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Volume 50, Number 2March/April 1999

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Touring Al-Andalus

Written and photographed by Tor Eigeland

To please his passengers, our small plane's pilot banked steeply and flew two tight circles over the Alhambra before settling into his final approach to Granada's airport. The thrill of seeing this sprawling hilltop fortress against the snow-clad Sierra Nevada is one that does not diminish with repetition. Like the Giza pyramids, seen for the first or the 10th time, the Alhambra never fails to awe. "I am beginning to think that the only pleasure greater than seeing Granada, is that of seeing her again," wrote the French playwright Alexandre Dumas in the 19th century.

Just as all roads once led to Rome, during a later period all roads led to Granada, the heart of the cultural flowering that was al-Andalus. Today Granada is the capital of the modern Spanish province of Andalusia, which takes its name from the Arabic al-andalus ("the land of the Vandals"). That was the name Muslims applied to the southern two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula, including much of what is today southern Portugal, when they ruled it from the early eighth till the end of the 15th century. Though ruled and settled by Muslims, the region was also inhabited by Christians and Jews, and the three groups, in a largely harmonious convivencia, or "living together," created a civilization of remarkable intellectual and artistic brilliance and productivity. (See Aramco World, September/October 1992.)

The heartland of al-Andalus is present-day Andalusia, for it is here that Muslim rule lasted longest and left its most distinct cultural influences. In Granada and in Córdoba, to the northwest, stand three of the great monuments of the Muslim era in Spain: Córdoba's Great Mosque, Granada's historic Albaicin quarter, and the incomparable Alhambra.

Al-Andalus also happens to be my personal favorite part of the world. When the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced in 1995 that the Granada-based Legacy of al-Andalus Foundation (Fundación El Legado Andalusí) had designated a network of 11 travel itineraries called "The Routes of al-Andalus" and had begun promoting history-oriented travel along them, I knew I had to go and try out at least one or two. The idea of tracing pathways that had been the arteries of civilization more than a millennium ago was irresistible: From the map alone I could see that each of las rutas wound among palaces and fortresses, whitewashed villages and undulating olive groves, toothy mountain ridges and back-country forests. Some followed main roads; others included trail segments largely unused for centuries. Many of the places I knew from my previous travels, but al-Andalus never fails to intrigue and to surprise, again and again, and I had not seen all there was to see.

All of "The Routes of al-Andalus" converge on Granada. Although there are some intriguing alternative modes of transport that can be arranged along them—such as horseback (slow, and very "authentic") or mountain bike (faster, and very hip)—I chose the car, the most common way travelers experience the routes today.

Attempting to balance history, scenery and the limits of a magazine assignment, I decided quickly that the longest routes, which originate in Damascus and Timbuktu respectively, were out of the question—though they did point out the close ties between al-Andalus and other parts of the Muslim world. Instead, I chose two other routes which together constituted a short trip that was nonetheless long on history: the "Route of the Caliphate," which runs southeast from Córdoba to Granada, and the "Route of the Alpujarras," which continues in roughly the same direction from Granada to the Mediterranean Sea at Almería. In a way, this is one route, for it is the path followed by travelers from Arabia, the Levant and Central Asia, whose business in the cities of al-Andalus began and ended with a sea journey.

For their parts, the apogees of Córdoba and Granada both represent great moments in history—the 10th and 14th centuries respectively. Córdoba was then the largest city in Europe, seat of the caliphate that rivaled Abbasid Baghdad. The city is remembered for its openness, and for the intellectual passions that made it a center of learning and a true bridge between the Islamic East and pre-Renaissance, Judeo-Christian Europe. Granada, under the Nasrid dynasty of the 13th and 14th centuries, continued Córdoba's advances in the arts, architecture, cuisine, literature and music in what became the slow swan song at the twilight of al-Andalus.

In between these cities lay lands where power and authority ebbed and flowed and, as a result, the rolling, bountiful countryside is today full of watchtowers and garrison castles in varying states of preservation. Many of these defended—or loomed over—towns that grew up huddled close in their shadows, towns that retain many signs of the centuries of Arab rule.

As one might expect, the larger cities have changed more. Inhabitants of old al-Andalus would of course hardly recognize traffic-choked, apartment-block Córdoba. But they would know some of the buildings in the center of town, such as the enormous mosque, with its spacious courtyard, that was—incredibly—built in barely a year in 785. They would know the Roman bridge that still spans the Guadalquivir River, standing up stoically to the thunder of late-20th-century city traffic that passes over it.

Andalusís would also recognize the two-story-high waterwheel downstream from the bridge, and the judería, the old Jewish quarter that starts northeast of the mosque. Today, this is a self-consciously charming maze of narrow streets filled mostly with tourist shops and restaurants tucked into whitewashed buildings that press up against the Arab-built city walls. To judge by the menu at El Caballo Rojo, just a few steps from the mosque, Andalusís might also recognize a few of the revival dishes whose recipes date back a millennium.

In 710, a young Berber officer named Tarif ibn Malik had carried out a successful reconnaissance-in-strength, crossing from Umayyad North Africa to the southern tip of Gothic Spain. In July of 711, the Umayyads sent a stronger force, and an officer named Mughith al-Rumi then laid siege to Córdoba. Several months later he controlled the city, and by 714 the whole territory around Córdoba was in Muslim hands. (See Aramco World, January/February 1993.) Arab governors sent from the east ruled Spain for the following 40 years, then 'Abd al-Rahman I, called al-Dakhil, "the In-comer," founded the independent Umayyad Amirate. Despite regional rebelliousness, Córdoba became a bustling center of trade and industry under the six following amirs, and during the 50-year rule of 'Abd al-Rahman III ("the Victorious") in the 10th century, it grew into a garden of Arab culture and learning that rivaled Cairo and Baghdad.

'Abd al-Rahman III increased the power of the monarchy, elaborated court ceremonial and finally proclaimed himself caliph and commander of the faithful in 929. He unified the territories of al-Andalus and consolidated systems of tax collection, public works, water administration, law and military service, strengthening his army with Berber recruits from North Africa. He humbled the Christian Franks to the north and maintained good relations with the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople. His rule brought a previously unknown degree of prosperity.

Tenth-century Córdoba boasted more than a thousand mosques and more than 800 public baths. Its libraries held as many as 400,000 volumes, and its main streets were lit at night—something London and Paris would not see until some 700 years later. In the hills just outside Córdoba, 'Abd al-Rahman built the palatial Madinat al-Zahra ("Flower City"). Trade and culture flourished, and Muslims, Jews and Mozarabs—culturally "arabized" Christians—lived in a harmony that had little precedent, and has since been rarely replicated.

In the 11th century, the Umayyad Amirate fragmented and local governors or military leaders established a score or more petty, weak, quarrelsome, ethnically varied, hedonistic, irresponsible and in some cases culturally brilliant "factional" kingdoms. Some were not above intriguing or even allying themselves with Christian rulers of the north. In 1236 the Castilian king Ferdinand III entered Córdoba. Granada, to the south, became the Muslim capital, where the Nasrid kingdom endured to rule a greatly diminished territory for another 250 years.

It was thus that the country between Córdoba and Granada became contested ground. Nonetheless, the demands of trade made the route between the cities one that was heavily traveled despite all changes in authority, as it had been for centuries before. Today, its path is traced by national highway N-432.

Leaving the charm of old Córdoba, I crossed the Guadalquivir River on a modern bridge not far from the Roman one, and soon the road started to wind through heavily cultivated, rolling lowlands. Corn, sunflowers, cotton and soon olive groves spread like irregular ocean swells to the horizon. Amid the crops are irrigation systems that follow the paths of—and occasionally still use—the acequías, or channels, originally built by Muslims.

