Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Alhambra

Visiting the Alhambra was incredible.
Visiting the Alhambra with two architects, well that was over the top.
Had Bethany and Ed had not accompanied us, I would have left thinking - "Wow, what a delightful palace."
Instead, post-visitation we debriefed over a delicious Spanish meal the elements of excellent design, the features of Moorish architecture, the meaning of beauty, the definition of art... and yes, the fine Rioja wine we were drinking.

I was so excited to learn about the "red fortress" through the eyes an architect, I actually took notes. So, in case you too are interested in a brief overview of the palace, a timeline of Andulusia's history and Bethany's definition of beauty, then by all means, read on...

The first thing to understand is from the Roman architect Vitruvius, author of the earliest definitive theory of architecture, who said all structures should contain three components:

Durability - can it stand up robustly and remain in good condition?
Utility - is it be useful for the people using it?
Beauty - does it delight and raise the spirits?

Check, check and check. 

The Alhambra has it all.  Bethany cried upon entering the palace because she says it's the perfect design that all architects try to replicate.

It's impossible to say if the Moorsish architects of the Nasrid Dynasty had access to Vitruvius's treatise...

Wait, maybe you're wondering, "What is the Alhambra, anyway?"

In the 1200s, a fortress was built on a hill above the current town of Granada to protect the region from warring sects of the fading Muslim Empire, which occupied much of Spain (then, Andalus). As Christians established political control over the region, noble families of Muslim origin created beautiful palaces inside the walls of the former fortress (1200-1450 AD).

An interesting point here is that Muslims had a very different outlook on life than the Christians, who built rectangular, austere churches during same period. The Islamic philosophy (and I'm extrapolating) was that since Paradise is described in detail within the Koran and Allah is pleased when people are happy, good Muslims should attempt to recreate Paradise here on earth.

And so they did. Check out that detail on the walls and ceiling. 

The design of the Alhambra is surely beautiful on a small scale. Intricate wood, tile and stone work adorn almost every surface, but those fine details become part of a larger whole of repeating patterns without becoming distracting. In fact, it is breathtaking.

From every corner of the Alhambra, there is a new, alluring view. The architects, unconcerned with the bird's eye or plan view of the building, focused on how people experience space while moving through their environment.

And here is where the fine wine came in and Bethany explained her concept of beauty:

Beauty comes from two things: repetition and the path the eye travels as it looks at something. If the eye can't move easily to the next point of focus, then instinctively it doesn't like it. When the eye finds a smooth path to visually explore an object, then the thing becomes beautiful.  Repetition is also important, because it's reminds us of the rhythm of life, the beating of a heart, and makes us feel whole and connected with nature.

Another important point to appreciate is that "water is the soul of the Alhambra," and I should credit our tour guide who provided us with these interesting details:

The abundance of fountains, pools, and open channels passing between and through the interior spaces shows that water was central to the inhabitants of the Alhambra. Water was considered a gift from Allah which was to be enjoyed, but also returned to the same source from which it came. This understanding made it possible to maintain a clean water source that flowed continuously from it's source in the mountains, through house and after house, and eventually back to the river below.

The open channels running through the palaces not only provided drinking and bathing water, they also cooled and raised the humidity of the shaded courtyards, providing much needed relief in the hot, dry summers of Granada. The channels and pools also reflected light from the sun, illuminating adjacent rooms and creating meditative, dancing patterns on the walls and ceilings.  

Unfortunately, much of the original Alhambra was destroyed beginning around 1492, when the Christians decided to kick out all non-believers and even those who had converted. For the next several hundred years, the Alhambra was left to decay.

Then around 1800, the Alhambra was "rediscovered" by an American traveler Washington Irving who wrote a romantic story entitled "The Tales of the Alhambra." The Spanish monarchy began to take an interest in the site, as did the artists...

Henry Matisse visited the Alhambra in 1910, called it "marvelous" and said he felt "great emotion" while being there.

M.C. Escher, inspired by the ceramic tiling when he visited in 1922, later said these patterns evoked living creatures which continued to intrigue him throughout his life.

But again during in the 1930's, the Alhambra was yet again abandoned, this time as a result of Franco's fascist regime that wanted nothing to do with acknowledging Muslim influences on Spanish culture.

Since the 1990s the Spanish government has taken a more active role in restoring and preserving the Alhambra. Yet our tour guide estimates that over 40% of the Alhambra has not been excavated.

Who knows what secrets will be found? Until now, the story of the Alhambra is written solely by the "winners",  the Northern Europeans Christians who conquered Andalusia. It is clear that there is an entirely different account of this history and much about Muslim culture in Spain that remains to be discovered.


  1. Issabella, your description of this wonderful place, in photos and words, has created another type of beauty!

  2. 'Firmness, Commidity, Delight' You got it right! What a wonderful summation of it all. And, to my memory, you improved our meandering observations and comments!