The Alhambra in Granada
14.08.2013 - 18.08.2013 94 °F
So, why the groan?
Okay...if you read my Barcelona piece, you know I am getting a little travel weary. Spain has been beautiful, There's been great food, drink and music. The cultural ambiance is distinct-- I am constantly aware I am in Spain and not somewhere in the USA or anywhere else in Europe. But now something is missing for me. I have stayed longer than the estimated four weeks I had originally considered, but that was my choice and I'm glad I did it. But I've played the 'tourist' too long. It's been almost six weeks of non-stop must- sees, museums and experiences. More like cramming too much into a short vacation--but for six weeks!-- rather than my usual slow travel. I haven't taken a break since the Algarve in Portugal and I'm on overload. It's made me be anxious to 'be done with' Spain and move on. But first, there is one more place I want to see...or more specifically, one more sight-- The Alhambra. It's been on my list for years, every since I saw a documentary on TV showing the pools and fountains, the graceful outlines of arches and key-hole doors and the rich tile work all shrouded in the mystery of the Moors.
What is the Alhambra?
The description in that last sentence shows you how much I knew about the Alhambra. It isn't just an exotic palace-- it's a citadel (a fortress protecting a town) with several palaces, extensive gardens and the remains of an ancient city. And it's all on top of a hill with great vistas of the current city of Granada. The location is one of the many wonders of this fabulous site as this extensive population and their community required a lot of water. Clever engineering and design (remember this was built in medieval times when most of Europe was living pretty crudely) diverted water from a river below and provided not only the required drinking water for consumption and water for standard daily living (cleaning, livestock, gardens, orchards, etc.), but also sewage disposal, elaborate baths and incredible sophisticated beauty in the form of flowing streams, peaceful pools and soothing fountains unknown in the rest of Europe.
HOT TIP: You can actually enter the grounds without a ticket However, the 'big three' require a ticket: The Castle Fort, the Palacios Nazaries (a series of connected palaces including the Alhambra Palace) and the Generalife (summer palace and gardens). The museum is free and housed in the Palacio de Carlos V. Carlos destroyed a wing of the original palaces to build his Renaissance monstrosity (my opinion) that was never finished. It is a circular building on a grand scale within a square facade. The whole site is quite large. If you want to make the visit easier on your feet or just have more time for exploring, you could see all the free areas on one day and then visit the ticketed areas on another. Your ticket is good for one day only and it comes with an assigned time for your Palacios Nazaries visit (which they are very strict about). Tickets are available from some Servicaixa ATM machines-- including a few in Barcelona--online or by phone. For more information see the Alhambra website; or go to the official Alhambra bookstore in Granada where they are especially helpful if tickets are running low. If there are no tickets available (they are limited for each day) try to find a tour group-- guide companies often buy up blocks of tickets in advance.
It looks square outside,...
...but it is circular inside.
An Abbreviated History
The Muslims took over the Iberian settlement here with the aid of the Jewish community located at the foot of the hill in 711. As nearby Cordova and Seville were conquered in 1236 and 1248, more Muslims fled to Granada (Spanish for pomegranate) and eventually it became one of the richest cities in medieval Europe. Rivalry over the succession set off a civil war in 1482. The armies of the Catholic Monarchs took advantage of this weakness and started invading parts of the emirate. They laid siege to Granada in 1491. An agreement to surrender the city included an agreement to allow political and religious freedom for the Muslim subjects (who had been living without any obvious religious confict with Jews and Christians among them).
Taking over Granada completed the Reconquista (or Christian reconquest) of the eight hundred year-long Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. Note that even though it is referred to as the Reconquista (Reconquering), the Catholic Monarchs had never previously been in control of this area whereas the Muslims had been there for 800 years. Later, Queen Isabella with the support of King Ferninand reneged on the original agreement and thus began the conversion-- the persecution, forced conversion, executions and finally, the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims not only from Granada, but from all of what is now Spain by the 17th century. The grand city of Granada immediately started to decline under the Spaniards.
Persecution and expulsion first began with the Jews around 1492. The Jewish quarter was demolished after the majority of Jews were expelled. After 1501, the Muslims were forced to convert or emigrate. Many of the more elite left for Africa (Morocco was just a hop across the Strait of Gibraltar), but most converted though like the Jews, they continued following their faith in secret. These converts known as Moriscos were still subject to persecution and execution. Their mosques were destroyed or made into churches.
