Moor's last hurrah

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

Built by Moorish rulers of Granada between the 13th and 15th centuries, Alhambra in southern Spain is breathtaking in its beauty.

ENTERING the Alhambra is like stepping into an enchanting tale of Arabian Nights. This exquisite Moorish castle is so captivating that all the hyperbole that you assiduously shun over the years creeps insidiously back into your vocabulary as you attempt a description. Alhambra is the stuff of fairy tales, a glittering jewel in the otherwise barren Andalusian plains.

My first glimpse of the Alhambra was at that magical hour, around 10 p.m.; that is when the sun sets in the Iberian peninsula in July. While entry into Alhambra is allowed throughout the day and well into the evening, the best time to visit is dusk, when the Andalusian heat has been tamed by the cool breeze blowing over the orchards surrounding the castle. The heady scent of orange blossoms mingles with the fragrance of rose and jasmine wafting in from the nearby Generalife, the summer palace and the gardens that adjoin Alhambra. Electric bulbs placed strategically here and there enhance the sense of mystery as shadows sculpt their own designs on alabaster and marble. At this twilight hour, Alhambra wears her charm and mystique with a becoming disdain.

Alhambra is a Moorish castle built atop a hill in Granada, in the heart of Andalusia in southern Spain. Set against a stunning backdrop of the perpetually snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains, Alhambra as we see it today was built by the Moorish rulers of Granada between the 13th and 15th centuries. Al qala'at al hamra in Arabic means `red castle', a rather unimaginative name for such an architectural marvel. Designed and executed by the Nasrid emirs, Alhambra represents the golden age of the Moors in Iberia. It is from the ramparts of this castle that the Moors watched over their `terrestrial paradise' in Europe, holding out against Christian attempts to recapture their kingdom and honing to a fine art the Islamic penchant for refined embellishment. Moorish castles, palaces, mosques and seminaries are scattered all over Andalusia.

But then who were the Moors? The one famous Moor we all know about is Shakespeare's Othello. In his aptly titled work, The Moor: Light of Europe's Dark Age, Wayne B. Chandler gives the following description: "Although the term Moor has been put to diverse use, its roots are still traceable. Circa 46 B.C., the Roman army entered West Africa where they encountered black Africans whom they called `Maures' from the Greek adjective mauros, meaning dark or `black'. Traditionally, the Moors were the African people who occupied northwest Africa, or present-day Morocco and Mauritania. These same African people became converts to Islam in the seventh century and have since been mistakenly identified by western European scholars as Arabs, Mohammedans, Saracens, etc."

Interestingly, when Moors - the Berbers of present-day Morocco and the black peoples of Africa - marched into Europe, they did so as a civilising force. Their architecture, which has withstood the ravages of time in Iberia, is a splendid testimony to this. Moors were not Arabs; they were essentially Africans, possibly of more than one race but representing a single religion - Islam. They held sway over Spain and parts of Portugal for nearly 800 years, and left behind a rich cultural heritage, one that is still alive in modern Spain. Perhaps that is why Alhambra, despite the pervasive Islamic influence, stands apart from Islamic monuments elsewhere in the world.

Strangely, what is today Spain's prized tourist attraction would have been lost to humanity had it not been for the intervention of Washington Irving, a North American diplomat, historian and traveller. When Irving strayed into its precincts in the first quarter of the 19th century, he found it to be the refuge of tramps, mendicants, vagabonds and criminals. Irving actually went on to live in the Alhambra complex for some years, slowly discovering its hidden treasures. In 1832, he wrote an enchanting account entitled Tales of the Alhambra, extolling the beauty of the edifice and weaving facts cleverly with fiction. The publication of this book jolted the Spanish authorities out of their complacency; Alhambra was extensively restored.

Almost everything in Granada seems to revolve around Alhambra. There are special Alhambra buses that drive up the narrow, steep streets of the hill to drop you at the fortress gates; the handicraft and souvenir shops draw extensively upon the imaginative arabesque designs of the castle. The Alhambra complex has three sections: Alcazba or the fortress, Alcazar or the palace, and the `medina' or the adjoining village. Of the last, only the ruins remain. In its Moorish days, Alhambra could house as many as 40,000 soldiers within its walls. After the Christians reconquered Iberia around the 15th century, Alhambra continued as a royal demesne occupied by Castilian monarchs. Emperor Carlos I began to construct a sumptuous palace within the fortress of Alhambra, partially destroying the castle. Mercifully, his attempts to replace this aesthetic Moorish structure with a Gothic edifice were thwarted by frequent earthquakes and a depleting treasury.

Today you can still see part of the Gothic palace built by the emperor, a stark and outsized monstrosity that is in striking contrast to the delicately chiselled and embellished Palacio Nazaries, the Moorish royal palace. During the reign of Napoleon, Alhambra became a French garrison and almost got blown off by a careless soldier who had not only mined the premises but also used its exquisite rooms to dump ammunition.

There are two things that strike you about Alhambra as you ascend the cypress- and elm-covered ridge on the outskirts of Granada. The rectangular red blocks of the Alhambra complex that rise above the green canopy look ordinary, giving nothing away of the splendours within. There are two outstanding structures in Alhambra, the Palacio Nazaries so named after the Nasrid emirs who constructed it and the Alcazba or the citadel. It is only when you step inside the threshold of the Palacio Nazaries that Alhambra reveals her unparalleled beauty. The palace itself is rather diminutive. Alhambra dazzles not by grandeur but by sheer elegance, by the delicate symmetry of lines, the imaginative yet muted arabesques that embellish the walls, floors, roofs and pillars, the lustrous alabaster whose texture and sheen seem to have improved with time.

