Granada from the 17th to 20th Century
Following the conquest of Granada in 1492, the victorious Christians quickly established their presence, converting mosques into churches, building new churches, monasteries, convents and a large cathedral where the grand mosque had once stood. Much of what identified the city as Muslim still remained (the Alhambra, the Albaicín), but Christian architecture was evidence of a new direction in the destiny of the city.
The flurry of building in the 16th century slowed down in the 17th century as the city went into a long decline, as did much of the rest of Spain. There were sporadic attempts at industry in the 18th century, but as in the rest of Andalusia it failed to take root. Granada was no more than a provincial city with seemingly little ambition.
The situation did not improve in the 19th century. And but for a stroke of fortune Granada might easily have lost its most prized treasure and source of much of its economic wellbeing… the Alhambra. In the early years of the 19th century, the city was taken by Napoleon’s troops during the course of the Peninsular War (or War of Independence to Spaniards). The French not only stationed their soldiers in the Alhambra, but also kept prisoners and stored dynamite in the buildings. Upon retreat, they blew up some of the Moorish towers but fortunately were unsuccessful in destroying the palace complex.
What is clear from travelers’ reports at this time is that Granadinos themselves were indifferent to the beauty of the Alhambra. It was populated by gypsies and the penniless, and served as a prison and military hospital. Richard Ford, traveling in Spain in the 1830s, is caustic about the neglected state of the Alhambra. Granadinos, he says, “despise the Alhambraas a “casa de ratones,” or rat’s hole, which indeed they have made it… They resent almost as heretical the preference shown by foreigners to the works of infidels rather than to those of good Catholics.” It was a foreigner, the American diplomat and scholar Washington Irving, who more than anyone else brought the Alhambra to the popular imagination. While staying in the Alhambra in 1829 he began writing the book for which he is best known: Tales of the Alhambra, a combination of romantic legend and descriptions of the place and the people living there. At a time when Romanticism was in the air and the exotic was in vogue, the tales of Medieval Muslim Spain were particularly attractive. Irving’s book sold widely and put Granada on the tourist map.
Granada entered the 20th century on the back of its tourist appeal. Although Andalusia at this time was subject to frequent anarchist outbursts from impoverished peasants (“campesinos”), Granada was solidly conservative. Its backbone was the military and the church, and a middle class that was inward looking and unadventurous. Richard Ford had described the society of Granada in the 1830s as “dull” and “ignorant.” Over 100 years later, the poet Federico García Lorca –one of Spain’s greatest poets and dramatists, and native of Granada– reproached Granadinos as “the worst bourgeoisie in Spain today.” Lorca himself was shot soon after in Granada, an early victim of the Civil War (1936-39) in which Granada –after a brief and bloody purge of anyone with liberal sympathies– quickly sided with the Franco rebels against the central government.
Since the death of Franco (1975), Granada has transformed itself into a prosperous, bustling city. Its student life is reputed to be the liveliest in Spain, and night life goes on to the early hours of the morning. A magnificent interactive Science Park was opened in the city in May 1995, its ultramodern architecture a symbol of confidence in the city’s future.
The high rise buildings that have invaded the plain (“vega“), and the congested traffic are the scourge of modern urban sprawl. Modern Granada is a cacophony of blaring car horns and the high pitched buzz of mopeds that weave suicidally between traffic.
Granada: the Albaicín and the Return of Islam
Standing above the noise on their respective hills overlooking the modern city, the Albaicín (or Albayzín) and the Alhambra restore a balance of sanity. True, there are lots of tourists but there is always a hidden corner, an unexpected discovery to be made.
This is especially so in the Albaicín, with its hilly, narrow, winding streets and intimate squares. It is to the Plaza de San Nicolás that many tourists go for a distant view of the Alhambra, across the gorge that divides the two hills. At dusk, the breathtaking sight of the reddish-coloured Palace against the backdrop of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada is one of the most memorable images they will take with them.
It is views like this that prompted the 20th-century Mexican poet and diplomat, Francisco Alarcón de Icaza, to exclaim: “dale limosna mujer/ que no hay en la vida nada/ como la pena de ser ciego en Granada” (“Give him alms lady, for there is nothing in life as wretched as being blind in Granada”).
These lines can now be found in several spots in the city.
A feature of the Albaicín are the “cármenes,” Moorish-style houses set in gardens with flowers, fruit trees, plants, fountains, and slender, vivid green cypresses, all enclosed by high walls. They are to old Granada what the patios are to old Córdoba, private spaces, a kind of inner paradise meant for the pleasure of the family.
Another much more recent feature of the Albaicín is the presence of Muslims, many of whom are converts to Islam. In the streets of the Albaicín now you can find tea houses serving mint tea, coffee, juices accompanied by Arabic music and Arab news reports on the radio. There are halal butcher shops, and bakeries selling baklava and kenafa (a soft cheese), and shops that sell leather goods, sandals, incense, spices etc. During the holy month of Ramadan some shops display signs in their windows wishing passersby “Feliz Ramadan.”
Nevertheless, the major Muslim attraction in the Albaicín is the new mosque sitting next to a convent close to the Plaza San Nicolas.
The mosque opened in July 2003, the culmination of 22 years of effort to overcome the various objections raised by city leaders and by neighbourhood resistance. The opening was attended by various Muslim and non-Muslim dignitaries, including the mayor of Granada, a member of the then ruling right-wing Partido Popular party.
It is the first mosque built in Granada in over 500 years (the Muslims of Granada earlier met in makeshift centres) and carries with it significant symbolic value, not always interpreted in the same way by Muslims in Spain. Native-born Muslims, who make up most of the congregation, are anxious not to arouse fears of an Islamic reconquest of Andalusia. They want to promote a tolerant and democratic Islam which is able to live with its Catholic neighbours, not an easy task when al-Andalus is frequently evoked by Osama bin Laden and his followers as territory to be reclaimed for Islam.
Beyond the Albaicín, on the edge of the town, is the gypsy cave district of Sacromonte, the most popular place to go to for flamenco dancing. There’s a lot of debate about the quality of the shows, but it can be a fun if somewhat more expensive experience than bargained for. Be cautious is the advice usually given to visitors, especially at night.
Fletcher, Richard Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard The Cross and the Crescent London, 2003
Ford, Richard A Hand Book for Travellers in Spain London, 1845
Gilmour, David Cities of Spain London, 1994
Jacobs, Michael A Guide to Andalusia London: Viking 1990
Nash, Elizabeth Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History Oxford 2005
An interesting article on the building of the new mosque in Granada can be read in: