Friday, 14 June 2013

Preview: The Alhambra

There is a lovely story behind the origins of the Spanish term "Ole!", traditionally used for flamenco dancing or bullfighting and with "Ole, Ole, Ole!" used today as a celebratory football chant. For a few centuries, Muslims were in control of Spain, and for 700 years there was a strong Muslim presence. Called the Moors, these Muslims had come from North Africa, and during ritual dances they would chant "Allah, Allah, Allah", as they believed the inspiration came from God. Over the years, this was adapted by the locals to the "Ole" form that we know now. Spanish football supporters, unwittingly, are exclaiming the excellence of Allah when their team coasts to a victory.

It's a lovely story, but sadly unlikely to be true. The expression is only first recorded in 1541, decades after the Moors left Spain, and linguists believe there is no natural shift between the two forms. Nevertheless, many Spanish words do have Arabic roots, and there is no doubting that centuries of occupation will have an influence upon a country. This includes physical remains, of which numerous Moorish Alcazabas, or citadels, scatter the country, mostly ruined. The greatest of these, surviving the trials of the centuries, is the palace-fortress of the Alhambra, in the city of Granada.

In fact, calling the Alhambra the greatest citadel of the Moorish era would probably astonish the medieval Moors. Perhaps it's more accurate to call it the luckiest - it's the only Muslim palace to survive from the Middle Ages in Europe and for much of its active existence it was a cultural backwater, only allowed to exist at the whim of the Christian kings and queens of Spain. It's not even built well, or to be more precise, not built from good quality materials. Alhambra was not built from marble or stone, its materials are more modest - pebbles, brick, wood, and made to look pretty by plaster, stucco, tiles, all put together with a deft hand to create something beautiful. The Alhambra has been compared to a film set, built from cheap materials, but made splendid through design and decor.

To some degree, this was necessity. The Nasrid dynasty that oversaw the construction was poor, and had better ways to spend their money than buy expensive stone. But it was also the fashion. Usually Islamic rulers would let their predecessors' palaces crumble to ruins, as unlike a mosque a palace was not considered eternal. The ruler would simply build a new palace for himself elsewhere. But in the case of the Alhambra, appearing in its current form in the 13th Century, its location was ideal on a hill overlooking Granada; instead of building a new palace, successive kings just kept building upon what was already there. Alhambra is not the work of one person, it is the constant reworking of many.

It was built just as the heyday of being a Moor in Spain was coming to an end. Since the 9th Century, there had been a small fort on the spot, called the Red Citadel, or al-Qal-ah al-Hamra. The redness was due to the presence of iron in the clay bricks used to build it, and the red colour - "al-hamra" in Arabic - gave the name to the construction begun in 1238 that we know now. At this point, the Moors had been in Spain since the 7th Century and largely in control until the 11th Century, when Christian armies had caused their rule to fall apart. Split into smaller Muslim principalities within the country, the Christian armies slowly picked them off one by one until only Granada remained. King - and later Saint - Ferdinand III captured Cordoba in 1236, then Seville in 1248; only tiny Granada was left, with the Alhambra in an early stage of construction. It would have taken little effort for Ferdinand to finish the last Moorish state off entirely, but he chose to let it remain. Granada, under the newly emerged Nasrid dynasty, became a tribute-paying state, and effectively a reservation for the country's remaining Muslims. For the next two centuries, Granada existed as Moorish territory simply because it was convenient.

As such, the Alhambra is lucky not just to have survived, it is lucky to have even been started. Today, it's a representation of Moorish power in medieval Spain, but the irony is that it was built in a period when the glory was all over and because the Christian power permitted it. The Nasrid dynasty was never a threat, and the Alhambra was never attacked. When the day of reckoning came, in 1492, the sultan more or less shrugged his shoulders and gave up.

So, what do we see today, as a visitor from the 21st Century? Well, true to the Alhambra's history, we see a phantom of Moorish glory, a beautiful, delicate, but empty palace and fortress. The entire complex occupies around 35 acres - over three times that of Edinburgh Castle - and could have accommodated up to 40,000 people. Once, it would have included palaces, barracks, a mosque and possibly a small zoos and aviary. What was once exquisitely, lavishly decorated is now just a pretty shell. To be honest, we don't even really know which room is which. In subsequent centuries, long after the Moors had departed, the rooms were given fanciful names without any historical basis that have stuck, thus what we call the Harem likely wasn't that at all, and the Hall of the Ambassadors, Court of the Myrtles, Court of the Lions, or whatever, are simply names and no more. Rooms may have had multiples functions over the years. The gardens we see now look nice, but are anachronistic. Really, the Alhambra's a bit of a mystery - we know the sultans lived there for a couple of centuries, but nobody really took any records to say how. Thus, history blurs a little into the recorded past, educated guesswork, and sheer myth.

The bulk of the construction was begun in 1238 by the first Nasrid ruler of Granada, Muhammad ibn al-Ahmarand, and generally completed by 1349. There was no overriding design, it was just built in stages in whatever way the current ruler fancied, and as there were a lot of rulers, there are a lot of different stages. Though a beautiful set of buildings and gardens, the Alhambra has been described as a poisoned paradise. Of the first nine sultans in charge, seven were assassinated, with their ministers often following suit. In its 260 years of life, the Nasrid dynasty went through 23 sultans, about one every eleven years. A bickering, collapsing backwater, the Alhambra was the beautiful home to an ill-fated dynasty. And in 1481, the 21st sultan sealed its end. Stupidly, he seized a castle belonging to the nearby state of Castile (kind of a precursor to modern day Spain)  which triggered off an inevitable war. To the Nasrids' credit, they held off for 11 years, but against the combined might of the Spanish, it was simply a matter of time. And that time came on 2nd January 1492. An overwhelming army surrounded the fortress, and the 23rd and final sultan of the Nasrid dynasty put his hands up and surrendered. The royal flags and banners were flown in victory from the Alhambra.

One man present that day went by the name of Christopher Columbus, witnessing the royal banners being placed upon the conquered Moorish fortress. He'd been hanging around the Spanish court for years, possibly even taking part in a siege, seeking sponsorship from the king and queen to sail on a voyage west. But the war was entirely preoccupying them and only when the Alhambra was taken and Granada back in Spanish hands was he allowed to go. Thus, as one era ended, another was just about to open up.

The years since have seen modifications, restorations of mixed quality, and very notably a large and incongruous Renaissance palace built by the Spanish King Charles V in around 1527, but never really finished. Thus the Alhambra is like many other fortresses I've visited, from Agra Fort to Edinburgh Castle, a mixed bag of history and construction. I expect this to be both to its credit and detriment. Looking at photos of it, I must admit, I can't get much of a handle on the Alhambra yet - it looks nice, sure, but I'm not getting any powerful impression or sense of identity. Yet, people I've spoken to - Danielle included - have visited and described it enthusiastically. Sometimes photos and description can only go so far, and I'll be visiting the Alhambra without really knowing what to expect. A marvellous, mysterious, Moorish palace by a dying dynasty, I'm expecting some surprises.

I'll be visiting the Alhambra some time next year, and will give a fuller account of it and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.

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