The 13th Century City of Coexistence

Granada's stunning sites showcase a time and place when Christians, Muslims and ethnic minorities lived side by side

The Alhambra sits above the city of Granada proud, imperious, heartbreakingly beautiful. As I approach the gates I note that the many photos on Pinterest and Google don’t do it justice. This, I think, is what magic looks like. Since the 13th century, the Alhambra has perched on this mountain top above Granada, reaching toward the sky, guarding the city below. Tourists flock to its feet, bearing cameras like offerings. Less a castle and more a city of its own, the monument is one of the most famous royal residences in the world and the pearl of Andalucía, a point of immense pride for the region. Although Spain is a deeply Catholic country, this architectural wonder wasn’t built in the name of the church, but in the name of Allah. The Alhambra was the home of the Moorish sultans who conquered Spain in the eighth century and ruled until the late 15th century.

Islam—and Arab design, language and culture—is deeply entwined in Spanish heritage, especially in the city of Granada. The guidebook at the visitors’ center in the city states that Granada is “one of the most exotic cities in Spain, a concurrence of two civilizations, Spanish and Muslim.” This hybridization is woven into the colorful tiles and signature architecture that made Granada famous, the baths where visitors soak and steam, and especially the Alhambra. Without Islam, Granada as we know it would not exist.

One evening after a long day exploring, I find myself at one of the Moorish baths hidden in the cobblestone alleyways of Granada. Behind an unassuming maroon door, a small woman with dark hair pulled into a business-like ponytail leads me down a darkened hallway, tells me in a sing-song Spanish accent to leave my clothes in the dressing room and my shoes on a low shelf, and points to a large, carved oak door, behind which are the famous baths. My guide disappears; a shove on the door reveals a wonderland of blue water and rising steamlit with low-hanging lanterns. The baths, all different temperatures and sizes ranging from jacuzzi to lap pool, are each decorated with tiles in intricate colors and patterns. In a small room next to them, patrons wrapped in fluffy white towels sip hot mint tea from small bronze cups. The entire scene feels like it could be Morocco, not Andalucía. After a couple of hours soaking, I wander back out to the city, dazed and awestruck. I pass under stone archways and past tapas bars and hookah joints. The city throbs with life, its blended culture surrounding me.

Islam—and Arab design, language and culture—is deeply entwined in Spanish heritage

The Moors were not the only group of people who brought their ideas and their culture to Spain. Flamenco dance, with its iconic dresses and clicking castanets, originated with the Roma people, who came here about six centuries ago. Spanish Roma, called Gitanos, remain a strong presence in Spain despite the hardships they have faced; in Spain and throughout Europe, the Roma have been oppressed, pushed out and degraded. However, today the Roma population of Granada alone is about 50,000, a testament to the community’s resilience.  

Flamenco appears in bars and venues across Granada, especially in Sacromonte, the striking hillside neighborhood above downtown that was the historic home of the city’s Roma population. Small plaques nailed to the outside of the neighborhood’s small, colorful homes, although barely readable from years of weathering, denote where famous Flamenco artists and the guitar players who accompanied them once lived, loved and performed. At weddings and other fiestas lasting long into warm Spanish nights, Flamenco performers and guitarists entertain guests.

Gitano scholar Victoria Eugenia Ríos-Terheun writes of Flamenco dance, “Flamenco is an amazing art form created by Roma in Spain using the musical elements they brought with them and those that were already there, and in response to centuries of oppression and hardship, and such cannot be separated from the history of Romani people in Spain. It is absolutely Spanish and absolutely Roma, an invention of Gitanos who are Spaniards, and who are also ethnically Roma.”

The Roma blended their musical traditions with existing Andalusian folk music, Moorish music and the music of Sephardic Jews to create the powerful dance that exists today.

Everywhere, Spain bears the mark of foreign influence, especially in Granada—the spires, domes and geometric tiles so typical of Islamic architecture dot the landscape of the city; hookah bars are tucked into its narrow alleyways. Even the “signature” dish of Spain, paella, would be impossible without rice and saffron, both brought in by the Moors when they arrived here.

Spain would not be the colorful, exciting place that it is without the influence of people who arrived from other places, bringing with them ideas from their home countries and creating new communities and new traditions. There is beauty in that. Cultural exchange was vital to creating the identity of the Spanish nation, and many others as well—including our own here in the United States. While xenophobia and Islamophobia around the world are at an all-time high, there is a lesson to learn from recognizing the power of welcoming and embracing “the other.” We gain a great deal by opening our minds and hearts to the possibilities that new arrivals bring and just might make something magnificent together.


Casey O’Brien

Casey O’Brien is a journalist and freelance writer based in Berkeley, California, who does impact journalism about social issues. Casey has been published in a variety of outlets: Sierra Magazine, where she was an editorial fellow, San Francisco Magazine, Planning Magazine, Curiosity Magazine, Shareable, the Mighty, and more. Her bylines range from travel writing to investigative environmental reporting.

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