The first town of any size along the road is Espejo, whose name is understood to mean "watchtower." Under Muslim rule it was called Al-Qalat, "the castle." Inhabited since prehistoric times, the present-day town's blindingly whitewashed buildings climb narrow streets and lanes toward the castle, which was built after the fall of Muslim Córdoba by the Mudejars, the Spanish Muslims who remained to live under Christian rule.

In a town as clean as it is uniformly white, the women of Espejo mop not only their doorsteps, but the very streets in front of their homes. For a millennium-old culinary experience, I found that bakeries in town carried perrunas, bollos de leche, mustachones and cuajado, all typical sweets made with varying combinations of almonds, eggs and lots of sugar—a combination first popularized in the region by the Muslims, and now regarded as distinctively Andalusian. (See Aramco World, September/October 1989.)

Now climbing gently toward the headwaters of the Guadajoz River, I passed orchards, vegetable gardens, vineyards and fields of beans, peas, alfalfa, corn, and cotton. Castro del Rio, a town of Roman origins later fortified by Muslims, stands gleaming white, nestled in a landscape of countless shades of sun-soaked green.

A little further along the increasingly serpentine road, the larger town of Baena rises on a steep hill in the middle of neatly cultivated fields. Unbroken in its compact whiteness, it is a stunning, archetypal vista, the very definition of the farming-town-about-the-castle. But for the cars and a few television aerials, I could have believed that time had stood still here for hundreds of years, and the scale of the buildings, the curves of the streets—and something else indefinable—gave the town that unmistakable look of Arab influence.

The oldest part of Baena is called Almedina—from the Arabic al-madinah, "the city"—and it surrounds the ninth-century castle. Purely Moorish, it is another labyrinth of two-cart-wide streets and one-horse lanes. Next to the castle is the small church of Santa María la Mayor. As the guidebooks prepared for las rutas point out, its flamboyant Gothic style rises on the foundations of a mosque. The Moorish look of the town was overpowering and, as I walked the streets, I began to feel pleasantly disoriented. I nearly greeted in Arabic a group of black-clad women hurrying along in the blinding sunshine.

Where there was a view of the surrounding countryside, it was idyllic. At one point, I found bright red poppies growing nearby, and behind them rolled fields of more olive trees than I ever knew existed.

According to the guidebook, there was Moorish cuisine to be found in Baena, too. It cited a fish soup that uses bitter oranges; a casserole of lima beans; pitarque (or "orchard gazpacho," a cold soup based on garden vegetables); chicken with an almond sauce and several time-tested vegetable stews. At a roadside restaurant in the next town, Luque, I allowed myself to be enticed into buying a bottle of what the proprietor swore was the world's best virgin olive oil, as well as some sweet, tasty, tiny dried figs done "exactly the way los moros prepared them," he assured me. Munching them as I drove later, I decided I couldn't argue with him on the quality.

Like the next two towns, Alcaudete and Alcalá la Real, every single major settlement along this route is overlooked by an Arab-built fortress, often in ruins. Every strategic peak, it seems, is topped by a stone tower—most built by Arabs, though a few later ones were put up by Christians.

Yet the Arab fortresses were most often not entirely new constructions: They expanded Roman ones, or rose atop their foundations, just as there is many an Andalusian church that has been built over a mosque. Sometimes this change brought only cosmetic alterations; sometimes it involved significant reconstruction. This process has the interesting result that many older churches of al-Andalus are oriented toward Makkah.

As the N-432 approaches Granada, the fecund air of the plains picks up the first traces of acrid city smog. But before I got to the city, I found a road to the town of Pinos Puente that rose into what was still cool crispness, to a spot that I found magical. It was a bit less well-traveled than I had expected, and I stopped to ask a woman if I was on the right road. Yes, she told me, "but be very careful. It is narrow, very steep and there are hundreds of curves." As I rose, the air cleared, and then it cooled. Again there were olive groves on both sides of the road. After about fifteen minutes I saw a little sign on the left that read mirador—"scenic overlook," it would have been on an American road sign.

