Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Edith A. Browne

The Alhambra

We have reached the chief gateway to Granada's citadel. A look of disappointment overshadows your face—how often have you dreamed of an enchanted Alhambra, and now what a prosaic reality meets your gaze! You survey solid walls; you glance up at sombre towers, telling yourself that genii would never choose to haunt such gloomy abodes, and there is a mixture of incredulity and despondency in your voice as you ask, "Is this really the Alhambra?"

Be of good cheer and have a little patience; you will soon be able to imagine you are in the homeland of Arabian Nights, but first we must face a few facts.

You will remember I told you that the name Alhambra does not properly refer to a palace, but to a fortified enclosure. This enclosure before which you are now standing was named after the Torres Bermejas,the "Red Towers "near by, which are the oldest portion of the fortifications. As early as A.D. 864 these towers were referred to by an Arabian poet as Kal'at Al-hamra, meaning the "Red Castle." Later on they were called Medinah Al-hamra, the "Red City"; and when the citadel facing you was in course of erection, the Red Towers were connected with this main fortress by an embattled wall. Although the connecting link has been destroyed, it is easy to understand why the whole acropolis of Granada has been named after the first towers of defences that were reared.

The Alhambra site is nearly 3,000 feet long, and measures over 700 feet in its widest part. The encircling walls, inset with numerous towers, are about 3o feet high and 6 feet thick; they girdle the summit of the hill, and in following the line of its edge up and down enclose a space which is roughly the shape of a grand piano. Within this area are many interesting Moorish monuments, and among them the palace, which is the centre of popular interest, the rightful owner of the name Alhambra, according to the popular vocabulary, and the only building which is represented by that name in the minds of most people who have not been to Granada.

The principal entrance-hall, by way of which I am now going to take you into the Alhambra, is called La Torre de Justicia, the "Gate of Judgment." To the Moors this porch was Babu-sh-shari-ah, the "Gate of the Law," for it was their open-air court of justice. Look at the giant hand above the outer horseshoe arch; that is believed to be a Moorish talisman against the "evil eye." Behold over the second arch another symbol, a key, the sign that the Prophet had been given Divine power over the gates of heaven and of hell. Here, too, over the inner doorway is an inscription in African letters, which records its elevation by Abu-l-walid Yusuf in 1348. The legend runs thus: "The warlike and just Sultan Yusuf . . . commanded this gate, called the Gate of the Law, to be built.. . . May Allah make it a bulwark of defence and inscribe its construction among the great and imperishable deeds!"


The Alhambra

We pass through the main entrance into a lane bounded by massive walls, and emerge into the open, to find ourselves upon the extensive Plaza of Los Algibes, and in the heart of the busy industry of the water-carriers. This Plaza takes its name from the Moorish cisterns thereon, deep tanks built with vaults and horseshoe arches, which are fed by the waters of the Darro. In a corner of the square is a well with an awning over it, the wholesale depot for the water-vendors of Granada. After breaking away from the fascination of watching the life round this well, we walk about the Plaza, feasting our eyes on the magnificent panorama which stretches up, down, and around. Over 450 feet below glitters the white city of Granada; upwards the eye travels over tree-clad slopes, lingering the while amidst shady groves and magnificent hanging gardens, till presently it seeks the superb heights of mountain ranges, and is finally drawn back to the Plaza by the magnetism of the Moorish remains around; for although the towers, ruined castle, and neighbouring buildings do not present a beautiful external appearance, there is magic in their tawny colouring, and somehow they succeed in making an irresistible appeal to the imagination.

To the west of the Plaza are grouped some fortifications, mostly in ruins, but including some watch-towers that are still in a good state of preservation; this is the site of the Alhambra Castle, the Alcazaba. East of the square rises the incongruous mass of an unfinished sixteenth-century palace, a whim and fancy of Charles V. In other surroundings it would have done some credit to his taste, but the Graco-Roman pile is distinctly out of place here, which offence is generally supposed to have been heightened by the ruthless destruction of a part of the famous old palace for the sake of additional ground-space for the new one.

We leave the Plaza and wend our way past the Palace of Charles V., to the old town of the Alhambra, which was the headquarters of numerous distinguished men and women connected with the Court, together with other lesser lights, composing a total population of about twenty thousand. We wander about the remaining area of the platform, see the modern hill-town, which practically consists of one little street that caters for visitors, and come back to the unfinished palace.

"But where is the  Palace?" you ask, adding in an even more querulous tone: "You have taken us all over this fortress, and still we have not seen what we specially came to look at."

I quite sympathize with your impatience, but let me defend myself for having aroused it. I am sure you would have wanted to look round the whole fortress before leaving it, and upon this theory I have but left the best till the last. Moreover, I wanted you to realize how easy it is to miss the famous treasure-house, even when you walk about its immediate neighbourhood with both eyes wide open looking for it.

