So although I’ve only been here for four days, the initial shock of being in the famed Gharnatah/Granada has by now worn off. Now, I usually just spend my days strolling between the Great Cathedral (sadly, the shocking realization that this used to be the Grand Mosque of Granada has NOT worn off!) and the Alhambra. I’ve drunk (coke) and eaten (free tapas) at almost every single bar in the city by this point, walked the labyrinthine streets and roads of the Albayzin (former Muslim district), and smoked hookah while having an intensive conversation with another Arab gentleman about al-Andalus in which Spanish, Arabic, and English were interwoven with each other under the shade of the Alhambra. Dei gratia (by God’s grace), I’ve managed to find a great apartment in the Realejo district of the city, which is close to the city-center and (another sad fact) which used to be the heart of the Jewish community of Granada before they were expelled in 1492. It’s an amazingly furnished place, quite spacy, and fairly cheap. The city itself has a very divided personality with the Realejo and Centro districts being very European and Renaissance cities, while the Sacromonte/Albayzin/Alhambra areas are very very Islamic cities. Even the newly-constructed Mezquita de Granada–where I will be going for Friday prayers–is located on a very steep hill in the heart of the Albayzin district and it is in the Albayzinthat the modern Muslim population–like their forebears in the medieval period–are concentrated.
As a student of Granadan history, every single alley, hill, and church carries immense significance and symbolism. One of the reasons I enjoy walking around the town is to imagine how a local Muslim, a Christian conqueror, or a foreign merchant would have experienced the city hundreds of years ago. Also, as a historian, it is quite sad to contemplate that at one point Granada was the largest and grandest city in Spain, but today is largely reduced to a backwater tourist town. On the bright side, however, the Universidad de Granada provides some of the strongest continuities with the Islamic period and–as the description of the university itself proudly declares—it was built upon the foundations of the Madrasa of Granada (where so many great Islamic scholars were educated) and the books captured from Islamic territory in both Spain and North Africa provided the very first entries in its libraries. I’ve had the delight of speaking and discussing with some of the most prominent scholars of al-Andalus since arriving here…and I really cannot wait to start exploring the actual sources, written by the very pens of those individuals which made Islamic civilization flourish in the medieval period.
Only two things have annoyed me since I’ve been here. 1-the tourguides who go out of their way to distort Granada’s Islamic history and even its Christian history for the sake of fanciful myths, and 2-the tendency of everyone and everything to simply shut down between 1-4 in the afternoon (the traditional siesta). This is why I have time to write this long blog piece…there was literally NOTHING else to do, everywhere was closed .
One of the most challenging aspects of my trip will be to gaze upon the many beautiful cathedrals and churches in Spain while realizing they were once mosques (or synagogues). For various reasons, this is not always the easiest reality to reconcile oneself to, but nevertheless I promise myself that I will appreciate the architectural and religious beauty of all these buildings as they currently stand, while acknowledging that the foundations of these buildings often have a dark history (in addition to being transformed mosques or built atop razed mosques, they were often funded from funds extorted from the Muslim community and/or with Muslim slave labor). The Iglesia de Santa Ana is one such example and was built in the Islamic style atop what used to be main mosque of the Albayzin. The transformation of the building was a key factor in the Muslim uprising of 1499 which eventually led to the forcible conversion to Christianity of all the Muslims of the kingdom of Granada by 1501 (and the rest of Castile by 1502). The current structure dates from a little later in the 16th century. One interesting aspect of “mosque-to-church” structures, or Christianized Islamic spaces is the prominence of the Blessed Virgin since her image and symbol was deemed by missionaries and priests to ease the process of conversion for many Muslims, given her importance in the Qur’an and traditional Muslim devotionalism.
Although I will definitely miss Madrid–an incredible city by any standards–I’m really excited for the next leg of my trip: Andalucia! Heading for Granada tomorrow…decided to take the bus, not the train, so as not to miss any beautiful scenery in the countryside.