Arabic calligraphy is skilfully interwoven into patterns on the walls, ceilings and pillars.

Despite its Moorish origin and European location, Alhambra is the quintessential Oriental palace, appealing to the senses in an intimate way. While the intricate arabesques that adorn the walls, pillars and floor tiles delight the eye, Alhambra's special appeal is essentially auditory. The sound of water, used with masterful imagination and artistry, pervades Alhambra; gently flowing fountains that make gurgling noises in the courtyards, gushing water channels that hiss in the background somewhere yonder, dripping alabaster faucets in the passageways that provide a touch of drama, an occasional gentle waterfall that whispers conspiratorially. Water is indeed the defining theme of Alhambra, one that casts a spell at each turn and cranny.

As you saunter along the patios, balconies, and courtyards of the Palacio Nazaries, you realise that the Moors valued water as much for its `silence' as for its soothing sounds. There is a still, crystal clear rectangular pool of water abutted by emerald hedges as soon as you enter the Hall of Comares. Like a blemishless mirror set on the ground, it faithfully reflects the Tower of Comares that looms at one end and the royal quarters at the other. You cannot but marvel at the innovative way in which the Nasrid emirs used water, in a system very different from the utilitarian cooling channels that are ubiquitous in other Islamic monuments such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort, the Registan in Samarkand or the emir's palace in Esfahan.

Irving tells us, from the inscriptions on the walls, that the Alhambra complex was originally built by Muhamed Abu Abdallah, known in Moorish history as Mohamed Abu Alahmar. Born in 1195 in the noble family of Nasar, Abu Alahmar started off as the governor of the province and went on to become its ruler. Irving waxes eloquent on how just and prosperous his reign was. Eventually, Abu Alahmar had to buy peace with the Christian emperors who not only re-captured neighbouring Valencia, but also laid a successful siege to Seville, evicting the Moors.

Pre-empting a Christian re-capture, Abu Alahmar became a vassal of the Christian kings of Iberia and turned his attention to the construction of the Alhambra palace. The immense wealth required to build the palace was gleaned from the gold and silver mines in Andalusia.

Since his treasury was always overflowing, Abu Alahmar had acquired the reputation of being an alchemist. Abu Alahmar himself had a rather austere taste; the more sumptuous sections of Alhambra, namely the Tower of Comares and the Court of Lions were built by his successors Yusuf I and Muhamed V respectively.

By day, the sun illuminates the perfectly proportioned rooms, the courtyards, the lustrous tiled floors, the finely carved ceiling and the stalactite-like muqarnas vaulting. The premises are entered through the Mexuar, a council chamber. Next is the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, a courtyard where the emirs would give audience; from here one passes into the Palacio de Comares through a beautiful facade of glazed tiles and carved wood, reflected in the rectangular pool.

By far the most appealing section of Alhambra is the Court of Lions, so named after an alabaster fountain channelled through the mouths of 12 perfectly chiselled lions. The patio's gallery is supported by 124 slender pillars and surrounded by ornamental pavilions and arches. The best of Islamic and Mediterranean styles of architecture blend seamlessly in the courtyard.

Around the courtyard are four large halls, each with its distinctive decor. The Sala de Abencerrages has a rather gory history - this is where the entire family of Abencerrages, a nobleman, was murdered by the king. Abencerrages' fault was that he dared to dally with Zoraya, the harem favourite of Abu Alahmar.

The dome of the Sala de Abencerrages has much in common with the dome of Gur Emir in Samarkand. On the other side is the Sala de Dos Hermanas, the Hall of Two Sisters, with its muqarnas dome and a million stars, resembling a constellation. From the Sala de los Ajimeces, there is a stunning view of the rooftops of Granada.

There is more to Alhambra than the Palacio Nazaries. The highlight of the morning visit was a stroll through the Generalife, the `Garden of Paradise'. Once again, the gardens are clustered around water bodies, pools, fountains and channels. Oleander and myrtle, grapevines and orange trees laden with fruits, stylised arches and miradors comprise the Generalife. The Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel) has a long pool framed by palm trees, flower-beds and ancient fountains.

Off this patio is the Jardin de la Sultana, the same garden in which the Emir caught Abencerrage flirting with his favourite concubine. From the patio one catches a glimpse of the river Darro and the Bridge of Pinos in the valley - the latter was a site of bloody battles between the Christians and the Moors, but is also renowned as the place from where Columbus was recalled by Queen Isabella and entrusted with the mission to journey to India. The Alhambra complex also houses a Fransiscan monastery, a Christian addition after reconquest.

Virtually little remains of the Alcazba except the towers that loom over the Albaizin, an adjacent hill. One of the towers, the Torre de Vela, has a huge bell which is rung by young girls on special occasions in the belief that it would get them husbands.

After a stroll through the ruins, my last stop is the Palacio de Carlos V, a massive Renaissance palace that was never completed. It has a circular two-tiered courtyard with 32 columns. It also houses a fascinating museum of artefacts that were used by the residents of Alhambra. If only this palace had been in another setting, it might have received more appreciation. Beside the delicate Palacio Nazaries, this edifice provides a stark contrast.

Walking away from Alhambra reluctantly, one phrase from Keats runs through my mind: "A thing of beauty is a joy forever."

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