In 1195, al-Mansur won a great victory against the forces of King Alfonso VIII in the Battle of Alarcos. To celebrate his triumph, he ordered four enormous gilded bronze balls – called "apples" – to be placed on the very top of the minaret. The metal balls were graduated in size, with the smallest at the top and the largest at the bottom. Their precise significance is not known, but three similar balls sit atop the minaret of the Kutubiyyah mosque in Marrakech, the largest of them two meters (six and a half feet) in diameter. The ones on the Giralda were much larger, but the exact dimensions are unknown, for they fell to the ground during an earthquake in 1356 and were smashed. King Alfonso the Wise, writing in the 13th century, says that the largest one, whose surface was divided into twelve deep "channels," was so immense that a gate had to be widened when it was brought into the city. All four were plated with gold under the supervision of the chief treasurer and in the presence of the caliph. They were then wrapped in soft cotton bast to protect them during handling.
The completed minaret – not counting the jamur and its four golden apples – was 65 meters (213 feet) high and 14 meters (46 feet) on each side, comparable in size to the famous minaret of the Kutubiyyah mosque in Marrakech, which is 68 meters (223 feet) high and 13 meters (43 feet) wide. The Kutubiyyah minaret predates that of Seville, and Ahmad ibn Basu and his colleagues obviously had it in mind when constructing the Giralda. Another famous Almohad minaret is the Tour Hassan in Rabat, 50 meters (164 feet) high and 16 meters (52 feet) wide – an unfinished project begun in 1195 and originally intended to be the biggest in the world. Both the Kutubiyyah and the Tour Hassan are stylistically very similar to the Giralda. In all three, the restrained geometric decoration in raised brick expresses the austerity of the Almohad dynasty.
Although Seville has spread far beyond its medieval confines, the Giralda still towers above the city and can be seen from many miles away. From the top, on a clear day, one can see to Carmona and the plain of the Guadalquivir, and its towns and the far-off mountain ranges. The words of Ibn Sahib al-Sala are still true: "This minaret is beyond description … because of its massive size, its deep foundations, the solidity of its brickwork, the extraordinary skill with which it is constructed and the amazing sight it presents – appearing to the traveler when he is several days from Seville as if it were suspended among the stars of the zodiac."
When Seville fell to the Christian armies in 1248, after a long siege, its Muslim inhabitants were forced to leave, and the mosque was transformed into a cathedral. Yet Christian Sevillians seem to have been as proud of the Giralda as the Muslims had been, for it often figures on coats of arms and other heraldic devices. Some of these date from before the earthquake of 1356 and show the four "apples" still in place.
In 1400, the first public clock in Spain was installed at the top of the Giralda, and a year later the decision was taken to build a "modern" – in this case, Gothic – cathedral on the site of the mosque. In the course of building the third largest cathedral in Christendom, most of the old Almohad structure was demolished. A section of the wall, the beautiful Patio of the Orange Trees, the Gate of Pardon, with its magnificent bronze-plated door, and the minaret were spared.
By the mid-16th century, Seville had become the richest city in Europe; all the gold and silver of the New World passed through it, first the wealth of the Aztecs and Incas, then the fabulous silver of Potosí (See Aramco World, May-June 1992). It was felt that some symbol of the city's new prosperity was required. The architect Hernán Ruiz, heavily influenced by Italian renaissance architecture, came forth with an ambitious design for increasing the height of the Giralda by 30 meters (100 feet) and turning the top into a bell tower. It is a tribute to the strength of the Almohad structure that it could support the added weight. Ruiz's bell tower was in turn surmounted by a colossal bronze statue representing Faith, called the Giraldillo, or weathervane, for it turns to indicate the direction of the wind. It is from this statue that the Giralda takes its name; before that, it was simply called "the tower" or alminar – the Spanish version of the Arabic word for "minaret."
In a very real sense, the Giralda presents a paradigm of the complex history of the city it adorns. Its foundations are Roman or possibly Carthaginian; the main body of the tower is Islamic, which in turn supports a renaissance structure built according to the norms of classical architecture. The complexity of the image makes it a fitting symbol of a city where classical, Christian and Muslim cultures met and merged.