For locals, Granada might mean40-plus centigrade summers and snow-huddled winters, mopeds zipping around narrow alleys, plaza nightlife, Corpus Christi and Semana Santa, flamenco and reggaeton, traffic and smog, graffiti, foreign students, and the notoriously grumpy temperament of its denizens, the untranslatably rude ‘malafollá’. But for tourists, Granada is all about the Alhambra. Perched on the natural lookout of the Sabika hill, its reddish rammed earth walls are at once magnificent and shy. Swathed in cypress forest, it conceals luscious interior gardens, shady patios, and languid pools, intricate cupolas of muqarnas and walls geometrically enhanced with zillij mosaics. While the Alhambra has become one of Spain’s most-visited tourist sites, as Helen Rodgers and Stephen Cavendish show in City of Illusions: A History of Granada, this palace complex has undergone many a rewriting of Granada’s history – partly through an Orientalist lens that exoticises its Moorish heritage, so often mis-portrayed. Over the course of a millennium, as leadership changed hands and the population evolved, the idea of Granada has been transformed many times over: from a Neolithic habitation to a Roman settlement, an ancient Jewish town, a medieval Muslim capital, a Christian city scrabbling for authenticity, a key site in the struggle between Republican and Nationalist forces, to a modern city whose most lucrative export is arguably the Islamic culture it once trampled. In 2019, over three million tourists visited the Alhambra complex, drawn not only by its stunning beauty, but also by the mythos of its former Moorish splendour. The irony that this is the city where Islamic rule in Spain came to an end, indeed housing the remains of its conquerors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, is not lost on the reader.

The book’s chapters encapsulate the sequence of Granada’s historical periods, beginning with the Introduction and Early History. The authors’ opening gambit reveals a lot about a Christian city so desperate to establish a pre-Islamic origin story that it forged Roman artefacts in the eighteenth century. Recent archaeological findings reveal there was in fact an important Roman settlement here, where the Fourth Synod was held; Granada’s secretive nature begins to be revealed. City of Illusions goes on to cover the Zirid Dynasty, the first Islamic leadership of the city-state; the tumultuous Almoravids and the Almohads; and, finally, the Nasrids – a period so noteworthy it’s covered in three chapters, the Founding of a Dynasty, Splendour and Decline, and Reconquista. These reflect the development of much of the city, some of it – such as sections of Zirid walls and gates – still extant.

Helen Rodgers & Steven Cavendish, City of Illusions: A History of Granada, Hurst Publishers, London, 2021.

Many events of this period stand out as examples not only of cultural sophistication, but also of the cynicism of political rivals. Petty kings allied themselves with Christian forces against fellow Muslims; there was even a complex war with the Marinids in North Africa, who also had designs on the remains of Al-Andalus. Infighting was gruesome and rife. The founder of the Nasrid dynasty was probably poisoned by his own son, who was likewise ousted and later drowned by his half-brother, whose overthrow was in turn orchestrated by his half-sister. She egged on her son to storm the fortress in the Alhambra, but he was also murdered by a cousin. The penultimate emir Muley Hacén, in a fit of rage, had his own son beheaded. Dysfunctional families of the 2020s have nothing on the Nasrids.

The rest of this article is only available to subscribers.

Access our entire archive of 350+ articles from the world's leading writers on Islam.
Only £3.30/month, cancel anytime.


Already subscribed? Log in here.

Not convinced? Read this: why should I subscribe to Critical Muslim?

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: