Andrew Graham-Dixon explores Spain's art history. He travels from Cordoba to Granada via Seville, examining the influence of Moorish culture.
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MUSIC: "Y Viva Espana" by Sylvia
# Oh this year I'm off to sunny Spain
# Y viva Espana... #
Too often we think of Spain
as two weeks on the beach.
# ..Y viva Espana... #
But there's another Spain.
Spain has produced
some of the most startling
and original art ever created.
Art that has been unfairly
overshadowed by the rest of Europe.
Art that we know little about.
But Spanish art is the art
that we need to know about...
because it holds the key
all of Europe and its culture.
It was in Spain and its empire
that so many of Europe's
great battles were played out.
Christianity versus Islam...
Catholic versus Protestant...
Fascist versus Socialist.
In this series, I'm going to
travel this country of extremes,
exploring its turbulent past and
discovering its extraordinary art.
I'm starting in the South.
For many visitors, this IS Spain.
But away from the beaches
there are magnificent sights.
reminders of a different culture
from a distant time,
when Spain was called Al Andalus.
What's often forgotten
is that for over 700 years
much of Spain was ruled by Muslims
and the South was its beating heart.
Southern Spain was a unique
frontier, where east met west
with explosive results.
This is the story of how Islamic
Spain became one of the most
remarkable civilisations ever seen.
One that's shaped Spain
and the rest of Europe ever since.
Right at the tip of Southern Spain,
a huge rock explodes out
of the Mediterranean.
But the rock isn't Spanish.
And long before Britain owned it,
the Rock of Gibraltar belonged to
another foreign power,
a power that ruled it
for nearly 800 years.
On 30th April in the year 711,
an Arab general
named Tariq ibn Ziyad
sailed across these waters
from North Africa
with an army of 5,000
Arab and North African soldiers
and invaded Gibraltar.
He gave the rock its name,
Jabal Al Tariq - Tariq's Mountain.
He used it as the launch pad for the
Islamic conquest of Christian Spain.
Just 25,000 troops
marched across the country,
as they went.
After just three years,
the invasion was complete.
Only the far-flung provinces
of the extreme North resisted,
protected by impassable mountains.
But the rest of Spain was now
part of a vast Islamic empire
which reached as far as India.
Even its name was changed,
from Spain to Al Andalus,
and its new rulers were an
assortment of Arabs, North Africans,
Egyptians and Syrians...
Now Spain was pretty much used to
being conquered by foreign invaders
over the centuries.
The Romans, the Celts
and the Visigoths had all had a go
at ruling this vast land
and, by all accounts,
the primitive peoples of Spain
had been a bit of a soft touch.
But you might have been forgiven
the collision between Muslim
invaders and a Christian people
would have had
some fairly explosive results
and there was an explosion but
not of the kind you might expect.
an explosion of art and culture.
The story of this art and culture
remains shockingly neglected
but I think it's the key
the whole of Spanish art
and its unique intensity.
The first great flowering
of Moorish culture
in the new capital city of Cordoba.
By the late eighth century,
the Moors had turned Cordoba
into the brightest, wealthiest
and busiest city in Europe.
Its fame reached as far as
a quiet cloister in Saxony,
where a Christian nun
described the city
as "the brilliant ornament
of the world".
This glittering city
was all the work of one young man.
His name was Abd al-Rahman
and he was an exile.
His family had ruled Damascus
but in the year 750 they were
all killed in a brutal civil war.
Abd al-Rahman was the sole survivor
of the massacre
and he fled all the way
from Syria to Cordoba,
where he quickly established himself
as the Caliph,
or ruler, of Al Andalus.
His passage through life
had hardly been easy
but he was to turn out to be
one of the most influential figures
in world history,
someone who kick-started a complete
revolution in Western society.
He did so by attempting to
recreate the splendours of his
native Damascus here in Cordoba.
He wanted to turn this place
into a kind of paradise on earth.
Under Abd al-Rahman,
a great civilisation would be
born here on Spanish soil.
