“Though the shadows of these walls have long since gone, the memory of them will live on as the final refuge of dreams and art. And then the last nightingale to breath on this earth will build its nest and sing its farewell song among the glorious ruins of the Alhambra.” ~ F. Villaespesa (plaque beside the Gate of the Pomegranates).
Lately I have been tearing around preparing three of my kids (two for new schools), like something of a Mad Hatter on caffeine overload. The moment we arrived back from holiday I had an extra guest in the form of my eldest prodigal son, and various activities all requiring mum’s taxi service. GCSE results day was soon upon us, followed by a grammar school sixth form interview, as well as making sure our kittens weren’t able to produce more kittens…
It turns out my worries were unfounded. An embarrassed phone call from the vets confirmed that the one we thought was a she (including an earlier vet inspection), is actually a he, so I hastily renamed Saffron Samson!! Fortunately he seems to have recovered from the early gender confusion.
Amid the recent chaos I have tried to eek out, here and there, some precious time to reflect on a holiday that wasn’t particularly restful, but certainly had its highlights – one of which was a visit to the Alhambra.
Alongside numerous other tourists from all over the world, in a state of high anticipation, we entered the ancient city walls of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; nestled at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern Spain.
Our arrival was marred by the fact that Iberia had lost three of our cases due to a delayed outbound flight from Heathrow and a rushed connection through Madrid.
Our brief time spent visiting the Palacios Nazarias (palaces of the Nasrid dynasty), will stay with me forever. I enjoyed it despite a petulant youngest who made it clear she didn’t want to look around and was determined to moan and do her best to make us leave as soon as possible, (which included getting herself lost).
Cultural sightseeing with a reluctant child is enough to test the patience of saint, let alone an overheated parent’s patience!
Now that I have seen the historical, architectural and cultural gem that is the Alhambra with my own eyes, I can fully reminisce and revel in the music ‘Recuerdos de la Alhambra’ performed by John Williams and composed by Francisco de Asís Tárrega:
The Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra took my breath away. The Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty certainly knew how to express their power, as well as utilise nature to their full advantage and pay homage to the divine hand of creation.
I was bowled over by the intricate stucco decorations and sublime geometric patterns carved and tiled by long dead hands onto the floors, walls, arches and ceilings. There is a sheer timeless effulgence to the Alhambra – it dazzles in every respect!
It is quite simply jaw-dropping.
“The only conqueror is God.” ~ Nasrid motto inscribed in numerous epigraphs at the Alhambra.
The fusion of indoor and outdoor spaces is in perfect harmony with the landscape, designed to incorporate nature and paradise into a man made masterpiece.
Somehow it transcends the searing Andalusian summer heat.
The clever design of the palace and the orientation of the columns means that they can be effectively used as sun dials, being aligned from north to south to within tenths of degrees.
Apparently the rooms receive much more light during the winter months than in summer, mainly because of the wide, overhanging eaves and cornices. Certain secluded corners are said to be warmed by the slanting winter sun but sheltered from the wind.
During the summer the sun is so high that its rays rarely penetrate the sheltered corridors to warm the marble walls and floors. The places that receive most sun in winter stay in the shade in summer so many of the south-facing rooms remain as cool as they would if they were air-conditioned.
The name Alhambra has evolved from the original Madinat al-Hamra, meaning ‘the red one’, thought to be a reference to the colour of the soil of the hill itself and the red clay used in the building materials. It could also allude to part of the name of the founder of the Nasrid dynasty: Muhammed ibn al-Ahmar ibn Nasr.
I noticed the pervading redness of the ground inside the walls of the Alhambra, apparently due to oxidisation of the soil. The plateau on which the fortress and palace complex sits is aptly named ‘The Red Hill’.
Our timed entry was mid-morning. In order to preserve this very special and unique UNESCO World Heritage site, a limited number of people are allowed in to the Nasrid Palaces at any one time on any given day. Even the Alhambra’s existing quotas felt like too much. It’s crowded on and off as new groups are admitted, which makes decent photography limited. It didn’t help that we visited during peak season.