It was but a short walk. Alone, seemingly at the top of the world, I was enveloped in the scents of wildflowers, rosemary and thyme. Almond trees loaded with small, fuzzy-green almonds covered the hilltop. Birds sang. In front of me the land dropped steeply, and the almond trees gave way to figs. Beyond them, on the other side of the valley, lay the town of Moclín, whose name comes from Arabic hisn al-muklin, or "fortress of the pupils." From the cluster of white houses at the bottom of the valley, Moclín rose and narrowed up a hillside nearly as high as my own, crowned by a nearly intact fortress.

I sat down on a rock, cracked open a few green almonds with a stone, and imagined myself about 600 years back in time, when Moclín was an important link in a defensive chain that protected Granada's Nasrid kingdom against the Castilians to the north and west. Even the almond trees probably grew in this same spot, six hundred years ago, because at that time their fruits were integral to the cuisine of al-Andalus—especially its sweets. The fig trees, too, would have been here, and the architecture of Moclín itself would not have appeared all that different from what I saw today. Voices of children at play rose from below, and from somewhere else came the lower-pitched talk and laughter of two farmers.

Later that day in Granada, I couldn't help contrasting that splendidly peaceful spot with the far different majesty of the Alhambra. Three million visitors a year walk along its fortifications, through its intricately tiled halls, salons and patios, and around its beautifully kept gardens. The daily total is limited by the Spanish authorities, and there are times when one can get in only by arriving early in the day. In contrast, I doubt whether three visitors a day made it up to my special mirador, a place that to me held at least as many insights about the region and its history as the Alhambra itself.

Perhaps too fresh from my solitude, I decided to skip the Alhambra's crowded interior and stroll instead along the Darro River and into the intensely Moorish Albaicín quarter. As I walked, I marveled at the silhouette of the Alhambra's red-glowing walls at sunset, and at how they loomed when viewed from below, along the river's edge. Gradually the old streets gave way to the new, filled with shops, cafés, restaurants and interrupted by plazas where there are always, it seems, children playing. As evening fell, guitarists worked corners for pesetas.

Over the years, ink enough to fill the Darro itself has been put to paper in praise of Granada, and heartfelt descriptions of it have inspired poets for generations. "Who has not heard of and admired Granada, even without ever having been there?" asked the writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón in the 19th century. And who, indeed, has not seen and enjoyed romantic 19th-century prints of Granada, or the travel photographs that are their modern equivalents? After nearly 800 years of Muslim rule, the last king of Granada, Muhammad XII Abu 'Abd Allah—known in the West as Boabdil—surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella on November 25, 1491. Following chivalric custom, the victors allowed him some weeks for the possible relief of the city, but none came. Granada changed hands on January 2, 1492, and Boabdil left the Alhambra four days later by an obscure path. He stopped for a brief, reportedly courteous, exchange with the Christian monarchs and then journeyed south into exile, to the small principality he was ceded in the Alpujarras mountains, through which passes the ruta I was about to trace between Granada and the coast.

As his sad court journeyed south, it is said that they paused at a high point now called El Suspiro del Moro, "The Moor's Sigh," and looked back for a last glimpse of their glorious hilltop Alhambra in the distance. Bitterly, Boabdil's mother, 'Aisha, said to her son, "Weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!" Crossing the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra de Gádor in the Alpujarras region, 1 wound through gullies and crested passes, the road hanging on mountainsides to skirt peaks that top 3000 meters (10,000'). I crossed the deepest ravines over bridges that predated Boabdil's exile in what is to me one of the loveliest parts of all of Spain.

Here the northern mountains fend off the chill north winds, and a lower range between the Alpujarras and the Mediterranean, called La Contraviesa, offers protection against the heat of North Africa to the south, whose coastline is visible between sea and sky on clear days. The result is a uniquely delightful year-round climate.

