It was well before dawn when I set off on foot through Granada’s oldest neighborhood, El Albaicín, an intricate brocade of cobbled streets overhung with fragrant jasmine trees. The first glow of sunlight revealed the titanic walls and turrets of the palace-fortress complex called the Alhambra looming above me on a spectacular crag. Poets have rhapsodized about the structure’s fairytale beauty since the finest craftsmen of the Arab world built it nearly 800 years ago. For over two centuries in the Middle Ages, it was the crown jewel of the Emirate of Granada, which stretched across Spain’s Mediterranean coast from modern-day Gibraltar past the snowcapped Sierra Nevada.
After crossing a stone bridge over the River Darro, I took a little-known back route into the palace called Cuesta del Rey Chico, a steep foot trail squeezed into a leafy ravine where the only sound was the water cascading from antique terra-cotta pipes. By now, the morning sunlight was making the Alhambra live up to its original name, al-Qal’ah al-Hamra, “the red fort.” An ornate archway led into the complex itself, an array of palaces and gardens covering 35 acres. The most famous site is the Nasrid Palace, named after the ruling dynasty. On my first visit, I had hardly known where to rest my eyes as I wandered its gorgeous chambers adorned with latticework and geometric patterns, its elegantly proportioned courtyards with burbling fountains, and the surrounding rose and orange gardens. Its interior walls are covered floor to ceiling with carved script in classical Arabic, which scholars have translated as praise for Allah, snippets of poetry and celebrations of the Nasrid rulers.
But on this morning’s visit, I was heading for a more mysterious world: the Alhambra’s secret network of underground tunnels and chambers.
At least, that was my hope. The Alhambra is the most popular attraction in Spain, drawing over two million visitors annually. It’s also one of the most strictly controlled thanks to its status as an Islamic outpost seized by Christians, which still has political overtones more than five centuries later. Gaining permission to visit its off-limits subterranean sections had been challenging. After emailing palace officials for weeks without response, I had already arrived in Granada when they bluntly denied my request. But then, suddenly, they reversed track. I received an urgent phone call: I had been approved to visit at 9 the next morning.
After reporting at a special office to fill out a string of forms, I cooled my heels for a half-hour in the company of an affable security guard named Jaime, who was wearing an earpiece, aviator sunglasses and a black blazer with a green “A” sewn onto his lapel. Finally, Ignacio Martín-Lagos, a conservation officer, arrived and declared that he would be my Virgil to the palace’s subterráneo, a dimension of the complex that he said holds a special fascination for him. “The artistic beauty of the Alhambra aboveground is undeniable,” Martín-Lagos said in Spanish as we hopped over a metal barrier and walked along the fortress’s defensive walls. “But the most surprising thing is what lies below. It was really two structures. Only if you explore its subterranean levels can you grasp the palace’s true dimensions and understand how its day-to-day life really functioned.”
After passing a 40-foot drop without guardrails, which was not for the vertiginous, we arrived at the Torre de las Gallinas, or Tower of the Hens, where Martín-Lagos fished from his pocket a thin, six-inch-long master key. “You’re going to pass through the entire palace, but underground,” he said. After shouldering open a portal, he used his smartphone flashlight to guide us down worn stone steps into a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers once used by guards and staff. They were chilly, claustrophobic and, when Martín-Lagos turned off the light, sepulchral. But the underground was once teeming with activity, he said. “The Alhambra was a palace-city. As well as soldiers, it had about a thousand civilian inhabitants to serve the royal family—cooks, bakers, cleaners—who could go back and forth down here, without bothering the sultan. You need to have a double perspective: the ornamental world above versus the practical world below.”
I began to realize that the Alhambra most visitors see, like the Palace of Versailles and the great British manor houses, required an elaborate hidden support system. The upstairs palace offered exquisite luxury, where the sultan lounged on silk pillows and ate slices of oranges and honey cakes. Downstairs was penumbral darkness broken by flickering torches, where the staff toiled unseen to seamlessly maintain the opulence. The security purpose of the tunnels was also crucial, Martín-Lagos added, pointing up at the ceiling. We were under the room where the sultan held his audiences. “Squadrons of soldiers were lined up here, ready to rush upstairs at a moment’s notice.” Nearby was a stairway that had only been discovered after a 1907 landslide, with 200 steps descending to a door hidden in the fortress walls. We then ascended and opened a trapdoor to a bell-shaped chamber with walls of raw stone that had been converted from a grain silo to a dungeon. (Prisoners were lowered 20 feet from the surface by rope, so it was impossible to escape.)
The grand finale was Martín-Lagos’ favorite site. As travelers at an outdoor café in a palace courtyard snapped photographs, he unlocked two panels of a metal trapdoor in the ground and heaved them open, sending up clouds of dust. “Take care!” he said, now pointing a hefty light down a tight spiral staircase. “Take lots of care!” The electric beams cut through the darkness to reveal a vast cistern, including an ancient bucket suspended by a rope and encrusted with skeletal algae. “The major problem of the Alhambra was water,” Martín-Lagos whispered in awe. “Enormous cisterns were needed to supply the palace and its huge staff.” According to Martín-Lagos, the German traveler Hieronymus Münzer saw this cavern in 1494 and declared that it was bigger than the cathedral in his home city. “We all know that the finest engineers in history were the Romans,” he said. “That’s undeniable. But we must acknowledge the technical skill of the Spanish Muslims.”
Travelers have long regarded the Alhambra as the climax of a trip to Andalusia, as the southernmost region of Spain is known. For me, it was only the start. Just as the palace’s underground revealed the Alhambra’s inner workings, I realized that if I wanted to understand the saga of Islamic Spain, I should seek out the more far-flung and forgotten corners of the Nasrid Emirate, beyond its famous official beacon, the city of Granada, where the sultan presided in his version of the mythic Shangri-La. In fact, the Nasrid Kingdom had sprawled across an area that is today covered by four Spanish provinces. One, which extends along the Mediterranean coast, holds a special attraction for travelers: Almería.
The region’s major port, Almería—which gives the modern province its name—was always of “special importance” within the emirate, says Jesús Bermúdez López, a Granada-based scholar specializing in Islamic Spain. It had been the kingdom’s lifeline to the outside world because of its geographical location, he says, “closer to the ports of the Balearic Islands, the Italian peninsula and the North African coast, with which the Nasrids carried on regular trade.”
For 21st-century travelers, though, the province of Almería has a renewed allure as one of the most spectacular and little-visited corners of Spain. Its hinterland includes the awe-inspiring Tabernas Desert, while the isolated Almería coast has largely escaped the rampant overdevelopment that has scarred much of Spain’s shoreline. Its modern core is the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park, one of the largest wilderness reserves in Spain and the pride of Spain’s extensive conservation network. Covering some 150 square miles, its coast is lined with beaches beneath headlands crowned by ruined castles, while offshore is one of the country’s most extensive marine preserves.
Even so, relatively few international travelers make the pilgrimage to the remote region. I hoped that a journey across the former emirate would also answer a historical question: Does the brilliance of Islamic Spain, which flourished in the medieval era, survive as a living presence or only as a glorious memory?
For centuries, many visitors have declared that all that remained of the medieval Arab culture in Spain were majestic and abandoned ruins. The American writer Washington Irving, who arrived in Andalusia in 1829, dismissed the Moriscos (as the descendants of the Arabs who had converted to Christianity were known) as a vanished people who had been erased from Spanish history. Irving regarded the architectural remains of the Arab world with wonder. “Never was the annihilation of a people more complete than that of the Morisco-Spaniards,” Irving declared. “Where are they?” The Alhambra, like other Islamic-era forts and walls, was an “elegant memento of a brave, intelligent and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished and passed away.”
