Córdoba, Spain is often said to have had street lights in its Muslim period, which ended in 1236. How did those street lights work?

In Lawrence of Arabia, Prince Faisal was dramatized as having said to Lawrence: "You know, Lieutenant, in the Arab city of Córdoba were two miles of public lighting in the streets when London was a village." Similarly, Ibn Said is said to have reported that "the streets were well paved and lighted, the lights being attached to the outer doors and corners of the houses", as quoted in a link from this answer.

Can anyone provide details on this? In particular, what fueled those street lamps -- was it olive oil?

  • 5
    Much more likely tallow candles. Apr 26, 2021 at 12:58
  • 10
    @Matt F. I also note that in the time of the Caliphs at Cordoba, London was not exactly a village. It probably counted as a town or a small city, with a population in the thousands.
    – MAGolding
    Apr 26, 2021 at 16:40
  • 25
    @MAGolding, the 13th-century populations seem to have differed by only a factor of two: Cordoba around 60,000 and London around 30,000, according to table 1 of this paper by De Long and Shleifer: delong.typepad.com/princes.pdf. But Prince Faisal's next line is that these street lights were "nine centuries ago": in 1050 Cordoba had 450,000 people and was the largest city in Europe.
    – Matt F.
    Apr 26, 2021 at 17:17
  • 1
    @MattF. I think Constantinople was at least of the same order of magnitude if not bigger (Wikipedia claims 500,000 but who knows). Which of course takes nothing from Cordoba :) Apr 28, 2021 at 9:05
  • 2
    As the question is very specific, I'll refrain from adding as an answer my general knowledge: The liquid fractions of rendered tallow was used for lighting, as was sometimes the wax fraction but then as tallow candles. I'd say as tallow oil was more used for city lighting due to the fact that tallow candles were commodity that could be sold, and tallow oil was probably cheaper, seeing as the lack of reasonable transportation of liquids made it a less valuable byproduct. If it was a rich city, whale oil is also a likely candidate, burns brighter and with less soot and sputter.
    – Stian
    Apr 28, 2021 at 11:05

1 Answer 1


I have traced back this claim to its original source. Come along with me on this journey! Let's start with a source which used to be linked on Wikipedia and is commonly cited online:

For ten miles in a direct line on the darkest night the pedestrian could walk securely through the city and its environs by the light of innumerable lamps.

Samuel Parsons Scott, History of the Moorish Empire in Europe (1904), vol. 1, p. 619.

This book has a massive bibliography but no footnotes, which makes it useless. However, it did make me google harder, and find an 1833 reference:

For ten miles the citizens could travel by the light of lamps along an uninterrupted extent of buildings.

Andrew Crichton, The History of Arabia (New York: Harper, 1845 [1833]), vol. 2, 52

The only source cited anywhere near this sentence is Washington Irving (!), who wrote a book called Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada in 1829. I found that this section of Irving's book was derived from an even earlier book:

Ashshakandy† relates, in one of his works, that through Cordova, with the continuations of Azzahra and Azzahira, he had travelled ten miles by the light of lamps along an uninterrupted extent of buildings.

† Abū'l Walid Ismāil, an eminent man from Shakanda, which is an ancient town on the south side of the river over against Cordova. He wrote a treatise on the excellence of Andalusia, in opposition to Abū Yahya, who vindicated that of Africa; and died at Seville in the year 629.

John Shakespear and Thomas Hartwell Horne, The History of the Mahometan Empire in Spain (London: William Bulmer and Co., 1816), 162

This incredibly helpful footnote points us to the original source, a 13th century CE Andalusian named aš-Šaqundī!

Se dice que estaban tan pobladas las construcciones de Córdoba, al-Zahrā’ y al-Zāhira, que se podía caminar por ellas a la luz de las lámparas por espacio de diez millas, sin interrupción alguna. (Google Translate: "It is said that the buildings of Córdoba, al-Zahrā’ and al-Zāhira, were so populated that one could walk through them by the light of the lamps for ten miles, without any interruption.")

Abu-l-Walid Ismāʿīl Ibn-Muḥammad aš-Šaqundī, Elogio del islam español (Risāla fi fadl al-Andalus), trans. Emilio García Gómez (Madrid: Impr. de E. Maestre, 1934), p. 105

Finding this original source corrects a major error introduced through the chain of transmission and helps us understand the type of lighting being discussed here. These were not street lamps installed by the caliph. This would not have been a system of lamps posted on the road, but lamps installed outside doors by homeowners -- or, as commenters suggest, lamps from the inside of homes.

We actually have examples of this exact model of Andalusian outdoor lamp in museums. You can see the spike inside on which a tallow candle would have been placed. The shape of the lamp would allow users to post it directly over a door.

There is also a good article about Andalusian indoor lighting online which shows that indoor lamps of that time used oil and a fuel source resting on top of water in a glass fixture. Some of the Islamicate glass fixtures of this time are noted for their beauty.

  • 7
    Both the Washington Irving connection and the distinction between indoor oil vs outdoor tallow surprised me — thanks for chasing this down!
    – Matt F.
    Apr 26, 2021 at 16:18
  • 12
    Šaqundī's story is certainly a lament for the good old days so I don't know if we should be expected to believe in "ten miles of uninterrupted houses" over the short period 987-1009. The reddit /r/AskHistorians might be able to locate a Spanish history expert with more specialized knowledge than me. As for posting a light over your door, it makes it easy to identify your door for strangers and to identify the strangers when they knocking at night, so my guess is that it was a useful household expense.
    – Avery
    Apr 26, 2021 at 23:01
  • 9
    Posting security lights remains common today - as lighting one's door to make it visible to neighbours is believed to discourage thieves and vandals. That could well have been true a thousand years ago as well. Apr 26, 2021 at 23:05
  • 44
    Hmmm. I would read that passage to mean "I could walk for ten miles by the lamplight that escaped from the inside of homes through windows." Bear in mind that people accustomed to walk by moonlight or starlight would find levels of illumination much below modern street lights to be quite sufficient.
    – Mary
    Apr 27, 2021 at 1:08
  • 6
    @MattF. Irving's connection to that part of the world is pretty interesting. His 1828 visit to the Alhambra in Granada and subsequent book contributed to the eventual repair and restoration of the site, which was at the time in disrepair and occupied by vagrants, but is now the most popular tourist destination in Spain. Apr 27, 2021 at 13:28

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.