A Tale of Two Cities: Granada and Cairo
“Give him alms, woman, for nothing in this life is sadder than being blind in Granada,” said Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza
This year is like no other in the history of Granada, for it marks its millennium. One thousand years have passed since the city was founded by Berber warlords during the civil war that brought Umayyad rule to an end and paved the way for the Taifa kingdoms that heralded the gradual fall of Al-Andalus until the final re-conquest of Granada in 1492.
Famous worldwide for the Alhambra, the city has much more to offer, especially for those with a passion for Islamic history. The story begins in the tenth century somewhere in Mahdiya, a city in Tunisia, and eventually develops into the founding of two cities: Al-Qahira (Cairo) in 969 AD and Gharnata (Granada) in 1013 AD.
When the Fatimid Caliphate appeared in 909 AD, it had Mahdiya as its first capital. Later on, when the Fatimids finally moved to their new capital in Cairo around 972 AD, they had to leave someone behind to rule the central Maghreb in their name. This someone was Buluggin Ibn Ziri, a trusted Berber chief.
An offshoot of his family, namely Zawi ibn Ziri, preferred to try his luck away from home. A soldier-of-fortune, he decided to move with his men to Al-Andalus to participate in the civil war there. These were dangerous times, but Zawi managed to consolidate his position, found a new fortified city (Granada) and start a new taifa (fiefdom) that would rule between 1013 and 1090.
The Zirid monuments can still be visited in Granada today. The most interesting of these monuments are Hamam Al-Jawza (a public bath), Qantarat Al-Qadi (the remaining tower of a bridge), and a number of old city gates, some of them huge (like Bab Elvira), and others hidden or already integrated into the urban fabric (like Bab Al-Asad).
A little more than forty years separate the foundation of Cairo and Granada, the former, founded by the Fatimids as their new capital, and the latter, founded by their agents, the Zirids. Was there a similarity in the art, architecture and cultural traditions of both cities given this link? Yes, but only to an extent. The fact that the Zirids arrived in Al-Andalus during times of turmoil made them focus on building fortifications to protect themselves from the warring factions. Later on, as they finally felt more secure about their rule, their artistic production showed elements of Fatimid art that can best be observed in their pottery. A motif that they clearly borrowed from the Fatimids is the intricate filters for water jars, and another is the lion, rabbit and gazelle depictions on ataifors (large bowls).
Nevertheless, another cultural phenomenon became common in both Granada and Cairo in the eleventh century, spurred by the Fatimids and adopted by the Zirids: the obsession with astrology and the weight they put on it in social and even political life. This obsession is evident in Kitab Al-Tibyan, autobiography of the last Zirid king of Granada, and in the foundation myths about Cairo reported by famous historians like Al-Maqrizi.
Granada of the Nasrids
The Zirids might have founded Granada, but the city had its golden age (and its last days as the nucleus of an Islamic kingdom) under the Nasrids (1232-1492), better known as Banu Nasr. Great patrons of art and culture, their court witnessed the revival of the Umayyad ‘cultural salon’ tradition, with prominent poets and musicians outdoing themselves to impress the king and his entourage.
Celebrated as the founders of the legendary Alhambra, their palaces still stand today in Granada, adorned with every art form imaginable: carved stucco, zellij (intricate terracotta tile work), ataurique (a decorative floral motif, from the Arabic word for leaf), and verses of Ibn Zamraq, Ibn Al-Jayyab and Ibn Al-Khatib praising the kings and paying homage to the marvels of the Alhambra.
This is not, however, the only thing they are remembered for. The court conspiracies and the political division of Banu Nasr paved the way for the fall of Granada to the Catholic monarchs in 1492, with Boabdil (Abu Abdalla, the last Nasrid king) delivering the keys of the Alhambra to Ferdinand and Isabella. What followed was an ordeal. The peace treaty was violated from the Spanish side, a wave of forced Christianisation began, the Inquisition cornered those who were believed to practice Islam in secret and tens of thousands of valuable manuscripts and books were burnt as manuals of heresy.
Over five hundred and twenty years have passed since that time (and one thousand years since Granada was founded), but the city’s main attractions remain the Nasrid and Zirid monuments in the Alhambra and Albayzín, while the streets and squares of present-day Granada still carry their ancient Arabic names: Alcaicería (Al-Qaysariyya, covered market), Bib-rambla (Bab Al-Ramla) and Almanzora (Al-Mansura) are just a few examples.
A comprehensive programme of lectures, guided visits, concerts, international conferences and other cultural activities make a visit to Granada this year worthwhile. Combining the visit with a trip to the Mezquita of Cordova and the Giralda in Seville would make for an even more interesting cultural itinerary through Andalusia.