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Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Pearl Set in Emeralds

The Emirate of Granada, the Nasrids, was the last Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula.  They built a palace complex on top of the Assabica hill in the southeast border.  After the takeover by the "Reyes Católicos" in 1492, some parts were used by the new Christian rulers.  The Holy Roman emperor, Charles V, built a castle in 1527 in the midst of the buildings.

The Court of Lions.

Forgotten for centuries, the entire complex fell into disrepair.  In the 19th century it was "discovered" by travelers and scholars and the restoration process was begun. Neglected, vandalized, and in cases poorly restored, it is still an example of Islamic architecture without the Byzantine influence, as other Spanish sites reveal. A Moorish poet described it as a "pearl set in emeralds", alluding to the buildings which were originally whitewashed and the very green setting surrounding them.

Mirador de Lindaraja, Palace of the Lions.

Built in the Mudéjar ("domesticated) style, it reflects a synthesis of Iberian and Islamic architectural styles and decorations that was popular during the Reconquista, or reconquest of Iberia by the Christian kingdoms.  The isolation from the rest of the Islamic world and the interaction with the Christian kingdoms influenced the style.  The consistent theme of the buildings is "paradise on earth", thus they are quadrangles with a central courtyard.  Each addition kept with the theme but in different dimensions, and were connected by smaller rooms and passages.  The exteriors are purposely kept bare and unembellished, open to the sun and the elements.

A canopy of stonework.

Most of the decorations follow Islamic tradition, and are foliage, geometrical patterns, and Arabic inscriptions.  The walls were usually covered in painted tiles. Blue, red, and yellow were the predominant colors used throughout, but have mostly faded over time.  M.C. Escher visited in 1922, and his study of the symmetrical tiles there was said to have inspired his work.

Since the site was added on to piecemeal - from the first 9th century citadel to the 16th century palace of Charles V - the layout is not aligned nor systematized.  The entire site covers an area of about 1,530,000 square feet.  To the west is the alcazaba, a strongly fortified citadel.  The Moorish palaces are enclosed by a fortified wall with thirteen towers, some of which are defensive, but others were built to access the view.

The original palatine city was planned for six palaces, five grouped together to form a royal quarter, numerous bathhouses, and two circuit towers.  Later acequias were formed as an irrigation system for the gardens of the Generalife, which are located just outside the fortress, ending the dependency on rainwater.  The canal made the site a palace city instead of a defensive center.

Court of the Long Pond, a popular spot of the Generalife.
Part of the Generalife.

The Generalife (from the Muslim "Jennat al Arif", or garden of the architect) is an outlying building that connects to the Alhambra.  The complex includes the Jardin de la Sultana, built in the style of medieval Persian gardens.  The Generalife has one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens.

Another part of the Generalife.

After 1492, the Christian conquerors altered some of the work.  Much was whitewashed, paintings and gildings removed, and the furniture destroyed or removed.  Charles V rebuilt some parts in Renaissance style, and demolished most of the winter palace to build a Renaissance-style building which was never completed.  Later Philip V (circa 18th century) constructed his palace in the middle of what had been a Moorish building, blocking off whole apartments, and decorating it all in an Italian style.

Palace of Charles V.

Over time, the remaining Moorish art was defiled, and in 1812 some of the towers were demolished by the French.  An 1821 earthquake did more damage.  In 1828, a Spanish architect began reconstruction, his work continued by his son and grandson.

Vaulting in the Hall of the Abencerrajes, an example of the "stalactite"
or "honeycomb" vaulting of the Moors.

The original complex was designed with the surrounding environment taken into consideration.  The park, Alameda de la Alhambra, was planted by the Moors with roses, oranges, and myrtles.  Later, in 1812, a dense forest of English elms was planted by the Duke of Wellington.  There are many fountains and cascades, filling the air with the sounds of running water, and there are many nightingales in the park.

Plan of the Alhambra from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

The Alhambra beautifully integrates the natural site with the buildings and gardens designed and built through the skills of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish builders, craftsmen, and artisans.  In 1984 it was listed as a World Heritage Site, along with the Generalife, by UNESCO.  Although significantly altered from its inception, it still gives a satisfying taste of the beauty of Islamic architecture.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikipedia Commons.
The official website of the Alhambra.
A virtual walking tour.

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