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A Mawlid Celebration in
14th Century Muslim Granada/ART MAIN
Granada Granada Alhambra

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The Alhambrais an Islamic palace-city that was built largely in the 14thCentury by the Nasrids, the last dynasty of Islamic Spain.  Referred to by the Muslims as Al-Andalus, the Iberian Peninsula was ruled by a succession of Arab, Berber, and North African dynasties, starting from the initial invasion in 711 CE until its final conquest by the Catholic kings, Ferdinand and Isabel, in 1492. 

In royal residential architecture anywhere in the Islamic world, a permanent capital residence can be called a palace-city, which consisted of four basic elements—living facilities for the extended royal family, sacred spaces consisting of a mosque and other smaller private worship spaces, multiple gardens throughout the site (both vegetable and ornamental), and at least one hammām, or bath house, for royal use and then others for the ancillary population who served the sultan and his family.  All of these elements would be surrounded by outer walls with gates designed to control access both into and out of the palace-city.  In addition, a palace-city included other elements of urban living, such as a market or commercial district (called a madīna in Arabic), a governmental precinct adjacent to the official reception halls, a cemetery, a royal mint, and housing for palace secretaries and servants and their families who lived within the walls and served the needs of the royal family on a daily basis.The lands surrounding the Alhambra,referred to in Spanish as the vega,and the city of Granada itself, consisted of prosperous fincas and densely populated villages, some three hundred in total, in which about fifty of those villages and towns were at least large enough to support congregational mosques.  Lisān al-Dīn ibn al-Khatīb (1313-1374 CE/713-777 H), the author of the treatise we are considering here, reported that the region was filled with magnificent houses and alquerías (agricultural estates), many horses for both agricultural and military use, dovecots, hen houses, and more than 130 water mills.  In a broader sense, the Kingdom of Granada was  known for its production of a variety of foodstuffs, including figs, pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), pears, apples, cherries, lemons, and grapes; almonds, walnuts, and chestnuts; sugar cane; spices such as saffron and alheña(a dye used in food); and medicinal plants, such as peucédano or servato ( a medicinal herb used to treat flatulence), Indian tuberoses (used as a diuretic and for pulmonary complaints), and gentian (used for stomach ailments).[1]

Ibn al-Khatib also writes in other works, such as al-Ihata Akhbār al-Gharnātaand al-Lamha al-Badhriyya, about the agricultural enterprises both inside and out of the walls of the Alhambra, reflecting not only on the personal riches of the sultan but also the varieties of wealth found in the countryside of the tiny Nasrid kingdom.  He wrote that the Kingdom of Granada, “is a sea of wheat and a mine of excellent cereals … [where] the waters surround [the land], the air is healthy, the vegetable and flower gardens abundant; there are thick forests and many fragrant herbs and medicinal plants.”  He also mentions that the sultan’s private lands, “are of such value and high quality that the fortunes of kings would be necessary to pay the price for them.”[2]

Despite Ibn al-Khatib’s assertions of plenty, the Kingdom of Granada at times had to resort to imports of cereals from its neighbors across the Strait of Gibraltar in North Africa.  The constant influx of Muslim refugees from the north, on-going military threats from both the north (the Kingdom of Castile) and occasionally the south (North Africa), poor soil, and the constant fear of drought or insect infestations, made for frequent shortages and rampant inflation in the kingdom, with the result, on the one hand, of mosques filled with believers fearful for the future, but also steadily increasing political unrest and instability.[3]  And although Ibn Khaldun praised the Andalusi people as “most devoted to agriculture,” he wrote that, The Christians [had] pushed the Muslims back to the sea coast and the rugged territory there, where (the soil) is poor for the cultivation of grain and little suited for (the growth of) vegetables.  They themselves [the Christians] took possession of the fine soil and the good land.  Thus, (the Muslims) had to treat the fields and tracts of land, in order to improve the plants and agriculture there.  This treatment required expensive labour (products) and materials, such as fertilizer and other things that had to be procured.  Thus, their agricultural activities required considerable expenditure.  They calculated their expenditure in fixing their prices, and thus Spain has become an especially expensive region…[4]Nevertheless, a religious celebration such as the one we are considering here, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, would have been a suitable occasion for sparing no expense in the appropriate dining and entertainment in the new setting of the Alhambra palaces.