I'm here really
to try and find out about Cordoba
as it was in the Golden Age.
There were many, many
philosophers and artists...
that was coming to Cordoba
Modern science have many roots
in this time, in Cordoba.
In astronomy and philosophy,
in physic, in all the knowledge.
Can be like a revolution, you know,
like a cultural revolution.
So if somebody say around 900
came from Paris or London
and arrived in Cordoba,
what impression do you think
it would have made on them?
It's like when if now the people
who are living
in the poor countries go to
New York now, or Paris, or London,
or Madrid. I think this
can be the same impression.
At the heart of Abd al-Rahman's
paradise on earth
was the Great Mosque of Cordoba.
When work began here
in the 8th century,
Islam was only a century old,
which makes this
one of the first mosques ever built.
The Great Mosque
is a forest of stone columns
which seem to go on forever -
as far as the eye can see.
The effect is a bit like being
in a hall of mirrors.
You actually feel lost in here,
and that's the point.
The worshipper feels
in the presence of something
mysterious and infinite...
perhaps God himself.
the direct representation of God
or any living being is forbidden.
The designers couldn't use pictures
or statues to inspire religious awe,
the forms of architecture itself.
And the design of the mosque
is uniform throughout,
so wherever you stand
in this amazing
never-ending forest of stone,
you feel the same connection to God.
Early Islam was a religion
without clergy and liturgy.
You just entered the space
So it was vital for the architects
to create a building
in which everyone felt equal.
This is spiritually
I found the experience of visiting
the Great Mosque really powerful.
I think it's all the more moving
when you think about the man
who created it, Abd al-Rahman.
Now we don't know
a great deal about him but we
do know that he left us one poem.
It's a poem about a palm tree
that he found
that had seeded itself somewhere
out on the plains of Al Andalus.
He saw it as a symbol of himself.
He wrote an ode to it. The palm,
he said, was like me, it's an exile.
It reminded him of his family.
It was a very important symbol
to any Arab living in Spain.
It symbolised water,
Now, of course,
that palm-tree has gone forever
but I wonder if this mosque
with its endlessly repeated columns,
isn't a thousand palm trees
preserved forever in stone.
But slap bang
in the middle of the prayer hall
is something profoundly
..a Catholic cathedral.
In the 16th century,
long after the fall of the Moors,
Cordoba's Christian rulers
demolished the central columns
of the mosque
and erected this vast temple
planted in the centre of a mosque.
It's like a great parasite
in its belly.
Even the great Catholic Emperor
Charles V, who authorised
the construction of the cathedral,
realised he'd made a terrible
mistake. When it was complete he
rounded on the architects,
"You've taken something unique and
turned it into something mundane."
Now, I think you can still
appreciate the beauty of the mosque,
but as an act of cultural vandalism,
I've never seen anything like it.
It's like a sort of dagger plunged
into the heart of the mosque.
a really heavy-handed imposition
of one set of religious values
and there's something quite ugly
So much of the later story
of Spain would be dominated
by religious conflict.
But during the Golden Age
of Al Andalus,
back in its 9th and 10th century
the religious realities
were quite different.
The extraordinary fact
is that here in Al Andalus,
uniquely the three religions
lived together in relative harmony.
Now, Islam regarded Jews and
Christians as "People of the Book"
whose holy writings
were to be respected
as forerunners of the
Prophet Muhammed's final revelation.
So the conquering Moors
made no effort
to convince the Christians
and the Jews to convert
and they even,
as the Koran commanded,
gave them freedom of worship.
For over 200 years
the three religions rubbed along
Friendships and marriages
flourished across the faiths.
Many Christians and Jews
held prominent positions
in the Islamic state.
how fully integrated really
were these three different
religious groups in Cordoba -
the Jews, the Christians,
TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH:
So was this society
a kind of paradise on earth?
In the heart
of the old town of Cordoba
stands an extraordinary testament
to the interplay
between the three religions
during the Golden Age of Al Andalus.
