Quien no ha visto Granada. No ha visto nada. (He who has not seen Granada, has seen nothing at all.)
Granada is southern Spain’s precious jewel, and for much of the Middle Ages it dangled – like the glowing pomegranate for which it is named – temptingly before the eyes of the Christian conquistadors, who hoped to recapture it from the Muslim dynasties that ruled the city from 711. While the Almohads, who reigned until 1228, were known for their orthodoxy and sometimes repressive regime, the Nasrids – the Iberian peninsula’s longest-reigning Muslim dynasty – valued luxury and ease, and have left behind a number of buildings in Granada that indicate their appreciation for life’s finer pleasures.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Alhambra, the so-called “red fortress” that perches on a long ridge across the river Darro. From the 9th to the 11th centuries, the buildings located here were little more than a citadel, their rammed-earth walls reinforced with at least 13 towers to take advantage of the strategic position and offer shelter in times of need.
Little of these defensive structures survived – today, the Alhambra’s beauty derives primarily from the 13th and 14th centuries, when the founder of the Nasrid dynasty relocated his court there. The massive rebuilding campaign lasted well into the 15th century, requiring the construction of complex infrastructure to ensure self-sufficiency. Water was piped down from the Sierra Nevada for the plumbing in the palace hammam (Turkish bath), and to irrigate the extensive gardens of the summer residence, the Generalife.
Granada’s Nasrid rulers frequently received foreign ambassadors, particularly as conflict with the Christian kings of the peninsula intensified and judicious alliances broke down. The various courtyards (patios) and reception halls (salones) were used for shock and awe, cleverly designed to impress or confuse visitors to the court.
In the Patio de los Arrayanes (“of the myrtles”), for example, the deep green of the myrtle bushes contrasts with the stark white of the plastered walls on either side of the long reflecting pool. And the confined space of this courtyard deliberately leaves the visitor unprepared for the grand dimensions of the hall opening off the courtyard’s northern end. The splendid Salón de los Embajadores, where the sultan would receive ambassadors, has a tiled wainscot of stunning geometric designs, stuccoed walls and a staggering inlaid ceiling.
The craftsmanship of Nasrid artisans is everywhere on display in the Alhambra: for example, in the Salón de los Abencerrajes (named for a family of viziers) the perfectly square room is surmounted by a domed muqarna ceiling. Muqarnas were stalactite vaulting at which the Moors excelled, their myriad small arches giving the illusion of depth but also promoting the circulation of fresh air. Stuccoed window embrasures and latticed walkways allowed beautiful views over the city of Granada, and jalousies granted the harem’s cloistered women an opportunity to relish cooling breezes from the Sierra Nevada.
The indulgent lifestyle of the Nasrid sultans and their court is nowhere more evident than in the Generalife, the “garden of the architect” constructed in the 14th century. Sultan Muhammad III, who wished in summer to enjoy the mountains’ natural air-conditioning in a setting of both great beauty and security, established his court on the other side of a ravine near the main Alhambra complex.
The beds alongside its raised water gardens were planted with low-growing, aromatic plants that released their scents both day and night but would not impede views over the long stretches of water. While we know from contemporary descriptions that these gardens were the pinnacle of medieval Islamic garden design, little survives of their layout and the gardens today are the result of extensive renovations and rebuilding since 1931.
Reconstruction and re-evocation of the past are broad concerns throughout the Alhambra, because the 1492 Christian reconquest of Granada ushered in a long, slow decline. Initially, the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand were attracted to the city as a luxurious and refined base. Used to years of an itinerant and military court, thanks to the drawn-out Reconquista, there is no doubt that they appreciated the Alhambra’s comforts. They are said to have interviewed Christopher Columbus in the Hall of the Ambassadors, for example, and spent years converting the city’s principal mosque to a magnificent cathedral and royal pantheon.
Their grandson, Emperor Charles V, constructed a huge palace within the Alhambra’s walls in the 16th century. It would look more at home in Renaissance Rome, with classical lines and heavy stone standing in direct contrast to the deliberately airy Nasrid buildings. But the centralisation of the Spanish state increasingly led to a power shift: towards a bureaucratic centre in Madrid and a mercantile centre in Seville, the gateway to Spanish mines in South America. Granada ceased to be of any strategic or economic importance.
While the Alhambra’s buildings and decorations were never entirely destroyed, their long neglect brought significant problems. Entire families moved into the buildings, subdividing grand reception rooms into poky apartments. Their fires for cooking and heating further damaged the precious stuccoes and ceilings. Washington Irving, who loved Spain and came to know it well from his extensive travels in the 19th century, was shocked by some of the practices he observed when he also rented rooms in the Alhambra.
Irving’s popular Alhambra tales, published in 1832, were almost single-handedly responsible for putting a stop to this prolonged neglect. Recognising the complex’s historical and artistic importance, Irving used it as a focal point for his wild stories of Granada’s past and he also detailed some of the depredations he personally witnessed. A concerted restoration began that has continued down to our own times: the marvellous Court of the Lions, for example, its walls covered in stucco and its floors a haze of watery marble, was only entirely reopened to the public in 2012. The lions bearing the central fountain, who give the patio its name, took five years to restore.
One of the best places to admire the Alhambra’s beauty – and extraordinary statement of power – is from the mirador, or panoramic look-out, that lies almost directly across from the Alhambra in the Albaicín quarter. At night, the Alhambra is beautifully lit and the dramatic glow of the buildings as the sun sets behind them, illuminating the snow high on the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, is unforgettable.
The Albaicín, the oldest surviving quarter in Granada, covers the hill that faces the Alhambra across the Darro river. Once a crowded neighbourhood where many of the city’s Moorish and Jewish potters and dyers plied their trades, it received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984. You can still tour its 11th-century bath complex, which gives an excellent indication of the level of organisation and hygiene in Moorish Granada.
Near the cathedral, the Corral del Carbón is a 14th-century caravanserai, a porticoed warehouse where merchants from out of town found lodging for themselves and their animals, as well as storage for the wares they would trade on the nearby market. The market survives in a shadow of its former self as the Alcaicería, running a brisk tourist trade alongside what is now the cathedral but was originally the city’s principal mosque. Reminders are frequent in Granada – from the centuries of neglect at the Alhambra, to the city’s gradual rediscovery of itself as a tourist destination – that it would be impossible for the modern city to rival the achievements of the city’s Moorish hey-day.
Much of Granada is embued with this sense of gentle nostalgia, perhaps no better expressed than in the poetry and plays of Federico García Lorca. This celebrated 20th-century Spanish intellectual was born only kilometres from Granada and spent much of his formative years there. Although his body has never been found, he is believed to have been shot just outside the city in 1936, an “undesirable” as far as the Nationalist soldiers were concerned in the first months of the Spanish Civil War.
Much of his work tracks the complicated histories of both his city and country in the modern era, and a visit to his house museum in Granada is a beautiful and very moving experience. As he told a crowd gathered in his honour, at the tender age of 31: “If by the grace of God I become famous, half of that fame will belong to Granada, which formed me and made me what I am: a poet from birth and unable to help it.”
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