Across Andalucia: The Alhambra…

As of May 2021, I am migrating most of my travel journals to Daveno Travels where I am reissuing them as Director’s Cuts, with full text and previously unpublished photos. This is an excerpt from my trip to Granada in 2012.

When your concierge says “you only need to be at the train station five minutes ahead of departure,” take him at his word. In spite of his suggestion, I arrive an hour early for my next destination – Granada and the famous Moorish Red Fortress known as the Alhambra.

The Alhambra (Al Qal’a al-Hamra,) or “The Red Castle”, was built during the Nasrid Dynasty in 1243 and was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. It gets its name from the red clay the buildings were built from. It was designed to be a palace-city (like the Topkapi in Istanbul) and was further transformed in the 13th century when water was brought up from the Taro River and the castle was expanded into a fortress. The complex contains several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world.

Entry to the Nasrid Palaces is timed, so I visited the Generalife, a separate area outside of the Alhambra Fortress, built as a recreational area where the Kings of Granada could escape their official routine.

The Generalife (“Garden of the Architect”) reflects the Muslim concept of garden as it is referenced in the Koran and to reproduce paradise on earth. Dating back to at least the 13th century, it originally included orchards, farmland, and animal pens. It’s gardens are currently planted with citrus, jujube, pomegranate and grapes, cypress, laurel, jasmine, and roses, which are very fragrant.

“…Although it is not very large, it is extremely beautiful and well constructed and the beauty of its gardens and waters is the best that I have seen in Spain… The water arrives at a stunning green courtyard, which has the appearance of a meadow with a few trees, and by closing off certain channels, the stream that flows through this meadow, I know not how, swells underfoot and dampens everything and then effortlessly retreats without evidence of human hand…

One of my favorite places here was the Water Stairway, dating to the 16th century. Under a canopy of bay trees, four sets of terraced stairs are linked by three landings, with a small fountain in the center. The stone handrails have channels carved into them that were filled with water that flowed so fast, they created little whirlpools at the round joints. The sound of birds and water throughout the gardens was omnipresent, and at times, drowned out all other sound.

I detail the rest of the Generalife in a separate post at Daveno Travels. (link coming…)

I enter the Fortress through the Water Tower and veer right, walking past more gardens and into the section called the Partal. The Palacio del Partal is another of the oldest buildings at the Alhambra. The tower is known as The Observatory and the pond serves as a water tank.

Next to the Partal Palace lies the Mexuar Oratory, the private place of prayer for the sultan and his retinue. The Mexuar was the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. It is oriented towards Mecca and is unusual in that it’s windows are open rather than being enclosed in glass. Its walls are carved plasterwork that I would later see in the Nasrid Palace. John Hoag, author of “Western Islamic Architecture” describes the work as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s a very accurate description.

I was not prepared for the visual feast. There are so many viewpoints framed by architecture that at times it becomes surreal, and feels more like I am standing in a painting instead of a landscape. Like my experience at the Topkapi, after awhile I put my camera away and just tried to drink everything in with my eyes, confident that much of what I would see would be included in the stack of books I was adding to my Islamic arts library.

The Courtyard of the Lions is said to correspond to the Koranic definition of Paradise and is also called “The Garden of Happiness”. The channel at the feet of the lion fountain symbolizes the four “rivers” running off in the four cardinal directions. It is one of the most private places in the Royal Palace. This courtyard dates to 1380.

The Fountain of the Twelve Lions is thought to date to the 10th century and was under restoration. Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark a specific hour. After the Reconquista, the new Christian inhabitants dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not reassemble it. It has never worked as a water clock since that time.

Washington Irving, author of “Tales of the Alhambra” and “Sleepy Hollow” lived in the Royal Apartments in 1829 before becoming the ambassador to Spain. I could not resist including quotes from his work here:

“…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty… for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the center stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil…”

The Hall of the Abencerages is at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions. This is the first apartment which constitutes the Harem, this section reserved for the Sultana. This was also the site of an assassination, and the blood spots are still said to be visible on the marble floor. It is said to be haunted and that sounds of low voices and the clanking of chains can be heard late at night.

Facing the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters, the best preserved section of this palace. It is named after the pair of stone slabs that flank the fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor. A channel leads the water from this fountain to the center Fountain of the Lions. There is a network of pipes below the surface which recirculates the water back to the fountains.

“The lower part of the walls is encrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles… the upper part is faced with fine stucco-work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates, cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculpted by hand…”

I poked my head into Washington Irving’s lodgings in the Royal Apartments. The interiors felt Italian in style, in what looked like mahogany paneling, a dark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex. I later read his account of these rooms in his “Tales of the Alhambra.”

“…the door opened to a range of vacant chambers of European architecture…there were two lofty rooms, the ceilings of which were of deep panel-work of cedar, richly and skillfully carved with fruits and flowers…”

“…I found on inquiry that it was an apartment fitted up by Italian artists in the early part of the last century, at the time when Philip V and the beautiful Elizabeth of Parma were expected at the Alhambra and was destined for the queen and the ladies of her train…”

The fountain and the garden he later describes, are still there, although I am sad that I did not arrive home with a photo of it.

The palace of Charles V, a stark Florentine-looking box which is unfurnished and now houses the Alhambra Museum, which includes Roman and Islamic artifacts. Its round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal, but was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.

This oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, built on Sabika Hill, where a castle already stood, dating to 860. It was renovated and became the defensive fortress for the entire Alhambra Fortress. It is separated from the rest of the fortress and the Nasrid Palaces by the Wine Gate, where tax free wine was sold during the medieval period. It was here that Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at their successful end of the Spanish Reconquista.

I end my tour of the Alhambra at the Monastery of San Francisco, built by Queen Isabella to fulfill a promise to build a monastery next to the Moorish palaces here. The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I could not afford to stay there, but did eat dinner there, where I ordered a salad which arrived as a plate of salted red-fleshed fish. The dining terrace affords a magnificent view.

For additional information about the Alhambra, or to plan your own trip there, please visit their website.

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