Tales of the Alhambra

The lost Islamic world of Southern Spain—and its modern echoes
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It started out as a way to pass an idle moment, and quickly became a habit. Every afternoon during a recent visit to Granada, the onetime capital of the last Islamic emirate in Spain, I climbed the high, rugged spur that serves as a pediment for the Alhambra, the fabled palace of the sultans. There, in a terraced garden, I would sit for several hours and read. The time of year was late February, but the temperature was always in the high 60s or low 70s. Vernal lushness was a month away, but the boxwood and the sculpted evergreens proved amply fragrant.

To one side, a few hundred feet below, the tiled roofs of the city gave way to a plain stretching hazily westward. To the other the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada took on a mellow tint in the declining sun. And across a sharp defile, immediately ahead, rose the crenellated walls of the Alhambra, a delicate marble confection within a fortified shell, half a mile from end to end. The ancient Iberians once occupied this ground, and then the Romans and the Visigoths. The walls and towers look more or less the same as they did when Washington Irving took up residence in the Alhambra in 1829, a literary squatter who would go on to serve as the U.S. minister to Spain. For that matter, they look more or less the same as they did in 1492, when the conquest of Granada by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile brought all of Spain under a unified Catholic monarchy, and put an end to nearly eight centuries of Islamic rule. In Tales of the Alhambra, a pastiche of history and legend, Irving adopted an elegiac tone: "Such is the Alhambra—a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away."

I had become interested in Islamic Spain in the course of research for a book on the various inquisitions conducted by the Catholic Church over a span of many centuries—a subject bound up, to say the least, with the history of Muslims and Jews in Spain. My companion was my sixteen-year-old daughter, Anna, and our travels took us throughout Andalusia, a poor region of Spain and the one that held on longest to its Islamic character. Not surprisingly, Andalusia is also the center of modern Islamic stirrings in Spain—a phenomenon whose influence can only expand.

Muslim warriors from North Africa invaded the Iberian peninsula early in the eighth century A.D., scarcely a century after the emergence of Islam, a continent away. Within a few years Islamic forces had surged beyond Iberia and deep into France. Turned back by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours, in 732, the Muslims retreated across the Pyrenees, firmly entrenching themselves in what is now Spain. In its golden age Islamic Spain was among the most civilized places on the planet—renowned for its scientists and philosophers, artists and architects, poets and musicians. In the matter of religion Islamic sultans generally tolerated and protected Jews and Christians, setting an example of convivencia that their Christian successors would conspicuously fail to emulate.

Islamic rule, though fragmented, extended over the bulk of Iberia for centuries, even as Christian warlords, pushing south, chipped away at Muslim territory. The work of the Reconquista, as it is called, came to an end with the fall of Granada. One of the immediate consequences was religious: first Jews and then Muslims faced the choice of conversion to Christianity or expulsion from Spain.

Granada today is a city of some 250,000, an appealing place in its own right and also a convenient base of operations for a wider excursion through formerly Islamic Spain. Córdoba, Spain's other great Islamic city, and once the largest and richest city in Europe, is about two hours to the northwest by car, along a route that winds among millions of olive trees. The Alpujarras, the remote stretch of hills and valleys given as a consolation fiefdom to the last Muslim ruler of Granada, lies about an hour to the southeast. The Pueblos Blancos—whitewashed towns, Arabic in origin and character, perched defiantly on crags—lie about two hours to the southwest.

Granada itself abuts the northwestern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Ferdinand and Isabella are buried near the city's center, at the Capilla Real, in simple lead caskets surmounted by massive marble effigies. An inscription in Latin hails their zeal in the persecution of the infidel. A few blocks away a Moorish archway gives access to the courtyard of the Corral del Carbón, built in the fourteenth century as a caravanserai, an inn for traveling merchants; today visitors needing maps and books can get them here. The proximity of the Sierra Nevada has made Granada a center for winter sports in Europe, and the city is bidding to host the Winter Olympics in 2010.

The Olympics that Anna and I engaged in were more pedestrian. She had decided that within cities we should make our way only on foot, and she kept a log of miles walked. Our hotel was situated high on the slopes of Sabika, the hill on which the Alhambra was built, and early every morning we walked down a shaded path to Granada's main square, the Plaza Nueva, for breakfast. Hours later, in late afternoon, after roaming around the city, we hiked back up the hill.

Setting eyes on the Alhambra, one understands how the romantic Orientalism of the nineteenth century got its start. Moorish gateways breach the ruddy walls. Within the palace vaulted ceilings hang with plasterwork resembling starbursts of fine lace. Fountains play in the courtyards, and cool streams run in marble canals. In the Court of the Lions a gallery of lean columns preen in the glassy floor. The scale is not monumental but human—the most seductive form of grandeur.

The stone walls of the Hall of the Ambassadors, three stories high, are intricately etched with passages from the Koran. Patterned wooden grilles cover the windows, dappling the interior. The atmosphere was not so peaceful half a millennium ago. In this chamber the hapless sultan Boabdil capitulated to Ferdinand and Isabella, who promptly moved into his palace. Here, a few months later, the monarchs told Christopher Columbus to go ahead with his voyage. And in this room Ferdinand and Isabella, goaded by the inquisitor Torquemada, signed the order to expel from Spain all Jews who would not convert to Christianity.

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Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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