Seville - misreading translations at the Alcázar
“There is no victory without Allah“

“There is no victory without Allah“

One of the main attractions of Seville in Spain’s southwestern province of Andalusia is the royal palace or Real Alcázar, dating largely from the 14th century, though with a much older history as well. It is an amazing place to tour, and not just because it was the setting of the fictional kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones. (Lawrence of Arabia before that.) When you go there you will see, among many things, an inscription adorning walls throughout the palace and written in Arabic script: Wa la ghalib illa Allah. (Reading right to left) That phrase translates into English something like “There is no conquest without Allah.”  In academic circles the Andalusian inscription usually is translated using the word “conquest,” but in lay usage in Seville I heard more people use the word “victoria.”   So, I take the literal translation to be:  “there is no victory without Allah.” This phrase also was the family motto of the Nasarid dynasty ruling in nearby, and then still Muslim held, Granada. It is found all over the walls of the Alhambra there, which was the Nasarid family palace in Grenada until kicked out in 1492. This inscription is found on the walls at the Alhambra over 9,000 times, though I didn’t do that count myself.

The Alhambra as seen from the window of our $25 a night Airbnb room in the Arab Quarter

The Alhambra as seen from the window of our $25 a night Airbnb room in the Arab Quarter

But the Alcázar in Seville was mostly built by Christian kings, one in particular, Pedro of Castile, whom history has labeled: the Cruel. Though alternative histories name him Pedro the Just because it was felt that his enemies had it coming. But either way, finding this phrase giving precedence to Allah on walls built by and for a Christian medieval monarch is perhaps a bit surprising. Especially a Spanish one. [By and large, it is a prejudice we have in the US that the Spanish Christian kings are not heroes in the largely Anglican/Protestant oriented histories we are taught. They and their unlucky Catholic Armada are seen as villains, the enemies of more “modern” thought and cherished Northern European principles.]

This adoption of the phrase by a Christian king is probably why it often gets translated in Seville from one that references Allah into one referring more generically to God. But the design aspirations of Pedro the Cruel who commissioned the building and remodeling of these sections of the Alcázar reflected a deliberate blending of Christian and Muslim styles, motifs and religious messages that has rarely been equaled, before or since.

Alcázar hallway showing a good example of  Mudéjar  architecture and motifs. Courtesy of Mary Dana Abbott

Alcázar hallway showing a good example of Mudéjar architecture and motifs. Courtesy of Mary Dana Abbott

The blends of styles and architecture even had a name it was so well recognized, Mudéjar. In short, Pedro deliberately used the word Allah in Arabic and did not think to Christianize the quote.

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A Spanish Christian king’s willingness to adopt one of the local Muslim sentiments as his own, adorning the walls of his own palace with references to the deity of a conquered religious population, while also using their language and their alphabet, is something that gets overlooked in our modern world where these groups are as divided as ever. This appears to have been a period where ideas could be adopted and published regardless of who had them. It certainly flies in the face of our general view of inquisition infested Spain to see such an acceptance of “foreign” faiths.

A few years ago my sister and I traveled to Andalusia for some backpacking travel. We went around to Granada, Seville and Córdoba by train mostly and stayed in some very nice while reasonable Airbnbs. After our visit to the Alcázar, we walked through Seville’s old Jewish quarter just outside the walls of the Palace. We stopped at a small shop with some art and antique ceramics. I was looking for some tiles to bring home, to use as decorative items in my house or garden.

I came across three tiles covered with this same inscription. They were pretty old, not as old as the Alcázar by any means, but by US standards they where old. Probably by a couple of hundreds years or so. They weighed a lot but this was before I was fully practiced in the art of traveling light.

Jewish Quarter in Seville 

Jewish Quarter in Seville 

But let’s consider the message of the inscription. It sounds pretty militant. It places Allah in the role of a necessary foundation for a conquest, aparently sweeping all opposition away before him. When viewed in particular as a Muslim motto, a Christian, Jewish or pretty much any other audience might narrowly view this as a sentiment that elevates Allah over all other religions or versions of God. “If you too want success, you need to become a Muslim.” It is narrow, aggressive and pretty insulting to anyone else.

Why then did a Christian king put this phrase all over his own palace? As I sat in that shop trying to decide if I would buy this and put it up on my own walls I tried to come to grips with that seeming contradiction. Why would I want this myself in my own house. I am not a Muslim, I am not trying to evangelize anyone into believing in my own version of God, and I don’t feel that other religions or people need to be conquered at all. I am an Episcopalian, we mostly just care about nice architecture and a well thought out, intellectual sermon. So how could I bring this home? How could King Pedro put it on his own walls? Is this why he was cruel?