Having said that, it’s still a magical experience.
Apart from the middle-age fort of the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces are the earliest buildings of the Alhambra, (consisting of the Mexuar, Comares and Leones), which were inhabited and expanded through the centuries by each subsequent Nasrid generation.
They were eventually altered in places and added to by the conquering catholic monarchs, to encompass the sprawling fortress complex that commands the hill top today.
Luckily the technology of the present enables audio recordings to help visitors understand the aims and achievements of the palaces and their previous royal inhabitants.
The Hall of the Mexuar is one of the oldest surviving parts of the royal palaces. The council met within the square formed by the four columns to decide upon important judicial matters, being the royal court of justice originally.
Comares Palace – The Courtyard of the Myrtles
Substantial amounts of water are harnessed throughout the gardens, palaces and especially in the Courtyard of the Myrtles; which is both stunning and serene.
“Water forms the mysterious life of the Alhambra: it allows the gardens to grow exuberantly green, it gives birth to the splendour of flowering shrubs and bushes, it rests in the pools reflecting the elegantly arcaded halls, it dances in the fountains and murmurs in rivulets through the very heart of the royal residence.
Just as the Koran describes paradise, ‘An orchard flowing with streams.'” ~ Titus Burckhardt
The Courtyard of the Myrtles has inspired quite a few artists in recent centuries…
A more detailed view of the North Gallery by the American Orientalist Edwin Lord Weeks:
The tower and archways of the North Gallery are reflected from the water at the entrance to the majestic Sultan’s throne room in the Comares Tower, magnifying the sultan’s power as well as symbolising abundance. It may have also served to amplify the elusiveness of ‘reality’. The use of water to mirror the structure above it was also employed centuries later to great effect by the builders of the Taj Mahal.
The combination of natural and man-made elements mingle in ethereal movements of space, air and light in the Alhambra like nothing I have ever seen.
The Alhambra feels like an eternal Moorish Elysium: a sanctuary made up of gardens, fountains, pools, halls, towers and courtyards; perched high above fertile plains, yet with a view of lofty, mountainous terrain.
Perfect and secluded, yet an intrinsic part of the rugged and ruddy landscape, the Alhambra is now a well restored and preserved physical window into Spain’s Moorish past.
Comares Tower – The Hall of the Ambassadors
The Comares Palace was built between 1333 – 1354 during the reign of sultan Yusuf I, during which time Europe was beset by the Plague and the 100 Years War began. His son Mohammad V, decorated the Comares Tower in some style between 1362 – 1391.
The Hall of the Ambassadors was the symbolic centre of Nasrid power, and contains the faded but still magnificent vestiges of the last Muslim court in Europe.
The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors (or Throne Room), in the Comares Tower is a sight to behold. The mosaic roof contains 8,017 separate pieces of wood in seven concentric circles with cedar wood adornments and a mocarabe boss in the centre.
During repair work a wooden peg was found protruding which had written on it the original colour scheme, that surely would have appeared even more stunning with whites, reds, ochres and greens a few centuries back…
The sultan would have had a psychological advantage over his subjects and visiting dignitaries when seated resplendent in the hall, surrounded by glowing, golden walls and vivid colours streaming in from the stained windows behind him.
The explosion of a gunpowder factory in the valley below in 1590 destroyed the stained glass, which was geometric in design to complement the surrounding tiled dados.
The Hall of the Two Sisters
The cupola of mocárabes contains an astounding 5,416 alabaster pieces. As the square walls meet the base of the ceiling they become octagonal in shape, with two windows placed in each plane of the octagon. These windows were said to be of stained glass until the late 16th century, giving the effect of movement on the ceiling, imparted by the light according to its angle at any given moment.
There is a poem inscribed in the walls of the Hall of the Two Sisters which extends around the room above the dado, written by Ibn Zamrak, comparing the beauty of the room with a garden.
