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Although I initially planned to go to Valencia this week, I decided to head to Toledo instead. As the former Visigothic capital of their Imperium Hispaniae and one of the most important Muslim cities in al-Andalus, the pull of this city’s history is hard to resist. Its historical value is amplified by the fact that this was the first major Muslim city to fall to the Christian conquista movement in 1085…making it the place where it all began! The city’s Jewish city is also immensely significant, and I cannot think of a better place to spend the 520th anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain than in Toledo’s historic synagogue. Valencia will have to wait!
So I was a bit bored today in Granada and decided to head to the coast for some fresh air and sunshine. I ended up going to Salobreña, not a hugely important town historically but that definitely does not take away from its beauty. The town served as the summer residence of the Nasrid sultans of Granada and the destination for exiled princes and imprisoned scions of the royal family. As a town, it is quite small (I saw everything there is to see in less than 2 hrs) but the beach is a great place to relax and enjoy the Mediterranean breeze.
This is Morocco as viewed from Spain. The two countries are so close, the Straits (at this narrow point) appear merely as waterway dividing an otherwise singular landmass. No wonder this frontier was crossed so easily back and forth during the medieval period. As a medieval Andalusi poet once said: “It is as if the Ocean were a pavement for our steeds with the seaweed bearing the chargers up as if the two shores were joined together, and all had become a single causeway to tread”
The first day of Ramadan (yesterday) in Granada was quite surreal. Ramadan was the very month in which Islam reached Spain and thus has a very special significance. As I waited for the sun to go down at the Mirador of San Nicolas in the Albayzin, I observed a beautiful sight: the Alhambra and the remainder of Granada under the sunset. The view reminded me of one of Ibn Zamrak’s poems:
The Sabika Hill sits like a garland on Granada’s brow
In which the stars would be entwined,
And the Alhambra is the ruby set above the garland.
Granada is a bride whose crown is the Alhambra and whose jewels and adornments are its flowers
Magrib prayer and iftaar was an amazing experience as well. The beauty of having the opportunity to pray my first Ramadan prayer in Granada aside, the hospitality and the excellence of the Muslims at the Mezquita de Granada simply made this experience all the more meaningful. I broke my fast with indigenous Spanish Muslims, Moroccan and Tunisian Muslims, German Muslims, and a few American converts to Islam. The diversity of the community and the unity of their purpose and values was beautiful to behold. Alhamdulilah once again for this amazing privilege of being here.
I cannot neglect to mention one additional aspect of this experience, which touched me even more as a historian of Islamic Spain. Less than 20 meters away from the Mezquita de Granada lies the Iglesia de San Nicolas which, like all the churches in Granada (and much of Andalusia), was once a mosque. This particularly site, however, had added significance because this particular building’s transformation into a church coincided with the major transformation in Spanish policy/society in the medieval period, from one of uneasy accomodationism (of non-Christian communities) to one of aggressive and forced conversion. By 1502, Islam as a public religion was extinguished within Castile: fasting, the adhan, prayer, and even uttering the shahadah all became punishable (or even capital!) offenses. In 1567, even speaking Arabic, “dressing like a Muslim,” and the zambra/flamenco dance (all marks of Hispano-Muslim culture) were outlawed. The fact that there lies a mosque right across from the Iglesia de San Nicolas from which the adhan is declared loudly and a large, thriving community of Muslims exists is, in itself, a miracle and a sign of God’s mercy. Exactly 400 years ago (in 1612), when the last crypto-Muslims were expelled from Granada…this reality was absolutely unthinkable. The sound of the Qur’an emanating from the Mezquita during tarawih prayer, the churchbells of San Nicolas, and the loud utterances of the flamenco musicians on the plaza outside all intermingle freely in the Mirador de San Nicolas…and in my opinion, nothing could be more beautiful. Even the Alhambra sparkles happily, as if in agreement at this reality. As for me, seeing and being in the midst of all this I cannot help but feel a sense of contentment and satisfaction. Alhamdulilah.
