The moor's last sigh

Alhambra complex: Best of Moortish architecture. Photo: Abhimanyu Ganesh  

As most people would recall, 1492 was an important year for Spain, for late in that year Christopher Columbus discovered a New World that was to enrich Spain for centuries to come. Lesser known though, no less important historically, it was also the year of the moor's last sigh.

The last of the Moorish rulers, Sultan Boabdil, surrendered the Andalusian city of Granada and the Alhambra in early 1492, thus bringing an end to nearly seven centuries of Islamic rule in Spain. As the story goes, he sighed and burst into tears as he took one last look at Granada from a pass on the Sierra Nevada Mountains on his way to exile in Morocco. Five centuries and a bit later, standing on the ramparts of the Alhambra where the Christian re-conquerors had raised the flag of Ferdinand and Isabella, one can still get a sense of the extent of Boabdil's loss.

The Alhambra (red fortress) is arguably the best example of Moorish architecture left standing in Spain today. Looking down from the Alcazaba, its watchtower, down to the city, it is easy to think of Granada not as a metropolis that it is today but a collection of white villages more reminiscent of the countries of North Africa. The whitewashed houses of the city extend well up into the Sierra Nevada range, the peaks of which still glisten with snow in late April. What brings up back squarely into Europe is the presence of rather ornate cathedrals and large plazas that dot the city landscape.

If what is outside the walls of the Alhambra complex is stunning, what is inside is no less so. We had just come out of the Nasrid palaces — a timed entry early in the morning ensured that we missed the peak tourist rush though that is not saying much. The elegant rooms, the intricate work that adorns the doors and columns, and the lovely and serene patios transport you into the 15th century, until you are abruptly brought down to current day by the presence of camera-wielding tourist armies. Or by a couple of orange-vested workmen perched on a scaffolding patiently restoring the woodwork. Despite the crowds and the noise, one can still admire the uniqueness of the palace — the horseshoe arches, the Almoravid palms and stalactite ceilings — essential elements of the Nasrid architectural style that developed in relative isolation from contemporary Islamic architecture of the Middle East. The Alhambra was built well into the decline of the Islamic empire, so instead of expensive materials, the focus was on workmanship, and the results are there for everyone to see.

Italian imprint

Next to the Nasrid palaces is the Palace of Carlos V — a classical Italian Renaissance square building with an inside circular courtyard — a beautiful building except that it looked totally incongruous in the Moorish setting of the Alhambra. I was reminded of our visit to Cordoba the day before to see the Mezquita. This structure was built on land where an old cathedral once stood which in turn was built on top of a pagan temple. Built in the 10th century, this enormous mosque, with its giant double arches and hundreds of columns, seeks to recreate Islam's desert homeland. An extremely graceful building, except that smack in the middle of this once-mosque is an ornamental Renaissance cathedral which was built after the Christian re-conquest. The contrast could not have been more marked. The brochure brought out by the Catholic Church (which maintains the building today) defends the building of the cathedral inside the mosque centuries ago — recuperation of a sacred space that had suffered the imposition of a faith distant from the Christian experience. This is an interesting defence, considering that a significant portion of Cordoba's population in that period consisted of Muslims and Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity, the same people who would soon face the full force of the Inquisition.

Coming back to the Alhambra, we discovered that the Carlos V palace is home to a fine arts museum. “Brooding, religious art,” my friend was quite dismissive and I wasn't very enthusiastic either, so we decided not to go in. However, we saw signs to a special exhibition on the works on M.C. Escher. I was puzzled but then it clicked. There was a reason why the tiles all over the palace, especially the tessellated ones with their repeated shapes and patters looked familiar — tessellations is an Escher specialty. The exhibition was well worth the time.

Culture showcase

The Escher exhibition was a lovely end to our Andalusian trip but more importantly, it is a fitting testament to Andalusia herself, and the different cultures that intermingled here, and that is best reflected in her architecture. It is indeed her white washed villages and hidden courtyards, tessellated tiles and Moorish patios that retain the power to inspire artists into the 20th century and beyond.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 10:02:07 PM |

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