Faisal al Yafai travels to Andalucia to trace the legacy of the Arab and North African Muslims who ruled the region for 800 years.
This is the place to come for rumours. High above the city, middle-aged women in summer dresses move like soap bubbles, bumping into each other and joining hands, or darting in different directions. The whole market is a mass of flesh on flesh: hands grasp other hands, elbows, arms; fingers caress fruit thoughtfully.
I have to come to Granada to see what remains of Al Andalus, that immense span of Iberian history when Muslims ruled the peninsula. The morning market at Plaza Larga in the historical Muslim quarter of Albayzin is a clear bridge to the past: unchanged for hundreds of years, a link from that moment to this.
This was where in the 15th century the then-predominantly Muslim residents came to trade goods and gossip. It was where they must have heard the rumours of the impending arrival of the armies of the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand. And it is from here that the Muslims and Jews would have departed following the fall of Granada in 1492, escaping to safer countries in North Africa or Europe.
The scene is boisterous, but the sellers dismiss me: they can see I am not from here, that I do not need their tomatoes, their clothes or their conversation. Instead we watch each other out of the corners of our eyes.
An older man, wearing slippers and carrying a briefcase, sits next to me and offers a cigarette. He points as the crowd absorbs his wife and we talk about my visit. He thinks I may have lost my tour group. I tell him I am looking for what remains of Al Andalus. He snorts. “Rocks and stones,” he says, “Only old rocks and stones.” And he is gone.
Yet the history of Al Andalus is far more than relics. From the moment the generals of the Muslim Ummayad dynasty crossed into Gibraltar in 711, the history of Europe was changed.
The Muslims extended their control across the whole of what is now Spain and Portugal and even into modern-day France, creating cities that became centres of learning and culture, translating works of science and philosophy from Arabic into Latin, and thus laying the foundations for the European Renaissance. Opposing them were a group of Spanish Christian kingdoms that, over the next 800 years, fought to reclaim the peninsula, piece by piece, until, in 1492, the last surviving city of Granada was taken.
From Plaza Larga, I take a series of steep walks along stone steps, heading upwards, holding the white walls on occasion to catch my breath as the heat of the day rises. My reward is the view from the Mirador de San Cristóbal, a tiny semicircular lookout.
From here, the logic of the Alhambra, the fortress of the Nasrids and the foundation of Granada, is plain. The lands south unfold clearly: the view uncensored across the burgundy tops of the buildings, out past the very edges of the city, towards the green fields and onwards where the land turns brown and the Sierra Nevada mountains rise.
From their stronghold in the Alhambra, the Nasrid dynasty could maintain control across a vast expanse of Spain. Yet somehow, the severity of the gathering storm that overtook them in the 15th century was not clear.
Any journey across southern Spain takes you past many towns with similar suffixes – Jerez de la Frontera, Vejer de la Frontera – all linguistic reminders that the frontier between the Nasrid emirs and their Christian rivals changed many times.
For the Reconquista – the wars of the Spanish Christian kingdoms to end Islamic rule in the peninsula — was not a single event; it was centuries-long and many generations were born, lived and died in its shadow. Communities on either side of the frontier traded, had agreements for safe passage, even shared festivals – and occasionally brutal battles. Both sides talked of convivencia, of coexistence.
Of the original 1,013 columns in the prayer hall of Córdoba’s Mezquita, 856 have remained since the building was converted into a church. Manuel Cohen / Getty Images
Yet they knew what to expect after. Granada by the 15th century was full of those who had fled other parts of Spain.
The Inquisition had arrived a decade before. The conversos, those Jewish families who had converted to Christianity under pressure but sought to retain their social habits, were viewed with deep suspicion and many fled to the safety of Granada.
Today, walking around Albayzin, remnants of this mix are still apparent: I pass one private house with gold Stars of David on the door, which is shaped in a traditional Islamic arch.
There was another mixing of faiths too, less consensual. Further east in Cordoba, formerly a seat of scholarship and one of the most populous cities of Europe, the Castilians were reworking the Mezquita into a church, carving a chapel through the midst of its arches and pillars, and repopulating the city with immigrants from the north. The same process would come to Granada.
Behind the mirador is the Church of San Cristobal. Originally a mosque, it was adapted and rebuilt, with the minaret remade into a bell tower. The walls were built with headstones from Islamic cemeteries – even today the Arabic script from the headstones is clearly visible on the exterior walls.
At night, young Albaicinis gather here – and at the larger, more famous Mirador de San Nicolas, which also overlooks the Alhambra – to gaze at the fortress lit up in warm colours, shards of walls glowing yellow through black trees.
They feel the romance of the moment and whisper to each other. For centuries their ancestors must have looked across at the Alhambra and thought it unbreachable. How could it have fallen?
The path to the Alhambra snakes up through Albayzin, through gardens and past low white walls, before eventually depositing you behind long lines of foreigners.
The palace is really three structures: the palace itself, once the abode of the sultan, his family and his advisers; the Alcazaba, a fortress and citadel, and the Generalife, a maze of gardens, pathways and fountains. Viewed from the Albayzin opposite, it looks like a castle: within its walls, the rooms are human-size and liveable.
Inside the palace, the detail is startling: scripts upon scripts from the Quran adorn the walls, mosaics of azure and amber, subtle designs of architecture that look like tricks of the light. The rooms defy description because they were not meant to be described: the beauty of the Alhambra is lost in the viewing and found in the use.
Only when I stop in one of the shady gardens to sip water and let the tour groups pass do I see the magic and peace of the palace. The sound of the water trickling from fountains lulls my mind and I find myself drifting off, staring without looking at the designs of the walls. Forty minutes have passed before I get up.
