After the Christians smashed the army of the Almohad caliph in 1212AD the Muslim cities of Al-Andalus were doomed to be picked off one by one. After the loss of Seville and Cordoba, Granada was the last emirate left standing. Situated in the south of the peninsula and protected on three sides by the Sierra Nevada mountains, Granada maintained its independence for a respectable 250 years before it finally surrendered to their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile in 1492.
We had come to see the Alhambra, the celebrated Nazirid palace that Granada is famous for. The Alhambra isn’t a single building but a complex of fortresses, palaces and gardens. It is so popular that tickets need to be booked ahead (although the online booking service is currently offline while contract negotiations are underway) and visits to the palace complex are carefully scheduled. If you miss you’re scheduled slot, you miss out altogether. We booked tickets the day we arrived and but could not get into the palace until 7pm the following day.
We started our visit at the Generalife, the palace garden that overlooks the Alhambra. Part of the Alhambra’s appeal is its situation. Originally built as a fortress, it sits on a dramatic rocky spur overlooking old Granada. Nevertheless, the Alhambra doesn’t look that impressive from a distance; like any other fortress really. But once you step into the Generalife gardens themselves you get a glimpse into what awaits you in the Alhambra. Ponds and fountains are arranged to provide perfectly framed vistas. It’s a photographers paradise.
I was a little surprised when we entered the Alhambra proper to find large areas were in ruin. The administrative complex, barracks and market area that once supported the palace are little more than an archaeological site with a few rather plain gardens set amongst them. There was also a hotel, carpark and a church (the mosque which stood here has of course been demolished). The remains of a bathhouse is now a sparse museum to Spanish folk music. Next to the church is the enormous baroque façade of the Palace of Charles V. From the outside it’s simply a large 16th century building and not particularly interesting. Inside however it is extraordinary. The square façade changes into an oval promenade in the centre of the building. Charles V however lived most of his life in Vienna (where he was the first Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor) so he never actually used this building and its construction was never finished. It seems like a white elephant, an attempt to outdo the adjoining Nazirid palaces but falling far short.
Next we visited the Alcazar or castle, which is the oldest part of the Alhambra. The view from the towers over Granada was impressive but there was little otherwise to see. At 7pm we joined the very long queue of visitors on the last scheduled palace tour. Despite the crowd we moved through very quickly. In the first hall everybody went crazy with their cameras but soon enough the crowd thinned allowing us to compose some decent photographs (I imagine quite a few people wandering through asking themselves what all the fuss was about). There are only a few pavilions and audience halls remaining but they are impressive for the extravagance of their decoration. Every inch of walls and ceilings are decorated with tiles and stucco work. Due to the scale of some of the rooms the photographs cannot do them the justice they deserve. The most impressive features however is the way that the pools, fountains and walls have been perfectly and deliberately aligned for the perspective of the viewer. Arcades and pavilions are mirrored for the perfect reflection. Sadly the Lion Fountain, which is a highlight of the complex, had been removed for restoration. In its place was an ugly glass case enclosing the bowl of the fountain.
As we prepared to leave the heavens opened and the rain poured down in torrents. We sat under one of the arcades watch the rain falling into the pond. It eased up just enough for the security guards to hustle everybody out of the building. Shelly was the last person to leave, holding up the guards in order to get that last perfect shot.
All in all the Alhambra is a great building and deserves its status in the top 50 buildings (and gardens) in the world. But I also think that part of the reason it is so highly rated is that it is virtually the only surviving Islamic palace complex left in the west. There were certainly bigger and better examples in Spain. The Madinat al-Zahra palace in Cordoba was possibly the most expensive and elaborate palace ever built. It had a three kilometre long arcaded entry hall, a throne room of marble and gold and its ponds were filled with liquid mercury. Unfortunately it was destroyed during a Muslim civil war and left as a forgotten ruin (excavations still continue to reveal its wonders). Other palaces elsewhere in Spain were all demolished by triumphant Christian conquerors. The only thing that saved Alhambra was Ferdinand and Isabella’s request that they be buried in the palace. Clearly they viewed the final extirpation of the Muslims of Spain as their most important achievement. In fact, that claim has pride of place on their tomb which reads something like this (excusing my poor Latin translation!): “Here lie their Catholic Majesties Ferdinand King of Aragon and Elizabeth Queen of Castile-Leon, subjugators of the Mohammedans and exterminators of the heretics.” Neither saw their wishes fulfilled. Their successors thought it unseemly that the Catholic Monarchs (as they were know) be buried in a Muslim building so they were buried in a specially made crypt in the new Granada cathedral. The chapel in which they lie is beautifully decorated with elaborate effigies. You can descend beneath the effigies to their plain lead lined coffins, along with the coffins of two daughters and their young son who was designated to be King of Portugal. Unfortunately you cannot take photos in the crypt but I managed to sneak a quick shot of the decorated gateway into the chapel.
As for the people of Granada and all Spain in fact, the final defeat of the Muslims of Al-Andalus marked a dark turning point. Alfonso V of Toledo had called himself the King of the Two Religions and was always careful to respect Muslim public opinion for if he pushed them too hard there was every chance a Muslim army would ride north from Seville and Cordoba to remind him to honour his obligations. After the fall of Seville and Cordoba after 1212, Christian rulers had less to fear from the Muslims and so the persecution was ratcheted up a notch. After 1492 there were no more Muslim armies in Spain left to fear and so the persecution swung into full gear. Although Ferdinand and Isabella had promised freedom of worship in the surrender terms they immediately reneged. Muslims and Jews were given a choice - convert to Christianity and stay, leave Spain with 60 days, or death. Most people chose conversion. But even that wasn’t enough. Catholic churchmen quickly raised concerns that Muslim and Jewish conversions ‘were not sincere’, leading their Catholic Majesties to unleash the Spanish Inquisition (nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!). Within a decade Granada’s population of 60,000 people had halved and of the 62 mosques in the city, not one remained standing.