Granada’s snow-men


On a recent hike in the Sierra Nevada, on a June day of high temperatures in the city, I was glad of the gloves, woolly hat, scarf and thermal vest that I’d long put away for the winter. At around 3,000 metres, it was cold – 7 degrees when we got up there at 10 o’clock. Walking some of the time on thick snow, I was reminded of los neveros, teams of hardy men from the villages who, before the days of refrigeration, used to trek up to the high Sierra to fetch snow so that those living in the city could keep cool in the summer heat.


The tradition of fetching snow from the Sierra Nevada goes back hundreds of years, probably from the times of Muslim al-Andalus, and it continued until the early 20th century. No written accounts remain of these expeditions, the neveros being mostly illiterate. It was the botanists, wandering the mountains in search of plants and herbs, and later the romantic travellers of the 19th century, who documented their encounters with the ‘snow-men’.

They described how the men would set out in the early hours, accompanied by mules and climb steadily until late afternoon, singing as they walked; how they would stop on the way to eat their provisions of bread and cold meats while the mules munched hay from their panniers; and how in the hot summer months they would have to ascend the very highest peaks – well over 3,000 metres – to find enough snow. Then they would set to work with picks and shovels, filling each esparto (woven grass) pannier with as much as 150 kilos of snow. At sunset, with the air starting to cool, they would begin the long trek down, covering the panniers with blankets to stop the snow melting. It was tough work – the round trip of 50 kilometres meant they had to walk for around 18 hours. Back in Granada by dawn, the men could at last rest, while the ice-sellers began their distribution.


The industrial revolution soon made the neveros redundant. What had been by long tradition a free activity – the right to extract snow from the Sierra Nevada and sell it in Granada – was now monopolised and sold off by the Council and in the early 20th century an ice factory was established in the city. Cheap artificial ice-cubes took over from the natural mountain snow, making the work of the neveros economically unviable. The highest road in Europe, reaching a height of 3,392 metres, was completed in 1925 and further extended ten years later. Areas previously accessible only on foot or horseback could now be reached by motor vehicle.


                The use of snow from the Sierra Nevada did, however, see a revival during the 1940s. In the times of desperate poverty following the Civil War, power cuts and other restrictions made it necessary once again to collect snow from the mountains during the summer months, although it could now be loaded in wooden crates and transported by lorry. Among other rights with a long tradition that had been revoked but were now re-established (including the right to pan gold from the rivers), was permission to sell snow in the streets of the city.

Legacy of the Moors

Not long after the new mosque opened in the Albaicín in 2003, I went to a talk there by British historian and writer, Farhat A Hussain. Its title was ‘The Impact of al-Andalus on the History of Humanity.’ It was a revelation to me. I knew, of course, about Islamic Spain’s legacy of beautiful buildings – the Alhambra in Granada, Córdoba’s Mezquita and the Alcazaba of Sevilla, among others – but I knew very little about the Moors’ contribution in other fields. Their civilisation was way ahead of any found in the rest of Europe, which in the 8th century when they arrived was one of the most backward areas in the world. 2006_0320Image0042Deborah, the central character of my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, becomes fascinated by al-Andalus, the name used by the Moors for the kingdom they ruled until 1492. It is her Moroccan lover Hassan who first sparks her interest by telling her about the extraordinary achievements of Muslim Spain. Agriculture, medicine, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy were all advanced greatly during the nearly eight hundred years of Muslim rule. After studying other civilisations such as those of China, Greece and India, they developed their own ideas, based on Islamic ethics and the way of life dictated by the Prophet. Health, medicine, agriculture, the design of cities and social justice are all included in the instructions for living found in the Qu’ran and the Sirah. ronda 4Islamic knowledge was highly respected by scholars in the rest of Europe, who came to Spain to learn about their culture. During the European Dark Ages, the works of Greek and Roman philosophers were lost. The Muslims studied and commented on them, translating them into Arabic, which was then converted into Latin by European scholars and thus recovered. It was in this way that Europeans became reacquainted with Aristotle, for example. IMG_5071In agriculture, it was the Arabs who invented the water wheel for power and who brought irrigation to Spain. Their acequias (irrigation channels) are still very much in use. They introduced oranges, sugar and rice, among other foods. Every season produced crops so that Spain became much greener and had a healthier, better nourished population.


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Medical knowledge made huge strides in the prevention and cure of diseases, hygiene and surgical techniques. Spanish Muslim surgeon Zahrawi wrote an encyclopedia of surgery over a thousand years ago. Most of the instruments he invented are still used today. Modern dentistry and optics are also based on his knowledge and methods. In mathematics, the concept of zero, along with nine other digits, meant that mathematicians could express any number. The Arabs invented the binary system used now in computing. The words algebra and algorithm come from Arabic. Modern financial systems also owe their origins to the Islamic civilisation. Being great traders, they introduced cheques, also an Arabic word. Paper and ink were Arab inventions.

The centuries of Islamic rule were considered a golden age of religious and cultural tolerance. Muslims, Christians and Jews collaborated in many spheres and non-Muslims held prestigious positions in the civil service of Islamic rulers. They were not forced to convert or prevented from following their own faiths. Some intermarried. The population (of all three religions) came to share a distinct culture which they regarded as Andalusi. IMG_2177What interests Deborah in particular is the role of women, which for the more elevated classes at least was surprisingly liberal. They played an important part in society, again well ahead of the rest of Europe. Girls and boys studied together, girls had access to higher education and became doctors, teachers and traders. Deborah embarks on research into this aspect of al-Andalus, focusing on a number of prominent women.

Walladah bint Mustakfi, one of Deborah’s heroines, was a female poet of the 11th century, unusually liberated and bold, who considered herself ‘fit for high office’ and entitled to take any man she chose as her lover. Alice, Deborah’s sister, sees parallels between Deborah and Walladah – both women being free-spirited, fiery and outspoken – qualities that can and do sometimes get them into trouble.