A Guide to Visiting Granada
At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Spain’s Andalusia province, sits the historic city of Granada. For almost 250 years, between 1238 and 1492, the city, then part of the Nasrid Kingdom, stood as the last remaining Muslim stronghold in the peninsula. Under the Nasrids, it became a hub for economic prosperity, cultural influence and intellectual development.
A Brief History
Muslims first appeared in Granada in 711 AD, several centuries before its ‘golden age’ initiated by Mohammed ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr, who founded the Emirate in 1230. Granada’s Muslim identity took shape following the collapse of Muslim Cordoba and Seville to the Catholic armies in the north. With the stellar Alhambra watching over it, it became one of the richest cities in Europe, replete with intellectuals, artisans, and traders.
Like with many empires throughout history, infighting would eventually lead to the collapse of the Nasrid Dynasty, and the Catholic Monarchs of the north, who were able to take full advantage of their weakened state, finally put an end to the last remaining Muslim Emirate. Granda was surrendered in 1492.
My wife and I were in Cordoba for two nights prior to arriving in Granada. We spent 10 days touring the three major cities that comprised Al-Andalus. This was our first trip to Spain, and we made it a priority to visit the Andalusian south over the typical stops of Madrid or Barcelona. Granada captured our hearts from the moment we arrived. As I imagined it would have been like in the old Nasrid Kingdom, the streets were bustling with ornate shops with an inviting ambience late into the night. Both tourists and locals shopped around the city, particularly in the historic Albayzín (or Albaicin) district, and dined in the many Spanish and Moroccan restaurants on offer.
The legacy of the Nasrids can be seen (and heard) around the city; in it’s architecture and historical sites, its cuisine and even parts of the language that contains numerous words derived from Arabic. Recent years have seen a revival of sorts of Granada’s Islamic heritage- a heritage that Queen Isabella and her successors had tried to bury. Alongside an increase in tourism to sites like the Alhambra, older, lesser known ones are being restored, and in the past 15 years, the city has even seen the building of two new mosques (the first in 500 years).
When we weren’t sightseeing, we spent most of our time in the Albayzín district, city’s old Arab quarter, which today is home to a sizeable Muslim population of primarily Moroccan descent (hence the many Moroccan restaurants on offer). Still maintaining the same maze of narrow streets from the Nasrid period, this lively neighbourhood is the place to be for some of the best dining, shopping, and (Moroccan) tea experiences. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its Hispano-Muslim architecture is considered some of the best-preserved in southern Spain.
The Moroccan tea houses (that we frequented as often as we could) boasted some of the most intricate geometric designs we came across in Spain. With windows and doors flung open late into the summer night, it was as though each tea house competed for customers through its extravagant decor.
Mezquita Mayor de Granada
Fortunately for us, we happened to be in Granada on a Friday, which was the perfect opportunity to visit the first mosque of the city since the late 1400s. Though built in 2003, with its traditional architectural features it could pass as a historic mosque from the Andalusian period. The building blends in pretty seamlessly with the surrounding neighborhood. We walked in just as Juma prayer was about to begin.
TIP: The best way to get to the mosque from the Gran Via de Colon, Granada’s main and busiest street, is to catch one of the many red minibuses which will take you uphill through very narrow streets until you arrive.
As we walked in, we saw a beautiful marble-laden garden with a fountain at its centre, along with an unobstructed view of the coveted Alhambra. Entering the mezquita, we were first met with its courtyard, leading us into the prayer area itself. The mosque’s attendees were a mix of international tourists as well as locals who worked nearby. The interior of the building was a mosaic of influences from around the Muslim world. The mihrab is an exact replica of the one in the Great Mosque of Cordoba; the marble tiles are identical to those at the Al-Aqsa mosque in Palestine, while the windows are a replica of those in the Sultanahmet Mosque of Istanbul. Most interesting of all, the fountain in the courtyard was designed by a master craftsman from Fes, following a millennia-old Andalusian design.
Following the sermon, which was delivered in Arabic and then repeated in Spanish, we prayed and headed to the courtyard to enjoy the view on the sunny day, while many others lingered around, enjoying cold drinks from the vending machine.
TIP: Many guides, tourists, and online recommendations will tell you to go to San Nicolas monastery for sunsets and views of the Alhambra. As it turns out, the mezquita is next to the monastery; it is far less crowded, and you get the same view of the Alhambra. However, be sure to check the opening hours for the mosque, as it is not always open and the gates for the courtyard will be locked.
There is at least one other working mosque in Granada, the Mezquita Shaykh bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, located on a side street in the Albayzin district.
Palacio de la Madraza
In the heart of Granada, immediately beside the Royal Chapel of Granada (mausoleum of Isabella and Ferdinand) and the Granada Cathedral (on the site of a Nasrid era mosque), there is the Palacio de la Madraza- a testament to the cultural fusion of the region. The building exhibits Andalusian, Mudejar, and modern-day architectural styles. Built as a school and university in 1349 by Sultan Yusuf I, it remains under the ownership of an educational institution, Granada University.
