Santa Maria Tower. Infographic design

por | Ago 12, 2016 | English articles, Iglesia de Sta. María


Infographic design of  Santa Maria Parish Tower, Tauste (Zaragoza, Spain)

Spanish version

camara fotos

iglesia sta maria 009 The reason behind the construction of this impressive building in the eleventh century has puzzled academics and ordinary people alike over centuries. For instance,  Why there are epigraphic kufic texts in the decorative panels of this monumental tower ? Is there a connection between these symbols and other similar ones found in places as far away as in the funeral minaret of Gonbad-e Qabus in Gurgan (Iran), the ‘Arab Ata in Tin (Uzbekistan), or Mas’üd en Gazni  (Afghanistan)?

After years of study, these and other related questions about its construction have been recently revealed by modern measurement techniques and complex 3D modelling techniques and printing.. Recent archaelogical excavations in the maqbara (the islamic cemetery), of Tauste have revealed thousands of graves, which testify the existence of an splendorous past unknown until now.

Given the historical and cultural relevance of these recent discoveries, “El Patiaz” Cultural Association raised the need of creating a visual document devoted to explain, to promote and to teach these concepts, making them accessible to a general public in a didactic way. This initiative has required hundreds of hours of extensive measurements and architetonical work using specific computational modelling in a 3D context. In addition, it has also involved a work trip to Iran in which the researchers visited similar works and discussed with prominent scholars from the University of Architecture in Teheran. The present Infography is the final outcome of all this collective and multidisciplinar research. As we conceptualize it, this Infography can be viewed as a virtual trip to the past, starting from the present moment

We are sure that many concepts, so far unmovable, must be reviewed and taken into account by researchers.

Watch documentary video

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Santa Maria Parish Tower, in Tauste (Zaragoza, Spain) has always been said to be a building made in the late Thirteenth Century as the final culmination of the magnificent church that had been built in that century. The work, carried out under the Christian power that had taken over control of these lands nearly two centuries earlier, had been commissioned to “mudejar” builders (Muslims who remained in this territory after the Christian conquest), for they were the professionals that best mastered the techniques of building with brick and gypsum plaster.  So as usual and rational way, the construction of the church had begun in the presbytery, continuing with the respective sections of the nave covered with vaults. Once the third, and last of them, was completed they would have erected the bell tower.

However, a paper presented at the Cultural Association “The Patiaz” by the Technical Architect Jaime Carbonel Monguilán, showed that the age of the tower was older than that of the church. This work, which was published in the minutes of the X Conference on the History of Tauste, was based on other studies made by a group of architects who argued, for years, that certain Christian Mudéjar towers (a significant number of them actually)  were in fact older and built in the Islamic period. In the case of Tauste, the main evidence was found in the rift that separates the two buildings, visible at a certain height and from a not very accessible place: there shows that, while the rows of brick wall corresponding to the church shows burrs mortar, facing those of the tower are fully grouted. Going over and cleaning the joints of a face of brick is an operation that is only possible if this is not attached to any obstacle, demonstrating that when the wall enclosing the church around the base of it was built, the tower already existed . Several hypotheses about the possibility that the tower had been erected at some intermediate stage between the construction of the presbytery and the last stretch came up, but none of them seemed to have reasonable support.

tower and church wall   rebaba ladrillo

Church direction

Upon further investigation, other important details were discovered. The head of the church is not oriented to the East, as was required in all medieval churches, but South-East, and this is the orientation of Muslim mosques.

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Also it missed the fact that whoever built this tower, did not think at all to place bells, in fact, where these bells exist, they had to break a panel and windows to accommodate them . How is it possible that a Muslim master builder, who worked under the control of Christian power, dared to build a bell tower obviating the corresponding space for housing the bells?

