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.
Today I came back from my day trip to Guadix, some 40 kilometers northeast of Granada. As the hometown of the Andalusi philosopher Ibn Tufayl and a significant town during the Nasrid era, I figured it was worth a visit. Although the countryside around it was absolutely stunning and the town itself seemed rather interesting, it was nothing extraordinary. In fact, I was a bit disappointed by several things. Firstly, everything seemed to be closed (especially the cathedral and the Muslim fortress!). Also, the town seemed to be crumbling somehow…maybe because of the financial crisis (?), but it definitely seemed a rather gloomy place. I definitely didn’t regret it when the bus heading back to Granada arrived! OK, I’m being a bit harsh on the town (possibly because I’m blinded by the radiance of the other towns and expected this to be no different)…but you all get the point. If the pictures are any indication, it isn’t bad at all; I think I’m just bitter that I couldn’t enter the cathedral or fortress 🙂
Earlier this week, I had the chance to visit Almuñécar…a very small town on the southern coast, directly south of Granada. For many, this town is relatively unknown and probably unimportant. However, it was actually the landing spot of ‘Abd al-Rahman I, founder of the Umayyad dynasty in Spain. The town actually has erected a statue of ‘Abd al-Rahman to commemorate the 1250th anniversary of his landing in Spain. It was an incredibly nice memorial to a man who essentially forged Islamic Spain…he established its borders, built the mosque of Cordoba, adopted the Maliki madhab, and encouraged the policy of tolerance towards Jews and Christians in the peninsula. In so many ways, this dedication to his memory is very fitting. (Although, ofcourse, many Muslims may take issue with the figurative representation).
Many may know him by his title “Saqr Quraysh” (The Falcon of Quraysh). Here is what his primary enemy, Abu Ja’far al-Mansur (Abbasid caliph) had to say about him:
“The falcon of Quraysh is indeed Abd al-Rahman, who escaped by his cunning the spearheads of the lances and the blades of the swords, who after wandering solitary through the deserts of Asia and Africa, had the boldness to seek his fortune without an army, in lands unknown to him beyond the sea. Having naught to rely upon save his own wits and perseverance, he nonetheless humiliated his proud foes, fought rebels, organized cities, mobilized armies, secured his frontiers against the Christians, founded a great empire and reunited under his scepter a realm which seemed already parcelled out among others. No man before him ever did such deeds. Mu’awiya rose to his stature through the support of Umar and Uthman, whose backing allowed him to overcome difficulties; Abd al-Malik, because of previous appointment; and the Commander of the Faithful [i.e. al-Mansur himself] through the struggle of his kin and the solidarity of his partisans. But Abd al-Rahman did it alone, with the support of none other than his own judgment, depending on no one but his own resolve.”
The town was also one of the last strongholds in Islamic Spain, holding out until the very end. It’s fortress and the Mediterranean coast were some of its other attractions. All in all, one of the more tranquil experiences of the trip.
I’ll be heading to Sevilla/Ishbiliyya this weekend God-willing. It was essentially the second-most important city in al-Andalus (some would say THE most important after the decline of Cordoba in the 11th century), with it being one of the most important taifa kingdoms in the 11th century and the Almohad dynasty making it their capital in the twelfth century. It was conquered in 1248 by the Kingdom of Castile-Leon, with the assistance of a military force of 500 knights provided by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar, the emir of Granada and the founder of the Nasrid dynasty. Yes, extremely ironic. The dynasty which would resist the Christian conquest of al-Andalus for the next 270 years was the very same one which played a (key?) role in the fall of Cordoba and Sevilla to those very forces. The entire population of Seville was evacuated following the city’s conquest and settled in Granada (another irony!), establishing the Albayzin district. The entire episode is one of the odd twists and turns of history. Anyways, the modern city abounds with history from the Spanish Empire, the Renaissance, as well as the Islamic period, which should make this a fun experience! Also, Christopher Columbus is buried there. History aside, I also hear it’s an awesome and fun town with amazing nightlife and lively Flamenco…even more reason to go. Probably will spend the entire weekend there.
Thankfully, I had the opportunity to visit the former great mosque-turned-cathedral while in the city. At one point, it was actually the largest mosque on earth and was modeled upon the Prophet’s mosque in Medina. For various reasons, it is extremely important in the history of al-Andalus. It was certainly an interesting experience, which I may describe in more depth later. For now, enjoy the pictures!