Light and shade of a complex Eden

Rodgers and Cavendish gamely and colourfully attempt both to tell the stories and capture Granada’s long-standing mysterious appeal


This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

During the pandemic, locals in Granada have come to two realisations. The first: it’s lovely and quiet without all those folk clutching Rough Guides and heading for the palace of the Alhambra. The second: but how on earth can we make a living? As joint authors of City of Illusions: A History of Granada Helen Rodgers and Stephen Cavendish state: “Jobs in tourism can be precarious.” That is something of an understatement of late. Yet it is just another phase in the life of a city with a long, complicated past that has witnessed highs and lows aplenty, with more than its fair share of atrocities, double-crossings and deceptions.

City of Illusions: A History of Granada by Helen Rodgers and Stephen Cavendish (Hurst, £18.99)

During the good times, Granada has acted like a magnet: Arab scholars visiting during Moorish rule; Christian pilgrims flocking to its churches; Romantic poets arriving on Grand Tours; package tourists sweeping in on jets. The bad times have brought horrors: bloodshed between warring Arab factions, mass forced expulsions, Napoleonic troops burning artefacts for firewood, and the terrors of the Civil War. The executions of Republicans in this Nationalist stronghold included that of the gifted local poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

Yet even at the height of the Civil War a gruesome form of tourism kept going, with Franco’s las rutas de guerra (war routes) strategy in full swing, encouraging outsiders to see damage to artworks by “the reds”. These trips to Granada were “ideal propaganda since the Nationalists had likened their fight against the left to the Reconquista against the Moors”, say Rodgers and Cavendish.

The fascination of Granada, Western Europe’s last Muslim capital, is closely tied to its long period of Moorish ascendency culminating in the Reconquista of 1492 as well, of course, as its beautiful mountain setting and evocative ancient buildings. So picturesque the Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza was moved to write: “In life there is nothing like the pain of being blind in Granada.” In City of Illusions, Rodgers and Cavendish gamely and colourfully attempt both to tell the stories and capture Granada’s long-standing mysterious appeal.

As with Franco, many have tried to put a twist on Granada over the years. In 1754 an amateur archaeologist named Juan de Flores faked the discovery of pre-Islamic Roman remains. His purpose, aside from fame and fortune, was to “wash away the shame of [the city’s] heathen past under the Moors”. It worked until the forgeries were realised 15 years later.

Many visitors “passing quickly through” fail to appreciate the enticing city’s complexities

This was not the first attempt to re-write the past. Around 150 years earlier, a “discovery” was made of lead tablets with Arabic inscriptions in caves on the city’s Sacromonte hillside. These suggested the first Arab to arrive in the Iberian Peninsula was the first-century St Caecilius.

This “find” too was an elaborate hoax, made by those forcibly converted to Christianity after the Reconquista. Their aim? To curtail the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Moors by revealing a deep-rooted Christian connection. It took 100 years for the tablets to be declared fakes by papal authorities.

The result of both forgeries was to increase Granada’s heady appeal, with Christian pilgrims soon coming in droves. Combined with the legends of Moorish rule and the splendid Arab-influenced architecture — it was this “mystique of the Orient” that was to attract the Romantic poets.

Rodgers and Cavendish begin with the city’s foundation by a Berber warrior named Zawi ibn Ziri in 1008. The Caliphate of Cordoba had fallen that year and al-Andalus was being carved up by rival North African warriors. Zawi’s decision to move to this high ground proved strategically sound.

A vibrant culture ensued with intellectual studies encouraged, music played on drums and ouds, and a risqué form of poetry arising. Water was channelled along canals known as acequias. Jews and Arabs lived side by side peacefully. Indeed, one of the most influential administrators of the early eleventh century was the Jewish poet, Samuel ibn Naghrilla.

His advice to his son, Joseph, is famous: “Know that the man of understanding is like a tree of sweet fruit whose leaves are healing remedies / While the fool is like the tree of the forest whose limbs and branches will be consumed by fire in the end.”

Sadly, things didn’t go well for the son and the Jews of Granada. Joseph was accused of plotting to overthrow Granada’s king. Riots broke out, resulting in the tragic massacre of Granada’s Jews in 1066.

With instability among the Arab warrior-leaders of al-Andalus and with powerful northern Christian rulers demanding tribute payments, a dark period followed. Control of Granada by the Almoravids, tribesmen from Mauritania, saw strict Islamic law and veiled warriors. “These coverings originally stemmed from the necessity to keep the sand and wind out of faces,” Rodgers and Cavendish write. But in Spain they were “a symbol of intimidating power”.

Christians were persecuted, while elsewhere on the Iberian Peninsula Christian armies were defeating Arab forces. The era ended with the Nasrids taking control of Granada in the fourteenth century and recreating it as an artistic and intellectual centre. Ibn Battuta, the North African traveller, described an Eden-like metropolis of “orchards, gardens, flowery meads, noble buildings and vineyards”.

The “oriental” style of many buildings, touched up over the centuries, is not always quite what it seems

This was to last until peace was shattered by bitter infighting — slit throats, poisonings, murders over the affections of slave girls. On 2 January 1492, the last emir of Granada, Boabdil, surrendered to Isabella and Ferdinand, rulers of the united kingdoms of Castile and Aragon. The keys of the city gates were handed to the Christians (witnessed by Christopher Columbus). Bells rang out across Europe — the “infidel” had been defeated. Most of Granada’s citizens were sold into slavery or forced to leave.

Isabella and Ferdinand’s Alhambra Decree, which banished Jews from Spain came on 31 March 1492. The deadline for departure of 31 July meant properties and possessions were sold rapidly and those fleeing “suffered robbery, rape, murder and even kidnap by slave traders”.

Forced conversions of Muslims to Christianity came in 1502. The pejorative term of “Morisco” for such people was introduced; Muslims were soon having to practice Islam behind closed doors. This they did until 1569 when they were rounded up with hands tied and sent out from the city. In 1609 Philip III ordered the expulsion of all Moriscos from Spain. 300,000 were removed.

City of Illusions vividly describes the light and shade of Granada’s history. Many visitors “passing quickly through” fail to appreciate the enticing city’s complexities, say Rodgers and Cavendish: “Modern guidebooks tend to gloss over — or worse, omit — the changes that have, down the centuries, made the city what it is today, in favour of savouring an Orientalist idea.” Readers will not fall into that trap. There is more to the hillside of Sacromonte than caves and flamenco shows. The “oriental” style of many buildings, touched up over the centuries, is not always quite what it seems.

In 2003, the first officially recognised mosque in Granada since the fifteenth century was inaugurated, a hugely symbolic event with multiculturalism on the rise. Yes, “city of illusions”, but also one of many twists and turns. Jump on a Ryanair flight to see for yourself. The Granadinos want your business.

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