by Saima Usmani
It is hard to believe that just over a month ago I was sitting in a car exchanging processed [halal] beef jerkies with my mother, cousin and brother in a rented van road-tripping through Spain.
Our first stop was Cordoba, where we saw the Great Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, once the largest masjid of the Muslim world. Now we were going southeast to Granada, the last Muslim stronghold remaining in Islam’s 800-year rule in the Iberian peninsula. Granada is home to the renowned Alhambra, a fortress-palace-garden capital of the once-kingdom, nestled atop a hill overlooking the city.
There was no doubt about the fact that our itinerary had, unbeknownst to us, come to resemble the flight of the Muslims as the Christian armies of Spain pushed them southwards and out of Europe. The Moors flocked to Granada, the last Muslim kingdom, and we did too.
We checked in to a fancy convent-turned-hotel, a chic blend of historical heritage and modern day luxury. The Alhambra was only a ten-minute walk away, a walk that passed us by at least six different halal restaurants.
Our first night in the city, I led us to Carrera del Darro, a beautiful street running alongside the river, for an evening walk. However, my incompetence at life rendered us facing the looming, dark, deserted gates of the Alhambra instead. We climbed a dark path painfully uphill, seeing grand edifices rise up in the blackness around us, not knowing what they were. At some point I was so determined to find a way to the Carrera del Darro that I desperately looked for other people that could possibly tell us the way. Soon, a woman alone came walking down the path. I approached her, while my family watched.
“Hi,” I said brightly. “Speak English?”
She nodded, unsmiling.
“Do you know how I can get to Carrera del Darro?”
“I think…that way.”
“Um, actually I think that goes nowhere. Wait, are you French? Russian?”
“Look, I-I have to go.” Still unsmiling, she sped away.
“I think she was kind of mean,” I told my mother later.
“Are you kidding?” my mother said. “You’re a Muslim woman stopping her alone in the middle of the night in a foreign country. She was terrified of you.”
Needless to say, we did not find Carrera del Darro. So instead, we retraced our steps back down the eerie, darkened paths of the Alhambra grounds, but not without taking a few fun pictures first!
The next day was dedicated to the Alhambra. The Alhambra was the municipal facility, one can say, of the kingdom of Granada. Its walls not only surrounded the Nasrid Palace (the home and offices of the Sultans) but the Alcazaba (the military fortress), a masjid (replaced now by other buildings, of course), and lush gardens now known as “Generalife” (I am not about to get over the strangeness of the name). The Alhambra is built upon a hill overlooking Granada, which was known as Hill Sabika. Just walking through the grounds took a whole day.
The last officially contracted poet of the Muslim sultans of Granada was statesman-assassin Ibn Zamrak. His words on the Alhambra speak for themselves:
The Sabika hill sits like a garland on Granada’s brow,
In which the stars would be entwined,
And the Alhambra (may God preserve it)
Is the ruby set above that garland.
Granada is a bride whose headdress is the Sabika, and whose
jewels and adornments are its flowers.
We trekked through the gardens Generalife (seriously, what sort of name is that?) first.
There was also a site, a little climb up, called the Water Staircase. It was a set of stone stairs winding up with hand railings of trickling water running downstream. The water was clear and cold, and we even drank some (not because we thought it was clean, which it probably wasn’t, but because we were so excited).
The Alhambra is famous for the intricate calligraphy and mosaic along its walls. Even though a lot of it has wasted away, much has been preserved. The detailed calligraphy, done hundreds of years ago by Moorish masters of Islamic-Moroccan art, is known as stucco. The most common phrase that can be seen, from the houses at Generalife to, as you will see, the walls of the Nasrid Palaces is “Wa Laa Ghaalib Illa-Allah.” This means “There is no Victor but Allah.” It was the motto of the Nasrid dynasty.
The next part of the Alhambra to see was the Alcazaba, the kingdom of Granada’s army fortress. Less ostentatious and home to no pretty carvings, the Alcazaba was a series of enormous towers and barracks erected at the forefront of the Alhambra. It was a lot of climbing, but the views from the top of the ramparts were worth it.
Finally, we entered the long-awaited Nasrid Palace, famous for the fine calligraphy in each of its rooms, stucco design seen nowhere else in the world. Each room is so elaborately decorated it makes me wonder how dedicated someone had to be to even finish it (coming from a chronic Professor Calamitous). The decorations are embedded with names of Allah, Qur’anic verses, and poetry.
I was actually able to sneak into parts of the palace that were closed off to visitors, entering the Queen’s private quarters and the make-up rooms, which were considerably smaller and more residential-like than the courts, but no less decorative. My mother kept watch, and gave the signal for when I should return so that the security guards don’t notice.
One of the rooms was assumed to be a throne room for Muhammad V of Granada. On the walls were etched an extremely long poem, according to my handheld tour guide device, that praised the palace itself and the king the palace housed. Ibn Zamrak’s words filled the walls as they bestowed compliments upon Muhammad V.
“…How many a night I passed awake competing with shining stars
In order to praise him by virtue of the pearls of poetry
…He surpassed the full moon in brightness and loftiness
And was satisfied with no friend but perfection
He is the sun which has spread in its beneficence over the earth
And whose light has guided everyone both near and far
He is the salt sea whose waves swell with beneficence
But he is sweet water to every supplicant
…He has good qualities if the garden had their beauty
Its fresh flowers would never fade
Oh son of the proud kings from the family of Khazraj
Possessing a lineage that is powerful and like the dawn exalted.”
I would make a note of any part of this excerpt that disturbed me, but then I would have to make a note of every line, which would take too long. The motto “There is no Victor but Allah” was befitting for rulers settled after years of conquest and strife. But did they stand by it until the very end? Where were the kings that wielded this chant when the poem above was being etched into the walls of court? Where were the honorable warriors when such luxurious palaces and gardens were being built to satisfy the worldly desires of leaders, who are supposed to live the simplest, Islamically?
That being asked, there was one more question I kept thinking: should we be proud of the Alhambra? Muslims, including myself, flock to places like these and remember our glorious past as a nation, our talents, our contributions to the artistic world, but are these palaces, in Granada, Istanbul, Saudi Arabia, New Delhi, monuments to be proud of? They only mark perhaps the omens of our fall, the fall from which we still suffer. We as an Ummah became so entranced by the spoils of the victorious that we lost our way amongst colorful stucco and pillars of gold. Despite that being said, there is no doubt the Alhambra was a product of pure talent and skill, and still a wonder to behold.
The last king of Granada was Muhammad XII, or Emir Boabdil, the man to hand over Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castille. The Muslims had been besieged for 8 months until internal plots and depleted resources led Boabdil to sign a treaty of surrender. As the last Moorish King of Spain looked back upon his precious palace on his way to the exile, it is said that he burst into tears.
Boabdil’s mother cut off his weeping. She said, “Don’t weep like a woman for what you couldn’t defend as a man.” Burn.
Granada fell in January 1942, as Isabella and Ferdinand celebrated. Things were looking up for them: the peninsula was theirs now, the Moors and Jews fleeing for their lives, and an Italian sailor named Christopher sailed west to find them a quicker route to India.
Don’t miss the final piece, Flight of the Moors: Part 3, for the intercontinental voyage to Morocco.