Here is an excerpt that relates to the cupola of mocárabes, (honeycombed gesso):
“How much pleasure there is here for the eyes! In this place the soul will find idyllic reveries. The dreamer will be accompanied by the five Pleiades and will wake to the gentle morning breeze. An incomparable cupola shines with beauties both hidden and open to the gaze. “
My gaze floated up over the exquisite honeycombed arches, as if being drawn into shimmering celestial realms. There is so much beauty and symmetry throughout the Nasrid Palaces it’s hard to take in.
My brain was on aesthetic overload!
The Hall of the Abencerrages
The hall is accessed through the Courtyard of the Lions, but the lore of its violent history does not detract from its magnificence.
It is said that in Granada legend and history are so so closely intertwined it is impossible to distinguish between the two. The name of the hall is derived from the Abencerrage family who played an important part in the politics of their day.
A conspiracy was engineered by a rival family, the Zenete, involving the Sultana in an amorous affair. In a fit of jealousy and rage against the offending Abencerrages, the sultan invited 36 men from the Abencerrage family to celebrate in the hall and then had them slaughtered in it.
The russet veins in the bottom of the marble fountain are cited as the bloodstains of the murdered courtiers in such perfidious circumstances and manner. Others believe it is the oxidisation in the marble itself.
The Courtyard of the Lions
This would have been the focal point of the sultan’s private dwellings, (including his nearest and dearest), and possibly also used for some aspects of the sultan’s political and diplomatic affairs.
My eyes absorbed the timeless radiance shining forth from every facet of this cloistered style courtyard, and its seven hundred year old energy filled my whole being.
As I passed through the entrance to the Courtyard of the Lions I was rendered speechless. I could see it was having a similar effect on other tourists too. We were wandering around in awe, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, taking photos from every possible angle as we spotted new, alluring vistas of shadows and light against the pearl like marble and fine filigree arches.
It’s interesting to see how much more foliage was growing in the Nasrid Palaces (as depicted in various Romantic art works), compared to now.
The 19th century literary guest of the Alhambra, Washington Irving, wasn’t a fan of the gardens: “The court is laid out in flower-beds, instead of its ancient and, appropriate pavement of tiles or marble; the alteration, an instance of bad taste was made by the French when in possession of Granada.”
“Space in the Alhambra is as open as in the desert, where intimacy itself is to be found beneath the stars. The Courtyard of the Lions isn’t a house with a garden but a garden containing a house, which should be looked at from its corners at floor height…”
I can but try, but in reality the Alhambra defies description. You have to trace over centuries of vanished footsteps to properly experience and appreciate first-hand the artistic brilliance and reverence of the craftsmanship embedded in the fabric of its architecture.
The elegantly cloistered entrance has been described as ‘walking through a forest of gilded pillars, which little by little began to appear like “gold fringes of lace hanging from the sky”’.
“The architecture, like that in most parts of the interior of the palace, is characterised by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste, and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy traces of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of the centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.”
~ Washington Irving (Tales of the Alhambra)
I later passed through the governor’s rooms in the Lindaraja wing of the Palace of the Lions, famously inhabited for several months in 1829 by American writer Washington Irving. He duly fell under the spell of the Alhambra and revealed her legends and secrets in his book: Tales of the Alhambra.
The Hall of the Kings
The Hall of the Kings runs along the whole of the east side of the Courtyard of the Lions and is divided into five separate areas. This design creates a wonderful interplay of light and shade among the richly decorated three larger chambers that open out onto the court, bordered by the two smaller closed porticos.
Isaac Albeniz – En la Alhambra, with Juan Carlos Garvayo on the piano:
The history of the Alhambra
The Alcazaba (old citadel), was first constructed in 889 by Sawar ben Handum, at the same time Alfred the Great was King of Wessex. The founder of the Nasrid Dynasty in Granada, Muhammad I, (1238 – 1273), rebuilt and extended the Alcazaba as his feudal residence, and his ancestors each built and consolidated the three Nasrid Palaces.
The Alhambra covers an area of around thirteen hectares enclosed by more than two kilometres of walls reinforced by thirty towers, of which twenty or so are still standing.
The 14th century witnessed the zenith of the great Muslim builders: the sultans Yusef I and his son Moahmmad V, during whose time the Palace of Comares, the Comares Tower and the Palace of the Lions were constructed.