Yet the Alpujarras remains an isolated, rugged region, sparsely populated except along this main route. Whatever outside influences took root flourished longer here than anywhere else. Though by September or October of 1492 Boabdil had departed his concession for Morocco, where he vanished from history, the Moorish population of the Alpujarras rebelled repeatedly in the 75 years that followed the fall of Granada, objecting to Castilian breaches of the capitulations that had officially embodied the surrender. In 1569, rebel leader Fernando de Valor—his Muslim name was Maulvi 'Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Umayya—declared, "We are in Spain, and we have ruled this land for nine hundred years.... We are no band of thieves but a kingdom, nor is Spain less abandoned to vices than was Rome." His forces fought stubbornly for three years, and he was defeated only when King Philip II summoned assistance from the army of Don Juan of Austria.

As for traveling through the Alpujarras, the "Routes of al-Andalus" guidebook calls this "not a route of monuments, of large fortified buildings, sumptuous palaces and beautiful mosques. It is rather a route where majestic nature and very beauty of the mountains have something to say... [It contains] varied popular architecture of Moorish origin, the ancestral use of water and land and the oldest culinary and craft traditions. It is an itinerary to enjoy with alert senses and an attentive soul, on which one can discover a way of life with a strong Andalusí and, above all, Moorish flavor."

I wouldn't quote this unless it seemed true enough: One can see how alive these traditions are in the region's architecture, ceramics and pottery, textile weaving and the uniquely Andalusian grass-weaving called esparto. It is there in the irrigation ditches and canals, and even the underground irrigation channels.

The evidence is also there in distinctive sweets, such as roscos, soplillos and pestiños, which use the customary Andalusian almonds, sesame seeds, eggs, flour and honey. The omnipresent olive and fig trees are joined here by white mulberry trees, whose leaves fattened silk worms until just a few decades ago. The school children of the Alpujarras still experiment with raising silk worms in little boxes.

Farming of smallholdings still means income for most people here, and the economy of the Alpujarras is suffering from the competition of large-scale agribusinesses in the surrounding regions. The industry that is taking up some of the resulting economic slack is tourism. The three main towns of the region, Pampaneira, Bubión and Capileira, which all cling to the sunny, eastern side of the lush Poqueira Canyon, display improved roads, new restaurants and such guest houses as the Villa Turística de Bubión—really a series of villas, all in keeping with the architectural traditions of the region, modern, but decorated with Alpujarran carpets, stone floors and locally crafted wooden furniture.

As the route wound its way east out of the mountains and descended toward Almería, it left the protected valley, and the air grew warmer and drier as I entered the Taverna desert, which has stood in for the American West in countless Hollywood movies. Here, too, the names along the way—Benecid, Almócita, Benahadux—testify to Arabic origins. At Alhama (from al-hammam, "the baths") de Almería, the baths, which have been there since Roman times, have been renovated as a modern spa.

Approaching the coast, the light gets desert bright till you reach the port city itself and find blue relief in the ocean. Almería was settled by Carthaginians, Romans and Visigoths before the Moors founded the present city in 955. Then, 'Abd al-Rahman III had a huge fortress built on a hilltop to protect it. The Alcazaba still dominates the city, and it remains the city's main historical attraction.

Like other cities in the region, Almería has received its share of accolades from literati through the ages, but today the city has changed. I shall let my guidebook explain, lest I be accused of rudeness: "Nowadays, however, [Almería] in no way resembles the descriptions of these authors, and a chaotic and impersonal planning policy has swallowed nearly all the older, humble white buildings."

Down by the waterfront, however, around the corner from the Gran Hotel Almería there are still some admirable old buildings from the last century. Diminutive sidewalk cafés, splashing fountains and palm trees dot the streets. In the background rest the ships in the harbor, always the final destination along the long road from Córdoba to Granada to the sea.

Regretting the brevity of my journey, I realized that what Dumas said of Granada is no less true of all of al-Andalus. The only pleasure greater than seeing al-Andalus for the first time is seeing it again.

Free-lance photographer and writer Tor Eigeland lived in Spain for 19 years and has undertaken more assignments in al-Andalus than in any other part of the world. He has been contributing to Aramco World for more than 30 years.

This article appeared on pages 22-33 of the March/April 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1999 images.