Ryan Szpiech


As the sole survivor of a once-flourishing Islamic civilization in Iberia that lived at the same time under the shadow of the Christian north, Granadan culture in this period reflected a bipolar mix of inward-looking nostalgia and outward-looking competitiveness. This split view both backward and forward, both inward and outward, defines all of Granada’s most prominent cultural production during this period, the moment of the greatest splendor of the Nasrid kingdom.

In this image, the inscriptions on the walls of the Alhambra, some of which include the work of the greatest poets of the Nasrid period such as Ibn Zamrak, provide the frame through which to glimpse the Alhambra's fortified place within Granada's rugged environs.

Historical orientation: Excluding those who reigned for two years or less, the principal rulers during this period are Yusuf I (reg. 1333-54), Muhammed V (reg. 1354-59, 1362-91), Muhammed VII (1392-1408), and Yusuf III (1408-1417). Although we have notice of great poets just preceding this period (Ibn al-Zubayr (d. 1308), Ibn al-Sa’ij (d. 1305). Abu Hayyan al-Gharnati (d. 1344), the flourishing of culture in the second half of the fourteenth century is largely due to the patronage of Sultans Yusuf I and Muhammad V and the relative peace of Muhammad’s reign. The loss of Antequera to Ferdinand I of Aragon in 1410 and of Ceuta to the Portuguese in 1415 slowly begin to shut Granada in on itself.

Conceptual orientation: Three primary factors determine Granada’s cultural and literary production during this period: its partial political isolation resulting form its embattled opposition to the Christian north; its physical position between the mountain range of the Cordillera Penibética and the Mediterranean coast; and its status as the last remaining Muslim territory in the Iberian Peninsula after many centuries of presence. As the sole survivor of a once-great Islamic civilization in Iberia that lived at the same time “literally with its back to the wall” (Monroe 61), Granadan culture became a bipolar mix of inward-looking nostalgia intent on reconstructing and preserving the cultural forms of centuries past, and outward-looking competitiveness vis-à-vis the Islamic world to the south and east, intent on creating itself as a new center of culture. This split view both backward and forward, both inward and outward, links all of Granada’s most prominent cultural production during this period, the moment of the greatest splendor of the Nasrid kingdom. Its aesthetics are closely linked to its precarious economy and shallow coffers: Yusuf I paid for many of his projects with his own wealth. Nasrid Granada depended on trade and import—mostly of fruit and pottery—yet its ports were increasingly dominated by foreign traders and its ship-building increasingly hindered by dependence on Castilian timber. The gradual decline in the silk market in the latter fourteenth century is indicative of its plight: a slow waning of real splendor, increasing dependence on foreign models and materials, a nostalgic degeneration into a “jewel-box version of a long-lost Cordoba. 

The Madrasa as a center of culture: When Sultan Yusuf I founds the Madrasa Yusufiyya school in 1349—the first madrasa in Nasrid Granada—he was in part responding to the foundation of a madrasa in Ceuta, across the strait of Gibraltar, by the Marinid monarch Abu al-Hasan in 1346-7. The madrasa succeeded in drawing scholars from other shores of the Mediterranean: as early as 1353-1354, the eminent sufi preacher and polymath Ibn Marzuq came from the Maghreb to preach there, and he was a teacher of the jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (d. 1388), author of numerous treatises on law. Through the madrasa’s doors passed the most eminent Granadan writers of the period, Ibn al-Khatib (d. 1375), student of the poet and jurist al-Sharif al-Gharnati (d. 1359), as well as Ibn Khatib’s disciple-turned-rival Ibn Zamrak (1393). Granada and its madrasa served as a place of meeting and as a hub of other cultural movements: Ibn Battuta passes through in 1350 where he meets his scribe, Ibn Juzayy, and Ibn Khaldun serves briefly as Muhammad V’s envoy to Pedro the Cruel in 1364. Granada became, for a brief time, a center of polymath learning, embodied by figures such as the versatile doctor Ibn Khatima al-Ansari (d. 1369), equally well-known for his amorous poetry (including an impassioned account of a torrid homosexual affair with a Christian) as well as his pioneering work on bacteriology and the spread of the plague. 

