Like most square-eyed 10-year-old boys of his generation, my son Zac spends endless hours in front of a screen. Xbox, YouTube, Clash of Clans — their language is all ‘Top 10 videos’, gaming commentaries and battle troops. He doesn’t like reading books much — stories on paper don’t grab him, to my utter despair. History classes at his Spanish state school, which consist of copying from a book or blackboard, bore him stupid (last term’s high point was learning the names and dates of all Bourbon monarchs over four centuries for a test).
So it’s my job, as a certified history buff, to divert his attention from the digital and bring to vivid life the stories of our adoptive home, Andalucia: to reanimate the old Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus; to celebrate the achievements of the North African dynasties which ruled Spain for 700 years. Everything from everyday words, culinary staples, ingenious irrigation channels, and of course some of Spain’s most-visited monuments, form part of this astonishing legacy.
Islamic poetry and philosophy might be a step too far for a tween, so how about a fairytale palace-fortress, conceived as these Islamic rulers’ idea of paradise on earth: an architectural gem, spectacularly located on a hilltop above the city of Granada, and dotted with heavenly patios?
We’re careful to arrive at the Alhambra, a massive complex stretching across 130,000sq metres, well before our entry time for the Nasrid palaces. We explore the mighty Alcazaba, the fortress built to defend the city. Climbing up staircases to high towers, we look over to the steep streets and glorious carmens (town houses with walled gardens) sprawling down the hillside Albaicin district opposite.
Then it’s time to queue up and experience the finest example of Islamic architecture still in existence. As we enter the 14th-century Mexuar palace, Zac stares in wonder at the hand-carved ceramic tiles with their intricate geometric patterns. He’s seen these glorious rooms, wall-to-wall colour explosions, in books, but in real life the sight makes his jaw drop. Don’t forget to look up, I say, and he’s blown away by the 3D stalactite-esque mocarabe ceilings designed to emulate the cave where Koranic verses were revealed to the prophet Mohammed. “The Moors were so creative,” he enthuses.
It’s a socio-cultural eye-opener, too. We see many more women in hijabs than at home in Seville. After all, this is Islamic architecture’s crowning glory. Zac is fascinated by religion, and it’s a popular subject in our house. “So where did they pray?” he asks. Good question: the mosque next to these palaces was knocked down, and replaced by the Church of Santa Maria, as was often the case after the Reconquest of Spain by the Catholic Monarchs.
Admiring the Fountain of the Lions, with a dozen carved-stone animals, we talk about the importance of water in Islamic architecture — it cools the air (southern Spanish summers are scorching), has a soothing sound, and offers a mirror image of the divine architecture. “They were really clever, weren’t they?” says Zac. And, for a minute at least, he is impressed — and hopefully inspired — by these past glories.