Such was the intent of the designers. The Spanish Muslims of Al Andalus did not build religious buildings to dazzle others. For them, religious architecture was meant to reflect the divine: perfect lines representing the unity of God, cooling gardens suggestive of the afterlife.
Even today, the Alhambra remains practical: down in the city, the Cathedral of Granada, built to commemorate the retaking of the city, is a potent mix of grandeur and devotion, its stained glass, sculptures and towering white columns inspiring awe in worshippers. Up here, the reaction is different. Wives whisper to their husbands about tiling the bathroom floor a similar colour. A man asks his friend how much he thinks a door like that would cost back home. Home furnishings inspired by a long-dead civilisation.
The mystery of Alhambra is why they kept building it. The detail of the craftsmanship suggests a labour of love, as if its creators believed that such a methodical mixing of mathematics and mortar would ensure the palace endured, and perhaps they with it. Even as the armies of the Catholic Monarchs massed to the west, the Alhambra was still being constructed.
So much of modern Granada is about the past – either the glory of Al Andalus or the greatness of the Reconquista: the making and the taking. Granadinos revel in it. On January 2nd, the day in 1492 when the Nasrid rulers capitulated, the city celebrates the Dia de la Toma, the Day of the Taking, a day of revelry often opposed by the political left and hijacked by the right.
And yet the overwhelming majority of tourists come for the history before the Reconquista: the Alhambra is the most popular tourist destination in all of Spain. The trinkets sold in the streets around Plaza Bib Rambla are based on that time – bags and scarves and posters, the designs from Islamic Spain, sold by Moroccans, made in China.
To make sense of this contradiction, I go and see Munira, an American-born artist whose work I first discovered in the Grand Mosque in Albayzin the day before and who has lived in the city for three decades.
“This reclamation of the Moorish past is only for business reasons,” she says as we sit in an upmarket hotel just off Reyes Catolicos in the downtown, the cafe decorated like a Moorish house. “It’s what the tourists want. Only thirty years ago, the Alhambra was forgotten, there was litter everywhere inside. For five hundred years they’ve fought it and tried to erase it, but now they’ve realised it’s their future and they’ve embraced it.”
I ask her why Spaniards would do that. Why not revive their own authentic traditions? She stops me. “You don’t understand. The Moorish past is authentically Spanish. The Muslims were Spaniards – they were here for hundreds of years. If you can be an American after two generations, even after one, what about the Muslims who were here for hundreds of years?”
In reality, the Spanish conquerors were not expelling foreigners – they were expelling their own people. With the Reconquista final, the aftermath was brutal.
In Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, Tariq Ali’s novel re-imagining that time, millions of manuscripts are burnt after Granada’s fall, an entire civilisation’s worth of knowledge vanishing.
The Reconquista is often remembered for the intolerance of the Catholic rulers to Muslims and Jews – Ali’s book reminds us that it was the Spanish Christians who suffered too the loss of Al Andalus.
At a stroke life for the Spaniards of the south changed: the newcomers were mainly from the north, with different accents and customs, and attempted to wipe out all remnants of that time – even the bathhouses, so important to daily life under the Muslims, were shut and bathing was banned by the new rulers. But there was one remnant they could not remove.
Elvira is the street of the Magreb. In the very heart of the city, it runs parallel to the main avenue of Gran Via de Colon. It is where the modern Arab and Berber influence is strongest.
At its western end there are schwarma holes-in-the-wall and stores selling Moroccan wares: women in headscarves hold hands and laugh in Arabic, while Germans in tight jeans and shirtless Spaniards on bikes move past.
In the streets peeling off, the sound of running water mixes with Arabic music and Katie Melua. These are the haunts of backpackers: in cafes lit by Moroccan lanterns, young Europeans and North Americans swap stories over beer. There is a hippie vibe: shawls and earth-coloured skirts, candles and Buddha statues.
But at the eastern end, near where Elvira reaches Reyes Catolicos, where the statue of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus sits, the area is becoming gentrified. Here more affluent tourists come to pay good money to eat well.
This is how I meet Mustafa, the gregarious owner of two Moroccan restaurants, a man who spends his days surrounded by Turkish tourists and American poets. He invites me to have paella with him, to talk politics and travel — and of course food.
For the most visible legacies of Al Andalus are in architecture and food: where the people live and what they eat. Food was always the great mixer of cultures, differences of ideology collapsing over the dinner table.
Much of the food in the south of Spain would not have existed without Islamic influence: the Arabs brought to Europe across the Strait of Gibraltar the use of paprika and almonds; they brought the concept of three-course meals and an abundance of pastries. Even that most Spanish of dishes, paella, would not have been possible had the Arabs not brought the cultivation of rice, or the saffron that gives the dish its trademark yellow colour.
But Mustafa tells me another story that illustrates the ebb and flow of cultures. He brings me a plate of bastella, a flaky pastry made with chicken, toasted almonds and eggs.
“This is what they used to eat in Granada, but when the Arabs were kicked out, they went to Fez,” he says.
“I am from Fez – in Fez, we make it with pigeon, not chicken. But bastella was forgotten in Granada after the Reconquista and was only discovered by Spanish pastry makers just in the last twenty years, when the Moroccans started to come.” The Moroccans have brought back the Spaniard’s own heritage.
It is Friday night, my last night in Granada, and I am tired of old rocks and stones. An Italian traveller tells me about a particularly good tapas place, hidden among the bars and restaurants that pepper the university district.
I wander the streets south and west of Plaza Trinidad, where everyone is young, Spanish and celebrating the end of their studies. Places where the names of dead men stay in books and the young murmur their own narratives, consumed with no legacies but their own. I never find the tapas place.
That, I think now, was just another rumour.