The Alhambra

The Alhambra, a compound of palaces and gardens standing on a hill in Granada, is the finest example of a medieval Arab palace in the world, and receives more than two million visitors each year. That the Alhambra must be experienced—apart from photographs and notes—is a point well taken; nevertheless, here are a few observations.

—  By Laurie McAndish King, Photos by Jim Shubin.

[imagebrowser id=15]

The name Alhambra derives from an Arabic root that means “crimson castle,” perhaps due to the golden color of the towers and walls. A more poetic etymology is suggested by Moslem scholars, who describe the construction of the Alhambra “by the light of torches,” the reflections of which gave the walls a reddish color. Originally built for military purposes, the Alhambra was an alcazaba (fortress), an alcázar (palace), and a small medina (fortified city) all in one.

The fortress is surrounded by two kilometers of walls, dating from the 13th century, and the richly wooded gardens. We strolled among elm and horse chestnut trees, sycamore and cypress, in the Generalife Gardens. Mexican Cypress that were planted in the 1500s grow here—they’re the oldest New World trees in Europe. “The grounds used to be even shadier. People came here for a Sunday walk and picnic, and to drink the good water of the Alhambra.” Water is brought from the mountains via an efficient system of aqueducts built in the 1200s, and still functioning today. The pathways are some 30 feet wide, edged by picturesque three- to four-foot-high walls of stacked stone.

There’s still a productive kitchen garden, which was maintained for many years by caretakers who sold the produce to augment their incomes. Since 1931, the gardens have been tended by employees, who have not done such a good job of maintaining the  gardens’ original character. The Alhambra’s gardens remind me of ones in our Mediterranean climate at home in California: orange trees, magnolia, crepe myrtle and bamboo, acanthus, agapanthus, viburnum, pink and yellow roses, draping wisteria, scarlet bougainvillea, indigo morning glory.

It’s early November, but leaves are just beginning to turn: ginkgo to gold and pomegranate to rosy orange. Jasmine grows everywhere, and I catch whiffs of its sweet scent as we wander. The scent is an integral part of the gardens, and that jasmine pollen has been found in soil samples dating back to the 1300s. Paths weave between formal hedges, beneath oleander tunnels, or between hundred-foot-high cypress; stone-patterned walkways echo the geometric designs on ceramic tiles inside the Alhambra.

An aura of grace and abundance extend even to the Alhambra’s restrooms. They are spotless, with gleaming marble walls and floors, what must be the most abundant, rushing flush in all of Europe, blast-furnace-like blow dryers for our hands, and a light orange scent throughout.

Lush gardens, intricate pattern, birdsong, fragrance, breeze, running water from ever-present aqueducts and fountains, gentle ripples on reflecting pools … all combine to create an expansive, placid atmosphere. Even the exit signs are elegantly carved into white marble. No wonder Granada has been a magnet for artists for many years, especially for the 19th century Romantics.

Hans Christian Anderson and Queen Isabella II visited in 1862. Federico Garcia Lorca spent much of his life here, and Washington Irving wrote Tales of the Alhambra from a room inside. How was he able to score the accommodations? Almost unbelievably, the Alhambra was abandoned and fell into disrepair in the 1800s, occupied by thieves and beggars, “defiled by bats,” used as barracks and later partially destroyed by Napoleon’s troops. In 1870 it was declared a national monument, and restoration began.

Because the much of the decoration is richly ornate inscribed Islamic poetry,  the Alhambra is referred to as “speaking architecture.” The poetry, written in first person, refers directly to what we are seeing and experiencing, as well as incorporating eloquent metaphoric language. For example, the sultan is referred to as a source of light or enlightenment, blessed by god, represented by the sun or the full moon. The letters themselves, which were once gilded gold against a dark blue background, seemed to be lighted. The brilliantly polished white marble floors (I so wanted to skate across them in my socks!) reflect light upward to illuminate the ornate underside of arches.

The palaces also had a secular function, as home for the king—father of a family and of a nation—who follows the rule of god in governing both. The king’s government was legitimized only by the fact that he followed the will of god; he was not free to rule according to his own whims.

What a fitting conclusion to our voyage into history, romance, and Mediterranean culture!