On the first floor there is a classic Andalusian style prayer hall with an intricately decorated mihrab, while Qur’anic verses and praises of God weave through the colourful mosaics. The ceiling is adorned with the classic wooden Mudejar style (post-Islamic Iberian style, strongly influenced by the Muslim period). At the time of Sultan Yusuf I, the university contained a library, bedrooms, and classrooms. The prayer hall is the only remaining room from the original structure. Under Christian rule, the room was hidden from view until restoration efforts in the 19th century.
As we made our way upstairs, we entered a modern-looking lecture hall called the Knights Room, which was used initially as a meeting room for the city council. The Mudejar style ceiling in this room is one of more notable of the period.
This is a great place to stop for only a couple of Euros and can be covered within half an hour. It is a testament to the resilience of Andalusian tradition, art and culture right in the heart of Granada, neighbouring the mausoleum of the Spanish conquerors who tried to erase it all.
Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo
A palace that predates the Alhambra, the Cuarto Real de Santo Domingo sets the architectural precedent for the fortress-complex. The Nasrid era palace (don’t let the name fool you) was built by Muhammed II from 1273-1302. Tucked away in the quiet neighborhood of Realejo-San Matias, only a fraction of the original palace remains today. As we were walking in the area, many residents seemed unaware of its existence when we asked for directions, largely because the palace was buried, figuratively and literally, until recent years. After the fall of the Nasrid Kingdom it ended up in the hands of the Catholic monarchs who then handed it off to the Dominican Order, a Catholic religious order founded by Spanish priest, Dominic de Guzman. Eventually, it fell into private hands where most of the structure was demolished.
In the last few decades, Spanish archeologists began restoration efforts to recover what little was left of the palace. A garden courtyard exists today with the intent of replicating the shape and style of the garden that existed in the Nasrid era; it is laid out on the site of the original.
Located in a residential area and with free admission, we noticed some families with children (and a few stray cats) playing in the garden. It is a beautiful, serene place to spend some time and reflect on the extensive history that has passed through this quaint part of town.
Finally, no trip to Granada is complete without its main attraction. Although the city has a lot to offer, the Alhambra is undoubtedly its crown jewel. It is the most visited monument in the entire country, with over 8,500 daily visitors. Built in the 8th century, it was the last remaining royal structure of Islamic civilisation in Western Europe, with the Nasrid Muslims as its final occupants. Its name, derived from the redness of the walls, is written along the museum entrance in Arabic: الحمراء. Along with the Albayzin district, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
The complex is massive, and one can easily get lost. A city in itself, it was expanded numerous times and each ruler left their own mark; Charles V even built his own palace within the compound in the post-Nasrid era.
We began by making our way to the Generalife, the famous gardens of the compound, consisting of flowers, a beautiful maze of carved shrubs, and fountains. We then headed towards the Nasrid palaces, the main attraction of the Alhambra. We had booked our time slot in advance online and arrived a few minutes before the scheduled time. We decided to go without a tour guide, though that option is of course available.
The palaces were breathtaking, unlike anything I had ever seen before. The extreme attention to detail, the symmetry, the beautiful Quranic verses and perfect segue of outdoor courtyards and indoor chambers. Over the centuries, the Nasrid Palaces have maintained their distinct ‘Islamic’ identity. Despite the Catholic destruction of many parts of the Alhambra, French shelling in the 1800s, and total abandonment in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Nasrid Palaces remain very much intact. They are comprised of three separate buildings, called Mexuar, the Palaces of Comares, and the Palace of the Lions.
Finally, we made our way to the oldest part of the Alhambra, Alcazaba. This is the original fortress that was built before the addition of palaces and gardens. The Nasrids used the fortress as a military base of the Royal Guard. There are several towers to climb, with each subsequent tower taller than the previous. From here, you get to see what the sultans themselves would have seen, the city of Granada in all its glory watched over by the majestic snow capped Sierra Nevada.
Four hours and 25,000 steps later, we were ready to head out. Maghrib was approaching and the Alhambra was getting ready to close. We hopped on a red minibus and headed back into town where we finished off our exhausting but awe-inspiring day with a couple of kebap sandwiches from a Palestinian owned shop in the Albayzin.
Granada has become one of my all-time favourite cities. One thing we noticed all over Andalusia, on historic sites, souvenirs, and in mosques was the phrase لا غالب إلا الله, meaning ‘There is no victor but God.’ The phrase is inscribed on the hallowed walls of the Alhambra and other palaces and mosques in Seville and Cordoba. That these structures still stand, centuries after the Muslims were expelled from Iberia, and history actively demolished and erased, is for me an affirmation of the truth of that phrase. Five centuries later, I am able to visit Granada as a Muslim. I can shop at local, Muslim-owned shops and dine at Muslim-owned restaurants. I can pray Juma at a beautiful mosque on a hilltop. I can converse with Moroccan locals in Arabic. Indeed, there is no victor but God.