In popular Spanish memory, Granada came to hold a rather romanticised vision. The Spanish saying goes: “Quien no ha visto Granada, no ha visto nada,” meaning that one who has not seen Granada has not seen anything. Poets wrote about it, singers sang about it, and travelers walked about it. If Granada was a prize then Alhamra was its most precious possession. For centuries the Nasrid palace and the adjacent gardens have been a source of inspiration for artists, musicians, lovers, and historians. In the 19th century, Washington Irving helped to revive the popularity of Granada in the wider Western world through his still published travelogue: Tales of Alhamra. – Text and photos by Aurangzeb Haneef
Read the accompanying story
‘Granada, Alhamra and a love affair’
Situated strategically on a hill overlooking the city of Granada. Beneath the trees at the base of the hill flows river Darro. It makes a pathway along one of its sides which is lined with shops, bars and restaurants.
There are two theories about the name of Alhamra. First is that the hill appeared reddish due to the colour of its soil. The materials used for the construction of the complex also gave it a red look from a distance. Second theory is that the builders of Alhamra, the Nasrids belonged to the fam
Before Alhamra, the Nasrid court was located on the facing hill called Albaicín. The name is perhaps a distortion of Arabic Al-baziyyun or Al-baizin meaning the Falconers. One is immediately reminded of an old PTV serial “Shaheen” based on Nasim Hijazi’s novel which lamented the fall of the last Muslim state of Granada in Spain. A less interesting theory points the origin of this name to the people of Baeza who fled from the invading Christian armies and settled in some parts of this hill.
The old quarters o
A window overlooking Albaicín from the Oratory of the Mexuar (Arabic: Al-Mashwar), the Council Chamber. It is said that the last Moorish king of Granada, Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII (1460-1527) sighed as he was leaving Alhamra. His mother rebuked him in these famous words: “He should not cry like a woman for a place he could not defend like a man.”
Having successfully assisted the Catholic monarchs in their capture of Moorish Seville in 1248, the Nasrid king was called the victor (Arabic: ghalib) by some of his people in Granada. Conscious of the fact that the conquest had been over his fellow Muslims, he sadly reflected: “there is no victor but God (Arabic: wala ghaliba illallah).” From then onwards, this became the motto of the Nasrid dynasty.
White and blue stucco decoration with Mocárabes (honey-comb work) and Arabic inscriptions in the Council Cha
In the Council Chamber one finds geometry and symmetry of an unending mosaic of glazed ceramic tiles strikingly juxtaposed with the fluidity and infiniteness of Arabic calligraphy, which repeats itself in a continuous loop: “Glory is God’s, Sovereignty is God’s, Power is God’s.”
The central arch and the interior wall of the entrance to the Golden Quarters (Pórtico del Cuarto Dorado). Intricate carvings on the two main walls of this quarter and reflection of light on these walls give the semblance of being surrounded by gold. The interior wall is replete with Nasrid motto while the arch declares “greatness is God’s,” “power is God’s,” and “sovereignty is God’s” in very small carvings. With such elaborate intermingling of forms it is difficult to distinguish the floral and geometrical patter
Paired windows in wooden grillwork with horseshoe arches are a common occurrence throughout the palace. This pair looks over the Golden Quarters and the gaze naturally centers upon the marble fountain in the middle of the floor.
Even the water in this courtyard is made of Gold. Water and light have important functions in the architectural genius. Cold water reaches the palace, as well as the city of Granada, from nearby mountains in aqueducts. It runs in specially made pathways through the palace and keeps it cool during the scorching summers. Traveling water adds to the overall lightness, fluidity, and connectivity of the surroundings.
