Cambridge Academic delves into the history of Granada

Beauty built on blood and brutality! Cambridge Academic delves into the history of Granada in a fascinating new tome

  • Elizabeth Drayson explores the relevance of history for how Granada is today
  • Cambridge academic claims it was a place of ‘beauty and cultural diversity’ 
  • For all the attempts to erase its Arab past, Granada retains an exotic feel 


by Elizabeth Drayson (Head of Zeus £35, 464 pp)

As generations of schoolchildren have had drummed into them, 1492 was the year that Christopher Columbus set off from Spain to make his epic voyage to the Americas.

That year saw another pivotal event, when the Sultan of Granada surrendered the keys of the city to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, bringing to an end almost 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain. And as this absorbing book shows, what happened in Granada half a millennium ago is still surprisingly relevant to how we live today.

Granada had been colonised by the Romans in 44BC, followed 400 years later by the Visigoths who — contrary to their reputation as barbarians — made Granada a place of learning and culture. They ruled until 711, when Muslim forces from Africa conquered most of Spain.

Cambridge academic Elizabeth Drayson explores how what happened half a millennium ago in Granada is still relevant to how we live today in a fascinating new book (file image)

Granada is the Spanish word for ‘pomegranate’, and images of the fruit still adorn the city’s walls. Under Moorish rule, the Christian and Jewish inhabitants of Granada were joined by Arabs from Africa and the Middle East, creating a multi-ethnic and multi-religious city.

It was, Elizabeth Drayson says, a place of ‘beauty and cultural diversity’. Filled with olives, figs, pomegranates, oranges and lemons, its silk was highly prized, while gold, silver, iron, copper, lead and mercury were found in abundance in the rocks.

In 1238, Muhammad I ordered the construction of the superb palace known as the Alhambra, with almost ten miles of underground passages to ensure invaders would get hopelessly lost. Its interior was splendidly opulent, shimmering with vividly painted walls and coloured ceramic tiles, ‘. . . a vision of intense, all-embracing colour’, Drayson writes, matched by the glories of the garden.

Muhammad was succeeded by his son, whose death by poisoned cake 30 years later was rumoured to be at the hands of his own heir.

After that, the dynasty seemed cursed by bloody infighting. Sultans came and went at a bewildering rate — one died after putting on a poisoned gold tunic — but as they squabbled, the threat of attack from Spain’s Christian kingdoms grew ever stronger.

In 1469, Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting their two kingdoms. Determined to reclaim Granada as a Catholic city, they cut off its supplies and, faced with its residents being starved to death, Boabdil, the last sultan, soon surrendered.

LOST PARADISE by Elizabeth Drayson (Head of Zeus £35, 464 pp)

It was decreed that all Jews must either become Christians or leave Spain. Those found guilty by the Spanish Inquisition of secretly practising Judaism were burnt at the stake, and soon almost the entire Muslim population of Granada was deported.

For all the attempts to erase its Arab past, Granada retains an exotic feel. The Alhambra, one of the world’s most sublime buildings, attracts three million visitors a year: ‘Europe’s love letter to Moorish culture’, as the Lonely Planet guide aptly puts it.

Drayson, a Cambridge academic who clearly adores the city, says Granada’s history is a powerful testament to the way in which a place can transcend religious and cultural fragmentation and achieve what the Spanish call convivencia, or living side by side.

Despite its complex and violent past, Granada may yet prove to be a beacon for the future.

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