A visit to Andalusia

David Tresilian , Tuesday 18 Jan 2022

Memories of Al-Andalus — mediaeval Muslim Spain — are very much alive in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia today, as David Tresilian discovers


Once ruled by its own Umayyad caliphs and then by successive dynasties based either in North Africa or in cities in southern Spain, Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, began with the conquest of much of the peninsula by Arab forces in the eighth century CE and ended with the final expulsion of its Muslim population in 1492.

During this period of some seven centuries, Spain’s Muslim regions grew and then declined in size, reaching their greatest extent in the 10th century before shrinking by the late 15th to the single city of Granada in the south of the peninsula and the region that still bears the name of Andalusia today.

It is the major cities of Andalusia, among them Cordoba, Granada, and Seville, that are now most associated with Muslim Spain. Anyone visiting them today will at once be struck by the architectural and other memories of this period in Spanish history, along with the ways in which these memories, blended later with Christian rule, have produced a strikingly thought-provoking historical layering of civilisations.

Surviving Arab palaces jostle for space with palaces from Spain’s later Golden Age, former Islamic mosques house Christian churches, and the buildings of one civilisation are refunctioned by another, all against the background of a region that is also famous for its later history and its quintessentially Spanish art de vivre.

Starting out in Granada during what turned out to be a travel window before the spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19 began to see restrictions re-introduced Europe-wide, Al-Ahram Weekly tour of the region late last year took in the main Arab tourist sites, with Granada itself and above all the Alhambra Palace Complex in the hills above it providing an ideally atmospheric introduction.

Moving from Granada to Cordoba to Seville, sometimes using public transport, sometimes driving on the region’s excellent roads, the tour was an opportunity both to discover why this Spanish region has become one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations and to find out more about Muslim Spain and its links with neighbouring North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the wider Arab world.

THE ALHAMBRA: While most of the palaces of the mediaeval rulers of the Arab world have long since disappeared leaving only written accounts of their magnificence behind, the Alhambra Palace Complex outside Granada still survives as striking testimony to the domestic architecture of the ruling dynasties of the western part of the mediaeval Arab world.

Mostly built in the 13th and 14th centuries with various additions and reconstructions since, the palace complex gives visitors some idea of the private lives of Spain’s mediaeval Arab rulers. Much has to be left to the imagination, but following the visitor circuit through the interconnected buildings of the Alhambra, it is possible to get a sense of how people might have lived many centuries ago.

The modern complex is well organised for visitors — it sees some two and a half million in a normal year — and the arrival point is a ticketing area leading into the Alhambra itself overlooking the surrounding city. Access from Granada is perhaps best carried out by local taxi, the Weekly’s solution, but there are also buses serving the area. Arriving at the Alhambra around midday with visitor numbers already beginning to swell despite far fewer than in a normal (pre-Covid) year, it was just as well that our tickets had already been booked in advance together with the services of a local guide.

Built on a spur in the hills surrounding Granada, the Alhambra is composed of a set of buildings within a high-walled fortress, with these buildings having been built by different rulers, at first Muslim and later Christian, and each having its own particular form. They include above all the Nasrid Palaces, named after Granada’s mediaeval Nasrid Dynasty, which include such well-known spaces as the Court of Myrtles, the Hall of the Ambassadors, and the Court of Lions, built under the 14th-century Nasrid ruler Muhammad V.

As British Arabist Robert Irwin notes in his guide to the Alhambra, debate continues on how many of these spaces were originally used. Some of the uncertainty is reflected in the names that have attached to them, with the Court of Lions, for example, being named after the stone lions supporting a central fountain. While the Hall of the Ambassadors was unmistakably an audience chamber, Irwin writes, surrounding rooms off the Court of Myrtles could have had all manner of functions from offices to bedrooms.

“We simply do not know how this place was inhabited,” Irwin writes, adding that “it was not all that common for rooms in Islamic palaces to have specialised functions,” and their use may have been defined as occasion arose. While today the rooms are bare, they would originally have been “lavishly furnished with carpets, cushions, and hangings”, as perhaps suggested in descriptions of palaces in the Thousand and One Nights.

Many of the interior spaces of the Nasrid Palaces are decorated with characteristic Islamic tilework and carved stucco panels bearing inscriptions from the Quran and the 14th-century Andalusian poets Ibn Al-Khatib and Ibn Zamrak. “Wall hangings were designed to resemble stucco panels and vice versa,” Irwin writes, and “the stucco work often makes play with the polyphonic music of decorative interlace, as strap work is made to seem as if it is weaving over and under itself to cover the wall surface.”

Alhambra of course is a version of the Arabic word al-hamra, meaning red, with the reddish colour of many of the complex buildings, particularly the fortified outer walls, perhaps explaining the name. However, even those able to read Arabic fluently might have difficulty deciphering the decorative script used in many of the Alhambra inscriptions, even supposing that the mediaeval poetry can be readily understood by modern audiences.

Some of the inscriptions are readily understandable — the Nasrid device la ghalib ila allah — there is no victor but God — appears in decorative panels throughout the complex — but others are more challenging for beginners to understand.

Everyone will have their favourite memories of the Alhambra, and the Weekly was lucky, visiting in the winter months and in a highly unusual year, to be almost alone in some of the complex’s most iconic spaces. Perhaps the most memorable part of the whole experience, though, was the adjoining gardens leading to the Generalife, a summer palace built by the Nasrid rulers to the east of the Alhambra Complex.

These were blooming even in the weak winter sunshine, and from them there are marvellous views to be had of the Alhambra and of the city of Granada below.