Within the Muslim tradition, there are two officially recognized holidays of the Islamic lunar calendar, the Eid al-Fitr at the end of the month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, a few months later.  However, during the rule of the Fatimids in Egypt and North Africa in the 10th and 11th/4th and 5th Centuries, a third holiday had evolved, that of the mawlid festival, the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.[5]  Although frowned upon as an innovation by many Muslim scholars of the period (in Arabic called bid’a—not a good thing in Islamic tradition), the holiday became popular in North Africa in the late 13th/7th Century (as it still is today) and spread shortly thereafter across the Strait to Nasrid Granada.

The mawlid festival on the night of December 29-30, 1362 CE/12 rabi’ I, 764 H appears to have been the first holiday celebrated in the Alhambra since the return of Muhammad V to Granada some nine months previously.  He had ascended to the throne in 1354 when his father, Yusuf I, had been assassinated, but Muhammad had his problems, too--a palace coup in 1359 CE/761 H--but with the assistance of the Marinid sultans in North Africa and Pedro I of Christian Castile, Muhammad had been able to return to the Granadan throne in 1361 CE/763 H and would rule there continuously for the next thirty years.   In a Nasrid tradition dating back to at least the reign of Isma’īl I at the beginning of the 14th Century, Muhammad V celebrated his return to the throne with a building program at the Alhambra that endeavored to reflect renewed building program, the reception hall for the mawlid festival, the Hall of the Two Sisters as the Spanish called it (we don’t know what the Nasrids called it), had only been very recently constructed, and the surrounding rooms still contained parts of scaffolding and plaster, with the only illumination in the room provided by torches and candles.[7]  Also attached to the room is a mirador, or scenic overlook, which originally gave a view to the Albaicín, the oldest residential area of the city of Granada, but today is blocked by an additional garden built by the Spanish in the early 16th Century.  At any rate, the observance of the Prophet’s birthday also served as a celebration for his namesake’s return to power in Granada.[8]  The performance and yearly enactment of court ceremonies allowed for the mixing of sacred and secular motifs as well as provided a tool to Muhammad V for manipulating symbols of the past, providing him the opportunity to emphasize aspects of popular culture and collective memory that enhanced his legitimacy while also advancing his own objectives.[9]The available information regarding the celebration of the mawlid festival in the Kingdom of Granada comes from a work called the Nufadah al-jirab fi ‘ulalat al-igtirab (loosely translated as “Beating the Saddlebag in Order to Entertain the Exile”), which is the only work of its kind known to have survived from the Nasrid dynasty.[10]  The author of the treatise, Ibn al-Khatīb, was the grand vizier of the Nasrid dynasty under the rule of Yusuf I (1333 -1354 CE/733–755 H) and of Yusuf’s son, Muhammad V (1354-1359; 1361-1391 CE/755-760; 762-792 H).  A consideration of the program of the festival is revealing for what Paula Sanders refers to as ‘insignia of sovereignty’ employed by (in this case) Muhammad V to reinforce both his religious legitimacy and his secular authority over the Kingdom of Granada.[11]

The celebration itself was an all-night affair that lasted over twelve hours, beginning with the Maghrib prayer at sunset, through the night prayer of Isha’, and ending after the Fajr prayer at dawn the next morning.  Emilio García-Gómez, the modern-day editor of the original text, writes that the protocol followed by the Nasrids in Granada appears to have been similar to that of the Andalusi Umayyad caliphate that had ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula from the capital of Córdoba, starting with Abd al-Rahman I in 756 CE until 1031 CE—essentially four hundred years earlier.  In the Nufadah, Ibn al-Khatib gives a generic list of those invited to the festival, and the number in attendance was estimated at five hundred people.[12]  The Hall of the Two Sisters consisted of a main room with alcoves on three sides and measuring a total of 255 m2, not including the mirador.[13] 

