Granada, Spain

The sublime Alhambra is a symbol of Granada’s glorious past and, increasingly, of its future. From tea houses to mosques, Lisa Abend observes the city’s thriving Muslim culture.
John Laurie

They say that when Boabdil surrendered Granada, even his mother felt no sympathy for him. Spain’s Muslim kingdom may have been in decline for centuries, but it was Boabdil’s name that would be forever tied to the final destruction of al-Andalus. On that day in 1492, after he was forced to kneel before the invading armies of Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to hand over the keys to the city – that last remnant of what was once the world’s most glorious civilisation – he is said to have climbed up a hill outside town and gazed on Granada’s exquisite beauty with tears in his eyes. “Do not cry like a woman for what you could not defend as a man,” his mother scoffed.

Was there ever a greater loss? Five centuries later, Granada remains a gorgeous place, traversed by tight, cobblestone streets that slope upward past whitewashed walls and shocking-pink bougainvillea to open, at the top of every sightline, onto a heart-stopping view of the Alhambra. But its beauty is precisely the thing that infuses this Andalucían city with its thin, inescapable air of melancholy. Other capitals in the region may be marked by their Baroque excess (Seville) or their populist alegría (Córdoba), but Granada is irrevocably tinged with nostalgia.

It doesn’t help that the country’s most famous modern poet, Frederico García Lorca, was assassinated here by Nationalist henchman during the Spanish Civil War, nor that the most famous lines written about it evoke suffering (“Give him alms, woman, for there is no sadder fate than to be blind in Granada”). But it was that early, tragic loss of al-Andalus’ artistry and culture and knowledge and grace that has always defined Granada, which makes it especially fitting that it is here, more than anywhere else in Spain, that Moorish culture is being reborn.

Everything in Granada begins with the Alhambra. Not technically, of course – there were Neolithic settlements here and Romans after that but, both metaphorically and actually, Granada still shimmers with the civilisation that built that glorious palace on the hill. When a Muslim army crossed the straits that divide Europe from Africa in 711 and went on to conquer the better part of the Ibérian peninsula, the kingdom they created, called al-Andalus, would become medieval Europe’s most glittering, tolerant, sophisticated culture. By the time Mohammed I ibn Nasr began construction in 1238 of the breathtaking palace that would become the Alhambra, al-Andalus had already given the world dramatic scientific discoveries, evocative literature and that peculiarly progressive notion of la convivencia – a relative harmony between Jewish, Muslim and Christian people, to say nothing of some spectacular buildings. But the Alhambra, built as a fortress city for Granada’s ruling class, surpassed them all.

Today, its delicate arches, intricate carvings and glorious mosaics still deliver one of those sucker-punches of splendour – passing through the rooms and patios, where the sound of water is always present, you find yourself breathless at the grace of it all. Yes, there are hordes of visitors gawping at the fountains and the views, mangy cats in the courtyards and that hulking addition, the Palace of Charles V, with which, in 1527, the Catholic emperor tried to trumpet his supremacy over the conquered Muslims, but none of these detract from the complex’s astonishing sublimity. Even my cab driver, Antonio, who was born and raised in Granada, can’t get enough of the place. “Tell the truth,” he says as he collects me outside the Alhambra walls. “Have you ever seen anything more beautiful in your life?”

If for native-born Granadinos like Antonio the palace-fortress and the culture it represents are a source of pride, they are something else for the thousands of Muslim immigrants who have made Granada their home in the past two decades.

“I remember when I first arrived,” says Zaid ben Ayad. “I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t have a job. But I saw the Alhambra and it felt familiar. It made me feel at home.” Originally from Tangier, ben Ayad emigrated from Morocco years ago with his sister and mother. Today the family runs a bakery on Calderería Nueva, the Pastelería Andalusí Nujaila.

It’s a small, cosy shop and it takes only a bite of one of the elaborate jewels that fill his display case to be transported to the bakery’s namesake: al-Andalus. In the crisp layers of pastry dripping with honey, the fat horns stuffed with almond paste and figs, the subtle flavourings of toasted walnuts and orange-blossom water lies a taste of this city’s past.

