By the look, by the sounds, by the smells, it might have been a market street in Fez or Marrakech or some other North African city. But I was in Europe—more specifically in a narrow, sloping lane called La Caldería Nueva in the Albaicín quarter of Granada.
Inside the shops and spilling out onto the street was a multicolored profusion of North African goods: scarves, leather footstools, sandals and slippers, drums, spices, water pipes, incense and a cornucopia of sweets. Teahouses were serving juices, tea and coffee. A Moroccan restaurant—one of the best I’ve ever come across—was there, its name, Arrayanes, a reference to a patio with a lovely reflecting pool in the nearby Alhambra, the citadel symbolizing Granada’s rich Arab cultural heritage.
As in Fez, the shopkeepers in La Caldería Nueva were predominantly Arabs, and their customers mostly tourists from all over the world. Arabic and Spanish phrases and some English ones mingled with Arab music and news bulletins from radios. The atmosphere was gentle, not pushy. The old street was impeccably clean.
I have been visiting Granada for more than 40 years and La Caldería Nueva used to be a smelly no-go zone of often unsavory activity. The change is remarkable.
Sidi Karim Viudes, a Spanish Muslim, has closely watched the rebirth of the area. Indeed, he recently played an important role in the process as the architect responsible for the interior decoration of the new Granada Mosque—the first mosque to be built in the city in half a millennium. "It is amazing how, without a plan of any kind, this dangerous little slum has been totally transformed," Viudes says. "Everyone who lived in the better homes around here used to have to walk around La Caldería Nueva." The change began around 1983, he explains, when a woman named Antonia Muñoz Flores dared to open a teashop there. The busy proprietor is known as Leyla, the name she took when she embraced Islam in the mid-1980’s. She called her shop Al-Sirat, the Arabic word for "the path"—often used in the spiritual sense—and it continues to flourish today.
"Everyone asked why she did it here, but she just insisted that this was what she wanted to do," notes Viudes, adding that creating a successful teashop normally "just doesn’t happen in a city like Granada, traditionally a very coffee- and alcohol-oriented place." Other developments followed rapidly: "The area got cleaned up, and this little suq and everything else grew up around the teashop and spread out. Nobody in the city government could understand it. There was no plan. It just happened."
La Caldería Nueva is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the renaissance of al-Andalus in Granada. Originally the Arabic name for the Iberian Peninsula as a whole, al-Andalus later came to mean the southern areas under Muslim control. The autonomous region officially called Andalusia today comprises the southernmost 17 percent of Spain.
A nutshell of history is in order here. In July 710, a Berber commander and his 400 men came ashore on a beach at Tarifa in southern Spain, seizing territory held by the Visigoths. This opened the way for a much larger force of Arabs and Berbers to cross the next year and marked the beginning of almost 800 years of Muslim rule. The first three centuries are epitomized by Córdoba: By the 10th century, under the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Rahman III, Córdoba boasted streetlights, palaces, 800 public baths, libraries with hundreds of thousands of volumes, and flourishing arts and sciences. It was the most advanced city in Europe.
In the 11th century, however, fractious relations among provincial Muslim kingdoms began to weaken the caliphate. Faced by Christian forces—sometimes expediently allied with Muslim factions—al-Andalus shrank over the next two centuries until all that remained under Arab rule was the Kingdom of Granada. At its peak in the 14th and 15th centuries, Granada extended 180 kilometers (110 mi) from east to west and 75 kilometers (47 mi) from the Mediterranean to its inland frontier.
Sparing no superlatives, Arab historian Ibn al-Khatib, secretary to ruler Yusuf I (1335–1354), wrote, "Granada is today the foremost of maritime cities, splendid capital of the kingdom, a thriving market place for traders, the birthplace of sailors, an inn for travelers of all nations, a perpetual bed of flowers, a garden laden with fruit, the delight of children, a public treasury, a city famous for its fields and fortifications, a vast sea of wheat and vegetables in perfection, and an inexhaustible source of silk and sugar…. Its surroundings abound in gold, silver, lead, iron, pearls and sapphires."
He went on to comment on the tastes of the women of Granada: "Among the adornments favored by the princesses and highborn of Granada, special mention should be made of girdles, sashes, garters and coifs worked with silver and gold and brilliant with jewels."
Heir to the Córdoba-based caliphate, the little kingdom reached heights of sophistication unmatched in Europe. First among its treasures was the Alhambra, the towering fortress-turned-palace, a jewel in a city described by an Arab visitor as "a silver vase filled with emeralds."
Granada and the Alhambra surrendered to the combined kingdoms of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, ending the era of Muslim rule in al-Andalus. Although the Muslims were expelled to North Africa or forced to convert, the city never lost its Arab flavor. How could it vanish entirely, with the magnificent Alhambra visible from almost everywhere in the city?
