Alhambra, Moor’s Last Sigh (2006)

Alhambra, Moor’s Last Sigh (2006)

Entering the Alhambra is like stepping into an enchanting Arabian Nights tale. My first glimpse of the Alhambra is at that magical sunset hour – around 10 pm;  that is when the sun sets in the Iberian peninsula in July. While entry into Alhambra is allowed throughout the day and well into the evening, the best time to visit is at dusk, when the Andalusian heat has been tamed by the cool breeze blowing from the orchards surrounding the castle. The heady scent of orange blossoms mingles with the fragrance of rose and jasmine wafting in from the surrounding Generalife, the summer palace and the gardens that adjoin Alhambra. Electric bulbs placed strategically here and there enhance the sense of mystery as shadows sculpt their own designs on alabaster and marble. At this twilight hour, Alhambra wears her charm and mystique with a becoming disdain.

Alhambra is a Moorish castle built atop a hill in Granada, in the heart of Andalucia in southern Spain. Set to a stunning backdrop of the perpetually snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains, Alhambra as we see it today, was built by the moorish rulers of Granada, between the 13th and 15th centuries.  Al qala’at al hamra in Arabic means ‘red castle’, a rather unimaginative name for such splendid architecture.  Designed and executed by the Nasrid emirs, Alhambra represents the golden age of the moors in Iberia.  It is from the ramparts of this castle that the moors watched over their terrestrial paradise in Europe, holding out against Christian attempts to recapture their kingdom and honing to a fine art, the Moslem penchant for refined embellishment.  Moorish castles, palaces, mosques and seminaries are scattered all over Andalucia.

Othello’s Homeland?

But then who were the moors? The one famous moor we all know about is Shakespeare’s Othello.  Circa 46 B. C., the Roman army entered West Africa where they encountered black Africans whom they called ‘Maures’ from the Greek adjective mauros, meaning dark or black.” Traditionally, the Moors were the African people who occupied northwest Africa, or present-day Morocco and Mauritania. These same African people became converts to Islam in the seventh century and have since been mistakenly identified by western European scholars as Arabs, Mohammedans, Saracens, etc. Interestingly, when moors – the Berbers of present-day Morocco and the Black peoples of Africa – marched into Europe, they did so as a civilizing force. Their supreme architecture which has withstood the ravages of time in Iberia is a splendid testimony to this.  Moors were not Arabs, they were essentially Africans, possibly of more than one race, but representing a single religion, Islam. And they held sway over Spain and parts of Portugal for nearly 800 years, and left behind a rich and fine cultural heritage, one that is still alive in today’s Spain. Perhaps that is why Alhambra, despite the pervasive Islamic influence, stands apart from other Islamic monuments elsewhere in the world.

Den of Tramps & Vagabonds

Strangely what is today Spain’s prized tourist attraction would have been lost to humanity had it not been for the intervention of Washington Irving, a North American diplomat, historian and traveller. When Irving strayed into its precincts in the first quarter of the 19th century, he found it to be the refuge of contrabandistas – tramps, mendicants, vagabonds and criminals. Irving actually went on to live in the Alhambra complex for some years, leisurely discovering its hidden treasures. In 1832, he wrote an enchanting account entitled  ‘Tales of the Alhambra’, extolling the beauty of the edifice and weaving facts cleverly with fiction. The publication of this book jolted the Spanish authorities out of their complacency and since then, Alhambra has been heavily restored.

In fact, almost everything in Granada seems to revolve around the Alhambra.  There are special Alhambra buses which will ride up the narrow and steep streets of the hill to drop you at the fortress gates; virtually all the handicrafts and souvenir shops draw extensively upon the imaginative arabesque designs of the castle. Today, the Alhambra complex is the hottest tourist destination within Iberia, where its tiled floors and landscaped gardens are trampled by several thousand tourist feet daily.

There are two things that strike you about Alhambra as you ascend the cypress and elm covered ridge on the outskirts of Granada. The rectangular red blocks of the Alhambra complex that rise above the green canopy are so ordinary that they give nothing away of the splendours within.  There are two outstanding structures in the Alhambra, the Palacio Nazaries so named after the Nasrid emirs who constructed it and the Alcazba or the Citadel.  It is only when you step inside the threshold of the Palacio Nazaries that Alhambra reveals her unparalleled beauty. You also notice that the palace itself is rather dimunitive in size. Alhambra dazzles, not by her grandeur, but by her sheer elegance, by the delicate symmetry of her lines, by the imaginative, but muted arabesques that embellish her walls, floors, roofs and pillars, by the lustrous alabaster whose texture and sheen seem too have improved with time.  Arabic calligraphy is skillfully interwoven into the patterns on the walls, ceilings and pillars.

