This is the first of my three-part travelogue on Granada.
Modern Spain evolved from many influences, over many periods. Iberians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Franks, African Moors…. and even Gypsies left their mark. Arguably, the most exciting period in Spanish history was the Islamic period (711-1492). At their peak, the Moors ruled over 65%-70% Spain, making phenomenal contributions to science and art. I knew little about this, as school-books usually glossed over the whole era; probably, it was racial stereotyping (“African Muslims improved the way the white man lived? Really?”).
By 1238, Christians had repossessed most of Spain (Reconquista) but one last Moorish dynasty remained: The Nasrids, who ruled over Granada. They survived for only another 250 years, but left behind an outstanding legacy to the world: the Alhambra-Genaralif –Alcazaba complex in the Albaicyn hills. I travelled to Granada to re-discover that myself.
The Alhambra was built by the Nasrid Sultans around the 1350s as a Royal Palace. In Arabic, Al Hamra translates as “The Red One”, probably in reference to the red clay bricks used in construction(some say it is named after Yusuf the Red, an ancestor of the Nasrids).
Alhambra as seen from different points, by day and by night
The Generalife Gardens probably predated the Alhambra Palace and was remodeled many times. This was the annexe to the Alhambra where the Sultan and his kin could chill-out in summer! Generalife is the corruption of the Arabic Jannat al Arifa or the “Paradise Garden of the Engineer”. Indeed it is a divine piece of environmental engineering. The Moors were great horticulturists and brought many new species into Spain — Peaches, Lemons, Saffron, Figs, Rice and so many others. Their greatest agricultural contribution was … Pomegranates! The Arab name for pomegranates was “Granata” and hence the name Granada!
Granada: A Pomegranate bush at Alhambra !
The Moorish engineers cleverly harnessed the River Darro which flows from the Sierra Nevada down to the foothills of Granada. They created a complex canal system that even today is an irrigation marvel. It used only gravity to feed many pools, baths,streams, fountains and drinking water tanks.
Irrigation System: a medieval marvel
I believe, they even devised an ingenious water-pollution indicator:frogs were bred in the community tanks. If the frogs died, it meant that the water was impure and the tank needed scrubbing!
The vibrant colours in the gardens were simply amazing.
Floral samples from Generalife
Height of Luxury: This canopied path was the emergency exit !
This sounds counter-intuitive, but it was the Arabs who introduced daily bathing as a healthy habit. The Moors constructed Hamaams or public baths, that substantially raised personal hygiene standards.Before the Moors, Europeans were generally a stinky lot!
Sunlight gently trickles down the skylight of the Hamaam at Angel Barrios
The Royalty had its own baths. The women of the Palace had a separate Bath.Men were not allowed, but it is said that the Sultan enjoyed a panoramic view from the balcony. He often carried a fruit and tossed it at the ladies. The lady on whom the fruit landed would have the honour of sharing the Sultan’s bed that night. Such a lovable chap, this Sultan!
The Sultans also spent many hours in the cool environs of the fountains of Palais del Genaralife.
Two views of the famous fountains
The most noticeable feature in both Alhambra and Generalife, is the ornate work on windows and arches. Religious calligraphy is all over the walls and ceilings– stucco works and geometrical tiles. Here’s a sample.
Ornate works and calligraphy
The Alcazaba, was the only military establishment in the complex. It housed the Garrison. The Candle-Tower was the military observation point and had a vantage view of the whole city and surrounding hills. It had a “line-of-sight” to other watch-towers from where signalmen flashed messages using mirrors(by day) and candles (by night). Hence the name Candle-Tower. The view is truly breath taking.
Views from the Alcazaba (top 3) and the Candle-Tower (bottom 2)
My guide ( a very smart young man named Juan Jesus Sanchez)related an interesting native superstition about the Candle-Tower. If an unattached person touched the bell, he/she would soon get married. I asked Juan if he was married and he said he wasn’t. Would he kindly touch the bell and let me know if it works? He quickly withdrew shyly, saying he wasn’t ready for marriage. He was a native and a believer!
Surely a Paradise of this kind could not have lasted forever? Yes, a dramatic an upheaval came in 1492. But that is the subject I shall cover in an another post!