Tuesday, 6 May 2014

45. Wonder: The Alhambra

(For the Alhambra preview, please click here.)

Remember that time you got circumcised and your father's official poet wrote a 146-verse poem in celebration? And then decorated a room by inscribing twenty-four of these verses prominently? No? Then I guess you're not Prince Abd Allah, son of the 8th sultan of the Nasrid dynasty, Mohammed V, in the 14th Century. A prince who I'm pretty sure tried to avoid inviting his friends back home too often - don't go into that room! If you're wondering what a decorative poem about circumcision looks like, then here you are:

My Arabic isn't quite fluent, but I make that top line to be : Oh! Skin of Son, you have been cut; Go! Lie down, I bet it hurts. Or something like that.

That's the fancifully-named "Hall of Two Sisters" in the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra. If you're to believe the legend, the name comes from two sisters imprisoned in the room who one day happened to spot an amorous couple going at it hammer-and-tongs in a nearby garden. It must have been some session, for both sisters promptly died of desire. That's the legend made up by 19th Century tourists, fancifully based upon the room's name which was coined some time after the 15th Century fall of the Nasrid dynasty and the departure of Islam from Spain, and which actually refers to two large slabs of marble set in the floor of the room. Neither the name or story have any basis in fact. It's been suggested that the room may have been used for Koran recitals, or musical gatherings of some kind, due to the good acoustics - but it's just speculation. How about other parts of the palace, and of the overall Alhambra? We've got the Tower of the Ladies, the Palace of the Court of the Myrtles, the Court of Lions, and many more. Are these the real names? Nope, all made up later. How about the Hall of the Mocarabes, that is, the Harem? Surely the harem? But no, another piece of fiction, or a guess at best. There's no evidence at all. As the author Robert Irwin states about the Alhambra's main palace, the Nasrid Palace, “We simply do not know how this palace was inhabited.” He later goes on to add: "We are dealing not so much with a body of knowledge as with a body of wild guesses.”

The Alhambra's details, therefore, are a bit of a mystery. But the wider picture is a little more clear. In essence, the Alhambra is a combination of fortress, palaces, and gardens, set atop a plateau about half a mile long but just 168 metres at its widest. The rocky plateau is a baby offshoot from the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountain range which sit like a painted film set in the background. The fortress overlooks the extensive warren of cobbles and alleys that comprise the city of Granada. The city's souvenir-lined - but still awfully charming - streets make it clear that today it worships tourism, but back in the day it worshipped Allah. From the early 8th to the late 15th Century, it was a Moorish city, the Moors essentially being what we called Spanish Muslims back in medieval times, with the Alhambra going down in legend - this time a true one - as the last Islamic palace in Spain.

For this Wonder visit, as well as my wife, now a veteran of 27 Wonders, I was joined by my brother, Ian, and his wife, Katherine, both on their official debuts. Ian brings with him an uncommon knowledge of warfare and fortifications, and so visiting a giant fortress - albeit one that never that never actually saw a battle - was ideal, next only to anything Roman, of which his knowledge of battle tactics would make him a military genius if only he'd lived 2000 years earlier. His next greatest passion in life, as referred to in my Mont Saint-Michel review, are flails, the handle with three spiked balls attached. Ever since his disappointment, aged 14, at being cruelly denied ownership by our (surely unduly cautious. Surely?) parents, Ian's greatest wish in life has been to own a flail, and he suggested that he would be willing to give the Alhambra very high points if it sold one. Well, I can officially reveal that the Alhambra... does not sell flails. However, Granada does! We found a small shop in the centre with a flail for sale. Ian's delight turned to pain, however, upon realising that Easyjet would surely not allow this in his hand luggage. The north of Scotland, at least, has been saved a messy, albeit unintentional, massacre.

Ian knows a lot about fortifications and big walls, and he was impressed by the Alhambra's. It would have been almost impossible to defeat back in its time, the steep slope of the cliff-side being lined with seriously heavy-duty walls. These days the slopes are covered in trees, but Ian pointed out that this would have been madness from a defensive point of view - it just gives any invaders a place to hide, as well as material for fire or construction. The Duke of Wellington, as well as famously defeating Napoleon, giving his name to New Zealand's capital city, and giving us the Wellington boot, was responsible for much of this, planting English elms in 1812. The Moors would have had the area clear, or perhaps planted rose and myrtles in some areas.