What I came to realize in that shop as I thought about this purchase was how translations can control the way we experience a place. And that is the big lesson for travel overall. How you experience a place, how you translate its messages, written or otherwise, makes all the difference.

In this case, I think the militancy of this translated message is a byproduct of the translation exercise itself. Lacking any context, the translation fills that vacuum with a context of its own making. Simply by virtue of its being a translation at all, the context feels as though this is coming from a Muslim talking to someone else, someone who is speaking a different tongue. Someone who is not a Muslim.

I don’t think this militancy was embedded in the phrase as originally spoken between two Muslims. This doesn’t need to be a “my Allah is better than your God” message. This phrase probably was not normally trotted out when a Muslim was talking to a Christian to impose on them the Muslim’s own will. This was not an epitaph to be hurled at non-believers. That is certainly not how a Christian king would have thought this phrase should be read when seen on his own walls.

This was a message intended for themselves. For their own instruction. The exercise of doing a literal word for word translation creates a false conflict of it being addressed to foreigners who may have a different name for their God. I think it is better understood, in more secular terms, as simply being one guy telling another with shared experiences (or even themselves) about how to better live one’s own life.

The baths and cistern below the palace

The baths and cistern below the palace

So my translation, with proper context? I translate “there is no victory without Allah,” very simply, and in secular terms, as: “you can’t really be a winner unless you stick to your principles.” *

The shift in emphasis and message is dramatic. Instead of an aggressive, messianic and militaristic command of just one faith over another, a message that seems to resonate in todays’ conflict ridden world, we now get a broad, universal and unwarlike theme that admonishes us to stay true to the best of ourselves. It simply says that in the end you won’t ultimately win battles by adopting strategies and practices that cause you to lose what you stand for. That is certainly something I would put on my own walls, and I think that is why Pedro put it on his as well.

To get to my secular translation you cannot just convert the separate words into English. You need to dig deeper and experience what these words meant in the context in which they might have been used by the speakers. A literal translation alone can’t be the whole story. As we have seen, it may even be misleading. We can simply translate experiences by making comparisons to what we have or do at home, or we can try to get a feel for what life is like where we are, to see the context of the place.

And that is the best byproduct of travel. To let us see what others’ lives are like in everyday context. We can see people talking to each other, see their art, food, humor, TV commercials, and their cities in their own natural setting, not one that is being translated for us. Travel at its best doesn’t ask us how the locals compare to ourselves, creating a we/them dichotomy. (“We have better restrooms at home, “ or “the coffee in Italy is so much better than at home.”) We just try and gain some insights from what we see around us.

In the gardens of the Alcázar

In the gardens of the Alcázar

So, my backpack coming home was weighed down by three matching antique wall tiles in flowing Arabic script with a message that at first blush could be read as divisive, ugly and arrogant. They are unusual enough, sitting there on my bookshelves, that they get noticed by house guests. When I tell them the literal translation they usually blanch, and look at me wondering why I have them in my house. My more secular translation usually settles things down a bit.

But what I really brought home was a reminder. Every time I look at them I remember that the act of literal translation or comparison from one culture to another often is going to end badly. They remind me that travel is about looking at context first, and message second. If Pedro the Cruel could understand context and so see something worthwhile to borrow from another culture, so might we.

Walking out from the Alcázar and looking at the cathedral of Seville

Walking out from the Alcázar and looking at the cathedral of Seville


[Notes: I only was able to piece together the precise translation and it’s sources after the fact. From what I can tell this phrase is a shortened Andalusian version of a phrase from the Quran at verse 8:10 which can be translated slightly differently, though I have now seen 7 different translations so I am not sure if anything is definitive. As found in the Quran the longer phrase is more like “there is no victory except from Allah.” See 8:10 The word “from” is added by the Arabic word min. See 8:10 word for word  The Arabic character for min is not in the inscription at the Alcázar. I don’t have the expertise to know if this omission of the word for “from” was intended to alter the meaning. But the fact is that the phrase is not straight from the Quran without some modification. All of this makes my observations up in the air as good scholarly work, but I don’t think it changes my message. The full verse 8:10 in the Quran is one of peace and good news. And it still seems to be addressed to other Muslims, not to nonbelievers. I do not believe a militant interpretation is warranted, even with the added thought that victory comes from Allah. The longer phrase, in my secular translation, would be something like “you can’t be a winner except by following your principles.” Or maybe “if you follow your principles you will win.”

But by taking the translated phrase out of context, whether from the Quran or from a colloquial version on the walls of the Alhambra and the Alcázar, the phrase still seems aggressive at first blush.

So even after researching the phrase and it’s history, something I couldn’t do in that shop in Seville, I don’t think my point here changes. Translations without context can be misleading.] 

 ©️ 2019 D Abbott