Iberia; Badajoz and Marvao–Spain’s Arab Roots

Arab dancers celebrate their heritage.
Arab dancers celebrate their heritage.

Al Mossassa: Celebrating Arab Origins of Badajoz (Spain) and Marvao (Portugal)

By Emilio Piriz

Badajoz is the most populated city of Extremadura region of Spain.

It’s a must stop if you are driving from Madrid to Lisbon, or the other way around since Badajoz is 400km from the capital of Spain and only 200km from Portugal’s capital. Better yet, you will be driving on a highway the entire way so there is no reason for you to take a quick break and enjoy a full day at this destination.

Every year in September, Badajoz celebrates its most important festival -–along with Carnival– called Al Mossassa. The reason behind it? Paying tributes to the Arabic origins of the city, founded by Ibn Marwan in 875. Also known as “Son of a Galician,” Marwan was a Muladi Sufi whose family came from Northern Portugal and settled near Mérida, the capital of Extremadura region.

Banners of Al Mossassa hanging from the walled citadel. Emilio Piriz photos.
Banners of Al Mossassa hanging from the walled citadel. Emilio Piriz photos.

He led a group of Muladis and Mozarabs in the rebellion against Emir Muhammad I of Córdoba and after a heroic resistance, he earned the permission from the Emir to stay in Badajoz, which he began fortifying.

Now the city commemorates this founding with a lively Arabic market and various events. During the weekend in which Al Mossassa takes place, the scenery looks much like it did during its golden age of Moorish rule: streets and buildings are draped with handmade carpets, merchants dress in traditional Arabic costumes, and musicians and dancers entertain the visitors.

Plaza Alta: the heart of Al Mossassa

Badajoz transforms its famous square called “Plaza Alta” into a souk that will make you think that you are in the streets of Morocco. At the 130 stalls that make up the market, you can find pretty much everything that has to do with Arabic culture: dates, exotic spices, colorful glass lamps, Aladdin sleepers; in other words, an improvised souk full of sellers that act as authentic Berber merchants.

Falconry is one of the main attractions at the festival.
Falconry is one of the main attractions at the festival.

Besides all the buying and selling going on, falconry is the other main attraction at the market. You can enjoy one-on-one interaction with all kinds of trained birds such as hawks, owls or falcons.

What a lifetime experience to stare at the eyes of a tiny owl while feeding him with your bare hands. It’s no surprise that GoEuro has included Al Mossassa in their list of most peculiar Spanish festivities. A celebration that brings back the origins of a city’s history and that is capable of converting its old town into a genuine Medina.

One of the merchants working on a handcrafted piece.
One of the merchants working on a handcrafted piece.

Alcazaba, Badajoz’s fortress

Although the Plaza Alta is the base camp of all activities, right next to it you will find the fortified walls that capture the essence of the Arabic town that Badajoz once was.

Also known as Alcazaba, the fortress was the origin of the city, the dwelling of the Kings of the Taifa Kingdom and the defensive structure which made Badajoz a strategic fort to control the area’s historical borders.

These walls have witnessed the life of the city from the time it was founded by the aforementioned Ibn Marwan, and became a crucial point from which to control the Spanish/Portuguese border.

The 72,500 square meter fortress is the largest in Spain and was intentionally designed to be impassable, taking advantage of the slope caused by the Guadiana River.

Espantaperros Tower Alcazabas distinctive watchtower.
Espantaperros Tower Alcazabas distinctive watchtower.

Undoubtedly Badajoz’s most renowned ancient architecture, the Alcazaba was declared a monument of Historic and Artistic Interest in 1931.

One of the most noteworthy towers flanking the most exposed part of the wall is the Espantaperros Tower (twelfth century), with an octagonal floor plan that looks quite similar to the “Torre del Oro” in Seville. Moreover, the walled citadel encloses marvelous gardens, from which you can see all the way to Portugal. At dusk the view overviewing the Guadiana River is particularly magnificent.

A festival for all publics

Back to the festival itself, Al Mossassa brings in thousands of people from all around Badajoz. The streets and plazas are overwhelmed with people of all ages for the main festivities of Friday and Saturday. Activities range from music events for kids to percussion groups that march on the streets along with Tuareg and Bedouin dancers.

In addition to that, a theater play that explains the historical roots of Badajoz takes place inside the citadel with a group of 125 actors. Altogether, the event organizers put together a complete program for all publics that brings locals and foreigners together so they can learn the city’s history and culture.

Marvaos Castle reigning over this top hill Portuguese village
Marvaos Castle reigning over this top hill Portuguese village

And the party continues in Marvao
But Al Mossassa doesn’t come to an end after the weekend of festivities in Badajoz. There is a second part to this festival taking place in a Portuguese town called Marvao.

The name sounds familiar? Remember the guy Ibn Marwan? Between 876 and 877, he also erected the Castle of Marvao, a place already known in the tenth century as “Fortaleza de Amaia”.

Therefore, this Portuguese village also commemorates its Arabic origins the next weekend after the celebrations in Badajoz under the motto “two cities, one common history”.

A great excuse to visit this marvelous hilltop medieval town located at an altitude of 843 meters. Now you can understand why Marvao is also named “hawk’s nest”, an impenetrable municipality that reigns over the valley that divides Spain and Portugal.

Getting to Marvao

The easiest way to get to Marvao is by car, only 86km far from Badajoz. It barely takes an hour and a half to jump back and forth between the two spots that host Al Mossassa; plus along the way, you will find yourself learning a few lessons of history by seeing firsthand the fortifications that suffered numerous battles between the bordering kingdoms of Spain and Portugal.

Where to eat in Marvao

The restaurant at Pousada de Santa Maria offers finely prepared Alentejo cuisine. Dinner for two (with local wine) is about 60 euros. Also, Casa D. Dinis –accommodation place with doubles starting at 55€- runs a pub and snack bar, Castelo, across the road. It’s a great spot to join locals for a beer, port or toasted sandwich.

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Emilio Piriz is a communicator and photographer who started his own personal journey with the blog La Curiosidad del Viajero” (The curiosity of the traveler) in 2013. Emilio considers himself a curious traveler with many destinations to discover but always a story to tell.

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