Imagine there is a lamp inside this niche. Imagine that when darkness is set the King kneels beside this niche at the entrance to Courtyard of the Myrtles, indulges in prayer and meditates upon this poetical invocation carved on the niche:
O my Certitude! O my Hope! You are my Anticipation, you are! Conclude my work with goodness! So, with the prophet, the sender of my message Conclude my work with goodness! O my Certitude! O my Hope! You are my Anticipation, you are
Courtyard of the Myrtles leads into an open space with a rectangular pond in the middle surrounded by intimately decorated walls, arches, niches, windows, and doors – a place for the relaxation of the King, his households and guests. With a leap of some imagination one can almost hear the Zambra in concert for the evening. Zambra was a type of festive popular music in Moorish Granada that was accompanied by instruments such as the Tambourine, as well as singing and dancing. Continuous Bliss (Arabic: al-ghibta al-mu
The sky, the earth, the ceilings, the roofs, the walls, the arches, the windows, the doors, and the decorations on these, come together to create surrealism that is indeed surprising and pleasant to the senses. It seems that different objects and spaces are in intimate conversations with each other.
This slightly blurred picture is of the ceiling of one of the most exquisite rooms of Alhamra: The Hall of Comares where the king used to receive ambassadors from other kingdoms. The ceiling depicts seven heavens, with the seventh and the most high in the center of the ceiling – where lies the throne of God. Directly underneath it, in the center of the hall was the king’s throne. These positions symbolise religious and political authority of the king as God’s vicegerent on earth.
The Hall of the Comares was built to impress the visiting dignitaries and it does so with its infinite and intricate wall carvings all around the hall. With a wall like this, who needs wall- hangings?
If Islamic architecture is to be distinguished by one thing only, it would be the arches. And in Alhamra there are plenty. One after another – a never ending sequence – of all sizes, adorned with ever-changing patterns but never seeming sudden or out of place – always in synch with each other. A continuous bliss of arches! Walking through these one tends to lose any sense of direction and time.
Hall of the two Sisters – two sisters being two enormous slabs of marble that make the floor – is one of the bigger rooms of the palace with more Mocárabes than other rooms and extensive wall decorations and inscriptions to match the Hall of the Comares. It has four large windows on the upper level. The room used to be occupied by Sultana Aysha and her maid servants. First verse from a twenty-four verse long poem by Ibn Zamrak which embellishes its walls is:
I am the garden that has been adorned with beauty<
The enormous octagonal honey-comb cupola of Hall of two sisters is made up of 5,416 pieces of Mocárabes. It rests between sixteen windows that let in light which is then reflected by these pieces in all directions. On the floor, directly underneath is a central fountain which is connected to the courtyard. The light and water converse and compose a beautiful visual symphony that can only be witnessed in person. Ibn Zamrak in the same poem mentions the uniqueness of this dome:
In it is the splendid dome, its
Court of the Lions is perhaps the most inspiring open space in the palace. The fountain – that used to work as a clock when a particular lion spurted water at a certain hour – is now out of order and under restoration. The movement of water is creatively described by Ibn Zamrak in a poem of twelve verses which is engraved on the exterior of the fountain basin. Verses 6-7:
Do you not see that the water is flowing on its surface? But the basin closed up against it Just like a lover whose eyelids,
Fountain of the Lions is surrounded by columns which create visual delights for the onlookers from every angle. Where ever you turn you see columns – 124 of them – as if they are the trees of a forest and the lions are its rightful owners. The dialogue between these engraved and slender columns and empty spaces creates a magical performance of light and shadow appreciable only with the naked eye.
As if the column-fest was not enough to inspire the soul, the Nasrids added to it some of the most beautiful wall carvings for that extra special effect. An un-ending delight!
Floral and orthographical details of a column in Court of the Lions.
The ceilings, the roofs, the walls, the arches, the windows, the doors, and the decorations on these, come together to create surrealism that is indeed surprising and pleasant to the senses. It seems that different objects and spaces are in intimate conversations with each other.
One exits from Court of the Lions into a small garden which has a large pond and a mirador from where one enjoys a panoramic view of Albaicín. It is also a good transition to calm down after a magical experience of Alhamra.