At first sight everything about this
space seems 100% Islamic.
Look at that fantastic
look at those beautiful shapes
like flames cut from stone.
But everything here
isn't quite as it seems.
Because that writing,
it's not Arabic... it's Hebrew.
This isn't a mosque.
It's a synagogue.
The Jewish population of Al Andalus
fared particularly well
under Arab rule.
Under the Christians in the
sixth and seventh centuries
they'd been persecuted.
Under Islam they prospered,
becoming successful merchants,
reaching the highest positions
Nowadays we tend to think of
these two great religions,
Judaism and Islam,
as naturally opposed to one another,
but this space is a reminder
that it wasn't always so,
that here in Cordoba,
once upon a time,
Jews and Muslims lived
not as enemies but as brothers.
So I think
this small unassuming space
actually contains rather
a large lesson for the modern world.
The Christians of Al Andalus
were just as keen to embrace
Many even converted to Islam.
300 years of Islamic occupation,
75% of the population
had become Muslim.
But even those who didn't convert
were profoundly affected
by the Arab way of life.
They were known Mozarabs,
and they adopted the dress, language
and customs of their rulers.
It's hardly surprising
that the peoples of medieval Spain
should have been so seduced
by Arab civilisation.
this was a cultural desert.
They were leading dour, simple
lives and suddenly along comes
but, above all, sensual culture.
And, for me,
almost its greatest symbol
is the beautiful Arab bath house,
a kind of temple of sensual delight.
As well as luxuriating
in the bath house,
the Moors introduced new fashions,
hairstyles and perfumes.
They also brought toothpaste
and underarm deodorant
to the West for the first time.
The Moors treated every aspect of
life as if it were a work of art -
whether it was clothes,
or cosmetics, or food.
The Moors also introduced
to Spain a whole new world
of culinary delights.
They brought in the idea
of eating in courses
and they brought with them
a whole new range of ingredients
Western European cookery -
rice, coffee, sugar,
citrus fruits, coriander, basil.
And they turned cooking
into an art form.
'For the last 40 years Don
Pepe has run a restaurant in Cordoba
in Moorish cuisine.'
What are we eating? Is this a
typical Moorish influenced dish?
TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH:
Why do you think food
was so important to the Moors?
And if you had to choose
just one thing
that the Moors did
for world cooking, what would it be?
But for the Moors,
food wasn't the only part
of the dining experience,
they also enjoyed a drink.
forbids the consumption of alcohol,
but we know that it was produced
in large quantities
throughout Islamic Spain.
Alcohol itself is an Arabic word.
Now they used it in cosmetics and in
medicine, but they also drank it,
and they even introduced
a distillation process
that would result in that most
Spanish of drinks - sherry.
Como es usted.
How are you?
You're the man
with the secret way of getting
the sherry from the casks!
I'll believe it when I see it.
Can I have a go?
So I just sort of swing it?
Yeah, it's easy to get it all
over the floor...
Oh, that's good?!
I'd say that's about two out of ten.
But as well as indulging the senses,
the Moors were also intent
on developing the mind.
Reading was so valued
that they turned script itself into
a coiling, ornate form of art.
The Koran encouraged learning,
saying that it brought
you closer to God.
And the Moors
took this decree to heart.
Cordoba was full of libraries,
one of which was reputed to
contain over 400,000 books -
ten times more than the contents
of the libraries
of the rest of Europe put together.
The Moors made great advances
in philosophy, literature,
science and mathematics.
The Arab contribution to Western
thought was truly enormous.
Among other things
it was through Al Andalus
that the West
all of ancient Greek philosophy,
through Al Andalus
that we got the Hindu-Arabic
number system, our number system.
The development of logical thought,
how we count and calculate -
it's fair to say
that the foundations
for all of these things were laid
in the great centres
of Spanish-Islamic learning,
As you drive round the landscape
of Southern Spain, it's full
of a sense of the Moorish past.
There are these little castles
surrounded by tiny,
little white villages.
