The Jewel in the Muslim European crown

Travel Guide to Muslim Europe with travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain

Someone once said, “When you have visited the Alhambra once, you spend the rest of your life waiting to go back…”

Few phrases better sum up Europe’s most famous Islamic monument in Granada, Spain.  Yet, it is not the Alhambra per se that one is eager to return to.

For the Alhambra – from the Arabic al-qala’at al-hamra, to mean ‘red castle’ because of the red hill it is perched upon – is an entire palatial city with a mixture of monumental segments constructed by various Muslim and Christian rulers.

The section that is on the cover of every guidebook and in the mind’s eye is what might be deemed the ‘jewel’ in this Muslim European crown – The Palacios Nazares or The Nasrid Palace – that exquisite series of quarters once home to the dynasty after whom it is named. This is the Alhambra that hypnotises the visitor – the delicately balanced symmetry of the Courtyard of the Myrtles, the stunning Patio of Lions where elegantly slim pillars – resembling a forest of palms – hold aloft mesmerising, engraved arabesque arches.  Both spaces are open to the elements and use the water in ways that leave the uninitiated aghast.
“Water forms the mysterious life of the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence. Just as the Qur’an describes Paradise, “An orchard flowing with streams.””- Titus Burckhardt, German-Swiss connoisseur of Islamic art and architecture.

Then there is Comares Tower with its dazzling facade of intricate carvings and Arabic calligraphy praising God and His Messenger, and the Hall of the Kings where each honeycombed stuccoed arch resembles the one before it like a vision of infinite mirrors. It goes on and on. This is what the seekers come looking for. This is what evokes that dreamy, imagined epoch of European history we call ‘Al-Andalus’.

And yet, ironically, the city of Granada and the Alhambra only reached its own cultural zenith long after the ‘Golden Age’ of Al-Andalus had come to an end.

That age began in the early 8th century and lasted up until the middle of the 11th. It was founded by the Muslim European Umayyad dynasty, an offshoot of the Syrian-based Umayyads, centred around their capital city of Cordoba, which at its height was the most enlightened city in all of Europe.

“Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, various types of medicine, and hospitals, all came from this great city of cities.” – Prince Charles, Prince of Wales

The Alhambra was actually being built as Al-Andalus was crumbling and becoming a series of disparate feudal kingdoms – taifas, and its founder wasn’t even Muslim. The Alhambra, or a palace on the hill where the Alhambra now stands, was first built by the great Jewish scholar, poet and vizier Samuel Ibn Naghrillah at the start of the 11th century.

The Muslim rulers of Granada at the time – the Zirid sultans – lived in a palace in the Albayzin – Granada’s historic quarter. As each taifa was being slowly picked off by the Christians descending  from the north, an Arab whose family trace their roots back to Madinah, called Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Nasr, took hold of Granada in 1231.

It was Ibn Nasr that decided to make the Alhambra his family home and it was his dynasty – the Nasrids – that was responsible for its expansion, fortification and development into a palatial city, complete with a market, mosque, residential quarters, baths and gardens.

By 1264 the Nasrids were the only Muslim rulers left in Christian Iberia, and somehow for the next two and half centuries, they alone flew the flag of ‘Muslim Spain’.

This is also the era, in which Granada flourished, achieving its own cultural golden age (1344-1396); a period in which the most sumptuous parts of the palace city were also constructed.

The Alhambra remained the home of several Nasrid rulers right up until the late 15th century and the reign of Abu Abd Allah – known as ‘Boabdil’ in the West. This final Nasrid ruler was defeated by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II and Isabella I in January of 1492.

The symbolic acquisition of the keys to the Alhambra palace city that year by the Catholic Monarchs also drew to a close 781 years of Muslim rule in Spain.

For the next couple of centuries, the Alhambra was popular with various Spanish Christian monarchs, who made their own additions to the complex, including the impressive round Palace of Charles V.

However, by the time a certain American writer wandered through Granada in the spring of 1829, the Alhambra had fallen into neglect. Washington Irving came upon a decaying monument that had become the dwelling place of “a loose and lawless population: contrabandistas ….thieves and rogues of all sorts…”, and wrote about this in his seminal book, Tales of the Alhambra, released three years after his visit. The book sold well and captured the imagination of the West.

In 1870, the Spanish authorities declared the palace city of Alhambra a national monument and work began to renovate and restore it.

Then in 1984, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list as the “only preserved palatine city of the Islamic period” of Spain.

Today, the Alhambra Palace city in Granada is Spain’s premier tourist attraction and probably the most visited European Muslim monument on the continent.

Where in the world: The Nasrid Palace is inside the Alhambra Palace city atop a hill to the east of the city of Granada in southern Spain. The hill overlooks the historic district of the town known as the Albayzin.

In and out: The best way to get into Granada is either by flying into the local airport from many European cities or flying into Andalusia’s busiest hub, Malaga and getting a bus (around two hours) to Granada’s main bus terminal.

Top tips:  The finest view overlooking the Alhambra just happens to be where the city’s first purpose built mosque in five centuries sits; on a hill in the Albayzin directly opposite the palace-city. Pop along to the Mezquita de Granada to pray alongside Granada’s modern Muslim community – the largest in all of Spain, and for great photo opps of the view across to the Alhambra.


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