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The New Mosque of Granada Revives the Memories of the Moors

posted on: Sep 6, 2017


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By: Habeeb Salloum/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.  In the ensuing centuries, during the years of religious Christian zeal, all traces of the Muslims in Spain were thought to have faded into history.

However, in that once magnificent city of the Moors, there opened in July 2003, the first mosque to be seen in the city since it fell to the Christian armies over 520 years ago.  This splendid new mosque, overlooking the reddish 13th century Alhambra and located in the Albaicín Quarter of Granada, has raised some Spanish eyebrows, but pleased others who are proud of the Muslim civilization the Arabs established in Spain.  For 22 years the mosque-building project was plagued by local controversy and opposition, but all ended well with its successful completion, heralding a new dawn for the Spanish Muslims.

This new addition to Granada’s skyline will serve as a spiritual home to the Granada Spanish Muslims, the majority of whom have won over to the faith in the course of the last three decades.  These converts, no doubt, share a dream of recreating the splendour and greatness of the Arab/Muslim civilization in Al-Andalus.

They are hoping to remind the world of the vast cultural and intellectual contribution made by the Moors, to art, architecture, astronomy, medicine, music, science, as well as learning.  It will act as a pivotal point of the era in Europe when Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side – the time when, a good number of historians say, set an example of religious tolerance in medieval Europe.

The Muslim era in Spanish history saw the city of Cordoba became a cultural centre for all faiths, while schools and universities sprang up in cities across Arab/Muslim Spain and agriculture, trade and industry flourished.  The culturally fruitful coexistence – a rare commodity in European history – of the three religions that was to symbolize Spain for 800 years, brought on one of the richest historical epochs in Spanish history.

Today, in Granada, there are many reminders of these Arab centuries.  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 Qalat Al-Hamra’ (the Red Fortress), after the reddish stone from which it was built, it is a network of palaces filled with exquisite memories from the illustrious Moorish age.

This most outstanding representative of Arabic architecture is a fascinating fairy-tale network of palaces and gardens filled with filigreed walls and arches, delightful courtyards, exquisite tiles and delicate marble pillars intertwined with graceful Arabic script, reaching their epitome of splendour in the Courtyard of the Lions.  Plaster and stone were turned to lace and enhanced with fountains, trees and flowers, creating a vision of paradise on earth.

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Here, amid man’s magnificent handiwork where Moorish genius reached its peak, emirs and kings once held court.  The last stronghold of the Arabs in Spain, it was constructed by the Nasrid kings both as a citadel and as a fantasy wonderland for their leisure and pleasure.

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 a Spanish 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 rich villas incorporating garden courtyards 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 found throughout the once Arab 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.

Past 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.

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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 most inexpensive food in town.

A short distance from the ramparts is Palacio de Daralhorra, the home of Boabdil’s (Abu Abdallah, the last Arab king of Granada) mother and now part of the Monasterio de Santa Isabel del Real.   A short walk away is Mirador San Nicolás with a fantastic view of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  The view of the Alhambra from this square, especially at sunset, is considered the best in town.

There are many other historic sites in this once 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 above all, the recent erection of Granada’s Grand Mosque, attest to the modern Arab influence in this part of the city.

Since the Catholic Monarchs captured this last stronghold of the Moors in 1492, putting an end to 800 years of the Arab/Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims from all over the world have mourned the loss of ‘Al-Andalus’- the Arab name of their paradise in the Iberian Peninsula.  It began when Boabdil, after his defeat, rode out of Granada, then turned to view his beloved city for the last time saying, “When did misfortune ever equal mine.”

Today, “Allah-u Akbar”, the Muslim call to prayer, rings out across the Albaicin, the last Muslim Quarter in Granada, for the first time since the medieval ages, calling nearby faithful – from the some 15,000 Muslims in Granada – to prayer.  Spain’s Muslims, from 500,000 to a million – depending on who is counting – say that after keeping their faith hidden for many years, they are now recognized as a part of the Spanish nation.

In the words of the Muslim community spokesman, Abdul Haqq Salaberria, “Islam has gone from being something hidden or invisible in Spanish society to something visible.”  The Mosque has brought into focus the relationship between the Spanish nation, its Islamic history and the Muslims that today live in Spain.

The striking new Grand Granada Mosque is a structure of subtle beauty, incorporating designs found in the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.  A white brick building, built on 2,100 square metres of land, with a red tile roof and a thick, square minaret, it is set in the middle of a public garden full of pink and purple touch-me-nots, orange chrysanthemums and midget palms.  The imam (prayer leader) climbs the 59 steps of the minaret and directs his call towards the Alhambra, the largest still standing Arab palace ever built in Europe.

The Mosque’s prayer room is large enough to hold several hundred people and a library and a study centre for scholars are located in separate outbuildings.  Officials of the Mosque offer a series of courses to both Muslims and non-Muslims on the Arabic language and other subjects such as education, law and medicine, and plan to have the Mosque issue its own degree in science.  The Mosque’s extensive gardens will be open to the public, drawing in, it is expected, thousands of tourists.  Without doubt, the call to prayer, so normal in the Muslim world and once heard in the Iberian Peninsula, will draw the curious from the West and the faithful from the Muslim lands.

After the Christian re-conquest, religious intolerance and the expulsion of Muslims and Jews replaced the previously peaceful coexistence.  Through the centuries much of this intolerance, especially at official levels, faded with the years and the Arab/Muslim age began to be accepted as being a part of Spanish history.  In the last few decades, the Spanish government has set up many cultural foundations to promote the country’s Moorish heritage and serve as a ‘go-between’ Spain and the Arab countries.  According to Spanish law, Islam is recognized as ‘an historic religion’ and the second religion of Spanish nationals.

It is hoped that the Grand Granada Mosque, a symbol of a return to Islam among the Spanish people, will help in doing away with the malicious concept of Islam as a foreign and immigrant religion in Spain.  The builders of the Mosque, the ‘Federación Espalola de Diocesis Islamicas’, are striving for the recognition of the Spanish Muslims as being part of the Spanish nation.

What the Spanish Muslims do not want are to be perceived as a religion wanting to re-conquer or re-create the Al-Andalus of the past, but to be a part of a co-existence movement which will be part of an inter-religious dialogue in the city and even the whole country.  Already, the Mosque’s insistence on harmonious relationship with other religions has gone some way towards calming the fears of the authorities and the population in general about the aim of the Spanish Muslims.  Spain has an important Islamic heritage that has been ignored for centuries and the Granadian Muslims with their Mosque could be a spark in initiating recognition among the public of the glorious Arab/Muslim era in Spanish history.

It is fitting that this Mosque is located in Granada.  Here, in this city, where the remains of the Moors remain profound, this Muslim house of worship does not look out of place.  It fits into the historic aura of the old Moorish quarter, but offers a gentle modern face to Spanish Islam.  More than any of the historic and modern sites in Spain, if all goes well, it will bring the country’s Arab/Muslim era to the attention of the 21st century Spaniards in a fashion that will make them proud of their Moorish legacy.


Habeeb Salloum