history david abulafia
City of Illusions: A History of Granada By Helen Rodgers & Stephen Cavendish
(Hurst 309pp £18.99)
The best way into the history of Granada is to start by considering what the city is not. Robert Irwin began his classic book on the Alhambra by repeating what official tourist guides say, before pointing out that it was all wrong. Helen Rodgers and Stephen Cavendish also enter the history of Granada through untruths, showing how in 1754 the amateur archaeologist Juan de Flores began to dig up supposedly Roman remains there, which he had in fact placed underground himself. Flores was determined to disprove the idea that the city was founded only at the start of the 11th century by the Berber warlord Zawi.
Such ‘illusions’, to quote the title of the book, have been generated throughout the city’s history. In the late 16th century, mysterious lead tablets turned up on the hill of Sacromonte, the caves of which were for centuries home to the city’s Gypsies. These tablets included passages written in curious Arabic letters that seemed to trace the Arab presence in Granada right back to the time of Jesus. They appear to have been forgeries (of uncertain date) produced by Moriscos, descendants of Granada’s Muslim inhabitants who had converted to Christianity following Ferdinand and Isabella’s conquest of the city, who wished to prove that Christian Arabs devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary had been living on the site of Granada long before Zawi’s time. In the brief period of the Napoleonic occupation of Granada, the city’s Corsican governor Horace Sebastiani revelled in the city’s Islamic past, restoring the palaces on the Alhambra hill and adding his own fantastic pseudo-oriental salon, since (rather like the neo-Gothic architects of the 19th century) he was convinced that he was a better master of design than those who had built them originally. By the time the French left, their soldiers had actually destroyed large areas of the Alhambra and the city below. The palaces on the hill were in a sorry state, which enabled enthusiastic architects to re-create the Alhambra as they imagined it, filling in the gaps in the stucco work, adding a dome here or a canopy there and even changing the layout of the rooms.
The Gypsies too were part of the illusion. Gypsies arrived in Spain in the 15th century, and Ferdinand and Isabella did not quite know what to do with them. They claimed to be Christian pilgrims from ‘Little Egypt’ – gitano, their Spanish name, being derived from the word for ‘Egypt’. Being Christian would at least protect them from the fate of the Jews, banished from Spain in 1492, and the Muslims, who by an edict of 1502 faced expulsion if they did not convert to Christianity. The striking feature of 16th-century Granada was its conversion into a Christian city, with a brand-new population of migrants from further north and a new appearance, with monumental Renaissance buildings being thrown up, including the massive cathedral and Charles V’s domineering palace on the Alhambra hill, adjacent to the beautiful courtyards built by the Nasrids, the last Muslim rulers in Spain.
Granada was used to these inflows and outflows of population. In the 11th century it was described as Gharnata al-Yahud (‘Granada of the Jews’), after its Berber rulers welcomed a large Jewish population into the city. Among them were the great Hebrew poet Samuel ibn Naghrila and his ambitious son Joseph, both of whom served as vizier to the ruler. Joseph made the fatal mistake of interfering in a succession dispute. The result was a massacre of
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Jews late in 1066, followed by the migration of many of those who survived to the Christian kingdoms in northern Spain. In the centuries that followed, the rulers of Granada often found themselves paying parias, substantial amounts of tribute money, to one or another of the Christian kings of the north. In the mid-14th century, King Pedro the Cruel of Castile meddled in Granadan politics, yet he was not immune to the attractions of the city, commissioning in his Alcázar at Seville a palace the architectural features of which have much in common with the palaces of the Alhambra.
Rodgers and Cavendish are aware that building the Alhambra palaces and fortifications, living in grandiose style and supporting poets and astronomers all cost a great deal of money, and they offer clues as to where that money came from. During the rule of the Nasrid dynasty, Christian money kept the kingdom on its feet: the Genoese in particular were avid purchasers of its fine silk, elegant pottery, sugar and dried fruits, exporting these costly products through Málaga as far as England and Flanders along the sea route through the Strait of Gibraltar.
The authors take the history of Granada right up to the present, through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. An underlying theme of the later chapters is the different projects to revive the city, which have resulted in the destruction of many of its ancient winding streets. I know Granada quite well, but they know it incomparably better, and I became lost amid all their references to particular streets, since, very oddly, the book has no maps. At times the style is clumsy – the word ‘incredibly’ is used incredibly often. Some aspects of the city’s history, such as the building of the Alhambra palaces or the lead tablets of Sacromonte, are passed over too rapidly. But Rodgers and Cavendish have read deeply, communicate their enthusiasm for the city very well and provide illuminating pictures of its most notable inhabitants, such as the bogus archaeologist Juan de Flores. I wonder, though, whether he was a complete fraud. Digging underneath Granada, he might well have found discarded Roman pillars and mouldings carried off from a nearby ancient site to decorate the new Islamic city. Or is this another illusion?
july 2021 | Literary Review 13