I should not have read the 8th volume of Washington Irwin’s Works before sitting down to jot the memories of my visit to Alhambra. The tome is dedicated to Alhambra and Irwin’s poetic prose, slightly dated but so detailed that reading it is akin to being there. While Irwin lived in Alhambra for many years, I was there just for a day. That handicap is reversed and equaled by the fact that he had a pen while I was equipped with a state of the art DSLR. He chose his words, I, angles and light.
So instead of failing to one up Irwin on his battleground, why don’t I use his very words and spruce it up with my pictures? All the text in the following paragraphs placed in quotes is being selectively picked from the 1880 edition printed by P. F. Collier & Sons from New York.
And such he starts …
“To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object in devotion as is the Casaba to all true Moslems. How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous, – how many songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this Oriental pile! It was the royal abode of the Moorish kings, where, surrounded with the splendors and refinements of Asiatic luxury, they held dominions over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain. The royal palace forms but a part of a fortress, the walls of which, studded with towers stretch irregularly round the whole crest of a hill, a spur of the Sierra Nevada or Snowy mountains, and overlook the city; externally it is a rude congregation of towers and battlements, with no regularity of plan nor grace of architecture, and giving little promise of the grace and beauty which prevails within.”
See what I mean? I would never have dared to call it an “Oriental pile”. But I am more than happy to pile on. This photo was taken close to sunset sitting al fresco at Heurta de Juan Ranas sipping a cold beer after a sunny day in Alhambra. I tried hard, but Alhambra still did not look like an Oriental pile to me.
“We crossed the threshold, and were at once transported, as if by magic wand, into other times and an Oriental realm and were treading the scenes of Arabian tale. Nothing could be in a greater contrast than the unpromising exterior of the pile with the scene before us now.”
Wow! That p word again.
“We found ourselves in a vast patio or court, one hundred and fifty feet in length, and upwards of eighty in breadth, paved with white marble, and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles, one of which supported an elegant gallery of fretted architecture”
“Along the mouldings of the cornices and on various parts of the walls were escutcheons and ciphers, and cufic and Arabic characters in high relief, repeating the pious mottoes of the Moslem monarchs, the builder of the Alhambra, or extolling the grandeur and munificence.”
By now, such courtyards and such inscriptions were a familiar sight to us from having seen the glorious Medersa of Ben Youssef and the Tombs of the Saadians in Marrakech. I secretly congratulated the travel geek in me for visiting myself Morocco before coming to Andalusia (because the Moors travelled in that direction.)
“Along the center of the court extended an immense basin or tank (estanque), a hundred and twenty-four feet in length, twenty seven in breadth and five in depth, receiving its water from two marble vases. Hence it is called the Court of the Alberca (from al Beerah, the Arabic for a pond or tank). Great numbers of gold-fish were to be seen gleaming through the waters of the basin and it was bordered by hedges of roses.”
The gold fish are still there. While reading the book, I had to constantly remind myself, that Alhambra was in advanced stages of disrepair when Irwing was there, yet he unfailingly sees the sheer beauty through the patina of destitution.
“We entered the renowned court of Lions. No part of the edifice gives a more complete idea of its original beauty than this, for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the center stands the fountains famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops; the twelve lions which support them, and give the court its name, still cast forth crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil.“
For that one, I will have take Irwing’s words. The courtyard was under repair. Wooden scaffolding crisscrossed the walls (visible through the arch in the photo above). Plastic sheet stretched across the wooden beams covered famous sights.The fountain had been surgically removed and taken inside. Most of my photos in the courtyard have been shot at almost seventy-five degrees or more for there was no other way to miss the crowd and the restoration
“The lions, however, are unworthy of their fame, being of miserable sculpture, the work probably of some Christian captive.”
We visited the lion exhibit. Photography was not allowed. I obviously took that warning as a challenge. It maddens me when one is not allowed to make a picture without a well stated reason. And yes, the lions have been shoddily carved.
“Round the four sides of the court are light Arabian arcades of open filigree work, supported by slender pillars of white marble, which it is supposed, were originally gilded. The architecture, like that in most parts of the interior of the palace, is characterised by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste, and a disposition of indolent enjoyment.”
Elegance rather than grandeur. Those words hit the mark. I have never seen a palace so earthly beautiful. I mean I have seen palaces more glorious, but none compare to Alhambra. As you walk through the courtyards, circling the fountains, crossing splendid rooms, passing through refreshing balconies and gardens, Alhambra feels like a place I could move in and live happily. Versailles would not do that for me.