The Historical Neighborhoods of Albaicin and Sacromonte
Five hundred years after this religious cleansing, bits of pieces from the Jewish and Muslim populations are finally now being uncovered, repaired and becoming part of the city's heritage. A small jewel of a neighborhood hammam (bath house) lacking polish or embellishment-- and with barely a sign to mark it-- can be found across the river at the base of the Alhambra. But it is so bare bones that a viewer's imagination is essential-- it helps if you are familiar with the hammam tradition-- but it is at least a start.
Above the site of the hammam, the hillside neighborhood of El Albaicin (now a world heritage site) with incredible examples of Medieval Moorish and Morisco construction along narrow winding streets is perfect for a day of exploration and getting lost. I forewent the tours and opened myself to the adventure of discovery. This neighborhood is where the Muslims who converted to Catholiscm or Moriscos lived. The quaint picturesque setting with bright flowers blooming, colorful tilework and attractive sidewalk restaurants makes the terror of its history almost unimagineable.
On the Plaza of San Nicolas in El AIbaicin, the views of the city and the Alhambra were fabulous, but most poignant for me was the small mosque (Mezquita Mayor de Granada) that had been recently built in 2003 for the current Muslim population 500 years after the Christian conquest of almost eight centuries of Moorish rule. Primarily funded by the Emir of Sharjah (UAE), Morocco, Malaysia and other Muslim countries, it took 22 years of of struggle to get the city officials to grant permission for the building. Few of the locals were happy with the idea of a mosque-- the nuns in a nearby convent built their adjoining wall higher and added broken glass for defence. The adhan (call to prayer) was part of the opening ceremony, but the mosque is no longer able to call the adhan due to a new local ordinance. The mosque consists of the prayer hall, a botanical garden and the Center for Islamic Studies. The exhibits, programs, classes and library focus on an understanding of the Islam faith, the culture and its history in Spain.
Tucked further up on another hill, Sacromonte (named for the nearby Abbey built on Roman ruins) is the old Romani neighborhood famous for the Roma (gitanos or gypsies) inhabitants who had occupied cave houses here after the Christian conquest in 1492. It is generally believed that the caves were originally built by Jews and Muslims expelled by the Christians and then joined by the Roma. The cave structure and forms are varied and unique. Some caves have interesting rock or wood structures built in front obscuring the attached cave rooms while others simply have a door or an entry way.
The Romani and a smaller number of marginalized groups (at one-time, including ex-slaves) lived in caves they carved out of the hillside. There is still a concentrated Romani population in Granada (50,000) and some still live in a jumble of quaint houses attached to original cave dwellings in Sacromonte. Subsequently, the neighborhood became known for flamenco music and dance.
A museum—the enthnographic Museum of Caves of Sacromonte-- at the very top of one winding trail has a series of caves houses and rooms displaying handcrafted furniture, tools, clothes and other belongings of the Roma to demonstrate how the creative Rom cave culture lived. Traditional craft workshops (pottery, metalwork, embroidery, etc.) were well-represented. Labeled botanical plants are integrated into the site showing the traditions of natural healing and how they supplemented their diet. A small interpretation center had old pictures of the community, biographies and stories of significant Roma citizens, as well as, food culture and the history of music and dance traditions. Roma music played in the background lending voice to the haunting old black and white photographs of the passionate musicians and singers.
.===A Banned Native Son Reclaimed===
A play called "Mariana Pineda" based on the true story of a Romani woman's opposition to Ferdinand VII made the Sacromonte neighborhood (and its playwright) famous. Federico Garcia Lorca was a poet, playwright, theater director and activist who was also talented in music and art. He was born in a town a few miles away, but also lived and studied in Granada so there are four museums and scattered commemorations --a park, a statue, a cultural center, etc-- of his life in Granada and the surrounds. If you fly into Granada, you will land at the Federico Garcia Lorca Airport.
Lorca's circle of friends included Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. In fact, Dali did the set design and costumes for Lorca's play "Mariana Pineda". An outspoken socialist, Lorca was only 38 years old when he was apparently executed by fascist forces. The actual details are unknown and his body was never found. Some suggest he was assassinated for his sexual orientation, but most think his death was part of the campaign of mass killings to eliminate supporters of the Marxist Popular Front. His body was never found. Francisco Franco banned his work and the ban was not rescinded until 1953. While the reclaiming of the Jews and Muslims in Spanish history seems to be slow and somewhat reluctant-- Lorca has been fully reclaimed and embraced in Granada.