In recent decades, scholars have taken a more subtle view, pointing out that Spain emerged from its Muslim era very different from the rest of Europe. “The Arab-Islamic culture dominated the Iberian Peninsula for almost eight centuries—practically the entire Middle Ages—and it left a great mark,” says Bermúdez López. “Al-Andalus contributed innumerable advances to humanity, in the fields of agronomy, architecture, science, philosophy, and it still remains in all aspects of Spanish daily life in food, language, topographical names.” Its influence reached far beyond the borders of Spain, enriching both northern Europe and the Arab-Islamic world stretching for thousands of miles across North Africa to Arabia. In short, Islamic Spain was a cultural conduit that shaped our modern world.
This extraordinary chapter of European history began in A.D. 711 when the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate crossed by sea from North Africa into southern Spain, which was then ruled by Christian Visigoths. The Umayyads soon conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, which became known in the Islamic world as al-Andalus. (Christians called its inhabitants “Moors.”)
The Umayyad Caliphate ruled from the city of Córdoba for a century, turning Spain into a thriving center of art, literature and science, a florescence that continued when the peninsula was split into separate Muslim kingdoms after 1031. Its libraries contained rare copies of works by ancient Greek authors such as Aristotle, as well as Arab texts on astronomy, science and mathematics, all of which were read by scholars who made arduous trips from northern lands. The Hispano-Arab era was also known for its relative religious tolerance: Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side. But the caliphate fragmented around the year 1100, leaving a patchwork of Islamic kingdoms that one by one succumbed to Christian armies in a Spanish version of the Crusades later dubbed La Reconquista, “The Reconquest.”
From 1238, the Nasrid Emirate of Granada managed to hold out against the onslaught thanks to the diplomatic acuity of a leader named Ibn al-Ahmar of the Nasr family, who secured his kingdom’s independence by helping a Christian army. As a result, the glories of al-Andalus survived in this last corner of Spain for another 250 years. At the emirate’s cultural height in the 1300s, the capital of Granada was beautified by the Arabs’ advanced hydraulic engineering, filled with fountains, pools and gardens. It also boasted one of Spain’s first universities, the madrasa of Granada, and one of the country’s first hospitals, the Maristan. Along the southern coastline, in today’s province of Almería, valleys were irrigated to grow gustatory marvels unknown in the rest of Europe, like lemons, chickpeas, watermelon, oranges, eggplants and saffron. Münzer reported Almería to be an earthly paradise.
The Nasrid Emirate’s independence could not endure, as Europe in the 15th century became more religiously intolerant. Christian armies began to march on the Islamic kingdom in the 1480s, and in 1489 the port of Almería was ceded by its governor. Soon after, on January 2, 1492, the emirate’s capital city, Granada, surrendered without a cannon fired to the so-called Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, ending the emirate’s 275 years of independence and the near-800-year saga of al-Andalus. The power couple personally took possession of the Alhambra, taking the keys from the last Nasrid king, Muhammad XII (also known as Boabdil). In deference to the emirate’s traditions, they wore Arab robes at the ceremony and personally signed guarantees of religious freedom for all of Boabdil’s Muslim subjects.
And yet, after the Reconquest, the once-wealthy region fell into decay. By the early 19th century, it had become so wild and impoverished that Washington Irving was forced to trudge its grueling mountain roads in a mule team convoy with armed guards to protect from highwaymen. (Although the Alhambra complex was in ruin, Irving spent several months living there, listening to the songs of nightingales and the tinkling of fountains while penning his travel memoir Tales of the Alhambra, which became an instant best seller when it was released in 1832.) By contrast, I zigzagged the 100 miles from Granada to Almería in a few short hours on a comfortable local train. Rural Spain is known for its wild landscapes: In fact, Irving had felt the need to warn American grand tourists that in contrast to “voluptuous Italy,” Spain is “a stern, melancholy country, with rugged mountains and long sweeping plains, destitute of trees, and indescribably silent and lonesome.”
My introduction to Almería, the Tabernas Desert, is the closest thing Europe has to a “pure” or genuine desert. I gazed out the train window at a parched expanse carved with bluffs and gorges. Littered at random were poignant signs of failed habitation: ghost towns, abandoned farms and ruined rail platforms. When my own train stopped, no passengers got on or off. If not for the remains of what I thought was a Roman aqueduct bleached by the sun, I might have been in backcountry Utah.
