Albaicín - A Living Reminder of Moorish Granada
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“There is no more beautiful city in the world than Granada. Not even Cairo,
Baghdad or Damascus with their wealth and splendour can compare with Granada.”
These words inscribed on the emblem of one of the last Arab royal families in Granada describe well this Moorish city at the end of the 15th century, just before its occupation by the armies of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.
From that wealthy and what travellers in that era called ‘magnificent city’, there remain today two significant sections: the Alhambra complex of palaces and the Albaicín Quarter. Even though they are much changed and somewhat faded, they still retain their Arab/Muslim character.
The famous Alhambra overshadows all the Moorish and other historic structures in Granada. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, it draws annually some 3 million visitors. It is the top tourist site in Spain and second in Europe after the Vatican in attracting tourists. Its stately spires command a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding countryside. Called by the Arabs Qal’at Al-Hamra’ (the Red Fortress), after the reddish stone from which it was built, it is a network of palaces filled with exquisite courtyards, delicate marble columns and handsome arches intertwined with graceful Arabic script, reaching their epitome of splendour in the Courtyard of the Lions.
Yet, this fairy-tale complex of palaces with their majesty and bewitching atmosphere are only one of the delights the Arabs bestowed on the city. Albaicín, the old Arab quarter, spreading on a hill opposite the Alhambra, overflows with vestiges from Muslim times. In fact, even though most of its buildings have been altered, it is still basically an inhabited Moorish town.
Founded in 1228 by Muslims expelled from Baeza, it includes the area of Granada bordered by the Darro River on the east, the Sacromonte Hill on the north, the old town walls to the west, and the winding Calle de Elvira to the south. The whole quarter is a fascinating combination of dilapidated white homes intermixed with immaculate white villas incorporating garden courtyards that are enclosed by high walls. The only surviving part of the Muslim ghetto of Granada and the largest and most characteristic Arab quarter that survives in Spain, it jealously guards its Moorish atmosphere.
Its once 30 mosques have long ago been converted into churches – all retaining parts, especially minarets, of the mosques. Many stately homes stand on or incorporate the remains of Arab buildings. The medieval cobblestone streets are still there; and numerous Moorish cisterns, fountains, gates, ramparts and cármenes (traditional villas with luxurious walled gardens – from the Arabic karm (vineyard) are to be found throughout the Quarter.
While rambling on Albaicín’s cobbled narrow stone alleyways, a visitor can admire Moorish ramparts and traditional homes with their exquisite courtyards and gardens, then rest in tiny plazas or in one of the many cafes and bars for a cafe con leche and a tapa. If visitors begin their stroll at Plaza Nueva, then in an arc, digressing a little in some places, following Carrera del Darro and Paseo de los Tristes, along the Darro River, Cuesta del Chapiz and Calle Panaderos, they will be able to see most of the historic sites in the Quarter.
PaAst the Iglesia de Santa Ann with its elegant mudéjar tower, Baños Arabes (Arab Baths), noted for their star-shaped skylights, are usually the first stop on an Albaicín stroller’s agenda. The best-preserved Arab baths in the Iberian Peninsula they are one of the Quarter’s least known relics. The next-door Museo Archeologico, housed in Casa del Castril, a renovated old Arab home, has a fine collection of Arab azulejos, carved wood and ceramics; and edging it is Convento de Santa Catalina de Zafra, incorporating a Moorish house.
On Cuesta del Chapiz, Dar Albaida, better known as Casa del Chapiz, a former Moorish palace and now a school for Arabic studies, is noted for its gardens. Further on, the 16th century Iglesia del Salvador, the former great mosque of the Albaicín, retains the courtyard of the mosque. From this church, Calle Panaderos leads to Plaza Larga where a Moorish gateway is at the top end of a section of Albaicín’s surviving Arab ramparts and, around them, crowded bars offering the cheapest food in town.
A short distance from the ramparts is Palacio de Daralhorra, the home of Boabdil’s (the last Arab king of Granada) mother and now part of the Monasterio de Santa Isabel del Real, and a short walk away is Mirador San Nicolás with a fantastic view of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The view of Alhambra from this square, especially at sunset, is considered the best in town.
There are many other historic sites in this so-called Moorish Quarter and there is also a return of a smattering of Arab culture and Islam to Albaicín. The abundance of Arab cuisine, the popularity of Spanish songs and music, infused with Arabic, and a recent erection of a new mosque, attest to the modern Arab influence in this part of the city.
In July 2003, a Grand Mosque complex was inaugurated in Granada to serve the city’s 15,000 Spanish Muslims. Built in Albaicin overlooking the Alhambra, the mosque complex includes an Islamic centre, gardens and a terrace looking out over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. From its minaret, for the first time in 500 years, the city now hears the muezzin’s call to prayer. No exploration of Albaicín would be complete without a visit to the Sacromonte Caves – the domain of Granada’s gypsies. Few of them today live in this part of the city, but in the evenings, they return to put on lively displays of dancing and music for busloads of tourists.
In their caves, adorned by richly coloured rugs and shining copper utensils, they present colourful flamenco shows. Always, there is plenty of atmosphere, but the evenings with their watered-down drinks and shows blatantly contrived for tourists, are pricey. However, visitors, even though they have been fleeced when buying tatty souvenirs or paying for amateurish fortune telling, usually return content. The fiery dancers and heart rendering singers add a final touch to one’s exploration of the Albaicín – a living reminder of Moorish Granada.