Tag Archives: the Moors

Tales From The Alhambra

perfect reflection-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.Sierra Nevada Mountains-The Alhambra

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.

The Alhambra

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.

The Alhambra

 

IMG_1179 (800x600)

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.The Alhambra

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.

making mosaics-The Alhambra

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.

ceramic tile mosaic

ceramic tile mosaic

ceiling of inlayed woods

ceiling design of inlaid woods

tiled floor

tiled floors

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.

The Alhambra

 

plaster carving-The Alhambra

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.

Ferdinand & Ysabla -The Alhambra

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 Spanish Crown-The Alhambra

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 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.

The Alhambra
stained glass ceiling - possibly 14th or 15th century-The Alhambra

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.

Allah - Arabic translation

Allah – Arabic translation

By Richard and Anita

 

Silves and Its Castle: Conquests and Crusades

Silves CastleIt’s not hard to find the ruins of the Moorish castle as you enter the town of Silves, Portugal.  Perched on a hilltop high above the town it dominates the landscape, its presence looming as the castle and remaining walls that surround it are easily visible from wherever you are in the city.climbing up to Castle Silves

The castle is like a picture in a kid’s storybook with its stereotypical, crenellated silhouette, narrow slits and gaps for the defenders to guard against intruders or rain down arrows and boiling oil upon enemies, massive red sandstone walls and the turrets where sentries stood watch. It’s not hard to find yourself imagining the hoof beats and neighing of horses, the sound of armored soldiers clanking by, dark robed men silently skulking about in the shadows, tradesmen mixing with peasants going about their business, the blare of trumpets and flags unfurled in the wind.Silves Castle

Our reaction when we first saw the Algarve’s biggest and arguably best preserved castle?  Big grins and what we later tried to describe to each other, a feeling of little kid wonder as we remembered tales read long ago.Castle Silves

Silves (pronounced the Portuguese way in one slurred syllable SilvSH) has archeological remains that go back to Paleolithic times and has been known by many names – Almohad, Cilpes, Shelb, Xelb – depending on who was occupying it at the time.  Located on the Rio Arade (pronounced with a g sound that sneaks its way in, A rad gee) which connected the hinterland with its riches of copper and iron to the Atlantic, it was an important trade route for the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans.  Silves’ prosperity really took off with the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 713. The city became an economic rival to Lisbon for over two centuries claiming the nickname, “The Baghdad of the west” with its bazaars, shipyards and port.  With its strategic location overlooking the river and built upon one of the largest aquifers in southern Portugal, Silves had a lot to offer and everyone wanted it. For a few centuries a tug-of-war existed between factions of the Moors themselves, the Spanish and the eventually victorious Portuguese aided by crusaders who stopped by on their way to the Holy Land. In 1249 the Portuguese had the Moors fleeing for the final time stripped of their possessions including, according to some accounts, the clothes on their backs.  In the following centuries Silves’s fortunes waned with the loss of its North African trade routes that the Moors had established and as competition grew from other ports along the coast.  The gradual siltation of the Arade River formed a swamp which bred fevers, disease and epidemics like the Bubonic plague, which contributed to its downward spiral.  The 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the Silves along with the rest of Portugal’s cities seemed to seal its fate.

In the background - Old Cathedral on the left and Silves Castle on the right

In the background – Old Cathedral on the left and Silves Castle on the right

Silves is a city of living history with its fabulous Moorish Castle, declared a national monument in 1910, but there are a few other reminders that testify to its former greatness as you wander through the historic part of this picturesque city.  Rising up near the castle is the second most striking building of its skyline, Sé Velha, the Old Cathedral.  A national monument since 1922; the original structure was built in the 13th century by the conquering Portuguese on the site of a former mosque.  Over the centuries it’s become an eclectic blend of many architectural styles with a Baroque façade and Manueline style doorways and windows as well as the great entrance, an arched, Gothic doorway of yellow sandstone with its balcony above embellished with corbels of animal and human faces.

Gothic doorway - Cathedral of Silves

Gothic doorway – Cathedral of Silves

Manueline doorway

Manueline doorway

Nearby is the Municipal Archeology Museum which has exhibits from the Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Roman artifacts, displays of ceramics from the Moors and finally pieces from the Portuguese victors of the 13th century.  The museum itself is built along a section of the old city walls and incorporated an existing Islamic cistern-well originating from the 11th century that is 18 meters (59 feet) deep within its structure.12-13th century Almohad well-cistern - Almohad period

It’s hard to imagine that Silves was once a bustling port or that the Vikings war ships attempted an armed, exploratory excursion bent on looting and plunder in the 10th century up the Arade River.  Known as the Old Bridge or the Roman Bridge of Silves (although the Roman road that crossed the area would have existed several centuries earlier) the original structure was built in the 14th century.  Historically, one of the main entries into the city connecting Silves to the coast, it has five semi-circular arches that span the waterway, now heavily silted.  Today, benches have been scattered along it in the city to make it a charming place to sit and admire its beauty.old bridge

While Silves will never regain its former glory it still has a lot going for it: a pretty city spread over hills in a beautiful countryside. Its economic prosperity began to improve in the 19th century as cork and dried-fruit industries were established and many residents enjoyed an increased level of affluence. Today its economy is fueled, like many of the towns in the Algarve, by agriculture and tourism. It’s exactly the kind of city we love to visit and return to with friends to share its magic.view from Silves Castle

By Anita and Richard