Whatever you can see today in the Alhambra, it was primarily a fortress, and for many centuries only a fortress. Its position on a rocky outcrop of land make it an obvious choice for defence, and the very first records hinting at something being there date from the 8th Century. By 860AD, there is mention of a Red Citadel. Probably - but not definitely - this is where the name derives: Al-hamra in Arabic means "the red", not referring to the citadel but to the reddish colour of the clay of the hill and surrounding land, which then of course were bare rather than full of green trees. Funnily enough, the buildings of the Alhambra were whitewashed by the Moors, so the colours we'd have seen back then would be very different to what we see now: white-on-red rather than red-on-green. It wasn't really a significant construction then, but by the 11th Century it was rebuilt in a more significant manner by a new Moorish dynasty. But this version of the Alhambra was still nothing fancy, just some sturdy walls. The beginning of the Alhambra we celebrate today starts a little later, with the definite date of 1238.

That was when a man called Mohammed ibn Nasr moved into the old version of the Alhambra. He was the founder and first sultan of a new dynasty - the Nasrids. But it wasn't a good time for a new dynasty. The Moorish rule in Spain had been falling apart for a couple of hundred years, split by factions, then each separate principality being picked off by a more organised and united Christian force. Despite making some initial territorial gains, ibn Nasr wasn't a match for the warpath of Ferdinand III of Castile. The Nasrid Kingdom of Granada was formed but all else was falling. With Cordoba being captured in 1236, then Seville in 1248, it became the only Muslim territory remaining. The Moors as a force were over. But yet, they survived another 250 years. Why? Because it was convenient for the Christians. Granada effectively became a reservation for the country's remaining Muslims, lacking any significant power but paying tribute to the Christian monarchs.

Nonetheless, ibn Nasr had his kingdom, and upon moving in in 1238 he began to develop the Alhambra into a fine palace and complex fit for a mighty sultan - or a cowed and obedient one, at least. With 35 acres at his disposal, as well as the expected big walls, there was room for six palaces, a barracks, a mosque, a zoo, and a small town, accommodating anything up to 40,000 people. This emerged over a couple of hundred years and not all of this survives today, but it was a magnificent final fling by the last Moors of Spain, a glorious tribute to their pride and might at the very time their pride and might was lost. The glory of the Alhambra is tinged with more than a little irony.

The Nasrid Palace is really a series of palaces, a complex of palaces within itself, and is one of the clear highlights of the overall Alhambra complex. We chose to first visit it at night. This is touted as being a more mystical, evocative experience, although the place is still overrun with tourists so I wouldn't exactly call it a romantic moonlit stroll. Limited - although not that limited - tickets are available daily, to restrict numbers, as the individual rooms and courtyards of the palaces aren't massive: get a few tour groups and some boisterous families and you've got yourself a Versailles-style gridlock in a revolting orgy of tourist flesh. Instead, entry to the Nasrid Palaces are drip-fed, groups of people let in every half hour. Sure, even at night, you've got to strain yourself to imagine the Nasrid sultans walking these quiet corridors of powers, pacing by the pools of water and manicured lawns, gazing at the elaborate calligraphy proclaiming the wonders of religion and circumcision, pondering their rule; but it's not difficult to find yourself alone in a room and enjoy a stolen sense of peace among beautiful surroundings.

From the outside, the Nasrid Palaces are pretty plain, and deliberately so. Parallels have been made to the burka worn by some Muslim women - anonymous and unassuming on the outside, designed for modesty. The delights are inside, hidden for only the select few to see. Tourism may well and truly have unveiled the Alhambra, but once upon a time the beauty of the Nasrid Palaces would have been known only to a select few. And they really are beautiful. I can safely say it is the most gorgeous Islamic decoration I've ever seen, putting the (still very nice) Ottoman stuff I saw recently in Istanbul in its place. With figurative art effectively banned, Islamic art depends upon patterns and very stylised Arabic calligraphy, and while I find it pretty, I often don't find it that compelling. Not so with the Alhambra. Carved into the walls, the patterns are intricate and on a vast canvass. It's like staring into a different world.

There are various halls and courtyards and rooms and the majority of them are filled with these wonderful carvings. Ceilings have huge stars cut into them with giant domes rising above, lined with windows, and the eye is overwhelmed by an intricate honeycomb effect that appears to drip down like geometrically-identical stalactites - the style of architecture is called mocarabes. Walls have poems and praise etched into them, surrounded by exquisitely detailed abstract forms. I have no idea of the meaning of it all, but the best art doesn't demand understanding for appreciation - close up or gazed at as a whole, it looks beautiful regardless. The interior of the Alhambra's Nasrid Palaces is among the world's best art.

Part of it is textual. Much of the decor is plaster and its harder cousin stucco, cool to the touch, seemingly inviting you to trace the grooves of the pattern. Except, of course, get a million tourists doing this every year and soon enough the Alhambra will be worn away. Which is why, very cleverly, at various stages throughout the palaces, these "touching boards" are placed: the Alhambra is a Wonder for more than just the one sense.