Now come with me behind this Palace of Charles V. You see a very poor-looking group of sheds—those constitute the Aladdin's wonderland which you have been longing to visit. Well may you look astounded, even though I have warned you that Moorish buildings are not attractive externally. According to custom, it was the interior of this royal residence that was called upon to express the ideals of designer and decorator; but, since things to which we have long looked forward with great expectations have a way of disappointing us when we see them, I want to bring your present expectations within bounds of reason before we enter the Palace of the Alhambra. Many alterations have been made in the original work; necessary restorations have been effected, sometimes without the necessary skill for following in the footsteps of the creators; a powerful enemy in the form of an explosion at a neighbouring powder factory has done much to wreck the building, and time has naturally played havoc with some of the details. Thus forewarned, you will not suddenly be brought face to face with anything that can hurl you from a fairy dreamland into a dull abyss of facts. Not that this Palace as it is lacks beauty. Even to-day it is rich in treasures; nevertheless, it has been despoiled, and only by being prepared for that fact is it possible to keep your imagination free from fetters. I am only going to show you pictures of a few beautiful things as they are, and leave you to conjure up visions of the magnificent whole as it was in the days of its glory.

The present insignificant entrance is a small wicket-gate in an obscure corner. It leads straight into the great oblong Court of the Myrtles, in the middle of which is a miniature lake, bordered by carefully-trimmed myrtle hedges, orange and lemon trees. The side walls are modern, but the colonnades at either end are beautiful specimens of Moorish art. The front consists of two arcaded galleries, with a smaller closed gallery between, a light, fantastic structure composed of slim marble columns that have capitals carved in various designs, slender arches, and lattice-work windows. Opposite is a similarly wrought single arcade, above which rises the square, massive upper story of a tower.

The whole of the interior of this Tower of Comares is occupied by the great Hall of the Ambassadors, one of the richest gems of the Palace, and the room which pulsates with Moorish history in its most brilliant and vital phases. The Hall, which is approached from the Court of the Myrtles by a beautiful vestibule, is a lofty square apartment with massive walls, pierced by deeply alcoved windows, and a dome of larch-wood, which is adorned with painted stars, and further ornamented by ribs that intersect in numerous patterns. The original roof, however, was a wondrous piece of stucco honeycomb-work, but this collapsed, together with an Arabian Nights' arch of precious stones. Here are found some of the most eloquent witnesses to Moorish magnificence—coloured tile dados, fantastic carving, elaborately-wrought inscriptions, rich splashes of red, blue, and gold, reminiscent of the glorious days when the whole Palace must have blazed with these gorgeous colourings. The Hall of the Ambassadors was the grand reception-room, where brilliant Court functions were held amidst the most luxurious surroundings that could be fashioned by Oriental wealth and taste. Not only were there enacted in this room many of the most important dramas that go to the making of Moorish history, but here took place one of the greatest scenes in the Moorish tragedy of fading supremacy. Within these walls was held the great council of 1491, at which it was decided that it was impossible to offer further resistance to the Christian power.

The Court of the Myrtles also gives access, through a narrow passage, to the Court of the Lions, which is an oblong surrounded by a low gallery. This latter is supported on one hundred and twenty-four white marble columns, that are irregularly placed, some in pairs, some isolated. At each end of the court there is an ornate little pavilion, with filigree walls and a graceful domed roof of the shape distinguished by the name of "half-orange." The whole design is beautifully proportioned, and delicacy of construction characterizes the workmanship. In the centre of the court is the fountain after which it is named; the alabaster basin is supported by twelve white marble animals, but it requires a good deal of imagination to find any resemblance to lions in these curious-looking beasts.

Opening into the Court of the Lions are four very beautiful chambers, rich in specimens of decorative inscriptions, lacework walls, carved wood ceilings, and mosaic dados. The most noticeable inscription here, as in so many parts of the Palace, is the oft-recurring declaration: "There is no conqueror but Allah." The principal part of the Alhambra Palace was founded, in 1248, by Ibn-l-ahmar, who was greeted by his subjects as "The Conqueror" when he returned from the surrender of Seville. He replied, with a spontaneous adaptation of the Mussulman war-cry, "There is no conqueror but Allah," and adopted the words as his motto.


The court of the lions in moonlight.

One of the gems of the Palace is the Mirador de Lindaraja, an elegant apartment with windows over-looking a beautiful garden, where stately cypresses rear their heads above box-hedges, and sweet flowers bloom among myrtle-bushes and orange-trees.

The luxurious suite of apartments known as the Bath-rooms is very complete. The Chamber of Rest here ranks among the most elaborately decorated rooms in the Palace. It has a gallery, where musicians used to sing and play to the resting bathers; for as the ablution system was what we now call Turkish baths, repose formed an important part of the proceedings.

It requires many days to study the details of this famous Palace, and, since our time together is so short, I have only been able to give you a peep at some of the principal parts of the building. But before leaving its precincts I just want to explain to you that there are really three palaces here grouped into one. The oldest, dating from the twelfth century, is called the Mexuar, and it opens out from one side of the Court of the Myrtles at a lower level; it has a central court, with entrance and reception rooms at the head, and grouped round are various dwelling-rooms, one of which was converted into a Christian chapel in the sixteenth century. The workmanship of this oldest building is rude and unpretentious compared with that of the later palaces. Coming back to the Court of the Myrtles, we find here the second palace, designed on a similar plan, but executed in a very much more advanced style, as witness the magnificent Hall of the Ambassadors, which forms part of the thirteenth-century building in question. The third and most luxurious of this group, known as the Alhambra Palace, or popularly as the Alhambra, was constructed in the fourteenth century, and lies round and about the Court of the Lions.