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tales of the alhambra

The swan song of the Moors in Europe, the 14th century Alhambra palace remains suffused with exotic mystery. Located on a hilltop overlooking Granada, its fortified walls reveal little of the splendor of its inner halls and courtyards.

It is said that when the last Muslim king of Granada, Boabdil, was forced to surrender the Alhambra and fled into the mountains, he looked back from a mountain pass and sighed. That pass is still called El Ultimo Suspiro del Moro, the Last Sigh of the Moor. (His mother, however, was less sentimental and remarked: "You do well to weep like a woman over what you could not defend like a man.")

Alhambra - 1

To a Western eye, entering the Alhambra means stepping into a completely different architectural paradigm. Instead of the monumental European churches and palaces which were built to inspire awe by their sheer size, the Alhambra is a wonder of human-scale elegance and subtility. The entire palace is built around water, with intricate waterworks serving fountains and pools in every courtyard and garden - a form of luxury which only a desert people could fully appreciate.

Alhambra - 2

Contrary to the Christian obsession with portraying saints in various degrees of realism, Islamic decorations are exclusively made up of abstract geometric patterns. The magnificent Alhambra arabesques, as the Moorish decorations came to be known, are designed to inspire awe in their own way. Endlessly repeating and interlocking, formal and playful at the same time, seamlessly incorporating Arabic calligraphy and even entire poems, they are patterns to get lost in and contemplate the infinity of the universe - or in religious terms, Allah.

Not surprisingly, one of the artists deeply influenced by Islamic art was M.C. Escher, who visited the Alhambra twice before he began to develop his own unique brand of arabesques and tesselations. (See for instance his 'Alhambra Sketch'.)

Alhambra - 3

Unfortunately, the overwhelming numbers of tourists take away some of the Alhambra's magic. A good way to preserve the exotic atmosphere (apart from visiting off-season) is to read Washington Irving's 'Tales of the Alhambra'. During his time as an American diplomat in Spain in 1829, Irving lived in the Alhambra and wrote a volume of travel notes and stories about it. Besides giving a fascinating account of Andalucian life in the 19th century, his 'Tales of the Alhambra' collect a number of Moorish fairy-tales that bring to life the charm of the Alhambra.

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 dominion over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain.

It is impossible to contemplate this scene so perfectly Oriental without feeling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the gallery, or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. The abode of beauty is here, as if it had been inhabited but yesterday; but where are the two sisters; where the Zoraydas and Lindaraxas!

(Zorayda and Lindaraxa were both Moorish princesses, whose stories Irving tells as well. In the online text of 'Tales of the Alhambra', here and here.)

But the stories Irving tells are from a distant, legendary past, and tinged by melancholy. Musing on the fate of the Moors, he writes:

Never was the annihilation of a people more complete than that of the Morisco-Spaniards. Where are they? Ask the shores of Barbary and its desert places. The exiled remnant of their once powerful empire disappeared among the barbarians of Africa, and ceased to be a nation. They have not even left a distinct name behind them, though for nearly eight centuries they were a distinct people. The home of their adoption, and of their occupation for ages, refuses to acknowledge them, except as invaders and usurpers. A few broken monuments are all that remain to bear witness to their power and dominion, as solitary rocks, left far in the interior, bear testimony to the extent of some vast inundation. Such is the Alhambra. A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.
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