Granada - Once a Moorish Paradise, Now Spain's Tourist Magnet
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Spare him a penny woman,
For I cannot call to mind,
A sadder fate for a human,
Than to be in Granada blind.”
So wrote the Mexican poet Icaza – these lines now inscribed on the walls of Alhambra, Granada’s renowned citadel.
Making my way inland from the coast I was thinking of this poem when, as I drove atop a high point, the city came into view. In the distance, I could see the Alhambra – a complex of fortresses and palaces dominating the town below. Stopping my auto by a plaque on which was inscribed el ultimo suspiro del Moro (the last sigh of the Moor), I surveyed the majestic scene.
My mind went back to Abu Abdallah, better known as Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Muslim Spain, riding away with his family into exile. On this very spot, he stood to have a last look at his beloved capital. Behind him stretched the lush orchards, encircling his whitewashed city, overshadowed by the slim towers of the Alhambra soaring skyward.
It is said that pent-up emotions burst within him and he cried “God is Great!” His mother standing by his side admonished him, “You do well to weep like a woman over a kingdom lost that you could not defend like a man?” At the very spot where his tears fell, as he bade farewell to his beautiful city, the Spaniards had erected the small monument by which we stopped.
Well did Boabdil have cause to be sad as he looked back at his serene city. In that era, the Arabs had a saying ‘Search, not for Paradise. You will find it in Granada.’ With the exile of Boabdil, the last of the flourishing Muslim societies in the Iberian Peninsula had been defeated. Yet, even though the Moors had been overwhelmed and, in the ensuing years, their descendants expelled from Spain, their heritage remains, especially in Granada, which even today, is considered to be a city almost unrivaled in its beauty and architectural splendor.
A true leftover from the Muslim age, the city rests in the shadows of Spain’s mightiest massif, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, edged by an extraordinary fertile plain. Even though its 300,000 inhabitants are less than half of those in Arab days, the indelible mark of the Moors in its vibrant streets, mosques turned into churches, tiled buildings and dainty gardens have made it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the whole of Spain.
Overshadowing all these Moorish remains is its famous Alhambra. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, it draws annually some 3 million visitors – the top touristic site in Spain and second in Europe after the Vatican in attracting visitors. 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 newly renovated pavilion known as the Courtyard of the Lions.
Granada’s Moorish kings for their labor, leisure, and pleasure erected this palace-citadel – a beautiful structure of Hispano-Muslim art. For the good life, they turned to plaster and stone into lace and blended these with endless fountains whose spraying waters moisten the edging flowering trees and shrubs. Alhambra’s Generalife Gardens with their fountains, neatly trimmed hedges, blooming flowers, and trees of cypresses, jasmine and yew, best reflect their handiwork. Caressed by the gentle breezes, they draw the visitor into the aura of Moorish fantasy, mystery, and romance.
Yet, this fairy-tale complex of palaces with their majesty and the bewitching atmosphere is only one of the delights the Moors bestowed on this half Arab, half Christian, city. Albaicín, the old Arab quarter, spreading on a hill opposite the Alhambra, overflows with vestiges from Muslim times.
Museo Archeologico, housed in a renovated old Arab home; Dar Albaida, better known as Casa del Chapiz, a former Moorish palace and now a school for Arabic studies; Elvira and Monaita gates in the old city walls; Aljibe del Frillo, a cistern built during the Moorish age; Casa Moraisca, an old Arab home; the Church of El Salvador, the former great mosque of the Albaicín; Baños Arabes, the best-preserved baths in the Iberian Peninsula; and Daralhorra Palace, the home of Boabdil’s mother and now part of the Convent de Santa Isabel del Real, are some of the remains from the Moorish centuries to be found in the heart of the city.
Alcaicería, a reconstructed Arab silk bazaar, is a colourful handicraft center not to be missed. In the last century, the original marketplace was destroyed by fire, but it was rebuilt along original lines. Today, instead of silk, its shops have switched to selling, mostly to tourists, handmade flamenco dresses, pottery, jewelry, copperware, ceramics, and embroidery.
Nearby is the Cathedral, built on the site of Granada’s former great mosque The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, the city’s conquerors, initiated its construction, but it was not completed until the 18th century. The most famous part of the Cathedral is its annex, Cupilla Real where the Catholic Monarchs are entombed.
Edging the Cathedral is the stunningly decorated Madrasa Yusif I – one of the foremost Moorish works of art surviving in Granada. A former Muslim university honoring one of the great Moorish rulers of Granada, it was the last refuge of Muslim learning on Spanish soil. Its preserved prayer chamber is a fantastic work of art that matches in beauty the mihrab (prayer niche) of Cordoba’s former Great Mosque.
After exploring these and other Moorish remains, a flamenco evening in the gypsy quarters of Sacromonte will be a great finale for the day. In the fiery dances, heart-rendering songs, and haunting music, much of these inherited from the Moors, one can live the nights of Arab Andalusia. These flamenco evenings and the remaining Moorish monuments, without doubt, complement the city’s breathtaking setting. The saying ‘more captivating than any other Spanish city is beautiful Granada’ is still valid today as it was when the Moors walked the land.