Once, the rooms and corridors would have been jam-packed full of lavish furnishings, but this is long gone, the clutter once filling the corridors now replaced with a thousand clicking cameras. I could have spent a lot longer examining the lifetime of decoration within the palaces, but the Alhambra has other distractions. Within the Nasrid Palaces are lots of very pleasant little gardens, which are a prelude to the considerably more extensive gardens outside. These gardens certainly existed in Moorish time, but in a different and unknown for. All the gardens we see today are anachronistic: it has been said that the gardens of the Alhambra reflect the horticultural tastes of 1920s Spain. They are very nice though.

On the day visit to the Nasrid Palaces, the exit deposited us at the foot of the gardens and we took a very enjoyable stroll among manicured bushes and well-placed flowers, all still guarded by mighty fortress walls clinging to the hillside. This stroll leads to the weirdly-named Generalife. Despite sounding like an insurance corporation, the name is actually derived from the Arabic "Jennat al Arif", which means "Garden of the Architect". Technically, this is outside the Alhambra complex, but it is directly linked and is an essential part of the experience, with UNESCO putting both under the same World Heritage site banner. It was simply a summer palace for the Nasrid sultans with lots of shade and water features to cool them in the heat. For visitors today, it's enough to just know: it's really pretty. And it gives some nice views of the Alhambra.

If the Nasrid Palaces and the various gardens are two-thirds of the visiting experience, the final third is certainly the alcazaba, or the fortifications. From afar, visually, these are the dominant feature, and dominance is the impression they were designed to give. For a forts-and-war lover like Ian, this was the highlight of the Alhambra, and they may have been so for me too. I've seen quite a few big walls, and they are always hefty but necessarily functional things, but the Alhambra's were a lot more impressive than I expected. The alcazaba doesn't go in for the fancy flourishes of the Nasrid Palaces, inside or out, but it doesn't need to: it's the beefy part of the Alhambra. It's also the oldest part, some stuff dating from pre-Nasrid times, and with the Alhambra ultimately being a fortress, it's the raison d'etre of it all. Probably too, it's the most fun part of the visiting experience. Climbing along defensive walls and up big towers, with great views of Granada and the countryside - it's just good fun. It's all very well admiring fine art and pretty flowers, but sometimes you just want to climb up a big wall.

In the past, the Alhambra would have contained a mosque, a zoo, a small town, and whatever, but the 21st Century Alhambra is no longer an exclusively Islamic complex, it's a Christian one too, not to mention a capitalist one. In 1492, the Alhambra had what some might call "a moment". It followed what others might call a "brainfart": in 1481, the 22nd Nasrid sultan captured a Castile castle. Bad move, Moors. It took eleven years, in fairness a pretty good defensive effort, but eventually the Castilians had captured all Nasrid territory but Alhambra itself. They surrounded, made some threats - and the sultan gave up and let them in. He was packed off to a quiet estate where he couldn't do any more damage, although he soon went off to Morocco in exile and built a new palace, living till an old age. The Alhambra was spared.

And it was considered quite a prize by Ferdinand and Isabella, who wanted to keep it, and restored it using Muslim craftsmen. Adapted to Christian tastes, it was converted into a royal palace, a status that remained until 1868 when it became state owned. The following century, the old mosque was removed and replaced with a church. Their grandson, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (and also Charles I of the new Spanish Empire) continued this, and got carried away with himself by building a gigantic Renaissance palace right in the middle, one which he never bothered finishing or moving into. It was only eventually completed in the 20th Century. Most people regard his palace as a bit of a blot on the landscape, but I rather like it. It's pompous and unsubtle from the outside, but inside... it's really unusual. A big square block on the outside, inside it turns into an open circular courtyard, a balcony running along the inside making it look like an arena.

From the 17th Century, the Alhambra was hit by earthquakes and fires and was used as a prison and an animal pen. Tourists stole "souvenirs" in the 19th Century, and Napoleon tried to blow the whole thing up. Frustrated by his attempts to rule the Spanish, he blew up parts of the walls and towers as he retreated, and it took the bravery of a Spanish soldier to cut the fuses of more explosives, that would have given the complex a Hollywood-style finale - or so a legend has it anyway. It was declared a national monument in 1820, but this didn't prevent some very reckless attempts at restoration in the 19th and 20th Centuries, which did little to even attempt authenticity; one such restorer, Leopoldo Torres Balbas took so many liberties that he could now legitimately be regarded as an "original" architect of the Alhambra. In 1984, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which means it's in much safer hands. There's still room for a couple of discreet hotels in the overall grounds though.

