The Alhambra

“I have heard O King, that the king walked to the center of the palace and looked around, but saw no one. The palace was furnished with silk carpets and leather mats and hung with drapes. There were also settees, benches, and seats with cushions, as well as cupboards. In the middle there stood a spacious courtyard, surrounded by four adjoining recessed courts facing each other. In the center stood a fountain, on top of which crouched four lions in red gold, spouting water from their mouths in droplets that looked like gems and pearls, and about the fountain singing birds fluttered under a high net to prevent them flying away … ”

‘The Tale of the King’s Son and the She-Ghoul’, The Arabian Nights, translated by Hussein Haddawy, quoted by Robert Irwin (see footnotes)

The Fall of Granada in 1492 marked the end of the Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. The Nasrids (1238-1492) were the last Muslim dynasty that reigned in Spain with the Alhambra (Arabic for the red castle) as the bastion of their power. The 250 years of their reign was marked by cultural and intellectual splendour achieved despite being besieged by Christianity. Rafael Hierro Caleja stated that the Nasrids sensed that their civilization was coming to an end. (1) This is why they poured all their creative wisdom into the Alhambra, which is more richly decorated than any other Muslim monuments. Caleja suggests that the palace was the swan song of the Muslims who were “suffocated by increasing pressure from the Christian kingdoms”:

“This may well be an indication of a ‘fear of emptiness’ (the Latin horror vacui), which Johan Huizinga referred to in his marvellous book “The Autumn of the Middle Ages” as characteristic of the spirit’s final periods.”

What is written in official guidebooks about the magnificent seat of the Nasrid caliphs should not be taken for granted, says the researcher Robert Irwin (2):

“…there are very few facts about the Alhambra that are securely established and agreed upon. It is a sunlit place of many mysteries.”

The Muslim peoples, says Calleja, lived their lives looking inwards and this is why their buildings looked simple on the outside but were opulently decorated indoors. There is grandeur but there is also intimacy, according to Irwin, who adds that while most architecture is planned for the day, the Alhambra was intended to be seen at night, caressed by moonlight. The place used to be lit by vast candles from Damascus, which were reflected in water. It is a pity that the site is now so overrun by tourists, who visit it mostly in the blazing sun. There is little left of the intimacy but still the enchanting beauty of the place can be overshadowed by nothing.

Though we know little of the purpose of the elaborate designs, Irwin offers a beautiful suggestion:

“The Alhambra was designed by and for intellectuals with mystical inclinations. It was a machine for thinking in. Its lacework decoration and watery reflections hint at the impermanence of all material and visible things. The beauty of the Alhambra is based upon proportion and upon abstract geometric designs of staggering complexity. …The Alhambra is a stone book in more than one sense, for not only are its walls decorated with religious and poetical texts, but those texts are framed by geometrical designs that are, to all intents and purposes, demonstrations of mathematical theorems.”

Like in many other ancient monuments, there is plenty of astronomical symbolism. The ceiling of the Hall of Ambasadors, says Irwin, is a representation of the seven heavens or the seven classical planets – “the celestial court presided over by the sun king:
“The moon was his chief minister and heir to the throne. Mercury was the katib (scribe), Mars the army commander, Jupiter the qadi (judge), Saturn the treasurer and Venus the maidservant.”

A further beautiful example of astrological symbolism is encoded in The Hall of the Two Sisters. The poetry written on its walls translates:
“The constellation of Gemini holds out its hand to you on a sign of friendship and the moon goes up to it to talk in secret.”

The twelve lions in the Courtyard of the Lions may have stood for the twelve Zodiac signs, but it is not certain. A more plausible theory, according to Calleja, sees their origin in Hebrew art:
“There are twelve white marble lions holding up the sea, the twelve lions of Judah or the twelve tribes of Israel.”

It was a gift of the Jewish vizier and poet to the king of Alhambra, which, in Calleja’s words “reminds us of the peace and coexistence of the three monotheistic religions in medieval times in Spain.”