The Alcazar (from the Arabic al-Qasr meaning palace) is the royal residence of the kings of Spain. The building still serves the same function for King Juan Carlos II, who stays in the Alcazar whenever he is in Sevilla. The Alcazar is considered a World Heritage Site, like many other extraordinary pieces of architecture in Spain, and is magnificent to behold. It is one of Spain’s lesser known sites, since most visitors often consider the Alhambra or the Mezquita to be more significant. However, the Alcazar is not only an amazing piece of work in its own right, but even rivals the Alhambra as a palace. The palace is built almost entirely in Hispano-Muslim style and, in many ways, resembles the Alhambra. Thus, there is a natural tendency to assume that this was a palace built by and for Muslims. This is both right and wrong. Yes, the palace was initially constructed in the taifa period and served as the royal residence of the Banu ‘Abbad dynasty, whose most famous son was al-Mu’tamid (the poet-prince). However, in its current form, the building was commissioned by a Christian king, Pedro I of Castile, in the late fourteenth century. Pedro (or Peter) hired a number of Muslim artisans and architects from among his own population in the kingdom of Castile, but also some from the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, to work on the palace. Interestingly, some of the very same artisans who worked on constructing and beautifying the Alhambra were also those who worked on the Alcazar, hence the similarities. Also worth noting is that Pedro I was a close friend and ally of Muhammad V, the Nasrid sultan who commissioned the major parts of the Alhambra palaces(Patio de los Leones, etc.) which have become the hallmarks of the structure. The building itself also integrates northern Spanish influence. As such, the building itself–in addition to underscoring the power and legitimacy of Pedro I–is also a demonstration of the medieval Spanish “convivencia” (or coexistence) in which various cultures interacted with one another and formed different parts of a unique whole. These are just some pictures of this fascinating building.
Another interesting place in Sevilla was the Casa Pilatos, a Castilian noble estate. It’s only one example of the remaining mansions/palaces from the Middle Ages which the nobility used to own…it really gives one the impression of how (rich and powerful) people lived in the medieval and early modern people. It was built during the fifteenth and sixteenth century in a magnificent fusion of Italian Renaissance and Mudejar-style architecture.
Museo de Bellas Artes
Sevilla is a very famous art city, having produced some very prominent artists and architects over the centuries. This is the art gallery, one of my more favorite places in the city. There were literally hundreds of incredible paintings, but I will upload only those which struck me as the most interesting (mostly Christian art from the Middle Ages)
It’s been over a week since my three-day trip to Sevilla but I still feel that the experience is fresh in my mind. To sum up: Sevilla was possibly one of the most interesting, fun, and meaningful places I have visited. I have very little hesitation in saying that I thought it was far more intriguing than Cordoba. I had the opportunity to visit a variety of places: the Royal Palace, several cathedrals, the Giralda, several museums, in addition to a number of other sites. One thing about Sevilla that immediately caught my attention was the way in which the Roman legacy in Spain exerts itself so powerfully…a legacy which is actively promoted, almost to the exclusion of the Muslim heritage (which is, unfortunately, relegated to a far minor position than is just). Anyways, ranting about the downplaying of Muslim heritage is not my intention here (that’s what books are for!). Here are a few snapshots with a little description of the places I visited while in Sevilla.
Catedral de Santa Maria/Giralda
This used to be the former Grand Mosque of Sevilla, but in 1248 was reconsecrated as a catehdral, not unlike all the other grand mosques across Spain which were converted into Christian use following a city’s conquest. The minaret is particularly interesting, since it was constructed in 1198 by the Almohads to commemorate their victory at Alarcos against the kingdom of Castile-Leon. Its massive size and structure scream victory! Interestingly, it has a twin–almost identical–at the Kutubia mosque in Marrakesh (Morocco). Today, the Giralda is a belltower but still has the same grandeur and powerful demeanor as it had in Islamic times. The Catedral itself is the burial site of Fernando III, the patron saint of Sevilla, who was the conqueror of most of al-Andalus (including Cordoba and Sevilla) in the early thirteenth century. It is also the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. The remains of Christopher Columbus are also interred here.
Iglesia del Salvador
This was another of the major mosques in Sevilla which was converted into a cathedral in the thirteenth century. It screams to the power of the Christian faith and, like many churches in Spain, has a very counter-Reformation touch to it.
Sevilla is one of the oldest inhabited cities in Spain. As such, it has a very long history and also a very rich present, serving as the capital of the autonomous province of Andalusia. Much of its reputation (and wealth) is due to its importance in Roman times, its central importance in al-Andalus, and its importance as the center from which Spain controlled its vast empire in the Americas.