Even so, when I first knew Granada in the 1960’s, there was neither a Muslim nor an Arab to be found anywhere in what was then a rather conservative, bourgeois city. Now, there may be as many as 15,000 Muslim inhabitants, counting the foreign permanent residents, and 3000 Arab students, mostly from Morocco and elsewhere in North Africa.
There is also a community of around 400 to 500 Spanish converts to Islam, whose collective history started in London. There, on November 20, 1975, three Spanish youths were welcomed into Islam by Shaykh Abdalqadir al-Sufi. "These were the first Spaniards to enter into Islam since the times of al-Andalus 500 years ago," says a text by the Islamic Community in Spain.
After an initial move to Córdoba, the converts made Granada their center on the invitation of the city’s mayor. "They see Granada as the capital of Islam in Europe," says Ibrahim Perez Tello, a member of the Muslim community.
This past July, another first-in-500-years event took place in the city: the inauguration of the bright, airy and elegant Granada Mosque. Situated in the city’s most scenic location atop the Albaicín quarter, the mosque nestles next to the Mirador San Nicolás, the lookout point reputed to have the best view of the Alhambra. I had the honor of taking the first photos of the Alhambra from this location, from the minaret of the mosque.
The mosque’s white walls and Andalusian style blend perfectly with the architecture of the Albaicín. Architect Sidi Karim Viudes showed me some of the details. "The azulejos—the tiles—consist of about a million little pieces, every one cut by hand, all mounted right here," he explains. Crafted in the style of old Granada, the tiles display a precision that is almost supernatural. Moroccan artisans from Fez labored for seven years handcrafting the azulejos , which were then mounted in Granada.
On July 10 a festive international crowd of dignitaries and visitors braved scorching heat to attend the opening of the mosque. To repeated cries of "Allahu Akbar!" (God is Great), Shaykh Sultan ibn Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the governor of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and the primary patron of the project, drew a red curtain to display a gray stone plaque dedicating the Mezquita de Granada.
That the tented garden where the ceremony took place looked straight out at the Alhambra escaped no one’s attention. As al-Andalus represented a culture that peaked in Granada, best remembered for its convivencia, the coexistence and mutual tolerance and respect of its mixed population of Muslims, Christians and Jews, so does the new mosque represent the reestablishment of multicultural institutions in Granada, and a revival of its diversely rooted arts.
Miguel Ruíz Jiménez—short but powerfully built, bearded and with intense eyes—is a leading representative of this art explosion. When I walked into his Pabellón de las Artes (Pavilion of the Arts) just outside the city, I did a doubletake. His wife, Ana, slid open a door and showed me an enormous, brightly lit gallery dedicated to Granada’s artistic past. It looked big enough to hold the work of a generation of craftsmen, but Ana pointed out, "Here, there’s only Miguel! He does the architecture, the sculptures, the design, the preparation of paints, the clay and the stoneware."
The gallery is an immense homage to the large-scale lusterware (loza dorada) produced by the potters and workshops of 14th- and 15th-century Granada. Jiménez has probably created more urns, vases, pots and plates in his career than any master potter in the time of al-Andalus. Standing up to two meters (6') tall, many of his vases are exact copies of the finest known ceramics of the period; others are original creations in the same style.
"Everything here is made in the original way—right down to the Arab wood kiln," explains Jiménez. "The methods weren’t known and I had to experiment my way from beginning to end."
Jiménez is a one-man institution, but Granada is attracting other, much larger ones as well. Though certainly not a newcomer to the city, the School of Arab Studies operates in a 14th-century building in the Albaicín quarter. The institution was founded in 1932 in association with the University of Madrid, and it grants degrees up to the Ph.D. More mundane is a business that exports halal-slaughtered chickens to Muslim countries.
Equally practical and totally 21st-century is EAMS—the EuroArab Management School. Located smack in the center of Granada, across the street from the city’s venerable cathedral, the school’s fine old building features a patio, a tinkling fountain and plants. It’s peaceful, beautiful and altogether Andalusian. Belying first appearances, though, several floors of the school are filled with computers, and conference rooms rise above the patio. On the top floor, I met Robert Lanquar, an EAMS senior fellow in tourism and management and one of the school’s officials.
"Our motto," he says forcefully, "is bridging cultures. More specifically, we are bridging cultures for business. It starts from land development and crop development and goes into tourism. Tourism management is very important. We are training the trainers; there is a great shortage of them."
The European Commission and the Arab League started EAMS in 1995 to provide management education and research, as well as training and consulting services, to develop business between Arab and European companies. Spain offered EAMS official accreditation and a home in Granada.
"We are a node in a network of universities and leading business schools in Europe, North Africa and the Arab world," explains Lanquar. "This is really part of a Granadan and Andalusian renaissance," he adds, noting that Granada is starting to serve once again as a hub of knowledge and cultural exchange. "The dream of al-Andalus is that we are living among three cultures: Muslim, Christian and Jewish."
