“What are you doing this weekend?” my Spanish teacher asked.
“Ah, Granada. It’s a wonderful city. Are you going to see the Alhambra?”
He sighed expressively through puckered lips—a very Spanish habit.
“You’re going to love the Alhambra,” he said. “I think it’s the most beautiful thing in Spain.”
This was perhaps the fifth or sixth time I had brought up the Alhambra to a Spaniard here, and every time I got the same reaction. They would sigh and look away into the distance of their own memory, then mutter “It’s beautiful,” and stop—as if nothing more could be said on the subject. I knew I had to go.
But although their words failed them on the subject of the Alhambra, everyone was very careful to warn us to buy our tickets ahead of time. I repeat the warning to you. Don’t show up in Granada expecting to walk right into the Alhambra. Buy your tickets online, a few weeks in advance. I used Ticketmaster, though there might be a better option.
The tickets were bought; the reservations were made; the train ride was booked. We were going to Granada to see the Alhambra.
Our train left at an odious hour in the morning, so early that we almost missed it. We climbed aboard at the last moment, confused, dazed, disoriented, hungry, tired, frazzled, miserable.
I planned to read, but promptly feel asleep. The book I was reading was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I’d started in preparation for our voyage. As I mentioned in my review, Irving is quite a special figure for me, since he lived in my childhood town in New York. It was thus strange and gratifying to find out that he’d lived in Spain as well, and had written a whole book about his time visiting the Alhambra.
In the weeks before our trip, this book only served to intensify the feeling of awe with which I contemplated my visit. Irving writes of the place with such Romantic intensity, such breathless wonder, that now Granada loomed ahead in my imagination like a dreamy fantasy.
But Granada is anything but a dream, as I realized in the train station when I woke up, dazed, drooling, and bleary-eyed. Granada is a city, and at first glance it didn’t look very different from Madrid. Indeed, Granada is a college town; young people were everywhere. Our Airbnb host was a sample of this species, a nice young man with dread locks and a goatee. Our room was in an apartment occupied by students—who were all very quiet and clean, by the way—right in the center of town.
After taking a short nap and fueling ourselves with caffeine and churros, we headed towards the cathedral, which was only five minutes away.
Granada is famous for being the last stronghold in Muslim Spain to fall to the Reconquista. This happened during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, in 1492, a year of great symbolic importance for Spain, since that was also the year that Columbus set sail for the Americas. This was the beginning of Spain as we know it, a unified, Catholic empire. Thus the Granada Cathedral has great symbolic importance in the national imagination of the country.
The cathedral was built in a Renaissance style, atop the remains of the former mosque. It is a lovely building. The insides radiate with light. Everything is white and gold, and shine splendidly in the sunshine that pours in through the windows. The forms are clean and graceful—straight lines, gentle curves, perfect circles. The main altar sits underneath the central dome; and built into the walls on each side are a statue of Ferdinand and Isabella, knelt in prayer. Piety is not above propaganda.
After seeing the cathedral, we headed to the Royal Chapel, a large gothic structure right next door. This is where Isabella and Ferdinand are buried. Granada was chosen for their burial site because of its symbolic importance in their reign; here is where Catholicism triumphed over Islam, and here is where they rest after their long and eventful reigns. Isabella apparently wanted a modest tomb, but since she died before Ferdinand, he got his way. The Chapel is as big as a church, with its own ornate altar and rows of pews.
In one corner was a museum. There were a few religious paintings here, none of which interested me particularly. Also present were some objects used by the Catholic Monarchs themselves: a scepter, a sword, and a crown. The role symbols like these play in the exercise of power fascinates me. After all, for the most part power isn’t physical force. Power is psychological and social; it lives in attitudes and rituals, and depends on convincing people of its legitimacy. Symbols, therefore, play an essential role, not only in the pomp of power, but in its very existence, since it is through symbols that rulers render their legitimacy visible.
In the center of the main room were four cenotaphs: two for the Catholic monarchs, one for their daughter, Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), and one for her husband, Felipe el Hemoso (Phillip the Fair). These are elaborately decorated monuments, but don’t actually contain the remains. They are shaped like sarcophagi. Each is carved into the image of the deceased, lying peacefully in death, surrounded by decorative motifs. It was hard to get a very good look at these, though, since they were separated with a grille and were a bit too tall, even for me.
