Masterpiece of Moorish Architecture
By Jim Hornsby
Granada, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain, is a lovely city, but not especially unique considering the many picturesque Spanish towns that dot the mountain regions. And yet Granada is one of the most visited tourist destinations in Europe. Three million people came there last year, and with few exceptions, they came for one reason — to see the Alhambra.
The best preserved remains of medieval Moorish architecture in the world, the Alhambra is a cultural and artistic masterpiece, evidenced not only by the number of people who come to see it, but also by the number of artists and scholars who have cited its unique structure and beauty as inspiration for their own work: Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, M.C. Escher, Antoni Gaudi, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, Jerry Garcia, and Mick Jagger, to name just a few.
Volumes have been written about the Alhambra and its grandeur is the backdrop for numerous plays, operas, and romantic novels. Its history spans a thousand years, and is laced with conquests, adventure, romance and intrigue, some of which, to quote from Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, “the reader may think has been but too much made up of dreams.” But it is real, and having survived wars and earthquakes, misuse and neglect, the Alhambra today welcomes visitors with much of its original splendor intact.
The Moors invaded Spain in 711, and controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula until the mid-1400s with Alhambra as a major capitol. At its zenith in the late 1300s, Alhambra was a city unto itself with thick walls and lofty towers that enclosed palaces, courts, shops, residences, public baths, stables and a military garrison of thousands. Its location on the hilltops above Granada made it easily defendable and provided then, as now, beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and valleys. But above all else, the Moors treasured the abundance of flowing water there. It not only produced bountiful fields and vineyards, but fostered a luxuriant lifestyle with lush, fragrant gardens, intricate fountains and wide reflecting pools.
For centuries, the Moors prospered in Spain; they established several regional universities, and the eastern arts and sciences became quite popular throughout Spain and beyond. But cultural differences kept the empires at odds, and in 1492, after many battles and long sieges, the Moors were forced to surrender all their Iberian holdings to Spain. The Spanish Monarchy immediately moved into the Alhambra and enjoyed its royal splendor for some 150 years, but when the Spanish court moved on to yet more splendid palaces, the Alhambra lapsed into 200 years of decline. It continued to be used as a military fortress and later served as a prison, but by 1800 it had degenerated into a slum inhabited by thieves and vagabonds. Parts of its outer walls were destroyed when Napoleon’s troops occupied it in the early 1800s, and more structures were damaged by an earthquake in 1821. However, after the earthquake, Spain seemed to awaken to its egregious loss and began taking formal steps toward restoration.
In 1828, Washington Irving, one of America’s premier writers and storytellers, was the United States’ Ambassador to Spain. He took a personal interest in the Alhambra, and after a lengthy visit there wrote the fascinating account of his adventures called Tales of the Alhambra. The book became immensely popular and called the world’s attention to the decline of this great romantic treasure and the ongoing effort to save it. Due in considerable part to Irving’s charming encouragement, many people contributed generously toward the Alhambra’s successful restoration, and in 1870 it became a Spanish National Monument. Its prestige was further enhanced in 1984 when it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Seeing the Alhambra today is a delightful experience, and one can sense the emotional and spiritual excitement Irving must have felt when he wrote this memorable description of entering a palace: “We found ourselves in a great court, paved with white marble and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles, and in the center was an immense pond, a hundred and thirty feet in length and thirty by breadth, stocked with gold-fish and bordered by hedges of roses. The transition was almost magical; it seemed as if we were at once transported into other times and another realm, and were treading the scenes of an Arabian story.”
The Alhambra was designed to be a paradise on earth for its reigning sultans, and even today, without the sumptuous furniture, ornate rugs and silken hangings, it is magnificent. The architecture is palatial yet refined and sensual. Gaudi described it as “a balance of stability with a sense of limitless space.” Viewed in detail, the intricate carvings of exotic foliage, Arabic inscriptions and geometric patterns that cover the walls and ceilings are stunning; “an impossible dream carried out in stone.” When Irving left it, he was moved to say, “How can I endure the commonplace after the poetry of the Alhambra?”