In the same old neighborhood, Ibrahim Perez Tello proudly showed me the Euro-Arab Foundation of Higher Studies, another organization dedicated to promoting dialogue and cooperation between Europe and the Arab world. In the same old, palatial building is the HispaMaroc Association, a Moroccan student establishment associated with the Chamber of Commerce in Madrid. The association aims to improve relations between Spain and Morocco and to help companies that want to invest on either side of the Mediterranean. It focuses on specific problems like reducing bureaucracy and overcoming language problems.
EFE, the official Spanish government news agency, in 1995 opened an Arabic-language service center in Granada. It sends information from Spain, Latin America and Europe to the Arab world, explains Marcos García Rey, a Spanish Arabic-speaker in charge of the operation. "We publish a lot about the relations between Spain and Morocco, Spain and Algeria, and there is the news of the Arab communities in Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Mexico and so on," he says. "As you know, there are large Arab communities all over Latin America.
"All Arab papers carry stories about Spanish soccer. And there are news and stories about al-Andalus. When the idea of the efe Arabic service germinated, we thought it would benefit our relations with the Arab world and that Granada would be a good home for it."
Among all the institutions that contribute to the new convivencia, the one led by the efficient and intense Jerónimo Páez Lopez has done more than any other to promote awareness of the history and legacy of al-Andalus in Spain and abroad. It’s called Fundación El Legado Andalusí—the Andalusian Legacy Foundation—and is funded by the Ministry of Culture of the regional government of Andalusia.
"Our fundamental vision was to provide a wide distribution of information, to reach the largest possible number of people, not only university-educated people but people in general, so they will realize that they are the heirs of the Spanish-Muslim past," says Páez, a busy lawyer in private life. "We especially wanted to make it known in the schools, to young people, to get them to absorb this culture as their own."
To promote the legacy of al-Andalus, the foundation has designated seven "routes" to Granada, itineraries that connect sites of historical and cultural significance. These include the Almoravid Route, the Almohad Route, the Umayyad Itinerary and the Route of the Caliphate. The last runs 180 kilometers (110 mi) from Córdoba to Granada.
"The intention of these cultural itineraries is to spread knowledge of the history of al-Andalus, its common history with the North African Arab world," Paez explains. "We weren’t trying to magnify the history of al-Andalus or create a myth of al-Andalus. We thought that there is an important Arab legacy in Spain, and above all in Andalusia, and that this legacy could become a point of cultural contact with the other shore—meaning North Africa, and specifically Morocco. Through the better understanding, the change of perception, that could result, we would be able to establish much more positive relations with the other side."
El Legado Andalusí stresses this joint Islamic-European legacy. "The legacy of al-Andalus isn’t just an Islamic legacy," says Paez. "It was definitely European as well. Here was a Spanish Muslim country. We didn’t want this fact to be something foreign. We wanted people to accept it as their own. Spanish history was wrongly based only on the fact that we had defeated the Arabs in 1492, ignoring the fact that the Arabs formed our culture for eight centuries."
El Legado Andalusí has published more than 40 illustrated heritage books in different languages and half a dozen guidebooks to its "routes." It also produces a glossy magazine called El Legado Andalusí and has mounted exhibits that have drawn international notice.
Its "routes" are proving popular, and its educational efforts effective. More than one person told me that the colorfully marked itineraries just wouldn’t have worked a few years back because most people would have had no idea what they were about. But during the spring vacation season this year, some 300,000 people traveled the Route of the Caliphate—by car or bicycle, on foot and even on horseback.
My favorite spot in all of Andalusia is along the Caliphate Route. It’s a mirador, or scenic overlook, atop a hill near a village called Moclín in the Montes de Granada. From there I can look down on the gleaming whitewashed town that climbs up a hillside toward three sets of medieval walls, a church and an Arab fortress. I’m alone with nature, rocks, almond trees and hills and valleys of pale green olive trees that roll like centuries into the distance of medieval Andalusia.
Moclín was built around the time of the birth of the Kingdom of Granada in the 13th century. The fortress, called Hisn al-Muklin (Fortress of the Pupils), was built to guard the road from Alcalá la Real to Granada. If you stay up on this hill long enough, you will feel that history and sense the essence of al-Andalus. The experience of peace and beauty is hard to express, but it is one that is being recaptured in Granada in the new convivencia, exemplified by the new mosque atop the Albaicín.
Norwegian-born Tor Eigeland is a longtime contributor to Saudi Aramco World. He first saw Spain as a 16-year-old sailor en route to Shanghai, and later lived there for 19 years. For the last decade, he’s made his home in southwestern France, just north of the Spanish border.