But I think it was the landscape
that they altered most of all,
because whereas for the Romans,
Spain had just been the arse-end
of Empire, a dry and barren place,
to these people from the desert,
this was a land
full of agricultural possibility,
and they brought with them
a whole range of techniques
for farming dry land -
systems of irrigation, canals. They
planted out olives and vineyards.
And, as a result, there was
a huge population explosion.
Suddenly people had more than
enough to eat, they had more
than enough water to drink.
really had never had it so good.
And in the countryside
outside Cordoba, the greatest symbol
of Islamic power and influence
in Spain rose out of the ground.
These ruins are all that's left
of the most splendid palace
ever built by the Moors -
Madinat al Zahra.
It was built in the 10th century
the might of Abd al-Rahman III,
descendant of the great exile
who'd founded the Golden Age.
In the year 929,
al-Rahman proclaimed himself
not only Caliph of Al Andalus, but
ruler of the entire Islamic empire.
And to celebrate this audacious
act of self-promotion,
he built this vast palace complex,
the size of a city.
It was to become
the Versailles of Spain,
the epitome of the Islamic palace.
Wow. It is fantastically impressive
but just think how much more
impressive it must have been
when this place was in its heyday,
and gold and silver and magnificent
textiles decorated every surface.
Apparently one room even contained a
vast, suspended vat full of mercury,
and at the caliph's command
a servant would bang it
and the mercury would ripple,
and light would dance and sparkle
on every surface.
It must have been a bit like some
medieval, Islamic glitter ball.
And the guests would
reel backwards in awe and terror.
But this city was also meant
to touch the soul.
In the Koran, the words of Muhammed
dictated in the desert,
paradise is described
as "a garden flowing with streams"
and Madinat al Zahra was
built around gardens and water.
This was an attempt
to create a paradise on earth,
a tantalising glimpse of the eternal
garden that awaits the righteous.
These arches are the same
as in Cordoba's Mosque.
Even the colours are the same,
red and white -
of the al-Rahman dynasty.
But here, power politics
are blended with spirituality.
And running through it all
is the idea of Paradise.
This is the most impressive of all
of the rooms in Madinat al Zahra.
It's the nerve centre of the
entire complex, the throne room
of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III,
and here it's as if the idea of
Paradise has been set in stone.
It's been allowed
to take over the architecture.
Look at that great wall
of ornamental carving.
It's as if stone itself has been
made to go against its own nature
and been turned into a kind of
plant life. These tendrils and
shoots that grow up the wall.
You really do feel
that you are in a kind of paradise.
Plant motifs aren't
the only decoration in this room.
The walls are also covered
in patterns made from geometry
and Arab writing, both loaded
with religious significance.
In a world in which
the depiction of real figures,
real life was forbidden,
the Muslim artist
had to turn to pattern
and elevate it to an art form.
And these stunningly intricate
forests of decoration are the
pinnacle of early Islamic art.
Nothing like them survives
anywhere else in the world.
They're the Islamic equivalent of
the greatest Christian frescoes,
but without a human figure in sight.
What you really notice about this
space is the way in which every
square inch has been decorated.
Now that's unique
and it would become one of the
hallmarks of Spanish Islamic art.
It's almost as if they developed
a terror of empty space.
But the glory of Madinat al Zahra
was to be short-lived.
Less than 100 years
after work on the palace began,
it lay in ruins.
In the 11th century,
civil war engulfed Al Andalus.
The dynasty of Abd al-Rahman,
rulers for nearly 300 years,
Madinat al Zahra was sacked
The Golden Age was over.
So why did this golden
moment come to an end?
Well, some blame fierce
political rivalry between
the various Islamic tribes that
made up Muslim Spain from the start.
Others say it was due to corruption
within the Caliphate itself.
But my own favourite explanation
was given by the greatest Spanish
Arab historian of the time.
It's wonderful, it's the
Orange Grove Theory of History.
