to illuminate many aspects of Andalusi society in moments of critical change. [2]

Overall, the essays in this volume, technical and specialized as they may be, do shed substantial light on broader questions of power and societal transition in al-Andalus from the tenth century onward (notably, developments in Thomas Glick’s “Paleoandalusi” period do not really figure in this collection). [3] Each essay also includes a significant and valuable bibliography, mostly citing Spanish scholarship. There are short abstracts in English accompanying each essay, but they are often poorly translated and not always as helpful as they could be. The numerous text illustrations mentioned above are mostly useful, but the reproduction quality is sometimes wanting. The book does not have an index.

In their 2007 work on al-Andalus, Glaire Anderson and Mariam Rosser-Owen noted that “scholarship on the material culture of Islamic Iberia has advanced dramatically [in recent decades]...” [4] Manifestaciones materiales del poder en al-Andalus contributes to this still advancing scholarship and points to the many ways in which the multidisciplinary study of archaeological evidence and material culture will continue to enhance our understanding of medieval Iberia.



1. Adela Fábregas García and Raúl González Arévalo, “Los espacios de poder en el mundo rural: torres alquería en el mundo nazari,” Arqueología y territorio medieval 22 (2015): 63-78.

2. On this point, see also Marcus Milwright, An Introduction to Islamic Archaeology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 20.

3. Thomas F. Glick, From Muslim Fortress to Christian Castle: Social and Cultural Change in Medieval Spain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), xii.

4. Glaire Anderson and Mariam Rosser-Owen, eds., Revisiting Al-Andalus: Perspectives on the Material Culture of Islamic Iberia and Beyond (Leiden: Brill, 2007), xxiv.