The Revival of Granada
Four nights in Granada. Four nights in what would become one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited to date. This is the most time we spent in any of the three cities we visited in Andalusia. Granada impressed me within minutes of arriving into the city. I felt a similar sense of excitement when I arrived Istanbul.
It’s hard to even begin writing about Granada, as there is so much that cannot be left out. From the historical Albayzin district, to the hallowed ground that is the Alhambra, to tense relationship between Isabella’s looming presence and the vibrant Muslim population that rejuvenates the city’s old identity. But I’ll give it a try.
Before arriving in Granada I had read about how Granada had a significant presence of Muslims, particularly Moroccan Muslims. They dominated the city’s shopping districts and restaurants with beautifully adorned teahouses and souvenir shops. My goal was to try as many teahouses as we had time to try. Granada’s famous Albayzin district, or as it is now called Albaicin, is as preserved as can be with its old cobblestone streets and shopping culture. A less hectic Khan El Khalili, it served as the main area of commerce in its hayday under the Nasrid rulers.
We spent a great deal of our time there when we weren’t sightseeing. From cheap kababs to mid-range and expensive Moroccan restaurants, to great tasting tea, there is no shortage of food options there. Some of the best food we had in Spain, was in that very district. Sitting in the ornate, proudly designed teahouses that look like they’re from a better century, I consciously try to imagine myself back in that time.
It was pure coincidence, and out of cost and convenience that we found ourselves in Granada on a Friday. It wasn’t until we booked our transportation and accommodations that we noticed we would be spending our Friday in the city with the greatest Muslim presence and most preserved Islamic history out of the three we visited. We planned to spend our Friday praying juma at the first mosque to be built in Granada since the 1400s; the Mezquita Mayor de Granada. Built in 2003, it sits atop one of the mountains overlooking the city below, and even more impressively, it sits directly across the Alhambra.
The mosque is not large, but the property is gorgeous and serves as a testament to the Andalusian style. There is an open courtyard with a small garden and a fountain in the middle. Marble-laden pathways allow you to walk in the midst and at the end of it, an unobstructed view of the Alhambra. On the inside the mosque is clean and the walls covered with alternating wood and marble, and wall hangings of God’s and the Prophet’s names. The mihrab, much in line with most of Andalusia, follows the horseshoe design famous in the region, as we saw in Cordoba.
The mosque filled for Friday prayer, both with locals and tourists alike. For the first time ever, I got to hear a Friday sermon in Spanish. The speaker gave the sermon first in Arabic, followed by Spanish. After juma, locals and tourists alike, lingered in the courtyard enjoying the weather, the garden and the views while drinking coffee and cold beverages sold at the mosque.
We spent the remainder of our day touring the Alhambra. For almost four hours we walked through the Gardens, known as the Generalife, the Nasrid palaces and the fortress. One of the last remaining jewels of Muslim architecture and presence in Andalusia, it sits above all, looking down at the city it once ruled.
The Nasrid palaces were most impressive with the extreme attention to detail across all the walls, the reflection pools in the courtyards surrounded by gardens and orange trees. As we walked from one section to another, we kept seeing more and more examples of the beautiful Islamic architecture of Andalusia. I noticed something however, unlike other palaces like it. There was this sorrowful ambiance to the palace. Most visitors were very quiet, and even though most sections were full of people, the general volume was low. Most sections and rooms lacked any descriptions of what they represented or were used for, and despite the beauty of what we were seeing, the palaces felt hollow.
Tour guides walking by can be heard explaining much of what we saw, but without a tour group you’re left to wonder what happened here. I draw a comparison between this and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Topkapi was full of life, tourists can be heard everywhere, almost as if the palace was still in use today. Every room, hallway, and relic accompanied by a detailed, even proud description of what it represents. Perhaps this may be because Topkapi remains under the custodianship of the descendants of Ottomans. Turkey may be a secular republic, but Ottoman history is still their own. And within the secular republic, there are still many who carry pride of their Ottoman past.
Spain on the contrary, see themselves as the conquerors of the occupants of the Alhmabra. For them, it may be nothing more than a tourist attraction, a residence of a previous empire. Even though Spanish rulers like Carlos V have their own additions to the palace, the main points of attraction lie in the Nasrid contributions and those rulers before. For centuries the Alhambra was neglected, parts destroyed, and at times occupied by squatters until the past century or so, when serious restoration projects began along with the revival of Andalusian history. The stark contrast between Topkapi and Alhambra can be seen in the attitude towards history from the perspective of inheritors and the perspective of destructive conquerors.
However even within itself, Granada has many contrasts. From an old Nasrid school directly across the Royal Chapel, where Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand are buried; to the Muslim restaurants and teahouses of the Albayzin district and the curbside bars and restaurants with pork hanging in the windows; to the new Mosque looking across to the old Alhambra.
It’s only befitting that this young mosque, a representation of a bright future, looks directly across at the Alhambra as a constant reminder of its past.