Ayer fuimos al Alhambra…
The approach to the city, or fortress, or palace (depending on who approaches) is up a hill wooded with mighty chesnuts, those trees that make my heart weep, for ours in America were lost. Little culverts and streams tumble down from the high Sierra Nevadas in the background, filter through the fountains and Acequias of the Alhambra, and descend into el prado de Granada.
Then, as you climb, the fortress walls emerge, a little crumbly but still imposing, with grace in their lines but no ornamentation. The Sunnah (the lesser known and more, er, procedural of Islamic texts) implores it’s followers not to awaken the jealousy of their neighbors, and so Moorish edifices have simple exteriors. I need hardly mention that this differs from the elaborate crusts of antique European buildings, but more on that later.
We passed the studded main gate and entered through a smaller door meant for tour groups. After a courtyard with a fountain and citrus trees, we entered the Nasrid throne room, where the Sultan received important visitors. I remember picking lemon thyme in the courtyard and rolling it between my fingers, for the whole place made me wish that the incenses and oils of the Moors still scented the rooms.
Here, the Caliph held court with his scribes and ministers, who had little enclaves for offices around the hall. They would have perched on piles of carpets and cushions, dipping their pens to scribble lacily scripted orders. This is also the place where the last sultan surrendered Granada in 1492 after a long siege by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella. They say that after his surrender, the sultan left the generalife for Africa, and never returned to his paradise.
Ferdinand and Isabella proceeded to make the throne room their own, the first for a unified Spain. In this room, they bid Columbus farewell on his search for The Orient. From this throne room, the ripples of Spanish history spread.
“The Catholic Monarchs” also made the first Christian additions to the complex, but it was Carlos V who really expanded the place.
I must mention here that the juxtaposition of the two architectural styles is jarring. The Moorish designers played with geometric principles in letters, lines and sinuous plant motifs to create an organic look from strict mathematical measures. Their art is a testament to the order that informs all things: the universe is not created from simplistic or chaotic impulses; hidden rule and subtle principle pervade nature.
I must let all the photographs and drawings of the Alhambra speak rather than the thousands of words it would take me to describe its intricacy and elegance. In its time, each room used all four elements in harmony- flowing water, dancing earthen plaster, flickering oil lamps and windows open to the breeze.
We walked through the Court of Myrtles, with its reflective pool and moldings of Lebanese Cedar, into the family chambers. The spacious apartment of the sultan’s four wives was my favorite. Two of them were sisters. In their chambers, I could feel the lingering memories of playing music, dancing for their family, laughter over steaming tea. They might have been very happy in their sumptuous cage. The tinkling fountain of snowmelt still bubbles in their home, centuries after the laughter of their children ceased.
Yes, the contrast. From the harem, one exits into the steam rooms, then into a low hall built by Isabella and Ferdinand. The criss-crossed roof beams seem simple and careless after the ethereal alcazar. Ferdinand only had the creativity to engrave Plus ultra on each, proclaiming that his kingdom stretched to the New World. This differed somewhat from the Sultan’s motto: Wa la ghalib illa Allah, “No winner but Allah,” repeated nine thousand times on his walls.
Really, I thought the whole European section seemed to declare proudly, “We’ve discovered the square!”
If their works were primitive in comparison, at least the Europeans did not destroy the Alhambra out of barbaric confusion or resentment.