I was hardly the first to notice the resemblance. In the 1960s, this starkly beautiful landscape doubled for the American West in director Sergio Leone’s beloved spaghetti westerns, including the Clint Eastwood classics The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars. The cinematic love affair has extended to the rest of the province of Almería, too. Its spectacular wastes have doubled for Egypt (in Cleopatra), Jordan (David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia), the Republic of Hatay (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) and Tunisia (Patton). It also featured in the “Game of Thrones” franchise.
“I know of no other location that has been transformed more vigorously into other places,” writes the Spanish film director Manuel Martín Cuenca in the catalog of an exhibition on cinema in Almería. “A location that, endowed with a chameleon skin, has been disguised so often and with such good fortune, fooling viewers around the world.”
The remote setting has also seen its share of violence. In 1568, more than seven decades after the Reconquest, the Muslims of Almería joined the so-called Rebellion of the Alpujarras against Christian domination in Spain, creating an outlaw Islamic enclave that held out until it was crushed in 1571. Some 350 years later, Federico García Lorca’s classic 1932 play Blood Wedding was based on a real “honor killing” in 1928, when a young couple eloped from a farmhouse called El Cortijo del Fraile in southern Almería but were caught by the family of the girl’s jilted fiancé. The boy was gunned down. Lorca himself would face an equally savage fate four years later, at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, when Nationalist troops led by General Francisco Franco rebelled against the democratically elected Republican government; the writer was dragged from a friend’s house in Granada by Nationalist soldiers and executed. His body has never been found.
Soon after, a mass escape of Republican civilian refugees on the desert highway from Málaga to Almería was strafed remorselessly by Franco’s Nazi-supplied planes, leaving at least 3,000 dead. The city of Almería then became “a vast encampment,” in the words of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune, a humanitarian crisis documented by the Hungarian American photographer Robert Capa. Despite daily bombing by Franco’s air force, Almería was one of the most resilient holdouts in Republican Spain and among the last cities to surrender in 1939. It managed to endure in part because its feisty citizen-militias had dug three miles of tunnels so the entire population of 37,000 could shelter from the air raids.
Today Almería is a sleepy provincial port surrounded by mountains that travelers often pass through quickly en route to the beaches that scallop the coast. But a little digging tells a richer story. Almería is only a short jump to North Africa—the Moroccan city of Nador 120 miles to the south is linked by daily ferries—and the Islamic past feels surprisingly close. Even Almería’s layout has the sparse geometric elegance of its Arab heritage. In the palm-fringed plaza, I ate plump olives on a rooftop across from the cathedral, which was converted from a tenth-century mosque and still has an original Islamic wall and alcove.
From there, steps ascended into the Medina, or Walled City, dating from the tenth century, a maze of narrow laneways shaded by palm trees. At its summit presides the Alcazaba, an Arab palace-fortress complex that was reinforced in the Nasrid era. Although second in grandeur only to the Alhambra, with 270-degree views of the glittering Mediterranean, it was devoid of visitors, allowing me to laze Washington Irving-style in the shady gardens, lulled by the tinkling of water running through irrigation channels by my feet.
Like the capital Granada, Almería at its height in the 1300s enjoyed urban living standards that were in stark contrast to the squalid, flea-infested world of contemporary cities in northern Europe, such as London. The ancient Romans would have been impressed by Almería’s paved, well-lit streets, fine sanitation and dozens of hammams, or heated baths. Its busy shipyard and rich silk factories funded a thriving cultural life, with the influx of foreign merchants and intellectuals adding a cosmopolitan air.
East along the coast of Almería, the route is scattered with place names of Arab origins, and at every turn of the highway the spectacular lunar landscape meets the Mediterranean with an explosion of piercing light. In the 1980s, this remote coast became the holdout of yet another quixotic rebel group: Spanish environmentalists, who for decades had been fighting a rear-guard action against real estate developers who had disfigured much of the country’s Mediterranean shore.
