Tales From The Alhambra
We’d been in Lagos for three months and were itching for a road trip to an epic destination, a way to celebrate receiving our one year Portuguese residency visa. There was no question about where to go since we’d long dreamed of seeing this UNESCO World Heritage Site, a place of mystery, myths and history. A look at google maps showed us that the Alhambra, the palace of Sultans and Spanish kings was a mere six-hour drive – no magic carpet required.
The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 and the first references to a fortress perched high upon the hill, Al Sabika, dates back to 889. It was all but forgotten until the mid-13th century when the ruins were renovated and rebuilt and the royal residence of the first Sultan of the Nasrid dynasty was established. Protected by mountains at its back (the Sierra Nevadas) and thick woods surrounding it, the Alhambra was a reflection of the glory days of the house of the Islamic Nasrids, the last of the Muslim Emirates of Granada. There were twenty-two Sultans who resided in the palace city of the “Red Castle” with their wives, harems and courtiers. Of these, twelve were assassinated so, while the life of a Sultan was luxurious, it was not secure. Intrigue and in-fighting between Moorish tribes, royal courts, cities and generals was always present. And, with the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the Moors finally retreated. The flag of Ferdinand and Isabella (yes, that Ferdinand and Isabella!) was raised over the Alhambra on January 2, 1492, and after the Reconquista the near-by town (Granada) quickly encroached upon the palace walls.
We began our private tour at the upper-most portion of the palace grounds at the northern end of the complex, the only section that was built outside the protection of the massive walls. The Generalife was the daytime residence and formal gardens of the royal family and it was here that the massive scale of the Alhambra became truly obvious. From this height the individual buildings, actually palaces in their own right, spread below on the lower hillocks.
It was a cold, January day and the numbers of tourists were nowhere close to the 8,000 maximum allowed per day during the high season. The snows on the upper slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains to the east, were muted against the leaden sky but when the sun emerged later in the day the contrast of white versus the blue sky was dazzling. The day of our tour only a fraction of the flowers were in bloom but the towering cypress that lined the walk and the precisely trimmed hedges in geometric patterns alongside the curves of orange and pomegranate trees were beauty enough for us. It was easy to imagine the drone of bees amongst the profusion of flowers with butterflies flitting about seeking nectar as well as the lilting tremolos of birds that would be ushered in with the advent of spring. Yet, with the return of spring’s warmth would come the hordes of tourists.
Leaving the leafy greenery of the Generalife we headed south towards the protected city of the Alhambra. Just outside the walls were a number of businesses jammed into miniscule homes. Entering Lugna Taracea, a shop run by the Lugna family in the same location for over 150 years we stopped to watch skilled craftsman assemble traditional mosaics: patterns intricately inlaid with bone, silver, copper and a variety of woods. The Lugnas specialize in lacquered furniture and household amenities such as trays, boxes and tables, all beautiful, high quality pieces including a pretty, folding cribbage board that we bought for ourselves to replace the two we’d given to our son when we started our nomadic journeys.
Once back inside the walls we wandered past bubbling fountains and reflecting pools, arched doorways, stone columns, tiled mosaic walls and carved ceilings of wood in detailed and complex patterns.
Tortuously carved stucco adorned spaces not covered by tile, marble or wood in stylized motifs and twisting Arabic words extolled the greatness and glory of Allah. Much of the stucco has faded to a creamy color although traces of color can be seen here and there. It’s almost impossible to imagine the true assault upon the senses that the original painted stucco would have triggered.
Taking up the story once again of the conquering Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, we were shown the throne room where Columbus pleaded for funds to find a shorter passage to the Orient. Our guide also pointed out where the initials of Ferdinand and Isabella (spelled Ysabella) were carved in stucco among the motifs and Arabic words along with the crown of the reigning monarchs.
The conquerors continued their redecorating by filling in some of the stucco carving with whitewash and both Charles V (1500 – 1558) and Philip V (1683 – 1746) destroyed portions of the original complex in order to erect their own palaces. (In fact, by the end of our fascinating tour, we were actively cursing the barbarous Spanish for their sacrilege and intolerance. The destruction of such beauty was, to our modern and secular minds, unconscionable.)
The game of empire building, which ran rampant throughout Europe at this time, continued when France, under the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, invaded the Iberian Peninsula and in 1812 overran the southernmost part of Spain, including the Alhambra and Granada. Decamping the Alhambra a few months later, the French, under the command of Napoleon’s brother Joseph, an inefficient and apparently venial and vindictive King of Spain, ordered sappers to mine the Alhambra. An observant and brave Spanish citizen reached the fuses and removed them from the explosives, interrupting the chain of detonations that had been intended to level these magnificent structures. As a result, only a minimum of damage on the periphery was visited upon the Alhambra.
The mighty Alhambra fell on hard times, forgotten and neglected. Squatters set up house. In 1828, after visiting Madrid and writing a tract on his travels and observations, the American author Washington Irving journeyed to Granada where he encountered the Alhambra. After taking up residence as a kind of “literary squatter” he was inspired by his experience to write “Tales of the Alhambra” which was published in 1832. It reintroduced the Alhambra to the West and the renewed interest assisted in the preservation on the Palace. Spain recognized the Alhambra as a national artistic monument and initiated several decrees beginning in 1870 with the goal of preserving the complex.
Nothing we had read, none of the photographs we had viewed, none of the conversations with those who had previously been there, could have prepared us for what we encountered at the Alhambra. The immensity of the Alhambra cannot be fully appreciated until you are there. The staggering redundancy of beauty, opulence and craftsmanship simply overwhelms the senses. Poets centuries ago called the Alhambra a “Paradise on earth” and we wholeheartedly agree. And after visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site we suspect that the spirit of Allah still resides among the beauty that was designed to glorify him.
By Richard and Anita