Drip, Hiss, Gurgle & Gush

Despite its moorish origin and European location, Alhambra is the quintessential Oriental palace. Like other Oriental palaces, it appeals to your senses in an intimate sort of way.  While the intricate arabesques that adorn the walls, pillars and floor tiles delight the eye, Alhambra’s especial appeal is essentially auditory.  The sound of water, used with masterful imagination and artistry, pervades Alhambra; gently flowing fountains that make gurgling noises in the courtyards, gushing water channels that hiss in the background somewhere yonder, dripping alabaster faucets in the passageways that provide a touch of drama, an occasional gentle waterfall that whispers conspiratorially. Water is indeed the defining theme of Alhambra, one that repeatedly casts a spell at each turn and cranny.

As you saunter along the patios, balconies, and courtyards of the  Palacio Nazaries,  you realize that the moors valued water as much for its silence as for its soothing sounds. There is a still, crystal clear rectangular pool of water abutted by emerald hedges as soon as you enter the Hall of Comares.  Like a blemishless mirror paved on the ground, it faithfully reflects the Tower of Comares that looms at one end and the royal quarters at the other.  You cannot but marvel at the innovative way in which the Nasrid emirs have used water, very different from the utilitarian cooling channels that are ubiquitous in other Islamic monuments like the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Registan in Samarkand or the Emir’s palace in Esfahan.

Having seen it by night, I had to savour the delights of Alhambra by day as well. Although it burnt a hole in my wallet – the entry fee is a steep 10 euros – after a couple of days, I make my way to the complex in the early morning as well. The youthful rays of the sun illuminate the perfectly-proportioned rooms and courtyards, the lustrous tiled floors, the fine carved ceiling and the stalactite-like muqarnas vaulting.

Court of Lions

By far, the most appealing section of Alhambra is the Court of Lions, so named after an alabaster fountain channeled through the mouths of 12 perfectly chiseled lions. The patio’s gallery is supported by 124 slender pillars and surrounded by ornamental pavilions and arches. The architects believed that this courtyard symbolized terrestrial paradise, and who can blame them?  So stunning is the ornamentation in this courtyard that blends seamlessly, the best of the Islamic and the Mediterranean styles of architecture.

Many supernatural legends associated with the Court of Lions;  As you gaze in wonder at this sculpted harmony, your imagination runs riot: you almost see a turbaned and bejeweled emir smoking a hookah and resting by the side of the fountain; but your pleasant reverie is shattered by the click of a thousand cameras and the clicking sounds of high-heeled feet.

Around the courtyard are four large halls each with its own distinctive décor. The sala de Abencerrages has a rather gory history.- it is where the entire family of Abencerrages, a nobleman, was murdered by the King. Abencerrages’s fault was that he dared to dally with Zoraya, the harem favourite of Abu Alahmar.  The dome of the Sala de Abencerrages has much in common with the dome of Gur Emir in Samarkand. On the other side is the Sala de Dos Hermanas, the Hall of Two Sisters with its muqarnas dome and a million stars resembling a constellation. From the Sala de los Ajimeces, you get a stunning view of the rooftops of Granada.

A Garden of Flirtation

There is more to Alhambra than the Palacio Nazaries. In fact, the reward of the morning visit was a stroll through the Generalife, the Garden of Paradise. Once again, the gardens are clustered around water bodies, pools, fountains and channels. Oleander and myrtle, grapevines and orange trees laden with fruits, stylized arches and miradors comprise the Generalife.  The Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel) has a long pool framed by palm trees, flower-beds and ancient fountains. Off this patio is the Jardin de la Sultana, the same garden in which the Emir caught Abencerrage flirting with his favourite concubine. From the patio you can get a glimpse of the river Darro and the Bridge of Pinos in the valley – the latter, a site of bloody battles between the Christians and the Moors, but also renowned as the place from where Columbus was recalled by Queen Isabella and entrusted with the mission to journey to India.. The Alhambra complex also houses a Fransiscan monastery, a Christian addition after reconquest.

Virtually little remains of the Alcazba, except the towers that loom over the Albaizin, an adjacent hill. One of the towers, the Torre de Vela has a huge bell which is rung by young girls on special occasions in the belief that it would get them a husband!  I seem to have arrived too late for such experimentation.

(Published in Frontline dated Oct 21, 2006)  

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