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Granada, Alhamra and a love affair


I must have been less than ten years old when I first heard of Alhamra and Granada. PTV’s drama serial Shaheen, which was based on Nasim Hijazi’s novel, had captured my young imagination. Badr bin Mughira was perhaps my first childhood hero. I wanted to grow up like him – a handsome and chivalrous warrior – concerned with the tragedy of Muslim downfall and in love with Rabia, whose beauty eclipsed that of Alhamra! Such were the days.

Some twenty years later I was walking in the same gardens where Badr and Rabia might have bid their farewell. I was standing in the same halls where treacherous Abu Dawud and incompetent Abu Abdullah might have decided the fate of Granada and its people. But then I had grown out of the spell of Hijazi’s historical-fictional narrative and dreams of Badr and Rabia had long been forgotten. Then, I was a graduate student at a university near Valencia. Therefore, my reasons for being in Spain were completely educational. I continued to become a student of Islam and Muslim societies with a special interest in Spain. I also took up Classical Arabic which now helps me to read the walls of Alhamra on my own. I was becoming a scholar who began to question romantic narratives of selected Muslim past created and propagated by writers like Hijazi.

Still, the first time I laid eyes on Alhamra from the opposing hill I was spellbound. Yes, some childhood memories remained etched in my mind but overall it was the magic of the structure’s wondrous presence. As I explored Alhamra the following day, I completely fell in love with the jewel of Granada. I have been fortunate enough to have visited the Alhamra three times and I have learnt much to appreciate its history and significance for the past and present.

Granada was the seat of Nasrid dynasty (1238-1492) of Moors, a term which was normally used to describe Arabs from North Africa or Muslims in general in Spain. Granada had become the most important city-state after the fall of Cordoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248 at the hands of the armies of Spanish monarchs. The holy alliance of Queen Isabel I of Castile and King Fernando of Aragon finally defeated the kingdom of Granada in 1492 – the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Its humiliated king, Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII (1460-1527) left for Morocco in exile. The city of Granada or Gharnata as it is known in the Muslim world and as it had existed in my own memory, invokes mixed feelings for many people. On the one hand it represents the height of Muslim power and prestige in Spain, while on the other, it represents its downfall.
Beginning in 1238, the construction of the Alhamra palace, fortifications to the existing castle, and gardens took about a century to complete. – Photo by Aurangzeb Haneef/
Granada was both a pride and humiliation for the Muslims, and a prize for Catholic monarchs of Spain. Situated in fertile valleys by Sierra Nevada Mountains and not very far from the Mediterranean, Granada was ideal for a secure and prosperous living. Moorish rule brought it to new heights. In popular Spanish memory Granada came to hold a rather romanticised vision. The Spanish saying goes: “Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada,” meaning that one who has not seen Granada has not seen anything. Poets wrote about it, singers sang about it, and travelers walked about it.

If Granada was a prize, then Alhamra was its most precious possession. For centuries the Nasrid palace and the adjacent gardens have been a source of inspiration for artists, musicians, lovers, and historians. In the 19th century Washington Irving helped to revive the popularity of Granada in the wider Western world through his still published travelogue: Tales of Alhamra. A late nineteenth century composition in Spanish guitar called Memories of Alhamra (Recuerdos de la alhambra) is a very enchanting composition that captures the Continuous Bliss (Arabic: al- ghibta al-muttasila) inscribed on the walls of the palace. On one of the towers of the castle of Alhamra, the words of Mexican poet Icaza stand true:

Spare him a penny, woman! For I cannot call to mind

A sadder fate for a human than to be in Granada – and blind!

Alhamra is situated strategically on a hill overlooking the city of Granada. Beneath the trees at the base of the hill flows river Darro. It makes a pathway along one of its sides which is lined with shops, bars and restaurants. There are two theories about the name of Alhamra. First is that the hill appeared reddish due to the colour of its soil. The materials used for the construction of the complex also gave it a red look from a distance. Second theory is that the builders of Alhamra, the Nasrids belonged to the family of one al-Ahmar (most red one) from which the name was acquired. Whatever the real reason was, the name Alhamra has stuck. Spaniards spell it with a ‘b’: Alhambra.

The Alhamra complex constitutes the Nasrid Palace, the Castle and the Gardens. Beginning in 1238, the construction of the palace, fortifications to the existing castle, and gardens took about a century to complete. Amendments and additions were constantly made until 1492.

Before Alhamra, the Nasrid court was located on the facing hill called Albaicín. The name is perhaps a distortion of Arabic al-baziyyun or al-baizin meaning the Falconers. One is immediately reminded of a Hijazi’s Shaheen which lamented the fall of the last Muslim state of Granada in Spain. A less interesting theory points the origin of this name to the people of Baeza who fled from the invading Christian armies and settled in some parts of this hill.

The old quarters of Albaicín were housed mostly by Muslim and Jewish citizens who worked with the Moorish Court until the re-conquest by Christian armies. The highest tower is that of the Church of San Nicholas whose mirador is a popular visiting point from which one can appreciate the distant architecture of Alhamra. Albaicín was also declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

If Islamic architecture is to be distinguished by one thing only, it would be the arches. And in Alhamra there are plenty. One after another – a never ending sequence – of all sizes, adorned with ever-changing patterns but never seeming sudden or out of place – always in synch with each other. A continuous bliss of arches! Walking through these one tends to lose any sense of direction and time.

Granada, Alhamra and a love affair By Aurangzeb Haneef .The writer is a faculty member at LUMS.

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