Granada itself abuts the...
Granada itself abuts the northwestern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Ferdinand and Isabella are buried near the city's center, at the Capilla Real, in simple lead caskets surmounted by massive marble effigies. An inscription in Latin hails their zeal in the persecution of the infidel. A few blocks away a Moorish archway gives access to the courtyard of the Corral del Carbón, built in the fourteenth century as a caravanserai, an inn for traveling merchants; today visitors needing maps and books can get them here.
Setting eyes on the Alhambra, one understands how the romantic Orientalism of the nineteenth century got its start. Moorish gateways breach the ruddy walls. Within the palace vaulted ceilings hang with plasterwork resembling starbursts of fine lace. Fountains play in the courtyards, and cool streams run in marble canals. In the Court of the Lions a gallery of lean columns preen in the glassy floor. The scale is not monumental but human—the most seductive form of grandeur.
The stone walls of the Hall of the Ambassadors, three stories high, are intricately etched with passages from the Koran. Patterned wooden grilles cover the windows, dappling the interior. The atmosphere was not so peaceful half a millennium ago. In this chamber the hapless sultan Boabdil capitulated to Ferdinand and Isabella, who promptly moved into his palace. Here, a few months later, the monarchs told Christopher Columbus to go ahead with his voyage. And in this room Ferdinand and Isabella, goaded by the inquisitor Torquemada, signed the order to expel from Spain all Jews who would not convert to Christianity.
The Muslims who remained in Granada after Boabdil's retreat made their homes on a broad hillside across a valley from the Alhambra. This dense old Muslim quarter, known as the Albaicín, encourages wandering among its narrow lanes and terraced alleys. Along the crest of the Albaicín runs a segment of the ancient city wall, and on the grassy heights beyond are visible dozens of caves carved out by Gypsies. The red-and-yellow flag of Spain flies above the battlements at the prow of the Alhambra. It is joined by the flag of the European Union, with its circle of gold stars on a field of blue. Between them flies the flag of Andalusia, white and green, the green paying homage to the region's Islamic heritage. Andalusia's historical strata thrust into the present, plainly visible. As in the American Southwest, which resembles Andalusia in many ways, the strata are sometimes presented disingenuously. We once came across a street vendor selling T-shirts that displayed a cross, a Star of David, and an Islamic crescent side by side under the legend, in Spanish, THE SECRET IS THE MIXTURE. There was no hint of the treatment accorded two of those ingredients.
Spain's ancient Jewish heritage has of late received a measure of official emphasis, if only because outsiders come looking for it. The noncommercial part of Córdoba's old Jewish quarter, the Judería, with its twisting streets and hidden courtyards, is certainly an inviting part of town; a statue of Maimonides now graces a plaza on its edge, and the small fourteenth-century synagogue has been restored. But contemporary Jewish life is not prominent in Spain. There are only about 14,000 Jews in the country, and only about ten functioning synagogues.