Deep in southern Spain’s exotic Andalucia region, used by Ridley Scott for various scenes in his crusader movie The Kingdom of Heaven is what most would agree is a wonder of the world and one of Europe’s top attractions, a dramatical hilltop fortress and palaces of the Alhambra of Granada, listed as World Heritage Sites by the United Nations organization UNESCO. Before we get into details about the Alhambra and her labyrinth of stucco, aromatic gardens, fountains and jasmin, however, it is worth remembering the lessons of the past.
Muslim Spain, Al-Andalus, for over 700 years was a land of enlightenment during the Dark Ages of Europe, and Granada was its last jewel. While the rest of Europe lived under a medieval pall of ignorance and tribal warfare, Islamic Granada, Cordoba, Toledo and Seville were home to vast libraries of sophisticated scholarship, to philosophers and astronomers, and to an advanced society that prided itself on religious tolerance.
The Muslim Spanish or Moors had brought the theories of advanced mathematics like Algebra with them. They had explored the movements of the stars and planets in the heavens. They taught the Crusaders Chess. They traded in rare spices and silks, some the likes of which Europe had not seen before.They introduced new arts, dance, metalworkings, story telling, all which became incorporated into the culture of the Crusaders, as apparent in clothing, jewelry and literature.
The Christian armies of conquest that would finally claim Granada in 1492 for Catholic Spain had waitied eight centuries to take the city. Even after such a long wait, they paused at the gates of the Alhambra, for they understood that the keys to the secrets of the Alhambra lay in the city that surrounds it. In modern Granada, it can seem as if Boabdil, the last Muslim king in any part of Spain, and his people have never left, as if the peoples of the world – students, pilgrims, travellers – have again brought alive the exotic past.
A Spanish legend has it that when Boabdil was forced to flee Granada in 1492, he turned from his retreat into exile for one last look and wept. His mother, upon seeing her son’s tears, admonished him with the words, “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.” His mother’s harsh words notwithstanding, it is not difficult to understand why Boabdil wept. His former home was the extraordinary Alhambra, which remains to this day the most enduring symbol of Al-Andalus with its pleasure palaces, exquisite gardens and turreted walls.
The name is of Arabic derivation like many Spanish words, means red maybe derived from the colour of the sun-dried tapia, or bricks made of fine gravel and clay, of which the outer walls are built. Some authorities, however, hold that it commemorates the red flare of the torches by whose light the work of construction was carried on nightly for many years; others associate it with the name of the founder, Mahomet Ibn Al Ahmar (Mohammed II); and others derive it from the Arabic Dar al Amra, House of the Master.
Granada is the richness of the Orient grafted onto Spanish soil and the narrow lanes are alive with lanterns and smoke and street markets. Along Calderia Vieja and Calderia Nueva, twisting laneways of antiquity that climb the hill into the heart of the old Muslim town, the Albaicin, Arab shops proffer handicrafts from Morocco, sweets from Jerusalem and the spices of Arabia.
Along each thoroughfare, high white walls conceal expansive villas surrounded by gardens. Church spires, once the minarets of the city’s mosques and from which the faithful were called to prayer, rise from amid the labyrinth that is Old Granada. Remnants of the 11th-century city walls prop up old Muslim bathhouses, some of which have reopened to offer the sensory pleasures of steam baths and massages under pleasing domes.
Softly lit tea houses promise mint tea and water pipes, evoking the hospitality of ancient Persia.The aromas wafting through the laneways could be Damascus. The sounds and street cries could be the medieval bazaars of Egypt.Across from th Alhambra on the next hill is the old Moorish area where lanes lead up the hill to the Mirador San Nicolas. This popular spot in Granada often host street musicians, gypsy fortune-tellers and street markets, Across the valley, the Alhambra still guards the city under the backdrop of the mountains of the Sierra Nevada.
The majority of the Alhambra palace buildings are quadrangular, with all the rooms opening on to a central court; and the whole reached its present size simply by the gradual addition of new quadrangles, designed on the same principle, though varying in dimensions, and connected with each other by smaller rooms and passages. In spite of the neglect, vandalism and sometimes ill-judged restoration which the Alhambra has endured, it remains the most perfect example of Moorish art in its final European development, freed from the direct Byzantine influences which can be traced in the Mesquita cathedral of Cordoba, and more elaborate and fantastic than the 300 foot Minaret tower of Seville.
