The Alhambra, Spain’s most popular site, is described by Robin Graham. He expertly pieces a mosaic of people, tiles, fountains, and precise architecture bringing to life this extraordinary mix of Spanish history. Even though the Christians ousted the Moors from Southern Spain, the rich Moor legacy lives on.
By Robin Graham
The most eloquent tribute to Granada’s charm is to be found above it, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains where a rocky pass known as El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro (The Moor’s Last Sigh) overlooks the city and fortress below. Boabdil, last man standing for the Moors in Spain, turned here to look back at the splendour he had just handed over to the Christian monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand. Defeated, he let out a cry for his beloved palace, one of the great architectural treasures of Islam.
Not the ideal moment to have one’s shortcomings pointed out, you might think, but when did a sense of timing ever curb a mother’s tongue? “You do well to weep as a woman,” she scolded, “for that which you could not defend as a man.”
You can see why Boabdil might have been overcome – Granada is nothing if not picturesque. Like a lion’s claws resting on grass, a few spurs of the sierra jut forward on to the vega, the huge flood plain on which the later Christian city sprawls. Overlooking these commercial districts, the cathedral, churches, squares and markets, one of the heights is home to the old Moorish city, now known as the Albaicin.
Another, on the opposite side of the Darro valley, is crested by the fortified walls and ramparts of the Alhambra. Up on the hill and within the walls of the Alcazar, the Mexuar Palace is the oldest of three palaces that together comprise the royal residence. The Christian conquerors in the 15th century did their best to wreck it, sealing up a ceiling lantern and installing a choir, but they didn’t remove the intricate tilework or the stunning oratory that faces Mecca at the rear.
We can hear the Court of the Myrtles before we see it — fountains babble at either end of this massive, mirror-smooth pool. The arched galleries on both sides are reflected in the water with architectural precision, the sense of proportion artfully doubled. A spotlight set on top of the Comares tower appears moonlike on the water, if you visit at night.
An account here of the intricacies that adorn the chambers that surround the courtyard — the Hall of Ambassadors for example, or the Boat Room — wouldn’t do them justice. We take our sweet time, separating and meeting up again in the courtyard between wonders.
The third and newest of the palaces in the complex is the Palace of the Lions. Construction on it began in 1377, and its purpose was to house the royal harem. The palace is centered around the famous Courtyard of the Lions and is considered the crowning glory of the Nasrid style, an exuberant blend of Moorish and Christian influences.
Even when the now returned lions were absent, these past few years, the courtyard cast a spell. It’s easily the most lavish in the complex, with its 124 marble columns and its elaborate cloisters and pavilions. The scale is still human though, and one can easily imagine the space inhabited by a family at rest or play.
Four fantastically decorated halls surround the courtyard, with ceilings of muqarna (an ingenious Lego-like system of ceiling decoration which gives the impression of stalactites), central pools and the customary tiling. They tell their own stories, from the delightful Lindaraja Mirador where the sultan’s favorite concubine would have daydreamed, overlooking the city, to the Hall of the Abencerrajes, where thirty-six of the noble Abencerraje family were murdered because one of them had slept with her.
Very few places on earth invoke a sense of history like this place does, perhaps because the civilisation that built it is gone. The Islamic delicacy of the workmanship stands in stark contrast to the Christian bombast of the cathedral and churches of the city below. Granada is a split city – its Christian conquerors would no doubt have been pleased to wipe out all signs of its Muslim past. Something stopped them though.
Even when Spain had been cleared of all Muslims by royal decree, the aesthetic lived on here, testament to a schizophrenic past.
Looking out from the floor level windows of the Hall of the Ambassadors, back across the Darro Valley and the Albaicin district, another tower is visible on the opposite height. It isn’t a bastion, nor is it the bell tower of a church; it’s a minaret.
In 2003, on a site that can’t be much more than five hundred metres, as the crow flies, from the Comares Tower which contains the great royal chamber, five hundred years of absence came to an end in the form of this new mosque. In a country that was once the home of religious diversity, and then could not abide it, the faith of those who built the great wonder that is the Alhambra has once again found a place for itself.
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What was your favorite part of the Alhambra?
Robin Graham writes about Andalusia, Spain and some other stuff. His stories can be found, with accompanying photography, at alotofwind. He’s a private person but, strangely, doesn’t mind being followed: @robinjgraham or liked: alotofwind
Photography at 500px.