Tales of the Alhambra

The lost Islamic world of Southern Spain—and its modern echoes

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.

The Muslims who remained in Granada after Boabdil's retreat made their homes on a broad hillside across a valley from the Alhambra. This dense old Muslim quarter, known as the Albaicín, encourages wandering among its narrow lanes and terraced alleys. Along the crest of the Albaicín runs a segment of the ancient city wall, and on the grassy heights beyond are visible dozens of caves carved out by Gypsies. Anna and I had bought a detailed map of the Albaicín at the Corral del Carbón (it shows every house—indeed, every tree), and from time to time we paused to plot a location or identify a structure. This house was once a Muslim hospital. That bell tower used to be a minaret. The church cloister over there was originally the patio of the main mosque.

The Rio Darro marks the lower edge of the Albaicín. We walked along it, upstream, as a road twisted through the narrow valley, past dwellings dug into the hillsides. In half an hour we were out of town and among farms. Anna did a calculation in her notebook and said, "That's mile fifty-three."

Today the red-and-yellow flag of Spain flies above the battlements at the prow of the Alhambra. It is joined by the flag of the European Union, with its circle of gold stars on a field of blue. Between them flies the flag of Andalusia, white and green, the green paying homage to the region's Islamic heritage. Andalusia's historical strata thrust into the present, plainly visible. As in the American Southwest, which resembles Andalusia in many ways, the strata are sometimes presented disingenuously. We once came across a street vendor selling T-shirts that displayed a cross, a Star of David, and an Islamic crescent side by side under the legend, in Spanish, THE SECRET IS THE MIXTURE. There was no hint of the treatment accorded two of those ingredients.

Spain's ancient Jewish heritage has of late received a measure of official emphasis, if only because outsiders come looking for it. The noncommercial part of Córdoba's old Jewish quarter, the Judería, with its twisting streets and hidden courtyards, is certainly an inviting part of town; a statue of Maimonides now graces a plaza on its edge, and the small fourteenth-century synagogue has been restored. But contemporary Jewish life is not prominent in Spain. There are only about 14,000 Jews in the country, and only about ten functioning synagogues.

Islam is a different story. Its architectural and linguistic legacies are inescapable, and Islam's small foothold in Spanish life has expanded, owing largely to Spain's economic boom. There are large Moroccan communities in Spain, and estimates of the Muslim population range from 300,000 to half a million; the growing immigration from North Africa, legal and illegal, is noticed with some alarm. Córdoba today is home to an Islamic university, not far from the Mezquita—the old Great Mosque, which was long ago converted into a Catholic cathedral. In Granada the neighborhood west of the Plaza Nueva has acquired a distinctly Islamic flavor, and a stroll among its shops and restaurants feels like a stroll through a souk. In the Albaicín construction is under way for a mosque—one of more than a hundred or so opened in Spain during the past decade.

Before going to Granada I spoke about Islam in Spain with the Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis, of Princeton, a sometime contributor to these pages. He told me that on his most recent visit he had attended an interfaith gathering in Córdoba, which the government had sponsored. Pronouncements on religious or social matters by imams in Spain are the subject of news reports and, occasionally, controversy. And of course, Lewis pointed out, many people in southern Spain number Muslims among their ancestors. "I have met Muslims in Spain who felt that southern Spain was old Muslim territory," Lewis said. "They see it as their duty to recover it—by conversion, not by conquest."

The only invasion that visitors to Granada need worry about is the invasion of the Alhambra by tourists. Tickets are limited to a certain substantial number each day, and indicate a time of entry. Fortunately, one can buy a ticket first thing in the morning, even before the Alhambra unlocks its gates, and designate whatever entry time one likes; once inside the precincts, visitors can stay for as long as they like. Traveling during the off season, as we did, is another way to ensure a serene experience. So is visiting at night: the Alhambra offers evening hours on various days of the week, which change seasonally.

I went alone one Saturday night (Anna was recovering from mile sixty-seven), and was the first one into the palace. The rooms were dimly lit, bringing salient features into subtle relief. Amazingly, there were no guards. In the Court of the Myrtles a shimmering pool reflected the plaster tracery and the starry sky. Echoing footsteps on the marble gave warning of the approach of other people. I made my way through the palace ahead of all of them, slowly and stealthily, finding momentary solace in the shadows of every next room.

Iberia offers four flights a day from Madrid to Granada; the trip takes about an hour, over mountains and olive groves. Granada is a university town and offers a range of amenities comparable to those of any modern city with a quarter of a million people. The Hotel Alhambra Palace, where we stayed, offers views of the nearby Alhambra from the upper floors of one side and panoramic views of Granada from the other (www.h-alhambrapalace.es). A lodging of equal quality but with a quieter mien is the Parador de San Francisco (www.parador.es), a converted convent that is actually inside the Alhambra's walls. For information about Granada and Córdoba consult www.andalucia.com or Spain's Board of Tourism (www.tourspain.es). Many good books are available about southern Spain, but a small volume that proved indispensable was the architectural guide Islamic Spain, by Godfrey Goodwin, whose intelligent commentary is enlivened by unexpected asides. Describing the horseshoe arch in the Alhambra's Gate of Justice, Goodwin observes, "Cut out of an Islamic tiled tympanum is a niche in which Ferdinand and Isabella placed a Virgin, in somewhat suburban taste."