Created in 1987, the Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park may look desolate but is far from lifeless, explains Luis Berraquero, an ecologist and mobilization coordinator for Greenpeace Andalusia. “It’s a volcanic, arid landscape, but there is enormous biodiversity in both the vegetation and wildlife,” he says. “It looks like a desert but has many endemic species, particularly wild birds. It’s a paradise for reptiles! Its offshore oceans are an underwater garden for the aquatic plant Posidonia oceanica, which has a unique capacity to filter water. That’s why the sea there is so clear for swimming and so marvelous for diving.”
Over the following week, I sought out the remotest corners of Spain’s remotest park. I had the sense of entering uncharted territory, a rare feeling in European travel today. Back home in Manhattan, I was searching without success in the New York Public Library for a detailed guidebook to this raw coastline when I came across a 1966 volume in the catalog. Produced by a certain B. Martín del Rey, the guidebook was filled with murky black-and-white photographs of solitary beaches, grizzled farmers riding horses along unpaved roads, fishermen repairing their nets, women wearing traditional Andalusian dress. Now that I had arrived in Almería myself, it was pleasant to discover that the sparsely populated coastline looked largely unchanged.
The whole experience took on the prelapsarian air of travel in a bygone age. I had made no hotel bookings in advance. Instead, after meandering the coast, I decided to base myself in a fishing village called Agua Amarga (“Bitter Water”), where I rented a room from an elderly lady and her daughter I met by chance on the street, both of them named Antonia. “The Two Antonias,” as I dubbed them, apologized for the room’s basic decor before showing me its terrace, which had million-dollar views over the Mediterranean.
Some stretches of the park’s coast were elemental. Although it lies over 200 miles east of the Pillars of Hercules, as ancient sailors called the Strait of Gibraltar, the North Atlantic can feel near. At the exposed Playa de los Genoveses (named for a Genovese war fleet that anchored there for two months in the 12th century), a fierce gale sent waves pounding into the sea cliffs. Other beaches offered calm waters and historical secrets. One called Playa el Playazo de Rodalquilar looked windswept at first, but the Two Antonias had instructed me to hike around the eastern headland, where I discovered a small, protected cove with gentle waters, crowned with a ruined, golden-hued fortress, the Castillo de San Ramón.
I had guessed that the castle was another Arab-era fort, but I later learned that it had been built by Spanish Christians. It was an idyllic point to ponder the cataclysmic upheavals that followed the final capitulation of the Nasrid Emirate in 1492.
That year would prove to be a pivot of world history. In January, Queen Isabella summoned Christopher Columbus to her splendid new palace in Granada and, on April 17, signed a contract funding his three-ship expedition across the Atlantic. (He set sail from Palos de la Frontera, near Seville, on August 3.) By then, the Catholic Monarchs had also reneged on their vow of religious freedom. On March 31, they ordered all Jews who lived in Spain (known as Sephardic Jews) to renounce their faith and convert to Christianity or leave the country within four months. A large percentage of the world’s Jewish population resided in the Iberian Peninsula at the time, and the result was a colossal and traumatic exodus: Around 200,000 Sephardim were forced to gather their belongings overnight and seek refuge across Europe.From 1502, similar conversion orders were announced for Muslims in Spain, accompanied by laws closing hammams, turning mosques into churches, and banning the Arab language, dress and customs. Finally, in 1609, even the converted Muslims, or Moriscos, were ordered to leave Spain. Some 300,000 Muslims fled in the next five years, mostly to North Africa and Turkey. Over the next century, the tide of history would shift, and it would be Arab pirates and corsairs who would make raids from across the Mediterranean. It was against these ongoing attacks that the Castillo de San Ramón was built in 1764—a link in a chain to protect Spain as a purely Christian country, with the lonely shore of Almería as its exposed frontier.