He said that any society is doomed
once it's becomes wealthy enough,
and therefore sedentary enough,
to plant orange trees.
Maybe in the end they were just
undone by their own success.
In 1031, Al Andalus split
into dozens of self-governing
fighting amongst each
other for territory and power.
But things were to get far worse.
I've come to the city of
Seville, two hours' drive
to the west of Cordoba.
In the 11th century, this became
the most important city in Spain,
home to a new set of Arab rulers.
For the best part of 200 years,
Al Andalus was to be ruled
by a much more hardline,
fundamentalist Islamic regime.
Two successive generations
of Muslims from North Africa
who invaded and took control.
Not only were they much more
oppressive to Christians and Jews in
but they also embarked on regular
jihads into the Christian north.
The aggressive behaviour of the
new regime would soon provoke a
which would explode onto the streets
of Seville and engulf
the whole of Al Andalus.
The stones of this great building
have their own vivid story to tell
about the epic struggle that
took place in Seville.
This was originally a minaret,
part of the great mosque that
stood in the heart of the city.
From its summit, the Muslim faithful
were called to prayer.
Now it's topped by a renaissance
bell-tower pealing out the
message that it's time for mass.
The tower's a great symbol of the
battle that was to convulse Spain
for hundreds of years, reaching
Seville in the mid-13th century.
It was from here in 1248
that the Moors watched as
a new enemy laid siege to Seville,
an enemy that threatened the Spanish
Muslims' power and their religion.
One so feared that the Moors wanted
to destroy this beautiful minaret
rather than let it fall
into their enemy's hands.
The enemy at the city
gates was the Christians
and they were on the warpath.
For 300 years, the independent
Christian kingdoms of the North
had existed in an uneasy truce
with the Moors of Al Andalus.
But the Christians were getting
hungry for power and territory.
'Provoked by the rise of Islamic
militancy, they decided to
crusade against the infidel.'
And so, the reconquest began - a
crusade that was to last more than
400 years -
a monumentally long
and bloody campaign.
This conflict would establish a
peculiarly fervent form of
as the Spanish national religion.
as the Spanish national religion.
It was also the conflict from which
modern Spain would emerge.
During the 12th
century, the Christians
painfully edged into Al Andalus and,
one by one, the Islamic cities fell.
Then, Seville itself was captured
in 1248 after two years' siege.
The Christian conquerors of
medieval Seville proclaimed,
"Let us create such a building that
future generations will take us for
lunatics." Some statement of intent.
So they demolished the great mosque
and they put up in its place
what the Guinness Book of Records
tells me is still the single largest
Christian cathedral in the world.
A great, crushing symbol of the
triumph of militant Christianity.
The cathedral's built in
a North European style.
Gothic in design, complete
with high, vaulting ceiling,
and Christian symbols everywhere.
This might be the last
place you'd expect to find
traces of Islamic design.
But if you look closely enough,
it becomes clear that old habits
What's extraordinary about the
Gothic style as done by the Spanish,
especially the Spanish in
is this incredible sense of
Look at this altarpiece.
It's almost as if every
inch of space has to be decorated.
It makes me think of
the Moorish terror of empty space.
covering of every inch.
Look at this through half-closed
eyes and you might almost be
in some Moorish palace.
I wonder whether the experience of
Spanish Christians, especially
in the South,
wasn't so permeated by a sense of
Moorish pattern and design,
that this worked itself into the
very soul of Spanish art.
So that, although this great
the grand triumph of Christianity
over the forces of Islam,
at the same time it completely
expresses a kind of
It's deeply Spanish, deeply Moorish
and Christian all at the same time.
There's nothing like it anywhere
else in the world.
'The cathedral isn't the only
building in Seville to bear
the imprint of the Moors.'
This is the Alcazar,
a palace fit for a Moorish king.
But this building
wasn't meant for Muslims.
it was built for one of Seville's
new Christian kings in 1364.
So, what kind of self-respecting
would build himself a
palace that looks like this?
