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Granada: Alhambra, Islamic Moors, and Reconquista

Granada, Spain

Granada’s exquisite Alhambra palace shows the sophistication of the Moors, who reigned in Spain (711–1492) until booted out by the Christians in the Reconquista (reconquest). The city’s Royal Chapel holds the tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand — the power couple who shaped modern Spain.

Complete Video Script

Sprawling at the foot of the snow-capped Sierra Mountains, Granada is a thriving city of about 300,000 people. Visitors focus on its old center, where life has a gentility that belies its illustrious past.

Once the grandest city in Spain, its power ebbed and glory faded. It was appreciated mostly by Romantic Age artists and poets. Today, it has a Deep South feel — a relaxed vibe that seems typical of once-powerful places now past their prime. In the cool of the early evening, the community comes out and celebrates life on stately yet inviting plazas.

The story of Granada is all about the Islamic Moors. In the year 711, these North African Muslims crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and quickly conquered the Iberian Peninsula, eventually converting most of its inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages — for over 700 years — Spain was a predominantly Muslim society, living under Muslim rule.

And that age shapes today's sightseeing agenda. Granada's dominant sight is the Alhambra, the last and greatest Moorish palace. Nowhere else does the splendor of that civilization, Al-Andalus, shine so brightly.

For two centuries, until 1492, Granada reigned as the capital of a dwindling Moorish empire. As Christian forces pushed the Moors further and further south, this palace was the last hurrah of a sophisticated civilization.

While the rest of Europe slumbered through much of the Middle Ages, the Moorish civilization was wide awake. The math necessary to construct this palace would have dazzled Europeans of that age.

The Moors made great gains in engineering, medicine, and even classical Greek studies. In fact, some of the great thinking of ancient Greece had been forgotten by Europe, but was absorbed into Islam, and actually given back to Europe via scholars here in Spain.

The culture of the Moors was exquisite… artfully combining both design and aesthetics.

Facing a reflecting pond, the Hall of the Ambassadors was the throne room. It was here that the sultan, seated Oz-like, received foreign emissaries. Its wooden ceiling illustrates a command of geometry. With 8,000 pieces inlaid like a giant jigsaw puzzle, it symbolizes the complexity of Allah's infinite universe.

Arabic calligraphy, mostly poems and verses of praise from the Quran, is everywhere. Muslims avoid making images of living creatures — that's God's work. But decorating with religious messages is fine. One phrase — "only God is victorious" — is repeated 9,000 times throughout the Alhambra.

Like the sultan, we can escape from the palace into what was the most perfect Arabian garden in Andalucía. This royal summer retreat, lush and bursting with water, was the closest thing on earth to the Quran's description of heaven. In fact, its name — the Generalife — meant essentially that: the Garden of Paradise.

Water — so rare and precious in most of the Islamic world — was the purest symbol of life. Whether providing for its 2,000 thirsty residents, masking secret conversations, or just flowing playfully, water was integral to the space the Alhambra created.

For centuries, Europe struggled to push the Moors back into Africa. This campaign was called the Reconquista. Finally, in 1492, the Moors were defeated. The victorious Christian forces established their rule with gusto here in this last Muslim stronghold.

This victory helped provide the foundation for Spain's Golden Age. Within a generation, Spain's king, Charles V, was the most powerful man in the world.

After the re-conquest, Charles built this Renaissance palace incongruously right in the middle of the Alhambra grounds. It's what conquering civilizations do: build their palace atop their foe's palace. This circle-in-a-square structure was the finest Renaissance palace in all of Spain.

And back downtown, Granada's cathedral facade — also built shortly after the re-conquest — declares triumph as well. In fact, its design is based on a triumphal arch, and it was built over a destroyed mosque.

The adjacent Royal Chapel is Granada's top Christian sight. This fine building provided a fitting resting place for Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon, who ruled during the final Reconquista victory. Spaniards consider this couple the first great Spanish royals.

When these two married, they combined their huge kingdoms. And by merging Aragon and Castile, they founded what became modern Spain. With this powerful new realm, Spanish royalty were able to finance many great explorers — including Columbus — and establish Spain's Golden Age.

The royal tombs are Renaissance in style. The portraits of Isabella and Ferdinand are vital and realistic. They seem to celebrate the humanistic spirit of the Renaissance, and with it, a promising future for Spain.

The gilded altar is all about that Christian triumph: Christ triumphs over sin… and Christendom triumphs over Islam. In fact, reliefs show the eventual forced conversion of Granada's Moors shortly after the Reconquista.

For a time near the end of its Moorish period, Granada was the grandest city in all of Spain. But eventually, with the tumult that came with the change from Muslim to Christian rule, the city lost its power and settled into a long slumber. Today's Granada is a delightful mix of both its Moorish and its Christian past.