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Granada: City of the Red Palace

It was the Moorish conquest in 711 that made Granada an important city in southern Spain’s Andalusia – Al-Andalus, as the Muslims called the region.
Alhambra palace in Granada Spain
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Frederico Garcia Lorca, the famous Spanish poet, describes the pomegranate as hard and skull-like on the outside but containing “the blood of the wounded earth”  on the inside. Granada in Spanish means pomegranate. Did he find a similarity between the fruit and his beloved city Granada where he was born? Pomegranate was introduced in this region by the Moors from Morocco who came from across the Mediterranean Sea. The Arab race ruled the Iberian Peninsula comprising Spain and Portugal for around eight hundred years. 

Indeed, the craggy Sierra Nevada range forms a crust-like backdrop to the city while the centre is succulent with history. All this fleeted across my mind as I stood looking at the majestic Alhambra palace or the red palace, as the Moors called it. I seemed to get caught up in the mood of the mediaeval city. 

Granada has been continuously inhabited for at least 2500 years. Celts, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths all ruled here during different times. But it was the Moorish conquest in 711 that made Granada an important city in southern Spain’s Andalusia – Al-Andalus, as the Muslims called the region. The ruling Nasrid dynasty had a profound influence on its architecture, food and lifestyle and nurtured the fort-city Alhambra (Arabic for ‘the red’ due to its red walls), the most famous landmark of Granada. 

view of Granada
View of Granada from the Red Palace

As the Catholic royalty later launched ‘Reconquista’ with active support of the Papacy, Muslim towns fell one by one in Andalusia. The last one to give in was Granada in 1492 bringing an end to the Hispano-Muslim civilization. But while it lasted, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together and thrived. Art and commerce flourished.  

It was indeed an achievement to build something out of nothing; no one lived in the desolate al-Sabika hill due to lack of water.  The Sultans started building the palace in 1237 as an extension of an old Roman fort. With their knowledge of horticulture and by drawing water from the nearby Darro river through channels they greened the barren landscape. 

Another example of their skill is the Generalife (architect’s garden), a summer retreat which, along with the Alhambra, are Unesco World Heritage Sites. 

By the time the Sultans transformed it to a green abode more than a thousand people lived here. It was a privilege to live within the walled city because everything needed for a comfortable life was available there. 

Also read: Bhedaghat on Kartik Purnima

A walk around the expansive ground is proof enough. Different Muslim rulers extended the palace complexes of Alhambra but each new section followed the theme of ‘paradise on earth’. For centuries Islamic art has relied on three main components– geometric patterns, calligraphy, and vegetal patterns or motifs found in nature. 

Understandably, Arabesque, the ornamental style of decoration long associated with Arab culture, is  seen profusely at Alhambra. Arcades, fountains and pools reflecting the myrtle hedges they introduced added to the aesthetics. While the exterior was left plain and austere, inside it was another world, richly painted in blue, red, and golden yellow. Perhaps the sultans anticipated that it was going to be the swan song of their rule in Spain and poured everything from their pool of aesthetics and wealth to create something memorable for posterity. 

Arabesque work Alhambra
Intricate arabesque work at Alhambra

Locally available white Macael marble was liberally used in the construction. You can see remnants of  hammams – luxurious baths, with provision for hot and cold water and steam baths. Exquisitely patterned walls in alabaster look like fine filigree-work; stalactite ceiling decoration (muqarnas) astound you with their beauty; holy script writings in calligraphy line the walls; courtyards with water body reflecting the arcade is similar to the gardens of the Taj Mahal; a marble ‘lion square’ with a fountain in the midst of a huge courtyard ; it is really difficult to take it all in at one go. Its beauty was appreciated even by the conquering Christian kings. They did not destroy it like many conquerors do in such cases. In fact, after the Reconquista, king Peter I of Sevilla invited craftsmen from Alhambra to decorate his new palace. This gave rise to Mudejar art, a fusion of Islamic and Christian art, many examples of which can be seen in the Alhambra. 