“When one looks upon the fairy traces of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet, though, no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.”
The pilfering traveller being called tasteful has to be attributed to the fact that Irwing was writing the book in the early nineteenth century. Egypt, Greece, Cambodia, India and other such countries were being pillaged of valuable cultural treasure by the colonial “tasteful” travellers. Today, the act is called vandalism if not smuggling.
“On one side of the court a rich portal opens into the Hall of the Abencerrages: so called from the gallant cavaliers of that illustrious line who were here perfidiously massacred. There are some who doubt the whole story, but our humble cicerone Mateo pointed out the very wicket of the portal through which there were introduced one by one into the court of Lions, and the white marble fountain in the center of the hall beside which they were beheaded. He showed us also certain broad ruddy stains on the pavement, traces of their blood, which according to popular belief, can never be effaced.”
You can still see those very stains at the base of the fountain. I am sure the Spanish ministry of tourism has no motivation to clean the fountain: Why let facts come in the way of a nice story?
“Immediately opposite the hall of Abencerrages, a portal richly adorned, leads into a hall of less tragical association. It is light and lofty, exquisitely graceful in its architecture, paved with white marble, and bears the suggestive name of the Hall of the Two Sisters. Some destroy the romance of the name by attributing it to two enormous slabs of alabaster which lie side by side, and from a great part of the pavement: an opinion strongly supported by Mateo Ximenes. Others are disposed to give the name a more poetical significance, as the vague memorial of Moorish beauties who once graced this hall, which was evidently part of the royal harem.”
“Our little bright-eyed guide, Dolores, pointed to a balcony over an inner porch, which gallery, she has been told belonged to the women’s apartment. ““You see, senor, ”” said she, ““It is all gated and latticed, like the gallery in a convent chapel where the nuns hear mass; for the Moorish kings, ”” added she, indignantly, ““shut up their wives just like nuns.”” The “latticed ““jalousies,”” in fact, still remain, whence the dark-eyed beauties of the harem might gaze unseen upon the zambras and other dances and the entertainments of the hall below.
“Those only who have sojourned in the ardent climates of the South can appreciate the delights of an abode combining the breezy coolness of the mountain with the freshness and verdure of the valley. While the city below pants with the noon tide heat, and the parched Vega trembles to the eye, the delicate airs from the Sierra Nevada play through these lofty halls, bringing with them the sweetness of the surrounding gardens. Everything invites to that indolent repose, the bliss of southern climes; and while the half-shut eye looks out from shaded balconies upon the glittering landscape the ear is lulled by the rustling of groves and the murmur of running streams.”
That’s exactly how I felt, Washington Irwing, and I am happy that you put that down in words.
The Hall of the Ambassadors. If there was only one room I could be in Alhambra, it is the Hall of the Ambassadors. If not for its beauty then for it sheer historical importance. In 1492 this room witnessed two colossal events. This is where the 800 year old Reconquista ended. The Christians had finally routed the Moslem. This is where Emperor Boabdil handed over the keys of his empire to Isabella and Ferdinand before he left for his exile in Africa. And it is here that Christopher Columbus, after two years of lobbying, was able to meet Isabella and Ferdinand to make one final pitch to finance his voyage. I wish I were a fly on that wall. The voyage that would go against biblical belief that the earth is flat. It is said that Ferdinand was fooling around while Columbus spoke with great earnest. Queen Isabella listened carefully and gave the mission the much needed green flag. The rest, as they say, is history.
This room is the NASA of the fifteenth century. This is the very place that changed the map of the world forever.
And Washington Irwing happened to discover this room accidentally ….
“In one of my visits to the old Moorish chamber where the good Tia Antonia cooks her dinner and receives her company, I observed a mysterious door in one corner, leading into the ancient part of the edifice. My curiosity being aroused, I opened it ….”
“… Passing through a magnificent portal, I found myself in the far-famed Hall of the Ambassadors, the audience chamber of the Moslem monarchs. It is said to be thirty –seven feet square and sixty feet high; occupies the whole interior of the Tower of Comares; and still bears the traces of past magnificence. The walls are beautifully stuccoed and decorated with Morisco fancifulness; The3 lofty ceilings was originally of the same favourite material, with the usual frostwork and pensile ornaments or stalactites; which with the embellishments of vivid coloring and gilding must have been gorgeous in the extreme.”
Washington Irwing spends several pages deliciously describing the beauty of the hall. I, on the other hand, do not have a photo which does justice to the atmosphere of the hall. Some places can only be captured by the eye and the brain.