On the outside of the tower, under those windows and in each one of the eight faces, a decorative panel is repeated in highlighting brick, which, after a thorough analysis carried out by other researchers, showed to contain cryptically the Shahada ( profession of Faith of Islam), this time with the verse “There is no God but the Righteous”. So, could the audacity of the architects of  that work challenge so to the Christian holding power?

 paño epigrafico 2 panel apigrafico 03

The church of Santa María is at the main area of the town of Tauste. In the district of San Anton, a suburb located on the outskirts of the town, there is a church dated on the Twelfth century, being obviously older than the Santa Maria church. Why the people of Tauste would decide to build their first church in a suburb and not in the most representative and best defended place in the village? To this question there is only one answer: when building the Church of San Antón (or San Miguel), there is already another temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary in this main area. Could the people of Tauste build a church immediately after the conquest and knock it down just a century later to build the one we know today? Or, that church was reused from another temple built in previous times? When had the tower been erected? ¿would it had been part of that earlier temple?

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Islamic cementery of Tauste

The unknowns that were opened were exciting, because Tauste always have been said that before the arrival of King Alfonso I of Aragon, that is, in the Islamic period, it was a place with little population entity; only a small fortress of which nothing remains and a few houses. However, hypothesizing that such tower had been built at that time, would mean that it had been a minaret in origin and that both the mosque and the population, would have been much more important than previously thought. And if so, where the crowd of people, who supposedly had never existed, was buried?

It was then when we began to consider that certain burials appeared sporadically whenever any excavation of land was made in a certain area in expansion of Tauste (attributed until now to a cholera epidemic in the late nineteenth century) could really belong to that Islamic necropolis we wanted. It satisfied the requirements of any Muslim cemetery: located outside the town, but stuck to it, and next to the main road coming to it, in this case, the path of  Saraqusta (Zaragoza, the capital of the kingdom). Once the appropriate archaeological studies were made, we found that it was a necropolis of great extension, with a capacity of about 4,500 adult individuals and children placed among them. In addition, Carbon 14 tests applied on some of the bones resulted in the entire range of Islam staying in the valley of the Ebro River, where is situated Tauste, between the VIII and XII centuries. But the most spectacular surprise was the claim that we were dealing with the oldest Islamic tomb of the Iberian Peninsula, dated by radiocarbon methods, and possibly across Europe, along with other found in Pamplona (Navarre). This means that when Islam comes to the Ebro Valley in 714, Tauste is already a stable and settled population.

enterramientos islamicos 01plano tumbas islamicas 01

This would surely justify the construction of so magnificent minaret at a time when, on the other hand, throughout this territory becomes an independent state from the rest of AL-ANDALUS, which would reach a remarkable splendour throughout the Eleventh century, with its capital in Zaragoza, where also a great activity takes place in the political, cultural, demographic, economic and architectural fields. The Al-Jafería Palace stands as one of the leading exponents, the greatest and most important of all monumental palaces built in the Peninsula at that time. We got a new twist in terms of historical considerations about the origin of Tauste and its importance at that time.

Construction techniques

The surprises do not end there. Jaime Carbonel starts studying the construction of the tower from the technical point of view and discovers that its structure does not respond to the definition it had always been admitted: a tower inside another, with the ladder circulating among them. This is actually a divided internally into overlapping stays tower, but formed by a thick wall of brick, in which the helical stairwell is contained. This gap was being done as they climbed the building, but the result is the same as if they had done a solid work and then had been holed by a caterpillar inside. This is a much more complex and craftsmanship value process, a construction system more archaic and fascinating than the supposed one until then.