Another poetic inscription found in The Hall of the Two Sisters says: “In this place the soul shall find a stunning dream.” Calligraphy, vegetal motifs and geometric shapes are repeated endlessly on the walls of the Alhambra. This, together with the interplay of light, shadows and shapes transports the mind to another dreamlike dimension.

Footnotes:

(1) Rafael Hierro Calleja, Granada and the Alhambra: Art, Architecture, History, Ediciones Miguel Sánchez

(2) Robert Irwin, The Alhambra (Wonders of the World), kindle edition

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10 Responses to The Alhambra

  1. ptero9 says:

    Monika,
    Along with the lovely ceiling art, I was struck by this quote:
    “The constellation of Gemini holds out its hand to you on a sign of friendship and the moon goes up to it to talk in secret.”
    An image to ponder for some time to come!

    That period of western history must have been a cauldron of creativity where the three monotheistic religions somehow managed to co-exist. The imagination must have been running high, and very much valued in order for there to be such cooperation. Even harder to imagine in today’s global political climate.

    Your post is a good reminder of what is possible!
    Love,
    Debra

    • Yes, that quote is so beautiful. I also feel that passion and creativity you mention while being here. I wonder how peaceful the coexistence was really. I remember reading an article in The New York Review of Books about this issue (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/03/21/contested-legacy-muslim-spain/). Sorry this is just a few paragraphs online – I get the magazine for Kindle. It seems that scholars disagree about whether there was high culture and tolerance or is it just the utopia we want to believe in. Perhaps tolerance was just “the product of economic necessity.” But I feel that there was something very special about the multiculturalism of that era. We have not seen it since then.
      Thank you so much for reading
      Monika

      • ptero9 says:

        I wonder too, and have been influenced by several writers who attribute the flowering of the renaissance to this period of influence of Mediterranean influx of the Greek classical writers,along with the high culture of Persia into the west.

        Surely, as long as humans were involved the good and the bad were very much mixed up together! 🙂

  2. Jeff Japp says:

    We photographed some of the same rooms. Great minds…

  3. Your lovely post brought back memories of our visit last autumn – I longed the whole time I was there to be able to wander through it, empty, as night gathered and the moon was reflected on the water. What a wonderful place, even as part of a tourist throng…I was most envious of a friend with whom I was sharing some of my impressions – she had visited there in the early 1970s, and wandered around in peace and tranquillity. “There was hardly anyone there then”, she commented. Just imagine…

  4. lampmagician says:

    Reblogged this on lampmagician and commented:
    There are surely fascinating buildings with beautiful arts all over the eyes can see though, I’d thank Cid, the rescuer, to stop the Arabic onwards marsh in through the west! I accept that we can find many original funds in the Islamic countries but the main reason, in my opinion, is, that Islam at their beginning, were highly tolerant. that’s because of their unsureness on having more believers on their sides. Therefore, the Arabs made it very easy; just saying “Allah-o-Akbar” God is great, and Mohammad is his only prophet, is enough, everything was solved! And everybody could or even should do what he (never she’d of course!) was ever doing. I surely don’t want to loathe some folk or so, it’s written in the history; the Arabs have no arts but Talking Poesie, they made a lot with their language because they were much proud of their language and it is their right to feel so; the Arabic language is one of the most perfect language in the world. though, surely no the only language which God must know. as they meant! Anyway, I wanted just to remember that the countries which the Arabs, after Islam overcome, had their Arts, Philosophies, Astronomies, Architectures, and so on. I admit this wonderful post heartily as ever 🙏🙏💖💖🙏

    • Wow, thank you for your long comment. I see the subject of Islam is one that touches you deeply? Thank you for stating at the end that Islam has brought us a lot of beautiful works of art and of course wisdom and knowledge.
      Monika

      • lampmagician says:

        Of course it is from my side to thank you for you great posts and you might be right that it was a little agitating for me to react, maybe because of my ancient history 😉 and very appreciated for your agreement 🙏💖💖

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