“Every city has its own charm, but Granada has its own and that of the rest¨
“Why are you shedding tears like a woman over something you were not able to defend as a man”? These were the admonishing words of the mother to the surrendering Abu Abdullah Muhammad X11, the last Emir of Granada, who after handing over the keys of the city to Ferdinand and Isabel, stood at the El Pujjara Hill, looked back at his lost capital and broke in to tears. The year was 1492 and the rule of the great Nasrid Dynasty had finally come to a tragic end in Andalusia, the Muslim Spain. Christopher Columbus, present in the court, was a witness to surrender.
Granada, a former Roman municipality, was conquered by the Umayyads in 711 AD that eventually brought a large part of the Iberian Peninsula under the Moorish rule. After being at the pinnacle of glory for eight centuries Muhammad X11, the last ruler, surrendered on 2nd Jan. 1492 and banished. Granada did not fall in a single day. It was the last breath of a decaying society. Corruption, intrigues and mayhem were rampant in this last stronghold of Muslim Spain. The surrender of Granada was only the final curtain in a drama that had played itself out. The rocky prominence of El Pujjara that gave Boabdil (a Spanish rendering of name Abu Abdullah) the parting view of his lost empire is also known as Suspiro del Moro, “The Moor’s sigh”. Painfully befitting!
Granada, the most important city-state in the Iberian Peninsula after the fall of Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 and seat of Nasrid Dynasty of Moorish lineage from 1238 to 1492, was our second stop in Spain after Barcelona. We flew in to this historical city, a pride and humiliation for the Muslims and a prize for Catholic monarchs of Spain, from Barcelona on a warm August afternoon. Situated on the banks of River Darro in the fertile valley of Sierra Nevada it has been an idyllic city attracting poets, musicians, artisans and men of letters from around the globe, seeking royal and aristocratic patronage during its zenith. Rulers wanted the best minds to be part of their court which they successfully engaged. Poets of the time wrote about it, singers sang about it and travelers walked about it. Historian Ibne Battuta visited this place in 1350 AD. There was a general saying in Spain of the time, “Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada” (One who has not seen Granada has not seen anything).
Situated in the south of Spain on the foothills of Sierra Nevada, present day Granada is a small but modern city. This city of a small urban population of under 300000 has an international airport, an efficient tramways and railroad system and of course a nice road network that cover the larger metropolitan area but it is not this infrastructure that entices the tourists who come here to see Alhambra, Generalife and Albaicine, the relics of Muslim Spain, showcasing medieval architecture dating back to its Moorish occupation until the end of 15th century.
Alhambra, built over centuries, is a sprawling fortress complex encompassing royal palaces, gardens, fortifications and Medina. Perched over a hilltop, this Moorish citadel, declared world heritage in 1984, is cooler than the new city and visited by 8500 tourists daily, 2 million a year. This jewel of Granada is called Alhamra in Arabic while for Spanish rendition ‘b’ is added to spell it Alhambra. There are different theories about its name. The popular theory is that as the hills of Granada appeared red due to colour of the soil it was called Alhamra, meaning red in Arabic, while others think it got its name from the building materials that looked red from a distance. Some historians are of the view that Nasirids belonged to a family of al Ahmar (the red one), hence the name.
The palace consists of many portions; the Royal residential quarters, Oratory of the Mexuar or the Council Chamber for the ministers, Hall of Comrades for the visiting dignitaries, Court of the lions and many more. A walk along the complex is a real dip in to history. The Nasrid palace, like typical Islamic architecture of yore, is distinguished by arches in synchronization with each other, serene patios, reflecting pools and gushing fountains. It is an architectural culmination of the works of Nasrid art of 13th and 14th centuries. The walls are awash with fine calligraphy that speaks volumes about the master calligraphers of the time. Geometry and symmetry of an unending mosaic of glazed ceramic tiles juxtaposed with fluidity and indefiniteness of Arabic calligraphy which repeats continuously “Glory is God’s, sovereignty is God’s, power is God’s” and “There is no victor but Allah” (Arabic: La ghalib il lal Allah) in very small carvings, a real calligraphic genius. The later happens to be the motto of Nasrid dynasty. Courtyards with rectangular ponds, surrounded by intimately decorated walls, niches, windows and doors come together to create surrealism and complete a beautiful visual symphony. Cold water reaches the palace from the nearby mountains through aqueducts.
The court of the lions is the innermost private court yard of the palace reserved for the ruler and his harem. This exotic place has a fountain in the middle with a dozen lions supporting the main water bowl. It actually worked as a clock when a particular lion spurted water in a certain hour. Designed by a Jew minister it also symbolizes twelve sects of Judaism. I was amazed at how a few hundred meters were turning into a time-travel steps. With a leap of some imagination one could see the living ways of the royalty.
Generalife (pronounced Heneraleefay in Spanish) is a pleasure palace with attached romantic gardens in a remarkable location and layout. These gardens in the grand Alhambra complex display a mix of relaxing building structures and flower beds in flamboyant colours. The court of la Acequia (court of the water channel) has a large pool framed by flower beds, fountains, colonnades, pavilions and Sultan’s garden. This oldest surviving Moorish garden working as a summer palace for the rulers was built on the lines of Persian gardens.
The old Arab residential district of Albaicin, detached from the rest of the city, is a rich repository of Moorish vernacular architecture in to which the traditional Andalusian architecture blends harmoniously. The Muslims and Jews from Cordoba settled here after the city’s fall in 1236. This settlement opposite Alhambra across River Darro with narrow pebbled streets and washed houses, also called Casbah or Medina, is still inhabited by Muslims, though the majority left in 1492 or were forcibly converted to Christianity in violation of the surrender document. They became invisible fodder of history. The water supply of this area with a labyrinth of narrow streets was through twenty eight wells some of which are still preserved as historical legacy. A magnificent vista of the place can be had from the windows of the Oratory of the Mexuar of the Nasrid palace. After having a rewarding walk through the ‘good old times’ we moved to the historical city of Cordoba, our next destination further south.
Written by Dr. Shahid Qayyum
Published by Alisha Khuram