As a tourist, the Alhambra is both a terrific and very frustrating experience. It's terrific because, despite being a popular attraction, there's the space to dilute the numbers. Sometimes it feels crowded, but it's never as bad as Versailles or the Cristo Redentor. There's a lot of variety and plenty to see. The frustration comes with the poor organisation and lack of information available. Collecting our night ticket at the main gate - after waiting ages behind a queue of others collecting theirs from the single ticket machine available - we waited almost an hour before it became apparent we had to go to an entirely different entrance point to find the Nasrid Palaces. Danielle asked a security guard, who basically did little more than grunt - and gave her entirely wrong information. Finding an audio guide proved impossible - a solo girl standing outside the Charles V Palace was dispensing them, but at no point during the day were any available. She kept telling me to try again later, when someone returned theirs. It looked like she only had enough space for twenty - given that thousands visit daily and that a visit can take many hours, this is a peculiar oversight. Information boards around the site are also sorely lacking - it would be entirely possible to visit the Alhambra and be none the wiser as to what it is. Added to that the number of buildings, areas, and gardens cordoned off without explanation or apparent good reason, and we've got a tremendous site badly run.

I often find that fortifications, or other such sprawling complexes, can lack focus. Variety is all very nice, but it can reduce a potential Wonder to being "bitty". A more focussed grandeur usually impresses more. Agra Fort, for example, was a collection of nice buildings with great historical importance but little visual oomph. Edinburgh Castle certainly has visual oomph, from a distance, but the numerous buildings that comprise it are less compelling as a visit. The Alhambra avoids these pitfalls. From a distance, it looks great. Stand on the popular viewpoint of Mirador de San Nicolas facing the Alhambra - wow, it looks great: a jumbled mass of walls and turrets and places, surrounded by woods as though floating on a cloud of trees. Close up, it has some great set pieces, with enough variety to never become dull. The Forbidden City, to pull another example, has a series of majestic pavilions, but after the third near-identical one, it's getting a little samey; add to that about a thousand smaller versions and a trace of boredom seeps in. But the Alhambra isn't more of the same, it has interesting and varied set pieces. I like the mish-mash of Islamic and Christian styles, although the Islamic stuff is a lot more interesting. Even a child would like the walls and towers, and maybe the gardens too; probably not the detailed calligraphy, I'll grant you; if so, you've got a weird kid.

At the same time though, the Nasrids' focus on internal beauty rather than external means that - as they intended of course, they weren't trying to impress me after all - from the outside, the palaces aren't a knockout. They look like a continuation of the fortifications. The fortifications, although impressive, aren't particularly any more recognisable than other walls - most forts are built on hills. The very best Wonders have an unworldly charm, as though testing the possibilities of mankind, whether artistically or technically, and from the outside the Alhambra doesn't really have this (from the inside though, I think it could be argued that the Nasrid Palaces do). It's just a really big, really great, really interesting fort.

Some criteria then.

Size: The highest tower is 46 metres high, but the Alhambra is more about sprawl and bulk, taking up 35 acres, and with some big boy defensive walls. It takes up a hilltop basically - that's big enough, I think.
Engineering: A succession of additions and changes, all done extremely competently but without pushing boundaries.
Artistry: The interior of the Nasrid Palaces is exquisite. The complex's form otherwise is functional, but nonetheless impressive.
Age: With 9th Century roots, but what we see essentially dates from the 13th Century.
Fame/Iconicity: I wonder about this one. It pulls in large crowds, and is one of Spain's best known attractions. But is it world known? I don't think so, probably because it doesn't have that visual stamp of identity that the world's best known have.
Context: On a hill, overlooking the delightful city of Granada, with the awesome Sierra Nevada range in the background. Wonderful surroundings.
Back Story: A fascinating tale of Spain in very different times, with its last remaining Islamic power, surrounded by myths and mysteries.
Originality: The Nasrid Palace interiors excepted, not particularly so, but done on a grand scale.
Wow Factor: It makes for an impressive first glimpse, followed by many moments more of taking in the sight, noticing more details, appreciating it in the context of its surroundings. A good wow moment, in other words.

The Alhambra is great. It is never boring. From a distance, it looks gorgeous in its setting; close up, it offers plenty to enjoy and admire. If you visit Granada and the Alhambra and you don't have a great time, then you've done something wrong. As a Wonder, it overcomes many of the pitfalls that fortifications do, but I wouldn't say it quite transcends its roots. Although with many fabulous details and interesting quirks, it is still, from the outside, a fortress, and looks a lot like other fortresses. And that's the chief reason it can't be included among the very biggest hitters. Nonetheless, as I've said, it's great, and so I would wedge it in between two of London's big hitters, just below the Houses of Parliament and above St Paul's Cathedral.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far

1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Edinburgh Castle
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
The Sacre-Coeur
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Nazca Lines
Marina Bay Sands

Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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