Today, the dramatic human history of this coast is reflected in its Spanish place names: From Agua Amarga, I drove at different times past the Rambla de los Feos (“Promenade of the Ugly Ones”), Venta del Pobre (“The Poor Man’s Hostel”) and along Camino del Cementerio (“Cemetery Road”) to Playa de los Muertos (“The Beach of the Dead”). Perversely, the most dismal appellations indicate the most seductive locations, as if Almerienses use a reverse PR to stop outsiders from finding their hideaways. After I hiked down a cliff, the Beach of the Dead turned out to be a ravishing arc of egg-shaped pebbles caressed by ankle-high waves. A pillar of stone at the beach’s south hid another secret cove with the air of an ancient sanctuary; I half-expected Jason and his Argonauts to arrive in a trireme, or the Cyclops to lumber from a cave.
Spain’s attempts at reconciliation have ranged from symbolic—a 2022 apology to women executed as witches in Catalonia—to acts that have direct contemporary impact, like the exhumation of victims in mass graves from the Spanish Civil War, offering closure to descendants who want their relatives identified and properly reburied. In 2015, there was also an attempt to deal with injustices following the demise of al-Andalus, when the Madrid government apologized for the 1492 Edict of Expulsion aimed at Sephardic Jews and offered Spanish citizenship to their international descendants. (This generous reparations bid had a setback in 2021 when some 3,000 ostensibly eligible candidates from around the world received unexplained rejections; legal cases are ongoing.)
The promise of citizenship was not extended to the descendants of Muslims and Moriscos who were expelled in the 16th and 17th centuries, most of whom now live in North Africa. This omission reopened wounds that have barely healed since 1492. Under the reactionary regime of the dictator Franco, who ruled from 1939 to his death in 1975, Islam could not officially be practiced in Spain either in public or private—a situation that changed only in 1989. Since then, Islam has flourished. Today, there are some 2,000 mosques and 2.5 million Muslims, many converted native-born Spaniards.
Tourism is also helping the return of Arab culture. In 1998, the Hammam al-Andalus became the first Arab-style bathhouse to open in Granada in over 500 years, built on the foundations of a 13th-century hammam closed after the Reconquest. Guests drift through ornate steam rooms and candlelit hot pools, then are massaged with fragrant oils (a choice of rose, pomegranate, lavender or red amber). And Arab cuisine is enjoying a resurgence. On the last day of my trip, I returned to Almería port and stopped at a lushly colorful North African restaurant called Tetería Almedina, with tables set up in a lane beneath the vines where hummus, couscous and spiced vegetables were served. The owners were recent arrivals from Morocco who spoke to each other in French, part of the new wave of Arab immigrants who have made the return journey to Spain since the 1980s.
On a deeper level, Arab cuisine never left the peninsula: The influence of al-Andalus permeates every Spanish kitchen today in recipes and ingredients. Even paella, effectively the national dish, would not exist without Arab-introduced rice. But the complexity of the historical exchange is suggested by the ostentatious display of pork products in Spain. In Almería and beyond, almost all traditional Spanish restaurants are decorated with sides of ham dangling from the walls like enormous oily fruit. The practice dates to the 15th and 16th centuries, when converted Jews and Muslims wanted to prove to their neighbors—and agents of the Inquisition—that they were “good Christians” by displaying a product forbidden in their own religions. The writer Julio Camba argues that this is why Spain remains so pork-centric: “Spanish cooking overflows with garlic and religious prejudices.”
Not all native-born Spaniards have welcomed the return of Arab culture. The word moro, “Moor,” is still used as an insult. Meanwhile, many North African immigrants regard the centuries of Arab rule wryly. When I asked one Moroccan-born restaurateur why he had moved to Granada, he replied: “I am here to take back the Alhambra!” When Spain and Morocco faced off in World Cup soccer in Qatar last year, social media abounded with jokes: “The winner gets al-Andalus.”
The Granada-based scholar Jesús Bermúdez López argues that the waves of humanity passing between Spain and North Africa since the 700s are a key element of Europe’s historical wealth. “In our contemporary society, the past should be seen as something enriching, not a source of division or bitterness,” he told me in an interview. The medieval Arab legacy should be celebrated: “Not all current countries are lucky enough to be able to boast the contribution of so many cultures and civilizations through history as Spain.”