Right underneath these cenotaphs was the actual burial site. A stone staircase led down to a little chamber in the floor, where you can see the coffins. These are astonishingly simple; they are plain and black, sitting in an undecorated granite room. Imagine: these individuals shaped an entire country as we know it; they are perhaps the most consequential rulers in Spanish history. Here they are, a pile of dust and ashes sitting in a black coffin.
I thought of those words of Hamlet:
Alexander dies, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?
These words, like so many from that play, have stuck with me for the terrible truth they reveal. We like to think that fame lends great people a certain sort of immortality; their accomplishments, their work, their names are lauded and remembered throughout the centuries. But this is the emptiest form of ‘immortality,’ since you remain just as mortal, just as liable to disease and tragedy; and of course fame doesn’t help you once you’re gone. I looked at the coffins of these two rulers, and couldn’t help thinking of those words, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” written in the very Bible that these two monarchs fought all their lives to spread, the same book from whose leaves these monarchs legitimized their conquests. All this—this magnificent tomb, these monuments, these coffins—seemed to pose a simple question to me: Why? And I could not answer.
Aside for urging us to see the Alhambra, everyone we asked told us about the food in Granada. It’s free! From what I understand, it used to be typical in all of Spain to receive a substantial plate of food when you order a drink. Now, this isn’t the case. In Madrid, for example, your drink will come with a snack, but this is typically something very small—a few potato chips, some nuts, or maybe just olives. But in Granada (I was told) this old custom remains, and you can eat well for pennies.
I looked up a bar in my phone for free tapas, and got sent to a part of town where many of the students live. We sat down—an hour or so before usual Spanish lunch time—and ordered drinks. Indeed, they came with a bowl of soup, and very good soup. But it was hardly enough for a meal. We ordered two more tapas, and got absolutely stuffed. The full bill? Nine euros.
This done, we decided to explore the city center. It was a chilly day. Granada is in many ways a typical Andalusian city—the friendly people, the architecture, the accent—but in one way it is quite different: it gets cold. This is because Granada is up in the Sierra Nevada, at almost 800 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level. That’s even higher than Madrid, at 670 meters (2,200 feet) above sea level. Thus, like Madrid, it gets very cold in the winters and very hot in the summers.
Today, however, it was just a bit nippy. Still, we were spoiled from just having spent so much time in Andalusia, so we were walking with our hands in our pockets and our necks buried in our collars. We were in the Albaicin neighborhood now, the prettiest and the most historical part of town. It sits on the hillside opposite the Alhambra, so the walk up is quite steep—at least for a lazy American like me.
On one street in this neighborhood are dozens of shops. They were selling leather bags, wooden boxes with “Moorish” decorations, and other more typical touristy things like T-shirts. Curiously, however, genuinely Arabic music (or so it sounded to me) emanated from each of these shops, and the owners looked like they were from the Middle East or North Africa. Just nearby, a street vendor had a sign that advertised “Your name in Arabic, 1€.” I suppose many tourists come to Granada seeking some mystical, Oriental experience, and a few enterprising people have come here to fill that niche.
We kept walking up. On the mountainside high up above, far beyond any buildings, I made out the remains of an old wall, climbing up and over the mountain into the distance. In a time without airplanes or automobiles, invading a place ensconced high up in the mountains must have been a huge pain, to say the least. This is why it took so long for the Catholics to take Granada: its location is ideal for defense.
Aside from defense, these mountains were majestic. Every direction I turned, their peaks stretched into the distance. No wonder Washington Irving’s imagination went wild here, as he contemplated all the unexplored corners that must remain in this Sierra. In so many of his stories in his Tales of the Alhambra, he has one of his characters stumble upon an enchanted cave in the mountains, where some poor Moor or Christian has been cursed. Such things seemed more plausible as I saw the Sierra Nevada for myself.
The sun was setting now, so we decided to go to the Mirador de San Nicolas, the Saint Nicholas Viewpoint. This is a little terrace next to an old church, with the best view of the Alhambra in the city. By the time we arrived, it was already swarming with people. A woman was selling paintings of Granada, done in pastel colors, which were leaning on a nearby tree. A guitarist and a singer were playing flamenco, surprisingly good flamenco, only interrupting the performance so that the guitarist could walk around with his guitar outstretched, asking for tips. Everyone else was a tourist. They were doing the typical dance: posing for pictures, switching partners, posing for more pictures. The more ambitious and affluent tourists were fiddling with expensive cameras; the younger were pursing their lips for selfies.