Some guests could have spilled out into the adjacent space that would eventually be the Patio of the Lions, but construction on that section of the Alhambra would not be started until the following year; some other structure could have been there previously—we just don’t know.)  Regardless, it would have been a crowded arrangement.  Ibn al-Khatib gives no names of specific people who attended the festival save one—Ibn Khaldun, an official from the Marinid court in North Africa whose ancestors had fled Islamic Spain a hundred years earlier.  He had come to Granada on a diplomatic mission and had only arrived four days previously; he stayed in Granada long enough to attend the mawlid festival the next year, too.[14]  In order of importance, the guests ranged from those seated nearest the sultan--the shuyukh al-qabā’il (leaders of the Berber tribes of Al-Andalus), next were those who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad, then members of the Nasrid family, the ulama (religious scholars); then the members of the brotherhoods of the Sufis and the fuqarā’ in the Kingdom of Granada located in front of the raised dais with the sultan’s seat; and lastly could be found the members of various Sufi orders visiting from abroad, Christian guests and merchants, and any other local officials who sat farther removed from the sultan’s immediate vicinity.  Although there is no direct mention of a military presence at the festival, presumably at least the mamālīk, Christian slaves who served as the bodyguard of the sultan, attended, also.[15]

In past Islamic dynasties, such as the Fatimids in Egypt and North Africa, the power of the ruler in part manifested itself in his physical presence being hidden behind a kind of curtain to shield him from the eyes of the court as well as the common people.[16]  However, in Nasrid Granada, authority was demonstrated out in the open, where the sultan sat on his throne in plain sight and raised above his guests (perhaps not such a good idea, given the number of Nasrid sultans that were assassinated).  The typical dining style for the Islamic world consisted then (and often still does) of sitting on pillows and rugs on the floor while eating from a low table, in this particular case decorated with tablecloths of fine materials, and the sultan and his guests were served by Christian slaves wearing brocade capes who were quite adept at getting around in the crowded quarters of the reception hall.  Service started with the guests seated nearest the throne, and then continued on down the line of protocol until everyone had been served.  Any leftovers from the banquet were given out to palace guards and servants.

The gastronomical entertainment of the program included dinner, a late-night snack, and breakfast the next morning; Ibn al-Khatib does include a general idea of the menu, and recipe books are extant from the time period that can give us a suggestion of the foods that Ibn al-Khatib describes.  By the mid-14th Century, there had been prolonged political, social, and cultural contacts between Al-Andalus and North Africa (basically what is today Morocco and western Algeria), with the result that there is considerable overlap in recipes, ingredients, and styles of cooking from these two regions.  L. Benavides-Barajas has published several collections of recipes from the 13th to 15th Centuries, and his observations can give us a window into the world of celebration foods in the 14th Century.[17]  The recipes often ended with the saying “Kūl, Insha’ Allah” (“Eat, God willing.”) 