Well, his name was Pedro the Cruel
and, boy, did you have to be cruel
in the bloody world of medieval
Spain to earn yourself a
stand-alone nickname like that.
Among other things, Pedro was
a rapist and a mass murderer.
He murdered his own brother in
this room and he also murdered
a visiting Arab dignitary who
was foolish enough to come here with
the largest ruby in the known world.
Having nicked it from the corpse,
Pedro then gave it to Edward, the
and it's now part
of the British crown jewels.
I like the thought that every time
there's a coronation in Britain,
the ritual is stained by
a drop of blood shed in this room.
Although he was keen on
murdering Moorish kings,
Pedro was a massive fan of Moorish
architecture and decoration.
When he decided to build
his own Moorish palace,
no expense was spared.
The best Moorish craftsmen were
employed to create an
complete with intricate marble and
cool, shaded courtyards and
tile work in
almost hallucinogenic patterns.
But why would a Christian conqueror
dress up his palace in the
style of the Islamic foe?
You have to put yourself in
Pedro the Cruel's shoes and think
back to 14th century Europe.
What else is going on
in architectural terms?
There's the Gothic,
but that's for churches.
When it comes to palace
there's nothing to compare with this
for colour, richness, pattern,
The whole place feels as
if it's made of icing sugar. I
almost feel I want to eat it.
The whole place feels as
if it's made of icing sugar. I
almost feel I want to eat it.
It's the ultimate Arabian
Knights fantasy architecture.
If I had my own little Aladdin genie
in a bottle and I could wish for
anything in the world,
I might just choose this palace.
Because the Alcazar was a palace,
not a mosque,
it didn't arouse the
usual suspicions of Muslim worship.
And the Christian kings of Spain
clearly felt free to
love this place, too.
Later monarchs preserved it
and made any additions with
Sometimes, the greatest compliments
are those paid to you by your enemy.
It's a pretty astonishing tribute
to the power and grandeur of Islamic
art and architecture
that generation after generation
of Spanish Catholic monarchs
should have allowed this place
to stand as a
great, shimmering ghost of a culture
they were determined to eradicate
but could never quite
bring themselves to stop loving.
Moorish styles remained
fashionable in Christian Spain.
So much so that if you
were a craftsman,
you were given special treatment.
But life for other Moors
was getting a lot harder.
Most fled to the extreme south of
Spain, where the last bastion of
Moorish might clung on to power.
Those who remained
were forced to convert
or go underground, where they
mixed with other outcast cultures,
like the Jews and the gypsies.
These different groups of
outsiders - Moors, Jews, gypsies -
came together in down-at-heel parts
of town like Triana in Seville.
Here, their different musical
traditions fused together
to create a style that would
eventually resurface, so it's said,
SINGING FROM BAR
Nobody knows for sure which parts
of flamenco come from the Moors,
though there are many theories.
They brought the guitar to Spain,
destined to become the nation's
favourite musical instrument.
And the distinctive dance style
in which dramatic arm and hand
movements are favoured over
is similar to Moorish dancing,
which forbade women from drawing
attention to their legs.
The singing style is similar
to the wailing Arabic style.
Even the word flamenco itself
comes from an Arab word -
meaning fugitive peasant.
And flamenco is, above all,
the music of the dispossessed.
What's the feeling, the essential
spirit of flamenco?
Where does it come from?
How long does it take
to learn to sing flamenco?
Is that Spanish for
I've got no chance?
Is it possible for you to teach
me some very simple flamenco?
HE SINGS FLAMENCO
I'm on the last leg of my journey
and I've come south of Seville,
up into the hills.
By the end of the 13th century,
the once-mighty empire of
Al Andalus had shrunk
to this small, mountainous region.
This was to be the last battlefield
of the centuries-long conflict
between the forces of Islam
and the forces of Christianity.
The city of Granada was the last
Moorish capital of Al Andalus -
the last city to hold out
against the reconquest.
