Touring Europe’s ancient Islamic empires

Scattered across Europe are thousand-year-old mosques, ancient thermal baths and grand relics, markers of the Islamic empires that once ruled parts of the continent.

From Spain to Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, France and Portugal, tourists can see impressive physical evidence of the influence of the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Al Andalus, the two Islamic states that most clearly shaped Europe. Here are three cities where travelers can explore the Islamic imprint.

Sofia, Bulgaria

Intricate mosaics on the roof of the Banya Bashi Mosque in Sofia.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Among the cluster of Catholic churches in the Christian-majority Bulgarian capital, the 500-year-old building stands out. I joined the line of tourists entering this beautiful old structure opposite the Sofia Central Market Hall in the downtown area of ​​the city. Inside is a ceiling decorated with intricate mosaics, with a large Islamic calligraphy at its heart.

This is the Banya Bashi, the main mosque of Sofia. Morphologically, the city is most clearly shaped by its historical ties to the USSR and the Roman Empire. Sofia bulges with hulking relics of those eras, such as the magnificent, gold-domed Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the fourth-century Rotunda Church, built when the Romans occupied what is now Bulgaria in their empire.

Yet Sophia’s Islamic history runs just as deep. For 500 years Bulgaria was under Islamic rule as part of the Ottoman Empire. This helps explain why Banya Bashi, with its teal dome and towering minaret, is a miniature version of the iconic Blue Mosque in the Turkish city of Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.

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Banya Bashi was designed by the most famous of all Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan, who in the 1500s designed dozens of mosques and bridges that are now tourist attractions throughout Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria. Sinan served for the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Great, under whose leadership the empire reached its peak, conquering Hungary and large swaths of North Africa and the Middle East.

By the time the Ottomans finally lost control of Bulgaria in the 1870s, their commanding empire was in tatters. Tourists to Sofia can learn about Bulgaria’s Islamic period at the city’s massive National Museum of History. They can also travel to the beautiful Bulgarian city of Plovdiv, where the mighty Dzhumaya Mosque stands in stunning condition, 600 years after it was built.

Budapest, Hungary

Ottoman-style enclosure at the zoo in Budapest.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

As well as being one of the oldest zoos in Europe, founded in 1866, the Budapest Zoo & Botanical Garden is a strangely beautiful complex. It has an intriguing melange of architecture, from sober communist structures to its whimsical Art Nouveau entrance and enclosure that mimics a Transylvanian church.

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The building that caught my eye after I entered this leafy space was decorated with domes, minarets and blue-green lightning panels. It immediately brings to mind the Ottoman style of architecture in Istanbul.

It makes sense. For about 150 years, until the late 1600s, the Hungarian capital was occupied by the Ottomans. Although this magnificent enclosure was not built until the early 1900s, long after the Ottomans had left Budapest, it stands as a mark of Islam’s significant imprint on the city.

Across the Danube River from this zoo, overlooking downtown Budapest, are the ancient remains of the Ottoman occupation. The area has three famous attractions dating back to the Islamic era that offer beautiful sights to tourists across the city.

Among them are the large Rudas and Kirali thermal baths, both more than 400 years old. Visitors to these baths can enjoy a steam soak or a traditional hammam experience. On the hilltop above the Kirali Bath, tourists flock to see the majestic tomb of Gul Baba, one of Suleiman the Great’s most influential aides. A popular pilgrimage for Turkish Muslims, this stone mausoleum is surrounded by a sublime rose garden, making it a worthy attraction for any traveler.

Cordoba, Spain

The Mezquita of Córdoba is a mosque and cathedral.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Perhaps my favorite building in all of Europe is in the overlooked southern Spanish city of Córdoba. Known as La Mezquita, it is not only visually stunning, it is also a mosque and a cathedral simultaneously. A monumental Moorish structure more than 1,200 years old, it looks like a fortress from the outside because of the thick, high stone walls surrounding it.

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Inside, that imposing appearance gives way to subtle design features. There are few interiors in the world more photogenic than the main mosque of the Mezquita. Dozens of arches adorned by stripes create spellbinding symmetry and contrast. Its soaring ceilings add to the drama.

Like Sofia and Budapest, Córdoba was shaped by the Roman Empire, exemplified by the 2,000-year-old Roman bridge that spans the Guadalquivir River that runs through the city. Both times I’ve visited Córdoba and walked north, I feel as if I’m slipping back a century over that extraordinary old building, so well-preserved and ancient is Córdoba’s adjacent Old Town, home to La Mezquita.

Islamic motifs are common throughout this UNESCO-listed Old Town. This is due to the lasting influence of Al Andalus, a Muslim kingdom that ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula, including parts of what is now Spain, Portugal, and France, from the early eighth to the early 11th century. Córdoba remained under strong Islamic influence until the late 15th century. Now this southern region of Spain, popular with fellow tourists Seville and Granada, is known as Andalusia, a reference to this pivotal period in its history.

Updated: December 02, 2022, 2:02 PM


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