The significance of this finding is remarkable and it serves as a basis for dating other attached towers to the Aragonese Mudéjar architecture, of which there is no reliable documentation about its true origin. Architects Javier Peña and José Miguel Pinilla have been detecting for years the impossibility to be built within the same context as the churches they accompany. Studying the vertical sections of the towers, it clearly shows the constructive evolution of the same, being the oldest ones more massive. In a few decades, the system was moving towards greater weight losses in stairs and to the concept of tower and counter-tower (a tower inside the other). A system that finally the Almohads adopted and whose most representative example of minaret is the Giralda in Seville .

estructura torre sta maria 0001estructura almohade 01


Thus, the first images of this Infography show the current state of the whole tower and church, with all the additions that have joined it along centuries. As we go back, we see how these buildings are disappearing to show alone the original Mudejar church (one nave) and, finally, the mosque that could have exist before. It should be clarified at this point that there is not data of that earlier temple; therefore, the recreation presented here is based on the fact that it had to be on the same site as the present church and the comparisons with other similar examples, Tudela. Naturally, it had to be a Sahn or ablutions courtyard where the faithful practiced their acts of purification before entering to pray. To represent it we have relied on the existence of an underground cistern that can still be visited, dug into the rock with plaster ceiling dome-shaped pointed. In this tank there is always water to a certain level, regardless of the rainfall patterns of each season and could well have been built to supply the ablution fountain. Its location, therefore, gives us an idea of the size that the Sahn could have.

fuente de abluciones mezquita de tauste 0111 fuente abluciones mezquita suleiman estambul 01 fuente abluciones mezquita de cordoba 01

From left to right: Recreation yard or sahn mosque of Tauste, with the actual situation of the ablution fountain and current status of the underground cistern excavated in gypsum rock. Sources of ablutions of the Mosque of Sulayman (Istanbul) and  Mosque of Cordoba (Spain).

Tower construction

It is at this time when the main purpose of this work starts: showing how this magnificent tower was really done.

Trace of an octagon on the ground must be made by the intersection of two squares, rotated 45º degrees relative one to each other. Excavated field to seat in a sufficiently firm foundation layer (gypsum rock), the totally solid octagonal prism rises to a certain height and begins to leave the circular area of the stay. The entrance to the tower is expected to be about seven meters high, indicating a certain defensive function.

It is at that level where the internal configuration of the tower is defined: staircase with sections of six steps on alternate sides, inserting landings on the other sides, so the sense of upward turn is always to the left and in a full revolution is up to a total of twenty four steps.

Inside, the tower is divided into overlapping octagonal stays covered by vaults. The gap between these stays is saved in all cases with 30 steps, which is a turn and a quarter, stair, so the input to each occurs in successive 90º / 90º orientations. The roof of the stairwell is closing by linked vaults as the gap reaches sufficient height. These vaults are of great beauty and are producing matching jumps upward the centres of each of the faces of the octagon, forming a geometric figure like half inverted troughs with staggered sides. The stairwell is lit naturally through open gaps to the outside in the form of loopholes, which accentuates the military character of the building, despite being a predominantly religious building. These loopholes are distributed such that there is always a gap in front of each input to the respective stays, thus facilitating light and ventilation as well.

Once two full turns are surpassed, we reach a balcony that had to be the privileged place from where the muezzin called to prayer. Continuing the ascent, based on the fourth floor we meet the great chamber: at 31 meters high from the ground, built a room covered by a cloister vault with eight panels, which starts from a moulded cornice and reaches more than 11 meters in height at the apex. In each of its eight sides, large pointed arch windows sheltering two smaller ones,  “ twins”,which alight on a brick centre mullion. Such constructive boast, unusual for both minarets and towers bells, seem to indicate some use of noble character that remains as an unsolved mystery until today. The truth is that it is virtually identical to the tower of San Pablo (Zaragoza), which seems to be the precedent of Tauste tower and could have had funerary use, following the model of the tower-mausoleum of Persia. But this display goes even further, when the master builder had the audacity to build up the tower access to the terrace that crowns the work, gravitating his weight over the apex of the dome itself, not having shown up today, after a millennium of existence, no sign of failure or exhaustion of materials: just brick and gypsum plaster.

