On 5th June, 1991 in Granada, Spain, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Mawlana Hazar Imam, participated in a ceremony marking the official opening of a restored fourteenth century Arab house in the historic Albaycin quarter of Granada.
The house, known as the Zafra House after one of its sixteenth century proprietors, has been restored by the Municipality of Granada with financial and professional assistance provided by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The restoration work on this small Nasrid house, which will serve as the Centre for Historic Studies of Granada and its Kingdom, took two years.
In his speech marking the opening of the Zafra House, King Juan Carlos said that the increasingly interdependent character of the world today provided a special meaning to the vision of Spain as a crossroads of cultures.
Spain, King Juan Carlos said, has been home to many civilisations throughout the centuries, whose contributions, as seen particularly in Granada, are outstanding for their historical and universal significance.
The inauguration of the Zafra House was taking place at the right moment, said the King, "when reflection on the relationship between peoples and their cultural exchanges have become necessary for the future."
The restoration of the Zafra House was, the King declared, "an exemplary contribution from the Aga Khan to the City of Granada."
Speaking at the opening ceremony, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that recent world events had raised questions of identity and cultural interdependence. "Issues of misperceptions and misunderstandings between cultures have become the focus of public agendas throughout the world", he said.
"The Zafra House is a small gesture, a modest venture, towards creating bridges between worlds which do not often know each other and when they do know something, often misunderstand the values or significance of whatever little they know", said Mawlana Hazar Imam.
Speaking of the future use of the Zafra House by the Centre for Historic Studies of the City of Granada and its Kingdom, Mawlana Hazar Imam indicated that the purpose of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture itself was to explore ideas and develop strategies for revitalising the diverse culture forms and expressions of the Islamic World and to advance the humanistic vision of Islam lost in recent times. The Zafra House, he noted, reflected a period when, for many centuries, many very different religious traditions and linguistic or ethnic groups existed under the broad umbrella of an Islamic dominion that tolerated others.
"In those days of humanism" he said, referring to Islamic al-Andalus "poets and philosophers, mystics and rationalists, scientists and artisans all lived within the same environment. That world was a creative synthesis, a brilliant marriage between several consenting cultures."
"To us, and I hope, for generations to come, the Zafra House is a small token of gratitude towards past worlds whose cultured wealth and fruitful tolerance we are, or should be, trying to emulate", he concluded.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which has its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, aims to foster a better understanding of Islamic civilization through its architecture, arts and other cultural accomplishments. Among the Trust's range of activities is a triennial prize, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which encourages architecture for Muslims appropriate to the twentieth century. The Trust also sponsors a post-graduate educational programme at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with associated programmes in the countries of the Islamic world, including Jordan and Pakistan.
Organised by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an international seminar on architectural education in the Islamic world, was inaugurated by King Juan Carlos at the Alhambra Palace in April 1986 and on Thursday, June 6th the Trust organised a further symposium on the influence of Islam in the Iberian peninsula - Spain: Crossroads of Culture. The Symposium examined aspects of the eight centuries of the Spanish-Arab encounter, and was attended by more than thirty-five specialists on Islamic Spain from many parts of the world.
Following the 1986 seminar Mawlana Hazar Imam indicated that he wished to extend a gift to the city of Granada in the form of a project which would contribute to the conservation and enhancement of its unique cultural heritage. The Zafra House was selected to receive a direct grant for this purpose from four projects proposed by the municipality.
The form and decorative elements of the Zafra House have been preserved essentially intact over many centuries. The plan of the house consists of a rectangular patio at ground level with galleries on the first and second storeys leading to a series of rooms.
White marble porticoes are located at each end of the patio; their arches are decorated with traditional limework. In the middle of the patio at ground level is a rectangular pool with two marble urns, one of which has beenremoved and is now displayed at the Alhambra museum.
Nasrid paintings and inscriptions remain on certain ceilings. On the rear facade of the building overlooking the Porteria de la Conception de Zafra Street, there are examples of ornamental stucco work of considerable historic and artistic interest. From the second gallery above the patio, there is a magnificent view of the Alhambra.
Earlier attempts to consolidate the building's structure and restore its original form and been made in 1963, 1966 and 1982. Unfortunately, not all of them were successful and in certain cases further interventions were required to correct the errors made. This restoration project has aimed to recuperate the original structure as far as possible and identify the various transformations that the building underwent during its history.
Research clarified the various historical phases of the Zafra House's development and whenever additions to the original structure have contributed to its cultural and historical enrichment, the project has preserved them.
Undertaken by the Municipality of Granada with the participation of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the restoration has been carried out with the use of the most advanced technological methods available. The goal was not only restoration. It also included the conversion of the building in order to meet the requirements of the new use assigned to it.
The principal criteria governing the choice of projects by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture is that, beyond an improvement of the physical environment, they should have potential as a catalyst for cultural, social and economic revitalisation in an historic urban context. In other words, it was considered essential that the Zafra House have a contemporary cultural purpose, benefiting the entire community.
Such a function had already been designated by the Municipality: Zafra House is now the Centre for Historical Studies of the City and Kingdom of Granada.
The Centre for Historical Studies of Granada and its Kingdom needed a space for a library with reading rooms, a secretariat with offices and a meeting room for ten people. All these functions have been accommodated on the first floor, leaving the ground floor free for public functions such as exhibitions and conferences.
Restoration was completed on schedule in early 1991, after some two years of work. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture contributed professionally and financially to the restoration project, whose cost was largely covered by the Municipality of Granada. Zafra House has been restored not only as an important historic landmark but as a living and ongoing institution.
Source: Africa Ismaili (July 1991)
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