The Interior of the Alhambra
The Moorish part of the Alhambra resembles many medieval Christian strongholds in its threefold arrangement as a castle, a palace and a residential area.
The Alcazaba or citadel, its oldest part, is built on the isolated and precipitous foreland which terminates the plateau on the north-west. Only its massive outer walls, towers and ramparts are left.
On its watch-tower, the Torre de la Vela, 85 ft. high, the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella was first raised, in token of the Spanish conquest of Granada, on January 2, 1492. Access from the city to the Alhambra Park is afforded by the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of Pomegranates), a massive triumphal arch dating from the 15th century. A steep ascent leads past the Pillar of Charles V, a fountain erected in 1554, to the main entrance of the Alhambra. This is the Puerta Judiciaria (Gate of Judgment), a massive horseshoe archway, surmounted by a square tower, and used by the Moors as an informal court of justice.
A passage leads inward to the Plaza de los Aljibes (Place of the Cisterns), a broad open space which divides the Alcazaba from the Moorish palace. To the left of the passage rises the Torre del Vino (Wine Tower), built in 1345, and used in the 16th century as a cellar. On the right is the palace of Charles V, a cold-looking but majestic Renaissance building, out of harmony with its surroundings, which it tends somewhat to dwarf by its superior size. The intricate designs of the Moors’ Alhambra stand in stark contrast to Charles’ palace, which consists primarily of white walls with no particularly striking features. Many architectural scholars are thus disgusted by Charles V’s preference for simplistic Renaissance styling, which they believe detracts from the Alhambra’s architectural magnificance. Construction of Charles’ palace, begun in 1526, was abandoned about 1650.
The celebrated Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) is an oblong court, with a pavilion that projects into the court at each extremity. The square is paved with coloured tiles, and the colonnade with white marble; while the walls are covered 5 ft (1.5 m) with a border above and below enamelled blue and gold. The columns supporting the roof and gallery are irregularly placed, with a view to artistic effect; and the general form of the piers, arches and pillars is most graceful. Some believe the sculpted lions in the patio were most likely sculpted by members of the Caliphate’s Christian or Jewish community, as making such representational sculpture was not considered allowed by the followers of Islam.
The Sala de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors) is the largest in the Alhambra, and occupies all the Torre de Comares. It is a square room, the sides being 37 ft. in length, while the centre of the dome is 75 ft (23 m) high. This was the grand reception room, and the throne of the sultan was placed opposite the entrance. There are nine windows, three on each facade, and the ceiling is admirably diversified with inlaid-work of white, blue and gold, in the shape of circles, crowns and stars.
The Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Abencerrages) derives its name from a legend according to which Boabdil, the last king of Granada, having invited the chiefs of that illustrious line to a banquet, massacred them here. This room is a perfect square, with a lofty dome and trellised windows at its base. The roof is exquisitely decorated in blue, brown, red and gold, and the columns supporting it spring out into the arch form in a remarkably beautiful manner.
The Villa de los Martires (Martyrs’ Villa), on the summit of Monte Mauror, commemorates by its name the Christian slaves who were employed to build the Alhambra, and confined here in subterranean cells. The Torres Bermejas (Vermilion Towers), also on Monte Mauror, are a well-preserved Moorish fortification, with underground cisterns, stables, and accommodation for a garrison of 200 men.
Several Roman tombs were discovered in 1829 and 1857 at the base of Monte Mauror.Of the outlying buildings in connection with the Alhambra, the foremost in interest is the Palacio de Generalife (the Moorish Jennat al Arif, “Garden of Arif,” or “Garden of the Architect”). This villa probably dates from the end of the 13th century, but has been several times restored. Its gardens, however, with their clipped hedges, grottos, fountains, and cypress avenues, are said to retain their original Moorish character.
In the construction of the Alhambra, the Moors had no depictions of people at all excluding the human hand. Of course, there were plenty of depictions of people on the Renaissance building.
It is all too much, too exquisitely conceived for just one visit. It could easily require days of close examination. For some, a lifetime is not enough.
Amid all the wonder at large in this enchanted place, it is not at all difficult to understand why poor old Boabdil wept as he departed. For him and for so many other visitors who cannot bear to leave, he was leaving paradise itself
The Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzin of Granada are listed as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO.
October 22 – 30, 2005 and will include the Alhambra Palace and much more!
For info see => http://www.magicalspain.com