The Nasrid dynasty ruled from here,
managing to resist Christian
invasion for nearly 200 years.
you'd be forgiven for thinking that
the Moors still run Granada.
If you're in the mood, you can an
Arabic bath in one of the city's
many Moorish bath houses.
After taking the waters,
you can visit a Moorish tea
house and take some tea.
And if you're feeling
peckish, a trip to a Moorish
restaurant is in order.
It's all very atmospheric,
even if it is completely fake.
A confection to put the tourists
in an appropriately Moorish mood.
But the one really authentic
Moorish experience is to be had
in the ultimate Moorish palace -
Even here, you can't get
away from the tourists.
Over 6,000 people visit
this extraordinary series
of royal palaces every day,
to hear tales of the Nasrid
kings who used to live here.
And what bloodthirsty
tales they are!
According to legend,
the Alhambra was built by Christian
slaves imprisoned in dark dungeons.
And at least nine of the Nasrid
kings were murdered by methods as
dastardly as drowning, stabbing,
and eating poisoned batter.
The Alhambra is above all
a palace of myths and legends.
It's a place where people feel
a profound need to tell stories,
partly to explain to themselves
the nature of this place.
it's said that the Sultan
used to sit here on his throne.
It is said that this door here
is a false entrance designed to
put off would-be assassins,
although everything we know
about the bloody history
of the Nasrid dynasty suggests
that assassins were not to be
They usually got their man.
The truth is, that we know
almost nothing about the precise
functions of each of these spaces.
The only thing that
we can be certain of is
that the art and the architecture
here is absolutely breathtaking.
The Moors may have been coming to
the end of their power and influence
but they were
determined to go out in style.
The Alhambra is like a greatest
hits of Moorish design,
with the volume turned up to ten.
It's the absolute summation
of everything that made the art of
Islamic Spain so extraordinary.
A place where the expression of
power and deep spirituality,
that eternal search for paradise,
are absolutely intertwined.
There's such a scrum of tourists in
the Alhambra today,
that it makes it pretty difficult to
appreciate this place as it was
originally meant to be appreciated,
which is as a space
of contemplation and reflection.
Each of the spaces in
this palace were meant to
bring you closer to God,
and that's the fundamental purpose
of this wonderful room called
the Hall of the Ambassadors, which
is all about pattern and geometry.
The numbers seven and four are
repeated everywhere in this space.
Seven signifying the stages by
which the soul ascends to God,
and four representing the number of
areas into which the vault of heaven
could be divided,
and we see that reflected in
this magnificent ceiling.
But the seven and the four
lead us ineluctably to the one,
and that's the message
that's reinforced in all
of these inscriptions.
"There is no God but Allah",
"There is no conqueror but Allah".
This is a space that's designed
hypnotically through the repetition
of pattern and design
and inscription to focus our minds
solely and exclusively
on the higher reality of God.
But it's not just the decoration
of the Alhambra that invokes God,
the very design of the architecture
is permeated by the spirit of Islam.
It's a fundamental tenet of Islam
that there is no God but God,
there is no reality other
than his higher reality, everything
we experience in this life
is impermanent, insubstantial.
But how do you introduce the idea
of impermanence into architecture
- the most stable of forms?
Well, here at the Alhambra,
they've done it by introducing
Seen in reflection,
even the most solid of things seems
In fact, the whole design of the
Alhambra is aimed at making
the palace appear to be not
quite of this world.
The columns are so slender
that the arches they support
seem to float in the air.
And the intricate wood and stone
carving makes solid materials seem
to dissolve into fragile lace.
I think there's a wonderful paradox
about the architecture of the
Alhambra, which is that you get all
this effort to create a sense of
effortlessness, this tremendous
intricacy of structure to create
the feeling of a structure that's on
the point of its own disappearance.
Look at that wonderful,
in the ceiling of this space.
Standing in here, it's almost as if
you're standing at the bottom
of a glass of fizzy water,
looking up and watching the bubbles
sparkle off towards infinity.