Muslim rule in al-Andalus lasted for seven centuries, and the Alhambra is an outstanding example of medieval Islamic art that has its roots in Persia and North Africa.
The last Arab monarch to rule in Granada was Abu-Abd-illiah Muhammad XII. To the Castilians he was known as Boabdil, and his retreat from Granada ended Muslim rule in southern Spain during the reign of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in January 1492.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were originally laid to rest in the monastery, and I saw the alcove where they had lain for a time before their remains were transferred to the Royal Chapel at el Escorial, the final resting place of Spanish monarchs.
It was Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who eventually married King Henry VIII of England. She was the aunt of King Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.
Palace of Charles V
The Nasrid Palaces became dilapidated and left to ruin in the wake of the Reconquista. The neglect would last until the 19th century, when the stories, poems and art that was produced by the romantics helped to instigate renewed interest and restoration to its former Moorish glory.
The importance of Granada as a royal site ultimately proved beneficial in its preservation.
The undisputed queen of Celtic music, Loreena Mckennit performs her evocative and lilting songs inspired by the Alhambra, and of course her Celtic roots, in a special concert inside the Palace of Charles V :
The New Royal House, the Palacio Carlos V, was conceived as a grand new monument by Charles I of Spain 1500 – 1558 (also Charles V Holy Roman Emperor 1519 – 1558), built to consolidate the powerful role of Granada in political and royal life without destroying the existing Muslim architecture.
It was thus differentiated from the Nasrid Palaces, which were referred to as the Old Royal House.
The Marquis of Mondejar, (governor of the Alhambra), was in charge of the new palace’s construction, but the actual building of it was entrusted to Pedro Machua, who had trained in Rome with both Michelangelo and Rafael. His legacy was to create a monument in the Italian Renaissance style that was popular at the time, but never fully completed.
The Palace of Charles V stands on an old Christian quarter in the lower annex to the Nasrid city.
Washington Irving also had an opinion on that era’s architecture too:
“In front of the esplanade is the splendid pile commenced by Charles V., and intended, it is said, to eclipse the residence of the Moorish kings. Much of the Oriental edifice intended for the winter season was demolished to make way for this massive pile. The grand entrance was blocked up so that the present entrance to the Moorish palace is through a simple and almost humble portal in a corner. With all the massive grandeur and architectural merit of the Palace of Charles V., we regarded it as an arrogant intruder, and passing by it with a feeling of almost of scorn, rang at the Moslem portal.”
We were fortunate to stay in a small boutique establishment, Hotel America, (one of only two hotels inside the Alhambra’s walls), close to the Parador de Granada (once the Friary of San Francisco).
Hotel America is a far cry from the elaborate Moorish Islamic art that attracts millions of visitors every year to the Alhambra. However, I loved its authentic colonial style and the cosy vine covered courtyard for dining.
Its simplicity was refreshing. Some rooms had small balconies that opened up over the courtyard. Sparrows made their home there and were not afraid of guests as they darted from floor to table in a bid to grab morsels of food.
The night we arrived we had a traditional meal at the café of the Parador, overlooking the valley and the Generalife. For a while we could hear the voices, guitars and castanets from a nearby flamenco evening. We were able to walk among the gardens of the old monastery which were lovingly landscaped with exotic plants and flowers from all over the world.
You can’t help but be filled with a sense of tranquility and peace. The setting sun was casting a warm glow over the distant peaks of the Sierra Nevada and the sacredness of this site filled my being.
The 1926 live performance of Sviatoslav Richter performing “Soirée dans Grenade” from Debussy’s Estampes (composed 1903):
I wished I’d had more time (and willing offspring), to explore every amazing nook and cranny of the Alhambra, but the portion I was fortunate enough to see was an unforgettable experience.
If you haven’t yet been to the Alhambra I’d recommend putting it near the top of your bucket list.
As Washington Irving so eloquently stated in his book of tales:
“My object is merely to give the reader a general introduction into an abode where, if so disposed, he may linger and loiter with me…”