We squirmed our way through the crowd and found an empty seat on the stone fence that marked the edge of the terrace. There we could sit, our legs dangling over the edge above the street below, looking at the Alhambra as the sun went down. The Alhambra is rather unremarkable from the outside. As we learned later, all of the ornamentation is concealed within. From here, it presents the viewer with the aspect of a fortress, which indeed it is. The Alhambra is not one building, but a complex of buildings within a wall. It sits on a hill, with a commanding view of the surrounding city. Its squat, square, and thick walls are sand-colored. On its left-hand side, one pointed spire breaks the skyline; the rest of the complex is rigidly rectangular. From this vantage point, its majesty comes not from its buildings but from its location, nestled snugly on the elevation. In the distance beyond rose the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
We had nothing else to do that day, so we stayed for a long while. People came and went; the musicians kept playing (I wondered how the guitarist’s fingers were doing in the chilly air); sitting next to us, British exchange students gossiped. The sun set to our right, flaring up in a brilliant fireball flash before fading and falling behind the horizon. Gradually, the daylight seeped out of the sky and the city began to stir. After an hour, it was night; now light came not from above but from the city below, each building a bright pinprick, just like the stars overhead.
Looking out at this, I lapsed into my usual silence.
“Whatcha thinkin about?” my girlfriend asked after a while.
“Why do humans have the ability to find things beautiful?”
She shrugged her shoulders; my philosophizing usual bores her, understandably. So I pursued the thought in my head.
It is an interesting question: Why do humans have this capacity for aesthetic appreciation? Beauty is not useful. Beautiful buildings protect us from the elements just as well as ugly ones. And beautiful scenes like this do nothing practical. Why did we evolve this capacity? Well, perhaps we didn’t; perhaps our aesthetic sense is an example of a ‘spandrel’, the word coined by Stephen Jay Gould for non-adaptive results of evolution. Thus our sense of beauty might be a byproduct of some more useful cognitive adaptation.
This doesn’t seem right. Our aesthetic abilities are well-developed and robust. Every human group in the world has some form of music and decorative art. But why? It’s easy to see why we find the human form beautiful, since this is closely allied with sexual attraction. We were made for mating, after all, and thus need to find other humans attractive. What about something like a cave or a cathedral? Maybe the humans who found these spaces beautiful survived better than those who didn’t, because they were safer? And what about the night sky? Did humans who were drawn to the night sky have some advantage over humans who weren’t? It seems far-fetched, but perhaps the ability to orient oneself at night by the stars played a role in this. I doubt it.
I suspect some would argue that sexual selection played a role in this. Humans developed a fine and delicate aesthetic sense because art and music are demonstrations of intelligence; thus able practitioners of the arts show themselves to be good mates, since they not only have the mental ability to create compelling works, but also the time and energy to devote to art, a purposefully pointless pursuit. This interpretation thus makes aesthetic appreciation similar to the female peacock’s appreciation of the male peacock’s tale.
All this is idle speculation. Besides, it seems somehow vulgar of me to attribute this ability to the race to breed and succeed. There is an otherworldly sublimity to aesthetic pleasure. The experience is valuable not for reasons of the flesh, of practical necessity, or to fatten one’s wallet, but for itself. Gazing out at the city, I enjoyed a purely impersonal pleasure, a pleasure cleansed of all selfish motives. It is this pleasure, a somewhat cold and yet grand feeling, that ennobles you, for it teaches you to look on life with a detached appreciation. We learn to appreciate things for their own qualities, and not for how these qualities affect us.
So my thoughts ran, inspired by the view before me, until I got chilly and we had to go. We ate at another restaurant and went to bed early. The next day was our visit to the Alhambra.
We hardly had time for breakfast. We shoveled a package of Serrano Ham and breadsticks we’d bought the night before into our mouths, and started power walking to the Alhambra.
The walk to the entrance is almost entirely up hill. The path runs adjacent to the complex, whose walls loom overhead as you approach. We passed by the Puerta de la Justicia, an impressive fortified castle entrance. Above the door was a single open hand, palm turned away, turned towards the sky. According to the guide book I bought the other day, the five fingers are symbolic of the five pillars of Islam.