The first course of the evening, dinner on the 29th, included lamb and barnyard fowl, such as chickens, geese, pigeons, and doves.  The common forms of cooking meat were grilling, frying, roasting, mincing or grinding, stewing, and last but not least, stuffed with almonds and other dried fruits.  There are recipes for meatballs dating back to the 14th Century and for couscous from the 13th Century.  Condiments on the tables included au jus, vinegar, brine, and honey.  It is interesting to note that Ibn a-Khatib makes no specific comments on vegetables that were served, although given the variability of Andalusi agriculture in cereals and fruits, there had to be veggies in there somewhere.  Dessert would have consisted of pastries made with sugar and rose water and fresh fruits, such as cherries and apples from Granada, dried figs from Almuñécar, and pomegranates and grapes from Málaga.[18]The next meal, a kind of midnight snack, consisted of dried fruit, bread or rolls, and an apple tart, all served on decorated wooden trays, while the third meal of the celebration, served after the dawn (fajr) prayer the next day, included sweet breads and pastries.  Ibn al-Khatib also mentions a soup called tard, made with semolina and bread crumbs in a sauce with drippings from chicken or dove, that is still part of Moroccan cuisine today.  A kind of fried bread is also mentioned that appears to be a cross between a doughnut and a churro (a breakfast pastry common in Spain today) that was often filled with cheese and sprinkled with spices or cinnamon and sugar.

Over the course of the night celebration, the sultan and his guests were treated to musical entertainment and dhikr demonstrations performed by different Sufi orders.  Sufism is a kind of Islamic mysticism, and their forms of worship differ from one order to the next; such groups were common in 14th/8th Century Granada as well as in North Africa.[19]  At times they were known to run afoul of the government, but at this particular moment in time, given their preferential seating and evening performances at the festival, the Sufis appear to have been in good favor with Muhammad V.

Besides the religious obligations of the three prayers and Qur’anic recitations, the evening’s program also included qasidas, a style of medieval Islamic poetry, that were often performed by professional reciters rather than the authors themselves.  Poems dealt with topics of astrology and horology (the study of time-keeping), where each hour of the festival would be ushered in with a new qasida.  Ibn al-Khatib recorded that, “What I had written for the occasion was recited each hour on the hour in that initial program.  Among the verses I always have at anchor in my subconscious, written unenthusiastically and rather reluctantly, nevertheless trying not to let them fall below the level of good poetry, I found the following …”.[20]  The twelve poems he composed for this program are typically the same style and employ the same vocabulary as the poems he wrote that were inscribed on the walls of the Alhambra—celestial imagery, references to Islam, and panegyrical tributes to the Nasrid sultan.  For the mawlid festival, the first of the hourly poems he wrote went like this:1 The first hour of the night is gone dissipating to submit to God    ………………………………..6 Ben Nasr, who carries the Prophet’s name   For you, God predestines glory.7 If in combat the banner you have won   God in heaven’s victory is set in motion.8 When Truth shines, souls   take off their veils and disrobe. 9 If they make God a good loan,   God doubles it immediately.10 Let us thank God, always submissively, for He opens hopes that close.[21]Whether religious celebrations, weddings, military parades, or simply daily audiences, court ceremony and protocol as an artificially structured environment with a strict code of behavior presented a powerful venue for a ruler to exert his influence and power in an open and highly visible manner.  In the particular case of a religious festival, assertions of authority and legitimacy took on an even greater import and increased sophistication, for emphasis rested on the ruler as sanctioned by and blessed by Allah and not simply with the military commander who had the biggest army.  The mawlid festival held in the Alhambra in 1362 presented Muhammad V, recently returned from two years in exile, with a valuable opportunity expressed in a religious and state ceremony to reestablish his authority, both sacred and secular, as the Nasrid sultan.  His efforts can be considered successful, for he ruled the Kingdom of Granada without interruption for the next thirty years.

This mawlid festival of 1362 in the Kingdom of Granada should not be considered a rare or unique occasion, but rather is a snapshot of such celebrations occurring throughout the late medieval western Islamic world.  What does make this particular occasion special is that someone who attended the celebration recorded his observations and that these recollections have survived down to the present day.

April L. Najjaj

April L. Najjaj specialises in Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), and is an Associate Professor of History at Greensboro College, Greensboro, North Carolina USA. 

     [1] Rachel Arié, El reino nasrí de Granada (1232-1492) (Madrid, Spain:  Editorial Mapfre, 1992), 160-161.

