Travel Guide to
Muslim Europe With travel writer and European Muslim heritage specialist Tharik Hussain
The Jewel in the
Muslim European crown
omeone once said, “When you have visited the Alhambra once, you spend the rest of your life waiting to go back…” Few phrases better sum up Europe’s most famous Islamic monument in Granada, Spain. Yet, it is not the Alhambra per se that one is eager to return to.
For the Alhambra - from the Arabic alqala’at al-hamra, to mean ‘red castle’ because of the red hill it is perched upon - is an entire palatial city with a mixture of monumental segments constructed by various Muslim and Christian rulers. The section that is on the cover of every guidebook and in the mind’s eye is what might be deemed the ‘jewel’ in this Muslim European crown - The Palacios Nazares or The Nasrid Palace - that exquisite series of quarters once home to the dynasty after whom it is named. This is the Alhambra that hypnotises the visitor - the delicately balanced symmetry of the Courtyard of the Myrtles, the stunning Patio of Lions where elegantly slim pillars resembling a forest of palms - hold aloft mesmerising, engraved arabesque arches. Both spaces are open to the elements and use the water in ways that leave the uninitiated aghast. “Water forms the mysterious life of
the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence. Just as the Qur’an describes Paradise, “An orchard flowing with streams.””- Titus Burckhardt, German-Swiss connoisseur of Islamic art and architecture. Then there is Comares Tower with its dazzling facade of intricate carvings and Arabic calligraphy praising God and His Messenger, and the Hall of the Kings where each honeycombed stuccoed arch resembles the one before it like a vision of infinite mirrors. It goes on and on. This is what the seekers come looking for. This is what evokes that dreamy, imagined epoch of European history we call ‘Al-Andalus’. And yet, ironically, the city of Granada and the Alhambra only reached its own cultural zenith long after the ‘Golden Age’ of Al-Andalus had come to an end. That age began in the early 8th century and lasted up until the middle of the 11th. It was founded by the Muslim European Umayyad dynasty, an offshoot of the Syrian-based Umayyads, centred around their capital city of Cordoba,
which at its height was the most enlightened city in all of Europe. “Many of the traits on which modern Europe prides itself came to it from Muslim Spain. Diplomacy, free trade, open borders, the techniques of academic research, of anthropology, etiquette, fashion, various types of medicine, and hospitals, all came from this great city of cities.” - Prince Charles, Prince of Wales The Alhambra was actually being built as Al-Andalus was crumbling and becoming a series of disparate feudal kingdoms - taifas, and its founder wasn’t even Muslim. The Alhambra, or a palace on the hill where the Alhambra now stands, was first built by the great Jewish scholar, poet and vizier Samuel Ibn Naghrillah at the start of the 11th century. The Muslim rulers of Granada at the time - the Zirid sultans - lived in a palace in the Albayzin - Granada’s historic quarter. As each taifa was being slowly picked off by the Christians descending from the north, an Arab whose family trace their roots back to Madinah, called Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Nasr, took hold of Granada in 1231. It was Ibn Nasr that decided to make the Alhambra his family home and it was his dynasty – the Nasrids – that was