But I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate this. I was panicking, unsure how to retrieve our online tickets, worried that we’d given ourselves too little time. You see, the tickets come with a specific entry time for the most famous section of the Alhambra, the Palacios Nazaríes, which in English we just call the Moorish Palace. I was worried that, if the lines were too long, we would arrive to late for our entry time: 10:30.
But it worked out marvelously. We picked up our tickets from a machine, skipped the line to get in, and were soon standing in the line for the Palaces. In fact, we arrived rather too early, and now we had to wait.
After the excitement of the morning wore off, I got rather bored standing there. It was another chilly day. In front of us, some middle-aged Spaniards were having a jolly time, talking and laughing. Behind us was a group of tourists from China. I was still cranky and tired; I hadn’t had coffee yet, and the breakfast wasn’t big enough. My girlfriend left for a few minutes to go find a map. I shifted back and forth, idly looking around. Already the place was swarming with people. To my left was a large palace, obviously Christian in origin; to my right was a wall separating us from the Alcazaba, the main fortress. I shivered, my stomach groaned, but as soon as the line began to move, the excitement returned. We were going to see the Alhambra.
It is here that I hesitate to proceed. The insides of these palaces were so magnificent that I can’t help feeling that my attempts to describe them will be merely pathetic. Partly to compensate, I will be relying on some information I gleaned from the guidebook I bought while I was there, The Alhambra and Granada in Focus. (It’s quite a good book, by the way.) Using this as a crutch, I will limp into this fool’s errand.
Before I entered the palace, I paused to take a picture of the horseshoe arch over the doorway. It turns out that this quintessentially Moorish form, the crescent shaped archway, was actually introduced to the Moors by the Goths of Medieval Spain, and later spread throughout the whole Islamic world. This is just one of the many ways that the Christian and Muslim worlds are deeply intertwined.
We went in. My first thought was that the place looked very much like the insides of the Alcázar in Seville, which indeed it does. Everywhere the walls are covered in elaborate stucco ornamentation. Much of these use floral or vegetal motifs, twisting vines, budding flowers, curling leaves; but these forms are so stylized that they have only the most cursory resemblance with real plants. Rather, the shapes are reduces to their barest elements, and twisted and turned around one another until the eye cannot follow the pattern without getting lost. Another constant element of the ornamentation was the curvy Arabic script that adorns rooms and surrounds doorways. Of course I couldn’t read a word of this, but I learned from the guidebook that one of the most common inscriptions is the motto of the erstwhile sultans: “God is the only conqueror.” Apart from this message of humility, other inscriptions are poems in praise of the architecture or the ruler, or otherwise pious injunctions to visitors.
The final effect of this decoration is starkly different from that of Christian edifices. Catholicism is a religion of the eye; images were crucial to the religion, not least because most of the congregation could not read. Thus the elaborate mythology of Catholicism is represented in devotional images, a kind of visual Gospel for the letterless. Islam is, by contrast, a religion of the ear, or so it seems to me. The inscriptions on the walls play a similar role as the paintings of Catholicism, instructing the visitor with words rather than forms.
There is a wonderful passage in the guidebook, excerpted from Titus Burckhardt, where he explains how the ornamentation was intended to affect the viewers. We are not supposed to get absorbed in the story or the meaning of the decoration—as we are in Christian art—but rather to lose ourselves, in the same way we lose ourselves when listening to music or looking at a fire. Indeed, the abstract forms covering each wall is the closest thing I’ve seen to visual music. The curls and curves wash over you, producing a meditative calm.
But perhaps the final effect was different for those who lived here. One would need several months to begin to make sense of this forest of detail; a day’s visit is not nearly enough. Imagine what it was like before the internet and TV, before we could buy posters or postcards, before even books were widely available. Imagine what it was like for the people who lived here, in a time when you had to be physically present to see something beautiful, and to own a book you had to pay a fortune. To these people, running their eyes over these walls must have been like watching television, though considerably better for you.
Another striking difference with much Christian architecture is the size. These palaces are not monumental structures, designed to crush the viewer with the weight of the heavens. Rather, they are built on a human scale. The ceiling, the doorways, the courtyards—they are delightfully intimate and comfortable. You feel that you could really live here, that it was designed for people and not gods. This is related to another quality of Moorish architecture. Hardly any effort is put into the façade; in fact from the outside the palaces look quite modest. The whole orientation is, rather, internal. Islam is an introspective and introverted religion, or at least it was here. The plain outside reveals a labyrinthine interior, with hallways and courtyards, a private world cut off from the outside. One feels that one is walking through the passages of a subtle and brilliant mind.
