Humbled at Alhambra
Alhambra is not only Spain’s #1 tourist destination it is also a source of inspiration to artists of all means of expression. The marvels are in the details of the craftsmanship on display and the materials become immaterial. What you come to view is human creativity and technique.
As an Anglo-Saxon living in the United States the most incredible connection with history is standing in the same chamber where the Catholic Monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus three times between his voyages to the new world. Granada’s Grand Via Colon is names after him.
The workmanship predates this historic encounter. Alhambra was built my moorish sultans as a city palace and it is a privilege for me as a non-Muslim commoner to walk the same hallways, chambers, and patios as the most royal and holy man ruling the Kingdom of Granada.
Today the scholars who maintain Alhambra seek to preserve and present to the public the elements of the Alhambra that have persisted through time as to promote authenticity. There are glorious inscriptions in plaster and sophisticated, inlaid woodwork incorporated into the architecture, colorful gardens, gently flowing fountains, and long, shallow pools. All please the eye and inspire the soul. Therefore it’s a wonder to envision what the Alhambra looked like in it’s full splendor – when all of the delicate carvings now washed out and white were painted in brilliant golds, blues, and greens, when tapestries of the finest silk made in Europe (in Granada itself) were hung in the now bare spaces on the walls and were changed out with new ones weekly, when sumptuous pillows and beautiful rugs furnished the floor, and when royal sultans and their court enlivened the spaces.
Throughout all of the rooms poetic verses praising god are inscribed in plaster on the walls – hundreds to thousands of times in a given room. Curious to me is that one of the predominant inscriptions for god looks like a ‘W’. On top of that the inscription for ‘god is over all’ looks like ‘BW. Note photo and recall Arabic is read from right to left. I’m aware this observation is both solipsistic and sacrilegious but that’s what popped into my head.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is my favorite room in the Nasrid Palaces. This is the room where the Sultan and his ministers would receive foreign representatives of state. Including, just in 2010, a visit from our first lady Michele Obama. The visitor would first be greeted by a moorish ambassador in the Baraka – a welcome room where the foreign representative would be reminded of the solemnity and import of their brief time with the sultan. They would be given a ritual of drinks of honey, milk, and water as a symbol of commitment to only speak sweet, pure, and transparent words to the sultan. The visitor might be impressed, as I was, by the baraka’s ceiling which resembles an inverse wooden boat hull adorned with complex geometry. However upon entering the near perfectly square Hall of Ambassadors the visitor becomes awed at the cunningly varied mosaic ceramics adorning the lower walls and intricate inlaid wood cupola above them. The chamber has 9 alcoves, the most central, largest, and slightly raised reserved for the Sultan and the remainder used by top ministers, masters in language, negotiations, and flattery.
On your visit you’re able to inspect the alcoves and discover that each has a different series of colorful interlocking polygons decorating the walls. There are only 17 polygons that can be combined to form interlocking patterns, and all 17 permutations can be found in the Alhambra. The artists iteratively demonstrated this geometric law that was not solved inductively until the 19th century by a geometric proof written by a European mathematician.
My understanding is that the Koran presents 7 layers of heaven. The deeds in this life determine the access you receive in heaven. The cupola is adorned with concentric circles of flower/star shaped patterns ascending the heavens from the lowest to highest level – a physical manifestation that all that goes on in the room is witnessed by Allah. The Sultan would say I’m and but the shadow of the shadow of God and here to obey his will.
There are 1,001 wonders for you to experience when you visit the Alhambra and I will not try to capture even the fraction I saw in this writing. I encourage you to go instead.
Erin and I went with a private guide. Although slightly indulgent for just the two of us this is reasonably affordable for two couples. We had Antonio as a guide provided by Cicerones. You might contact him, firstname.lastname@example.org, or, Cicerones to arrange a private tour. Our trip was greatly enhanced by the context and insight Antonio provided as he brought the 800 year old palaces to life for us. If you shirk at hiring Antonio for a private tour he does recommend a €10 guide book to guide yourself. The book is Alhambra and Granada In Focus. WE bought it post tour for additional information and were impressed with it’s diagrams and recreations of color in the palace.
I’ll close and reward readers who have stuck through this long post with the most magnificent creations in the Alhambra – the sculpted marble lions. There are 12 of them arranges in a circle guarding a fountain. They have been under rehabilitation for some years and only went back on display to the public recently in July 2010. We were doubly lucky with our visit to the Alhambra as rather than inaccessibly installed in their proper location ringing the center if a fountain and surrounded by water, the recently restored lions were on display in small room that allowed for close inspection. It’s believed that a master sculpted lion #10 and his students sculpted the remaining 11. My favorite bit about these lions I’ll leave as a surprise for your visit or for another writer to spill as a spoiler.
The Alhambra will draw me back. It’s a different experience than the Taj Mahal and Red Fort in Agra, India. Please consider including the Alhambra on your bucket list. More importantly, if you are young and creative, go early in life to inspire your art.