And its future. When I first came to Granada a couple of decades ago, in the company of a tanned, aimless hippie named Miguel whom I had met a few days earlier on a beach in Málaga, Calderería Nueva already held a couple of Moroccan tearooms. At the time, Spain seemed thoroughly white, Catholic and homogeneous, and those two places felt terribly exotic. Now the entire length of the street is lined with cafés, where waiters pour thin streams of bracingly sweet mint tea into tiny glasses when they’re not dishing out strawberry-banana smoothies and plates of French fries to the international backpacking crowd. They, and the patchouli-scented stands selling pointy-toed babouches and tin lanterns, could make you believe you had taken an accidental turn into one of Marrakech’s souks if the prices weren’t so much higher.

But there are also signs of a more authentic presence. Halal butchers and Arabic-language newspaper vendors are tucked along the street, alongside small grocers with their displays of ruby tomatoes and small bunches of herbs. In the past 15 years or so, immigration from north Africa has skyrocketed throughout Spain, bringing an estimated 570,000 Moroccans to the country in hopes of a better life. In Granada, those newcomers have helped revive a culture nearly extinguished five centuries ago.

True to Muslim tradition, Mustafa Bougrine serves no alcohol at his Restaurante Arrayanes, only delicious fresh lemonade scented with orange-blossom water. “We prefer to get you drunk on our food,” jokes Bougrine, a stout, Moroccan-born man given to verbal flourishes. And, indeed, the food – a crisp, saffron-infused pastilla that hits just the right balance of savoury and sweet, a rich lamb tagine full of plump apricots and prunes – is intoxicating. Bougrine has travelled and lived all over the world, but when he came to Granada to see the Alhambra he decided to stay. “It’s still there – a reflection of what Arab culture was, a reminder of how much we’ve lost,” he says, trying to explain what drew him. “I was moved by it.” He pauses, then shrugs sheepishly. “Plus I met my wife here.”

In Granada there are echoes of the culture that would culminate in the Alhambra at every turn.

Not surprisingly, the archaeology museum is replete with them. Housed in a 16th-century palacio called the Casa de Castril, it traces Granada’s history from the Paleolithic era through its growth into a well-developed Roman settlement, complete with frescoed villas and an active artisan community working in glass, stone and bronze. But it’s in the Muslim period that the collection really takes off. Room after room attests to al-Andalus’ achievements – an astrolabe, discovered in the Albaicín, that accurately predicted lunar eclipses; delicately fashioned oil lamps. Most startlingly, for anyone who was taught that Islam prohibits artistic representations of humans and animals, are the decorative pieces. Energetic hares leap across a ceramic jug; delicately formed birds perch on the rim of a bronze vase, and one remarkable bowl is painted with a life-like horse that looks far more Persian than Andalucían.

Other traces of al-Andalus are less obvious. The city’s madrasah – the West’s first Arab-style university, founded by the Nasrid king, Yusuf I, in 1349 – is today part of the University of Granada. The building has been extensively reconstructed – its marble entryway is now housed in the archeological museum – but the mihrab, the ornate prayer room that directs the faithful towards Mecca, remains intact. Even the tourist office is a 14th-century Moorish building, which was used as a coal yard, warehouse and hotel for travelling merchants.

Yet it’s in Albaicín, the tightly packed quarter that crowds up the hill above Calderería Nueva and across from the Alhambra, where the Moorish past feels most palpable. Bougainvillea drapes over the high walls that hide the old, whitewashed houses called carmens, hinting at the lush gardens inside. Like a maze that keeps shuttling through to the same destination, every steep, winding street seems to open onto a view of the palace across the way. And here, it’s still possible to trace the city’s sophisticated water distribution system from the Middle Ages by following the trail of aljibes, or reservoirs. There are 25 in Albaicín – some with above-ground bóvedas, others marked only by a characteristic archway leading underground – each different from the next. The largest, called Aljibe del Rey, is located on the grounds of a renovated carmen; it houses the Agua Granada Foundation’s historical and cultural Water Interpretation Centre, and is open to the public.

