The Nasrid dynasty was founded in 1232 by Muhammad ibn Yûsuf ibn Nasr ibn al-Ahmar, a military leader from the Jaen region. This period was marked by Christian attempts to re-conquer the al-Andalus territories and the end of the Almohad dynasty. He installed his capital in Granada from 1237 and concentrated on defending modest territories, which included the cities of Malaga and Almeria. The early Nasrid emirs spent this period consolidating their positions against the Castilians, whose sovereignty they were obliged to recognise and to whom they had to pay tribute and occasionally supply armed forces. They nevertheless managed to take advantage of the differences between the Castilians and the Catalo-Aragonites as well as forming irregular alliances with the Abd al-Wadids of Tlemcen and more often the Marinids of Morocco, who on several occasions attacked Castilian positions at the end of the thirteenth century and during the first half of the fourteenth century. The emirs of Granada were victorious in important battle, on a floodplain known as the ‘Vega de Granada’ in 1319, with the help of Moroccan forces and during which two of the children of the Castilian dynasty perished. This period was also marked by the re-conquest of Algeciras and Gibraltar. The dynasty reached its political and cultural zenith during the reign of Muhammad V (r. 1354 – 1391), which enjoyed a long period of peace due to the weakened state of both the Castilian kingdom and the Maranid sultans.
The Nasrid emirate took full advantage of a relatively large population due to the arrival of Muslims fleeing the Christian re-conquests. The available land was intensively farmed and even if a shortage of wheat led to importation from North Africa, the kingdom of Granada exported its dried fruits, sugar and silk. Genoese traders occupied a privileged position in the ports of Malaga and Almeria.
From an intellectual, scientific and literary point of view, conservatism was the order of the day. The Sufi mysticism, which had developed during the thirteenth century around Murcia, was counterbalanced by the strict orthodoxy of Malikism. The most important intellectual figure was without a doubt Ibn al-Khatib, who before being exiled to Morocco and executed in 1375 was secretary then Vizier to Muhammad V. His work touched on a wide range of subjects including religious science, medicine, philosophy, poetry and history. One of his pupils, Ibn Zamrak (d. 1394), who eventually took over his position of Vizier, initiated the golden age of al-Andalus poetry. His work has been left for posterity as decoration of the walls of the Alhambra.
The construction of the palace of the Alhambra was started at the very beginning of the Nasrid dynasty. It was built on a rocky outcrop, which dominates the city of Granada, and has been modified and embellished many times over the centuries. It is surrounded by imposing fortified walls punctuated by towers and is divided into military and administrative quarters and different pavilions for the princely occupants. These pavilions, whose rooms are relatively simple, are surrounded by luxurious gardens and ornamental ponds, which are a clear reference to a future paradise.
The sumptuous reigns of Yusuf 1st (r. 1333 – 1354) and Muhammad V both left a distinct mark on the site with the construction of the famous Comares Palace and the Patio of the Lions as well as the extraordinary domed chambers known as the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Hall of the Abencerrajes.
The astonishing blend of ceramic panels, sculpted stucco and ornamental woodwork add even greater refinement to the decorative grammar we find in the Maghreb, throughout the great constructions of the Abd al-Wadids in Tlemcen or of the Marinids in Fez or Marrakech. The influence of the Maghreb is also felt in the layout and illumination of handwritten examples of the Koran, in the preference for a square format, the insistence on the continued use of parchement and the characteristic use of geometric patterns on the frontispiece.
Leaf motifs, calligraphy and the geometric patterns of the Alhambra stuccos all found their way onto brightly coloured, woven silk cloth, with red and yellow predominant.
On one example, conserved in Cleveland, we find the Nasrid motto “Lâ ghâlib ilâ Allâh” (There is no victor other than God), which is found on countless objects and decorations often in the form of a heraldic shield, undoubtedly due to Christian influence. These luxurious bolts of cloth were exported to the courts of European princes – sometimes in the form of a tribute. Their manufacture continued even after the fall of the kingdom of Granada. The continuity between the Muslim period and the dominance of the Christians can also be seen in the creation of metallic lusterware ceramics. In al-Andalus, this craft seems to have its roots in the twelfth century and was greatly developed during the Nasrid dynasty. Malaga became a major centre of production and its wares were exported both to Europe and the Orient as the fragments found in Cairo, Alexandria, Syria, Istanbul and even in Beaucaire in the south of France testify. Among the most spectacular creations, are the famous monumental “Alhambra” vases, with their handles in the form of wings, some of which were found on the site of the palace itself. The manufacture of lusterware ceramics continued long after the fall of the Granada emirate and became known as “Hispano-Moorish” ware, with its production centred in Valencia, Paterna and Manises.
The craft of the goldsmiths is also a testament to the refinement of the Nasrid court: Sword-handles, belt ornaments, and necklaces all use gold filigree with virtuosity, often associated with enamel, further proof of exchange with the Christian kingdoms.
Whereas the artistic achievements of the epoch seem to have continued well into the fifteenth century, the political situation became more and more instable, partly due to internal feuding within the Nasrid family, but also to the intrigues of the powerful Banu Sarraj (Abencerrajes) clan. The final century of the Nasrid dynasty was fraught with political convulsions with only short periods of stability, while empowered by the Castillo-Aragonite alliance of 1479, the Christian noose gradually tightened until Boabdil signed the surrender of Granada on 2nd January 1492 signalling the end of Muslim domination in al-Andalus.