Foundation vs. continuity, creation vs. preservation: While the madrasa aimed to be unique (as Ibn al-Khatib described it, “it became unrivaled in its splendor, enchantment, elegance and greatness”), it was the first such institution in the Nasrid kingdom and was clearly imitative of North African models. Similarly, the native writers and scholars who learned within its walls focused more on perfecting traditional forms and preserving earlier sources than in breaking new ground. Among Ibn al-Khatib’s many texts dominate works preserving the history of Granada, biographical dictionaries of earlier luminaries, and poetic anthologies, including the invaluable Jaysh al-tawshih (Striking Army of Stanza Poetry), one of the two main surviving sources of Andalusi Muwashshahat (Strophic poem-songs that include a final two-line kharja). His own poems and works of saj‘ (rhymed prose), while extremely traditional in theme and form, ambitiously aim to rival and outdo eastern models. Forced to flee to North Africa by the intrigues of Ibn Zamrak and grand qadi of Granada al-Nubahi (d. after 1389, whose treatise on jurists is a central source on Nasrid jurisprudence), his Ihata fi ahbar gharnata (Complete Source on the History of Granada) is a key source of Granadan poetry, history, and biography for later writers. Through it we know of other works, some lost and some in fragments: a history of the Nasrids written by al-Judhami (d. 1391), scattered verses of Ibn al-Hajj al-Balfiqi, (d. 1372), verses of Ibn al-Hajj al-Numayri (d. ca. 1378-88), whose works, partly extant, are also mentioned in the Musnad of Ibn Marzuq. Similarly, Ibn Khaldun mentions lost Granadan authors such as Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Azim. We are also given a few glimpses into the vernacular oral language of the kingdom: the great Maliki Jurist Ibn ‘Asim (d. 1426), in addition to a major treatise on law, compiled a collection of popular anecdotes and stories known as the Hada’iq al-azhar (Garden of Flowers), including a list of over eight-hundred popular proverbs and refrains that give a rich snapshot of the Granadan dialect of his time. 

The Alhambra as metaphor: Ibn al-Khatib’s rival Ibn Zamrak, whose poems were preserved partly within Ibn al-Khatib’s own works, are embellished but still based heavily on ‘Abbasid masters. While they contain no new themes or styles, they are highly stylized and strive to perfect the poetic characteristics they imitate. The poems of both Ibn al-Khatib and Ibn Zamrak, along with those of the earlier Ibn al-Jayyab (d. 1349), all self-reflective and focused increasingly on art itself rather than nature as an object of admiration, have been immortalized as inscriptions on the walls of the Nasrid palace, the Alhambra. For all its splendor and renown, the Alhambra itself is exemplary of this double tendency of Nasrid art: it is the epitome of formal refinement, material embellishment, and decorative splendor, yet it invents no new forms or styles and builds its grandeur from ornate form rather than wealth of materials. It is at once a military fortress and a chain of inward-looking private patios, embodying its double role as bastion and place of private reflection. At the same time as the Sultan Muhammad V commissioned the baroque, meta-poetic art of Ibn Zamrak and the triumphal Palace of the Lions, he also prepared constantly for war, commissioning Ibn Hudhayl (d. 1399) to write Hilyat al-fursan (Decoration of Horses), a hippological treatise, and the Tuhfat al-anfus (Ornatment of Souls), a discourse on holy war. Ironically, Muhammad’s wars were more internecine than foreign: he, like so many Nasrid rulers, was murdered by his brother. As the Alhambra, turned in on itself, can be seen as a microcosm of Granada itself, the muwashshah form so popular among its writers can be seen as a sort of poetic Alhambra: mimetic, repetitive, and nostalgic, but also ornate and ostentatious, an outward and competitive display of the perfection of form. This highly charged emotional self-consciousness and nostalgic attention to form defines the muwashshahat of the poet-king Yusuf III, patron of the poet Ibn Furkun. The last great Nasrid poet, Ibn al-Qaysi al-Basti (d. ), was born sometime before Yusuf’s death in 1417, on the eve of the rise of the Banu Sarraj (Abencerraje) clan of later literary legend.