Cross through the lush garden hung with jasmine, down into the basement and you can’t help but be impressed – as much by the pointed archways (beauty even in a water tank) as by the weight of the past. Nearby, Fernando Borrego returns from a morning shopping trip with a small bag of groceries and slowly withdraws an old-fashioned iron key from his pocket. He slips it into the lock of the massive carved gate of his house. “Oh yes,” the 81-year-old admits. “You live in this neighbourhood, and you get accustomed to living with history.”

But the most compelling examples of al-Andalus’ culture and la convivencia are hardly past: they are alive and actively being reconstructed. The grandest of Granada’s mosques, Mezquita Mayor de Granada, which celebrated its 10th year anniversary last year, was the first mosque to be built in Granada since Reconquista more than 500 years previously, and was funded by Libya, the UAE and Morocco. And Albaicín isn’t just home to the beautifully renovated carmens that are being turned into boutique hotels or luxe second residences, but to a growing Muslim population as well.

Abdulhasib Castiñeira, the former director of Mezquita Mayor de Granada, believes times have changed in favour of reviving traditions for the estimated 15,000 Muslims in Granada. “Muslims drawn to Granada tend to have a higher cultural level,” he says. “In other parts of Spain, immigrants mostly work in agriculture or the construction industry. Here, they have university educations, work in the media, own their own businesses.” The mosque also provides educational and cultural support; as well as being a place of worship, it functions as a school, art gallery and community centre.

Castiñeira leads me out into the mosque’s garden, where flowers the colour of lipstick frame yet another spectacular view. He points across the river. “Look there,” he says, drawing a line with his finger from the delicate Alhambra to the heavy Alcazaba. “There’s your clash of civilisations – not here.”

That’s not to say today’s Granada lives in perfect convivencia. Mezquita Mayor de Granada drew local resistance when it was being built – but no longer, Castiñeira emphasises. “We have a neighbourhood party each year at the mosque, and everyone in Albaicín shows up.” Efforts to get halal meals into public school cafeterias, however, have failed and Granada still annually celebrates the Catholic conquest.

There are also some who see in Granada’s embrace of Moorish culture less a respect for the past than a desire to make money. Nelson González owns a small gallery called La Casa del Talisman in Albaicín that sells handmade jewellery and prints. He moved to the area 15 years ago, he says, because he was drawn by the neighbourhood’s magic. “But today, everyone is catering to the tourists with Moorish souvenirs, Arab baths,” he complains. “It’s become like Disneyland. Or, better said, Moorland.”

Maybe so, but some residents find even the commercial aspects of the Moorish revival salutary.

“It’s true we’ve made a good living at it,” says Nadia El-Shohoumi as she gestures around Cerámica al Yarrar, the tiny pottery shop her husband, Bernardo Sánchez, founded. “At one point we employed 25 people in our workshop to meet the demand.” After a lot of research and an apprenticeship with potters in Fez, Sánchez began painting his now-popular pieces with glazes tinted with the copper and cobalt that gave Nasrid ceramics their distinctively metallic lustre. Indeed, the bowls and platters that shimmer from the shelves have a delicacy that would not look out of place in one of the Alhambra’s mosaics. But the fineness of the work is not the only thing that explains its appeal, says El-Shohoumi. “There’s also an identification. Granadinos know that this is part of their DNA.”

From its perch above the city, the Alhambra hovers over Granada like a vivid dream, infusing the life below it with authentic nostalgia. One morning I ask my cab driver, Antonio, to take me to Puerto del Suspiro del Moro, the hilltop known as “the Moor’s Last Sigh”, from where Boabdil looked back on what he was forced to surrender. There’s a campground on the site, and the only indication of its significance is a squat viewing tower. It’s a hazy day and any beauty the view might have once held has long since been lost to the Spanish penchant for hideous housing developments. I’m feeling disappointed as I climb back in the cab, but Antonio mistakes the cause of my mood. “Sad, isn’t it?” the garrulous Catholic Spaniard asks.

“So much was lost.”

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