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the Alhambra
The Alhambra welcomed us, coaxed us in, and rewarded us with a rare view to the last flourishing of a dying culture -- the Moors in Spain. There were many wonders in Spain, but for me this was the most memorable ...and useful.

Charles V Palace
The Alhambra is a collection of buildings and gardens set on a ridgetop above Granada. After buying your ticket and entering, one wanders up through the lower gardens, across a drawbridge, through the near gardens between hedges through which fleeting and enticing glimpses of the buildings of the Alhambra are visible -- already, the sense of peace and seclusion has begun to take over the visitor's awareness.
After a small modern setlement of shops and pensions, the first big building encountered is the squat and peremptory rennaissance palace built by Charles V to assert his dominance over his graceful Moorish predecessors.
This large building is distinguished only by its "circle in a square" structure -- Charley liked bullfights, but didn't like to leave his palace. It's a well-built place, used now for art exhibitions, but its most disgusting and salient feature is that it completely obliterates what must once have been a graceful and civilized entry to the ever-so-much more interesting earlier Moorish Palaces of the Nasrides. Such arrogance and insensitivity is hard to forgive.

a decorative door panel

a simple arch and column
Once inside the Nasrides, however, everything is forgotten but the delicacy and sense of place created here by the use of simple materials -- stone, plaster, paint, plantings, and flowing water. Visitors stand in awe, captivated by a pillar here, an archway and prospect there, a screened window giving on a pleasant courtyard a bit further along. The building draws you into its peaceful, worshipful space.
Through its screened windows, even the presumption of Charles's copycat rennaissance arcade is rendered beautiful and harmonious. Further along, windows open to the east, toward the Albaizin neighborhood and the city walls. Benches besides these windows, cool breezes coming in from the shadowy gardens below, and the welcome darkness make this an inviting place where one wants to linger.

screened windows with fascinating views
The two obvious secrets of success in any kind of habitable space here in southern Spain are shade and water, and these are managed beautifully within the walls of the Alhambra. Even with perfect shade management, the mediterranean sun broils down, and by early afternoon any sunny space is untenably hot. Walking along the garden pathways in the Alhambra in late morning we could already feel the sun's heat building, and found ourselves naturally following the shady line along the path wherever we could.
Narrow pathways between tall hedges or in the shade of buildings are the best places to walk, and these are abundantly present in pleasant places like the Alhambra gardens, where they are sometimes perfected by little runnels of water on each side of the path.
The Alhambra is situated on top of a hill that commands the center of all Granada, but is at the end of a ridge leading to higher hills beyond -- hills where water flows constantly. The geniuses who built the Alhambra brought water in abundance from these hills via aqueduct, and caused it to trickle, spout, flow, gush, gurgle, chuckle, and otherwise comport itself in a life giving way throughout the gardens and within the buildings. Fountains counter the glaring sun wherever shade is unavailable. Pools provide mirrors for stately facades that might be too stiff without water's liveliness.

an interior courtyard and fountain

lost in their guidebooks
The Nasrides Palace is a masterpiece of Moorish architecture, which means that all of its spaces are intended to elevate their inhabitants' consciousness and instill a sense of peace and wonder in all viewers. In a hot, dusty land, these emotions absolutely require coolness and shade, and thick walls are the only reliable and efficient way to accomplish this.
The only way modern tourists find to resist the magic of this place is to remain completely buried in their guidebooks or pinned to the audio guides.
Unburdened by the need for details, this little boy, Rochelle, Sienna and I wandered happily, swept away by the builders' intentions, enjoying the peaceful spaces, bright colors, gently rippling fountains, and intricately detailed screens and facades.
The unspoken and almost hidden third secret of successful building in such sunny climes is thermal mass, and that coincides nicely here with the most abundant building material, a reddish sandstone that makes up the bulk of the walls and buildings.
White marble, also massive but used sparingly as it came from afar, adds crisply contrasting brightness within the shade. It can be fluently carved, and holds its shape perfectly for centuries when properly protected from the elements.
Stone is an abundant local material and a perfect medium for Renaissance as well as Moorish preoccupation with detail: it can be carved, shaped by water, painted, and cunningly lit by controlled direct light or light reflecting off stone, tile, wood, or water. Thick walls and small windows create their own weather indoors, and so breezes waft gently through these spaces.
Freed from western preoccupation with representationalism, Moorish art calls attention to the harmonious representation of human ideas -- script prasising Allah and advising readers on effective prayers, intricately mathematical forms and shapes suggesting, but never imitating, natural forms, playful alcoves containing ...whatever one would like to imagine...
With an uncanny eye for the effect of light, shade, flowing water, massive walls faced with intricate carvings and brightly colored mosaics over time and in all seasons, the 14th Century architects still draw visitors from room to room, along hallways and colonnades, into pleasant courtyards sweetened by fountains and hedges that have been growing in the same place for more than half a millennium.

The durability of their work is also amazing. Built during the 14th Century as a sort of last hurrah for Moors in Spain, built knowing that their days were numbered, still these builders used the greatest care in selecting materials and assembling them to last. Costly lead sheet interrupts every column base and capital, and modern conservators can only wonder why? Did the builders understand that this was seismically active site, and that the lead buffered the inevitable quakes and shifts?

Court of the Lions
The Court of the Lions is the innermost, and most impressive, space within the Palaces. Focusing on a fountain bourne on the backs of twelve lions. As the story goes, this fountain was a clock, with water pouring from a different lion every hour. Charles' Spaniards took the fountain apart to discover how it worked ...and it has never worked since.
The forest of columns, their shade, and the brightly lighted fountain, create a focal point visible from several surrounding rooms.
The complex of rooms surrounding the Court of the Lions is the most recent and the most sumptuously decorated. It is difficult, based on the Christian reinterpretation of these buildings provided in the commentaries, to imagine what these rooms were meant to accomplish.

Consciousness and worldly cares seem to vanish into the minute and intricately detailed surfaces of the walls and domes. This space does not seek to glorify those who reign within it, but to elevate their consciousness to the consideration of values and principles of higher and more lasting moment.

They are not impressive by European standards, but the richness and precision of their form and detailing is undeniably harmonious and uplifting. Visitors whisper, sit quietly on benches and contemplate at length writings they cannot possibly read.

The Lions' Fountain
screened window, city wall beyond

walkways and watercourses combine
Outside the Nasrides Palace, pleasure gardens and "follies" -- the Generalife Towers lead away onward at some length along the ridge, providing views down onto the busy city below. Here, plantings substitute for buildings as providers of shade, with fountains and watercourses punctuating and giving form as well as coolness to the paths.

topiary chickens

One is brought sharply back to the purpose of all this upon encountering the stark exterior and war-ready interior of the Alcazaba, the fortress overlooking the city.
Benches, garden plots and playful topiary provide even more of an enticement to ramble and consider the lessons of the Palace.

an unusual and showy flower
This place was built with the forlorn and futile hope to hold southern Spain against the Christian Spaniards encroaching from the north and hoping to restore "their" territory.

Alcazaba interior (left) and facade

While the King and his courtiers contemplated the might and majesty of Allah in the Nasrides Palaces, his general and army occupied the point above the city and manned a fortress that bristled with armament. They fought so bravely and for so long that when the Spanish king finally prevailed, he would not allow the Moorish king to bow down, as he so respected him as a warrior and a ruler.
Further testimony of that enduring respect is that the Alhambra, fortress, palaces and gardens, were preserved intact, and maintained for centuries, and remain the place most respected and visited by Spainiards.

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updated 14 October 2001 : 8:19 Caspar (Pacific) time
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