By Joyce E. Salisbury, University of Wisconsin–Green Bay
For the medieval Islamic world, we have to rely primarily on written descriptions to see medieval palaces. It was customary for new rulers to destroy the palaces of their predecessors and build new buildings. The only medieval Muslim palace still standing is the famous Alhambra built in the 14th century in Granada, Spain.
Architecture of Medieval Muslim Palaces
A visitor coming to a Muslim palace first entered a compound within a high wall with elaborate doors. Within, he entered a great courtyard, which served as a common area where guests were welcomed and entertained. There were also various adjacent gardens that also served as entertaining spaces or retreats for the family. The courtyards were often quite elaborate, with fountains, gardens, and canopies and trellises that allowed in light but provided cooling shade.
Palaces were usually made of stone or brick, though sometimes wood was used, and the interiors were decorated with the same kinds of patterned tiles and carvings that graced the mosques, since even in their homes Muslims avoided graven images.
This style of housing originated in the warm south, concerned more with capturing cooling breezes and shade, but it was less effective in the north. In the Turkish lands, which can be cold, there were no fireplaces. The only heating was a small brazier which could burn a little charcoal. In Persia there were fireplaces, but they were very narrow, so wood would be burned standing on its end in order to to save it. In the cold weather, guests would be entertained indoors in rooms adjacent to a courtyard and provided with woven blankets.
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Women’s Quarters in Medieval Muslim Palaces
As guests gathered, there were no women present. Due to strict segregation, palaces had separate women’s quarters called harems where only women, children, family members, and eunuchs could enter.
The Qur’an permitted Muslim men to have four wives, but rulers also had many concubines, so the palaces had large areas devoted to the women’s quarters. While women were excluded from a public life, they exerted political skills within the harem to forward the fortunes of their sons.
Setting of Dining Areas
As male visitors gathered either in the courtyard or an adjacent room for a meal, they sat on rugs and cushions arrayed on the floor.
One of the significant differences in the daily life between the West and the rest of the world is the seating position. In most parts of the world, people did not sit on chairs; instead, they squatted or sat cross-legged on the floor, a position that Europeans found difficult. So, the furniture surrounding the dinner was sparse, though the magnificent woolen carpets sometimes were piled up and soft cushions gave the guests comfort.
Sometimes low tables were set up, and large copper trays balanced on wooden frames might be brought out. The food was arrayed on the trays in the center, from which people served themselves using hands, spoons, or knives.
Food and Drinks
Muslims had dietary restrictions. Their meat had to be halal—lawful and permissible. Meat had to come from animals that were slaughtered properly with no remaining blood, and carrion and pork were forbidden.
Muslims were permitted to eat all seafood, and enjoyed a wide variety of cheeses and yogurts.
The Qur’an prohibits drinking wine or other intoxicating beverages, so wine was not served. Observant Muslims drank a range of near beers and other lightly fermented drinks, and scholars debated how lightly a drink might be fermented and still be permitted.
Beyond these drinks, cooks prepared varied fruit juices, mixing lemons, oranges, apples, tamarinds, dates, grapes, pomegranates, and many others.
Treats for the Rich
Since Muslim traders brought spices from the Indian Ocean trade, many spices were available in the palaces of Baghdad and beyond. Medieval Muslim cookbooks recommended using liberal quantities of pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, musk, ginger, and cloves for the sophisticated palates of the rich.
In fact, if rulers in the West showed off their wealth and power by their fashionable clothing, these rulers could point to the delicacies on their table as proof of their prosperity.
A great treat for the rich was ‘snow water’, purchased from snow vendors who brought snow from the mountains and sold it for exorbitant prices. Farmers in southern Spain would sometimes fill their wells with snow from the mountains so they could sell it to their Muslim rulers in the summer. It was like a snow cone with a bit of fruit juice or honey poured on it.
So, even within the religious frameworks that they observed, Muslim rulers and nobility enjoyed a great diversity of food and drink on the palace table.
Common Questions about Palace Life in Medieval Islamic World
Islamic palaces during medieval times were usually made of stone or brick, though sometimes wood was used. Their interiors were decorated with the same kinds of patterned tiles and carvings that graced the mosques, since even in their homes Muslims avoided graven images.
Due to strict segregation, Islamic palaces had separate women’s quarters called harems. Only women, children, family members, and eunuchs could enter them.
A great treat for the rich Muslims was ‘snow water’, purchased from snow vendors who brought snow from the mountains and sold it for exorbitant prices. Farmers in southern Spain would sometimes fill their wells with snow from the mountains so they could sell it to their Muslim rulers in the summer. It was like a snow cone with a bit of fruit juice or honey poured on it.