GRANADA to the 16th century. Muslim and Christian Presence.

“If you haven’t seen Granada you haven’t…”

Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada  (Literally “Who hasn’t seen Granada hasn’t seen anything“).   So the people of Granada claim, with a dig at the city’s Andalusian rivals, Seville and Córdoba.

Located on the edge of a fertile plain (la vega) with the snow capped Sierra Nevada rising dramatically behind it, Granada is certainly worth seeing. But it’s not the location that draws visitors, and certainly not the ungainly modern city; it is Moorish Granada they come to see, and in particular the Alhambra Fortress Palace complex, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful architectural gems in the world.

The Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaicín

According to a popular 15th-century ballad, the king of Castile, John II, fell so in love with the Alhambra that he addressed it directly, as if to a woman, and asked it to marry him.  As dowry he offered the cities of Córdoba and Seville, the two earlier centres of Islamic culture in the peninsula.

Early History of Granada.
Virtually nothing remains of Granada’s earliest years when it was first an Iberian and later a Roman settlement called Illiberis.  The Visigoths elevated it to a bishopric, but in 711 it fell to the invading Muslims (or Moors, as they are generally called in the Spanish context). Until 1031, Granada was dependent on Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus  (Muslim Spain). 

After the disintegration of Córdoba’s political power in 1031, Granada emerged as capital of a mini state of the same name, one of numerous minor kingdoms (reinos de Taifa) that sprang up in al-Andalus.

Granada did not make much of a mark until the 13th century when Christian expansionism from the north quickly swallowed almost all that was left of al-Andalus following the capture of Córdoba in 1236.  Only the kingdom of Granada remained, and as the only Muslim territory left in the Iberian Peninsula, it became the magnet for all disaffected refugees fleeing from the Christians.

Thanks to the pragmatism of its ruler, Muhammad ibn Nasr (who agreed to pay tributes and to assist the Christian King, Ferdinand III, to conquer Seville), the kingdom of Granada remained independent for over 200 more years.

Other factors, too, helped its survival: e.g. its mountainous nature, the possibility of help from Muslim neighbours in North Africa, internal disputes in Castile. Its independence only ended when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, made a concerted effort to conquer the kingdom. The end finally came when the city of Granada itself fell in 1492.

Surrender of Granada.
The surrender of the city of Granada was accompanied by a lot of pomp and ceremony.  Dressed in Moorish clothes, Ferdinand and Isabel entered the city and received the keys from the deposed Moorish king, Abu Abdallah, better known as Boabdil.

It was an imposing spectacle, and the event made waves not only in Granada but in all of Christendom (e.g. a Te Deum –“we thank thee, O Lord”– was sung in London). It so happens that an interested bystander, who himself made waves shortly after, was in Granada trying to persuade the Catholic Monarchs to sponsor his “wild” idea of reaching Asia by crossing the Atlantic.  We know him as Christopher Columbus!

As for Boabdil, he ended his days in Morocco, lamenting the loss of his beloved Granada. On the road leading from Granada to the coast, there is a spot known as El suspiro del moro (The Sigh of the Moor). Legend has it that here Boabdil turned for a last, lingering look at the city. His sigh prompted a crushing rebuke from his mother: “Weep like a woman you who were unable to defend your kingdom like a man.”

Christian Consolidation in Granada.
The conquest of Granada was the highlight of Ferdinand and Isabel’s reign, but there was still some cleaning up to do. First, in 1492 the Jews, and later, in 1502 the Moors, were given the ultimatum of converting to Christianity or going into exile.  This left Spain finally united under one rule and one religion (with the exception of the Muslims of Aragon who retained their religion until 1520s)

The religious zeal of Ferdinand and Isabel was quickly translated into buildings that would be visible statements of Christian domination. Late Gothic or early Renaissance churches, monasteries and convents were built, and mosques were converted to Christian use.

By 1501, in the hillside quarter of the Albaicín (the oldest part of Granada), the Convent of Santa Isabel la Real was already under construction. Over half a dozen small churches sprang up in the Albaicín, many retaining features from previous mosques, e.g. the 11th-century tower (former minaret) of San José, the Arab patio of La Iglesia del Salvador.

The 11-th century tower of San José, formerly a minaret. The bell is a Christian addition; bells were anathema to the Muslims.

An added feature that the king personally organized and paid for was the distribution of church bells, the traditional call to prayer for Christians, but considered anathema to Muslims.

The major buildings that communicated the idea of permanent conquest came at the foot of the Albaicín, where the city had spread itself onto the plain.  The most notable building, although not the largest, is the beautiful Capilla Real (Royal Chapel, constructed between 1506 and 1521) erected as a mausoleum for the Catholic Monarchs.

Ferdinand and Isabel had earlier intended to be buried in Toledo, but decided that it would be more appropriate to be buried in the town which had witnessed their greatest triumph. Adjoining the Capilla Real and rising over it is the Renaissance cathedral, commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs, but not begun until 1521. It replaced the main mosque, which had in the meantime been consecrated for Christian worship.

Renaissance facade. Granada Cathedral.

The construction of religious buildings was also accompanied by other modifications. Streets were widened and straightened, and large squares created (Plaza de Bibarrambla, Plaza Nueva, Plaza del Príncipe) as the town took on a Renaissance Christian character.

Even the Alhambra was not immune.  In 1526, the grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles (Carlos) V, while staying at the Alhambra determined that Granada should become a residence for the royal court. This required a building befitting both his royal and imperial status.

Charles V’s palace.

The result is the massive, granite Renaissance Palace that rises over one end of the Patio de los Arrayanes (Myrtles), across from the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors). Fortunately, there is a positive side to this intrusion: two palaces, abutting each other, which allow us to see the architectural preferences of two different cultures.

The Alhambra Palace conveys the lightness of lyric poetry, a particular strength of Arab culture; the Palace of Charles V evokes the grandeur of epic verse. The juxtaposition of the two styles reminds us of something similar in Córdoba, where the Great Mosque contains within it a Gothic church. Coincidentally it was the same king, Charles V, who authorized the construction of the church within the mosque in Córdoba.

Fletcher, Richard    Moorish Spain London, 1994
Fletcher, Richard    The Cross and the Crescent  London, 2003
Gilmour, David      Cities of Spain London, 1994
Harvey, L. P   Islamic Spain 1250 to 1500 Chicago 1990
Jacobs, Michael  A Guide to Andalusia London 1990
Nash,  Elizabeth  Seville, Cordoba and Granada: A Cultural History  Oxford, 2005
Image of  Charles V’s palace:
Image of Granada Cathedral: By Tango7174 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,