For a long time, Alhambra remained isolated as if mourning its past. In 1829, American author Washington Irving stayed in Granada for three months and explored the palace. On his return he wrote The Tales of Alhambra and stoked the interest of travellers. Today millions of visitors come here annually. In the high season serpentine queues are to be expected. For visiting the Nasrid palace only a limited number of passes are issued at a time. So it is advisable to purchase tickets in advance which specify the time allotted for each visitor.  

Court of Lions Granada
the Court of Lions at the Alhambra Palace in Granada Spain.

Another Unesco heritage site in Granada is Albaicín lying on the opposite hill. This used to be the Muslim residential quarter. Under the Sultanate, around forty thousand people lived here and there were thirty mosques. Though Christians later moved into the houses, they retained their Moorish character fused with Andalusian architecture. The numerous courtyards with fountains (you can still drink from the taps) and the edifices are mute witnesses to the past. 

Hungry and thirsty, I opted for a local style lunch with salmorejo, a chilled tomato soup with bread crumbs, hard-boiled egg on toast with olive oil and crushed tomato, chopped onion and green pepper and fritto misto – a selection of various fish and seafood in batter, washed down with mosto, a non-alcoholic grape wine. 

courtyard at Albacin Spain
Courtyard at Albacin

One of the most interesting places in Albaicin are the caves of Sacromonte on Valparaíso hill. It’s a cluster of centuries old whitewashed caves cut into the rock. These were used as dwellings, especially as abodes of the persecuted gypsies, the set of Lorca’s evocative Gypsy Ballads. The place became a favourite with the ‘flower children’ of the 70s and onwards. Today, tourists flock here in the evening to enjoy the Zambra, the local gypsy dance. Admittedly, they too cater to those looking for an exotic experience away from their comfortable homes, seldom aware how tough life is for the local people. At the viewing point at Miradore de San Nicolás on top of the hill, guitar-playing gypsies provide a musical background to the Alhambra on the opposite hilltop while selling trinkets to the tourists. 

Albacin street market
Colourful wares at Albacin street market

The narrow Calderería Nueva street leading down to the city’s main Granada Street, Gran Via de Colon, is a delightful area for soaking in the atmosphere and having tea in traditional Moorish tea rooms called teterías. The air is vibrant and full of people. And the shops too, reminding me of an Indian bazaar with colourful skirts (some suspiciously similar to the ones sold at Janpath in Delhi), hookahs and beautiful tiles with Arabic inscriptions.

This region is also famous for the flamenco dance. So it’s a good idea to catch a show before saying farewell to this wonderful city. On my way back I  remembered the famous story of Boabdil (real name, Abu Abdallah) or  Muhammed XII, the last Nasrid king who wept as he looked back at his beloved Granada for the last time on his way to exile in Morocco. His mother, as the story goes, was less forgiving of his break-down, dismissing his sentiment with the stinging remark, “You cry like a woman over a city you couldn’t defend as a man.”

Today, the scenic A 4050 road is known as the “Moor’s Sigh” (Suspiro del Moro). His story was the take-off point for Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. 

Images courtesy: Author & Strollingearth

For more information on travel to Granada, and for booking tickets online, please visit https://www.alhambra-entradas.org

Ranjita Biswas is an independent journalist, author and translator. She is an award winning translator of fiction and has seven published works to her credit so far. She won KATHA awards thrice. Among her translated works, “Written in Tears” (Harper Collins) won the Best Translation Prize in English from Sahitya Akademi in 2017. “The Loneliness of Hira Barua” (Pan Macmillan) won the PFC-Valley of Words award in 2021. “Dawn” (Kali for Women/Zubaan), the first book she translated of Arupa Patangia Kalita, the author of these books, was also translated into Hindi. “Areca Nut Tree and Other Stories” (Vitasta, 2022) is a selection of contemporary short stories by the new age Assamese women writers. Biswas is also an award winning writer of children’s fiction.

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