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Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Alhambra is never more beautiful than in the early morning twilight.              
The Andalucía province of southern Spain
After some ten days at sea in crossing the Atlantic aboard the Allure of the Seas, our first port of call was the city of Malaga along the southern coast of Spain. The next province to the west is Andalusia and the city of Granada, the last stronghold for the Moors before they were driven from Spain in 1492 (a coincidental date having little to do in this case with Christopher Columbus). There, high in the hills, overlooking the city, was the fortress palace of Alhambra, where rests more than 1300 years of Spanish history, Moorish art, and architecture. It's a soothingly beautiful place with lush, sunny gardens, fountains, and reflecting pools which I've wanted to visit for many years. It was a warm, sunny, tiring day, but I wouldn't have skipped the two-hour trip to and from Malaga to Grenada for any major degree of personal discomfort--one less item on my bucket list.
Alhambra circa. 1492 with the 16th-century Palace of Holy Roman Emperor
Charles V (Charles I of Spain) indicated at bottom, center.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Alhambra today.
Alhambra saw completion as a sultan's palace towards the end of Muslim rule of Spain, in the person of Yusuf I (1333–1353) and Muhammad V, Sultans of Granada (1353–1391). However, it was, in fact, a gradually enlarged complex (above) of defensive towers, palaces, gardens, and encompassing walls, the earliest of which dates back some five-hundred years earlier. Around 889 the site featured only a small, primitive, reddish tower of unknown age and origin which largely laid in ruins until the 11th-century when the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar built most of its current palace and walls. Thus there is no single, overall style or plan even insofar as the Moorish construction is concerned, only a consistent theme which has come to be termed "Paradise on Earth." Moreover, the physical development of Alhambra did not end when the Muslim ruler, Muhammad XII, surrendered the Emirate of Granada in 1492 to the overwhelming forces of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, without Alhambra itself ever being attacked.

The 16th-century Palace of Charles I of Spain (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) intrudes
obnoxiously upon the ancient, medieval grace of Alhambra's Moorish palace architecture.
The royal Spanish couple immediately took up residence in the vanquished sultan's Moorish digs, and it was there, in the Sultan's former throne room, that Christopher Columbus bid his royal benefactors farewell shortly before setting sail to explore the "far east." Later, the king and queen moved their capital to the more centrally located city of Madrid. A later Spanish King, Charles I, had built adjacent to the Moorish palace (and overtop some of the Moorish wings) his own Mannerist architectural vision of "paradise on earth." Alas, not only was it a lame attempt by his Spanish architect, Pedro Machuca, but then and now, sticks out like a sore thumb amid the feminine grace of earlier Moorish sections. It was never used as a palace, its intended dome never even begun, and today serves only as a museum (above) and a vivid object lesson in what an architect should not to do with Renaissance design elements.

The pool of the El Partal Palace. The beauty of water and
delicate, architectural refinement--"a pearl set in an emerald."
Copyright, Jim Lane
The Court of the Lions.
Gothic influences?
Though the palace is often referred to as "Moorish" in style, the term has come to be something of a catchall for Arabic architecture originating in the Medieval period mostly in southern Europe and northern Africa. That of Alhambra is sometimes called the Mudéjar style as a means of differentiating it from Byzantine and other Muslim styles. Slender, column arcades, fountains and reflecting pools (above) contribute to the aesthetic and functional complexity. The exterior was often quite austere. Sun and wind were freely employed, playing upon blue, red, and a golden yellow, though somewhat faded by time and exposure. Decoration consisted most of Arabic inscriptions (bottom) manipulated into geometrical patterns creating graceful arabesques. Other decorations consisted mostly of painted tiles covering the rugged brick and stone walls. Contrary to many popular images of Arabic architecture, most windows were simple, rectangular holes in the wall with wood or metal screens featuring geometric motifs used to mitigate the harsh, Mediterranean light and heat. Arches were frequently hemispheric (below), though heavily-ornamented pointed arches were sometimes employed (above, right), though not to the extremes of the Gothic style seen in northern Europe during much of the same period.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Patio de los Arrayanes leading to the Hall of the Ambassadors (throne room).
The years of the modern era have been a mixed blessing for Alhambra. As if an unfinished Italianate palace weren't insult enough, Napoleon Bonaparte and his invading army inflicted a different sort of invasive destruction, destroying several of the palaces of the western sections of the complex which today, can only be imagined base upon surviving foundations. Earthquakes (the most severe in 1821) have likewise contributed to the destructive forces imposed upon the ancient beauty of the sultans and their builders (Islamic architects are almost always anonymous). The Christianized Alhambra was deemed worthy of a major church (Our Lady of Alhambra) which has further muddled the architectural skyline. After decades of neglect, the first restoration efforts date from around 1828, supported by the Spanish monarchy sporadically during much of the 19th-century. The effort probably could be credited with saving the structure for us today, though the quality of much of the work is uneven at best, primitive and misguided at worst.

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Court of the Lions. The fountain was a gift from the Granada Jewish community.
Needless to say, during the 20th century, the Spanish Civil War, and the somewhat more significant dustup that followed, delayed more serious efforts to preserve and conserve the palace environs. The return of the Spanish monarchy with the death of Ferdinand Franco and the relative peace and prosperity since then, have allowed still-scarce resources to be applied in an the ongoing process of enhancements. If you haven't already, add Alhambra to your bucket list.

Alhambra wall detailing.


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