'I think there's something very
moving in the fact that the Moors
created a building that seems
'to be on the brink of disappearing,
just as their own civilisation
was about to vanish from Spain.'
The Alhambra today really
is the ghost of the ghost
of what it was once was.
But visiting it is still
an extremely powerful
and poignant experience.
This was the last hurrah
of Islamic civilisation in Spain.
The very last expression of that
beautiful ideal of paradise.
In 1469, Christian Spain was finally
united, when the Catholic monarchs,
Ferdinand and Isabella, married.
Hungry to rule over a
completely Christian nation,
they launched a final assault
against the Moorish south.
And on the 2nd January 1492,
after ten years of fighting,
the last Nasrid king, Muhammed XII,
surrendered the province of Granada
and the Alhambra.
Legend has it that as the defeated
Muhammed gazed back at the city he'd
surrendered, he burst into tears.
unimpressed, snapped at him,
"You do well to weep like a woman
you failed to defend like a man."
The Moor famously sighed his
last sigh, and turned his
back on Granada forever.
The Christian Reconquest
The victors were merciless
towards the vanquished.
Ferdinand and Isabella made
it law that pork should be
eaten throughout the region.
Then, in 1492,
they expelled all Jews from Spain
and revoked the rights of Muslims.
In 1526, Arabic was banned.
And then, in 1610, all Moors were
expelled from Spain,
had converted to Catholicism or not.
As so often, the victors in this
epic struggle re-wrote history to
suit their own militant ideology.
For centuries afterwards, the whole
rich history of Arab Spain was
destined to be remembered as no more
than the nation's long
journey through a dark tunnel,
at the end of which shone the light
of the Christian Reconquista.
And the Arabs themselves
were remembered as no more than
pantomime villains in a
great story of Christian triumph.
Today, in festivals all over Spain,
the Moors are still portrayed
as pantomime villains.
'I've come to the small town of
Quentar, just outside Granada,'
to watch the local
"Moors and Christians" festival.
Every year, the people of the town
dress up and re-enact the historic
Christianity and Islam.
The whole thing goes on for
three days until the Moors are
forced to convert, and baptised.
To the outsider, it does
all look just a bit puzzling.
What does it mean to you here?
Is it just a fiesta
or is it more than that?
No, it's more than party.
So it commemorates...
It's a celebration of...
It's a celebration of the victory of
Is there any
political problem with having
a fiesta like this, you know
with the Muslim people in Spain?
No, here lives Moorish.
We have no problem.
You have a Muslim community here?
Yes. They have a mosque.
There's a mosque here?
We have no problem. It's tradition.
We are all happy.
So it's more like a
story from the past than
anything to do with the present.
Nothing to do with the present.
The past only. Only friends.
Of course, it is all a bit of fun,
but it does seem a
bit depressing that these
re-enactments completely ignore the
cultural achievements of the Moors.
But I think things have begun to
change in modern Spain, and it is
a culture more accepting of Islam.
After all, there are now over one
million Muslims living in Spain.
And there are 500 mosques.
The newest one is here in Granada,
directly opposite the Alhambra.
On this spot, modern Spain quite
literally faces its Islamic past,
the distant world of Al Andalus.
Al Andalus is part of the lifeblood
of modern Spain, it's part of
what makes the Spanish Spanish.
But the fact is
that Arab culture has played
a vital part in shaping what we
often think of as
Its music, its art and architecture,
Yet Spain is almost the only place
in modern Europe where you can still
touch that history,
where you can still almost
physically grasp the fact
that the culture of the Islamic
world is part of all of our DNA.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Critic and art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon travels from southern to northern Spain to tell the story of some of Europe's most exciting and vital art. For 700 years, most of Spain was an Islamic state, and the south was its beating heart. Under the Moors, Spain became the most advanced, wealthy and populous country in Europe. Andrew travels to Cordoba, Seville and Granada, visiting beautiful Moorish palaces and mosques, telling the story of one of the most colourful and sophisticated cultures to ever appear in Europe.