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Who owns the Alhambra? ...calling all history buffs

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…or more accurately, who used to own it? For Fodorites about to visit the Alhambra, the following story may be of interest….

We are prepping for a trip to Andalucia this October. As a history buff, I have been digging into the question of how the Alhambra and the Generalife gardens became a Spanish national monument. Did Isabella and Ferdinand just take them over from the defeated Boabdil, last of the Nazari monarchs, and then the whole thing simply morphed into the Spanish national monument which we see today? Not quite, it seems.

The so-called “privatization” of portions of the Alhambra complex began shortly after the 1492 conquest. Ferdinand and Isabella granted rights to parts of the Alhambra to their soldiers, as did one of their top military officers, Hernando de Zafra, who gave a number of houses inside the Alhambra walls to soldiers. (source: La Alhambra: Revista Quincenal de Artes y Letras vol. X, no. 212, 1907, p. 522)

This story accelerated in the 18th century, with various families appropriating parts of the vast property. (source: “Un Techo de la Alhambra en el Exilio,” Granada Hoy, September 29, 2013,
And Washinton Irving, of course, describes his stay in the Alhambra and the ramshackle administration of the place in the early 19th century. In 1870 the Spanish government passed a law for the repatriation of national monuments and began to use this, as well as an earlier lawsuit, in its efforts to gain clear ownership of the entire Alhambra and Generalife complex.

However, the 1870 law did not seem to help very much. In 1885, for example, Arthur Gwinner, a German banker and the German consul in Madrid, bought a parcel of land in the Alhambra including several streets, gardens, houses, the Partal Palace, and the Torre de las Damas. (Question: from whom did he buy it? Corrupt government bureaucrats? Others?) Gwinner lived there for some time. In 1891 he donated the Partal Palace to the Granada city government in return for the right to dismantle the richly decorated cupola. He sent the cupola to Berlin, where it remains today in the Pergamon Museum. Gwinner donated the remainder of his Alhambra properties to the Spanish government in 1921, the same year in which Madrid obtained clear ownership of the Generalife. (sources: Andrea Lermer and Avinoam Shalem, eds. After One Hundred Years, p. 233; “Museum with No Frontiers”;ISL;de;Mus01;17;en)

For centuries much of the Alhambra complex and the Generalife belonged to the Marquis of Campotejar. This family married into the Italian Durazzo-Pallavicini noble line and then moved to their palace in Genoa; in the 19th century they never visited Granada,.

The Marquis of Campotejar had been locked into a protracted legal battle with the Spanish monarchy for most of a century before an agreement was finally reached in 1921. Ferdinand VII’s Crown prosecutor sued the Marquis of Campotejar in 1826, arguing that the Generalife and other Alhambra properties belonged to the Crown. The case was finally settled out of court and the properties transferred to the State in 1921. This was greatly in the interests of the Spanish government, since it had lost a mid-level court decision. Shortly before the final out-of-court settlement, a district court of Granada, had ruled that King Phillip II had in fact granted full property rights over much of the Alhambra and Generalife to the Granada Venegas family (later to marry into the Italian noble families of Durazzo-Pallavicini based in Genoa), and that the State could only exercise the rights of “quiet use” of the properties. (source: Cesar Giron, “El Pleito del Generalife: El Proceso del Estado Espanol Contra la Casa de Campotejar,” 1999)

This lawsuit required digging into the details of the claims of ownership of the Generalife going back to the early years of the Reconquista of Granada. A key historical moment was the grant of the Generalife by Emperor Charles V in 1537 to the noble whose descendants would become the Marquis of Campotejar. This nobleman was Don Pedro of Granada-Venegas. His father, Don Alonso, was in turn the son of Don Pedro I, a Moorish noble of the Nazari royal house, a convert to Christianity whose original Moorish name was Sidi Yahya.

Don Pedro (Sidi Yahya… are you still following this story? You couldn’t make this up!) was in fact the uncle of the unfortunate Boabdil who handed over the city of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in January 1492, thus marking the end of the Nazari kingdom of Granada. Boabdil fled to North Africa after his defeat. In contrast, Boabdil’s uncle, Sidi Yahya, was a master in preserving the aristocratic standing of his side of the family, sliding smoothly from Islam to Christianity, with his progeny intermarrying with several old Catholic Castillian noble families.

Finally, in 1921 the descendants of Sidi Yahya/Don Pedro I gave the Generalife as well as their palace in the center of Granada, the Casa de Tiros, to the Spanish government. This was the major out-of-court settlement ending the whole story. But they took from their downtown palace historical archives dating back to the Christian conquest of the city and stored them in their palace in Genoa. The archives remain in Genoa today, closed to public view. They will not even permit scholars to inventory what’s in the archives. Maybe they don’t want to stir up any more legal fights with the Spanish government?

An amazing story.

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