Exterior decoration

As for the exterior decoration, it is made of brick highlighted and appears from the level at which the surrounding village allows visibility. This is a recurring board alike in the eight faces and are always framed by upper and lower bands. From bottom to top, the first is comprised by some archways crisscrossed, the following is a tracery of eight-pointed stars and the third, located just below the windows of the great room is the one that contains the message “No God but the Righteous” which design we have detailed before. Above the windows rich rhombus shaped boards and  intersecting half-point arches are observed. As a whole, seen from the outside, the tower seems to be divided into several bodies by cornices formed by protruding corbels bricks.

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Plans and drawings of the external decoration of the tower of Sta. María. Miguel Salas Lagranja

Ended the constructive walk, we can now return to the present. We watched the whole minaret with mosque, as the king Alfonso I of Aragon could see after his conquest in 1121. It would be consecrated to the Christian cult under the invocation of the Virgin Mary until a century later, recovered from the hardships of war, decided to build a new temple along with the current fashion in that time: the Gothic style, triumphing in Europe, but carried out with characteristic local materials, brick, gypsum and, following the techniques that Muslim master builders had imported long time ago from the Persian world. It  begun attaching the new presbytery to the qibla wall (facing South-East, towards Mecca) and, gradually, would replace the old temple by the new, taller and brighter, as the canons were at that moment.

An important document dated on 1243

A document dated on 1243 denotes a time of economic difficulty. It comes from San Juan de la Peña Monastery, whom this Parish belonged to at the time, for which the Monastery gave the tithes and firsts that they came charging, granted by The King Alfonso I,, the Battler, to tend “to the completion of construction of the tower and church, bells and vestments, and considering the much appreciation D. Alonso, of grateful memory, dispensed to the villa.”.

Somewhere in the building this fact had to appear, and it showed up in the constructive difference between the first two sections of the ship and the third, this one wider and taller than the other two. It is reasonable to think that in the year of 1243, it still was pending the third section of the new temple and the few works of adaptation to the minaret tower, which would consist in breaking windows to house the bells. By 1300, the Gothic-Mudejar church would be completed. In the Sixteenth century, three chapels were added, two besides the presbytery, inside giving the appearance of a Latin cross plant, and another one in the west corner. In the Eighteenth century the chapel of the Virgin of Sancho Abarca (holy patron of Tauste) is attached and in the Twentieth century is built a new body to ease up the access to the choir, as well as the current museum.


Clearly the usefulness of architectural research (wherever the documentary and archaeological study remains insufficient) has been demonstrated in the advances made in the case of the tower of Santa María de Tauste.

This has been possible thanks to the contributions of the Architects Javier Peña and José Miguel Pinilla, who behold decades of professional experience examining the “guts” of many buildings related to Islamic descent (both Islamic and Christian period ) on  their professional restoration interventions . Also the research of the Technical Architect Jaime Carbonel on the case of the tower Tauste from the material execution point of view as, of course, the enormous and valuable work done by Pilar Palacio in their leadership, coordination and 3D modeling and thanks to Raul Navas for the editing, postproduction and 3D animation.

Finally, it is also fair quoting the archaeologist Francisco José Navarro, for its solvent interpretation of decorative cloth with epigraphic characters, Enrique Sancho for 3D printing and Jesus Alegre for their continued support and collaboration throughout this process.

Architect team

  • Jaime Carbonel Monguilán.
  • Javier Peña Gonzalvo.
  • José Miguel Pinilla.

3D infographic design and animation

mezquita siglo 11church siglo 13church siglo 14church siglo 16church siglo 18church siglo XX

Modelling and 3D printing

  • Enrique Sancho Pereg

modelado 3d 01modelado 3d 02modelado 3d 044

cartel promocion dpz ingles

Other interesting links

Studies on the origin of the tower of St. Mary in Tauste considering it a minaret of the 11th century and associating it to the existence of an Islamic population led to the Cultural Association “El Patiaz” of Tauste to initiate investigations to find vestiges of these people. These are some result of the researchers.