     [2] Ibn al-Khatib, al-Lamha 41-43; Emilio Molina et al, Historia de los Reyes 8-11.

     [3] Rachel Arié, El reino nasrí de Granada (1232-1492) (Madrid:  Editorial Mapfre, 1992), 22, 158.  

     [4] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, An Introduction to History, Franz Rosenthal, trans.   N.J. Dawood, ed.  (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1967) 277.

     [5] See Emilio García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz; Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press, 1994).

     [6] The name of Isma’il I (1314-1325) appears in inscriptions in the Generalife, which he renovated and expanded as part of a celebration of his victory over the Christians in the Battle of the Vega in 1319 CE/719 H.  See Leopoldo Torres Balbás, “Cronología de las construcciones de la casa real de la Alhambra,” Al-Andalus 27 (1962), 402.

     [7] García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 102.

     [8] Ibn al-Khatib, al-Lamha al-badriyya (Historia de los Reyes de la Alhambra), 147.  See also Emilio García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 51.  However, there is a discrepancy in the dates, for Ibn al-Khatib dates Muhammad V’s return to the Alhambra on 20 jumada II 762 (= April 16, 1362)(al-Lamha al-badriyya, 147) while García-Gómez gives a date of a month earlier, March 16, 1362 (Foco de antigua luz, 46.

     [9] See Barbara A. Hanawalt and Kathryn Reyerson, eds., City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (Minneapolis, MN:  University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

     [10] In Spanish rendered Sacudida de alforjas para entretener el exilio.   There is considerable uncertainty regarding the date of this particular work, and García-Gómez postulates that the first two sections were written while Ibn al-Khatib was in exile in North Africa with Muhammad V from 1359-1361.  The later, third section was written somewhere between the time he returned to Granada with Muhammad V’s family in 1362 and then fled into permanent exile again in 1370.  The matter is further confused by the existence of several different manuscripts found in the Escorial, Rabat, Morocco, and Leiden, Netherlands.  See García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 211-221; see also Ibn al-Khatib, al-Ihata fi akhbar Gharnata,  Vol. 1 Introduction, Muhammad Abdullah ‘Inan, ed. (Cairo:  Dar al-Mua’rif, 1955).

     [11] Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo, 23.

     [12] Antonio Fernández-Puertas, The Alhambra, vol. I. (London:  Saqi Books,  1997), 62.  For a time table of construction for the Patio of the Lions, see García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 11.

     [13]   Antonio Fernández-Puertas, The Alhambra vol. I.  (London:  Saqi Books, 1997), 62.

     [14] Ibn Khaldun attended the mawlid festivals of 1362 and 1363 and contributed a qasida mawlidiyya of his own in the latter year.  See García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 46.

     [15]  García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 53-55.  Muhammad V’s father, Yusuf I, had been assassinated in the mosque in the Alhambra while at prayer during the celebration of Eid al-Fitr in 1354 CE/755 H—see Ibn al-Khatib, al-Lamha al-Badriyya, 110 (Emilio Molina and José-María Casciaro, eds., Historia de los Reyes, 120-121).

     [17]  Benavides-Barajas, L.  La Alpujarra, morisca y cristiana, la cocina y su historia, desde Almería a Granada, con recetas originales del siglo XIII-XIV.  Granada:  Editores Dulcinea, 1998.  See also The Alhambra Under the Half Moon, The History and Cuisine from the XIII to the XV Century.  Granada:  Editores Dulcinea, 2000.

     [18]  Arié, Rachel.  El reino nasrí de Granada, 160.

     [19] García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 52-54.  For the role of Sufism in al-Andalus, see Claude Addas, “Andalusī Mysticism and the Rise of Ibn Arabī,” The Legacy of Muslim Spain, vol. 2, Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed. (Leiden, Netherlands:  E.J. Brill Publishers, 1994), 909-933.

     [20] Emilio García-Gómez, Foco de antigua luz, 157.

     [21], Ibid., 157-158.

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