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 Calderia Nueva in the Albaicin 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 Calderia 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 Calderia 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 Calderia
Nueva." The change began around 1983, he explains, when a woman named Antonia Munoz 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 Calderia 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 Cordoba: By the 10th century, under the Umayyad caliph'Abd
al-Rahman III, Cordoba 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 (1335Ð1354), 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 Cordoba-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 Cordoba, 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 Albaicin quarter, the mosque nestles next to the Mirador San Nicolas, 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 Albaicin. 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.
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