This brings me to another distinctive difference: the layout. Christian cathedrals and palaces are planned in an orderly, symmetrical shape. It’s hard to get lost in a cathedral, since the floor plan is so easy to sense once you’re inside. The Moorish palaces, by contrast, are twisting, mysterious, and surprising. I had no idea what to expect every time I rounded a corner or went through a doorway. This makes a walk through these palaces something like the unfolding of a great story, where each twist is refreshing and unforeseen while still maintaining the cogency of the whole.
I must pause here. I don’t want to give you too picturesque an impression. Though I couldn’t help but be amazed, there were simply too many tourists there to lapse into romantic daydreaming, or even to properly analyze my experience. The place was simply swarming. Every few feet, I had to duck or stop suddenly in order to avoid ruining someone else’s picture. You stop trying pretty quickly. How many photos of me did somebody take away? My face might be inadvertently hanging on somebody’s refrigerator in Berlin or Singapore. Who knows?
There was a couple taking wedding pictures, a gaggle of college girls, a Chinese family on holiday, boisterous Spanish senior citizens, young couples in love, a lonely teenage boy wearing headphones and a frown—a slice of the world was packed into the palace, and each person wanted to get a good selfie. The best corners and crevices for pictures were inevitably occupied, and had a line of people already waiting for their turn. It always amuses me to see somebody, usually young, go from a blank expression to an ecstatic smile in seconds when the camera is pointed at them. Some people go further, and throw their hands up in the air. Of course, once the picture is taken, the hands come down, the blank expression returns, and they begin again the determined hunt for selfie opportunities.
Let me return to the architecture. Apart from the stuccoed patterns, the bottom half of the walls were covered in tiles. These didn’t attract my attention at the time. But after recently watching Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, I’ve grown quite fascinated with them. In that program, Bronowski shows the viewer how the patterns represent sophisticated understandings of symmetry. According to him, the Muslims understood space much more deeply than the Greeks ever did, and this understanding is manifested in the elaborate patterns of tear drops, wavy triangles, hexagons, and more, arranged so that they have rotational symmetry, mirror symmetry, and other sorts of symmetries I can’t explain. The great Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, found these patterns fascinating, and in fact made sketches of them as studies. You can clearly see the influence in his work.
In the sides of some doorways were little nooks, like cubby holes, elaborately decorated. I found these curious, but hadn’t any idea what they were for. According to the guide, these were for holding jugs of water. You see, water has a special significance in Islam, probably because the religion grew up in a desert. This is why there are so many pools and fountains in the palaces; and this also explains the undulating pattern of many of the tiled walls in the Alhambra. Water is here elevated to a powerful and multivalent symbol. Like life itself, water flows constantly, always the same and yet ever new. Like a mirror, water reflects the visible world, in the same way that the visible world is only a reflection of the divine reality. It is pure and life-giving; it washes the body in the same way that piety cleanses the soul.
This reinforces the idea of impermanence that formed an essential part of the perspective of the former rulers. “The only conqueror is God.” All earthly conquest is merely a temporary changing of hands. Everything human will pass away. According to the guide, this is why the materials used in the construction of these palaces were not chosen to last. While the walls were necessarily built to be solid and permanent, the palace itself was constructed from materials that would fade with time. To me, this is a wonderfully poetic.
I have left the most stunning part for last: the ceilings. In some rooms, the ceilings were made of ornamented wood. At the time, I thought that the ornament was merely carved into the wood; but the reality is far more interesting. The wonderful floral patterns in the wooden ceilings were made from thousands of individual pieces of wood attached to one another. Don’t ask me how this was done; I have no idea how a stable roof can be pieced together in such a way. But the designs are so stunning that you can’t help giving yourself a neck ache looking up at them. And what’s most impressive is that this effect is achieved with no representation. The most beautiful abstract art in history was made long before the 20th century.
Even more incredible than these wooden ceilings were the Mocárabes. The only way I can describe these is to say they look like the inside of a cave; and according to the guide, this was intentional. Muhammad was, in Muslim tradition, given the Koran in a cave outside Mecca. Thus caves, like water, have a special significance in Islam.
These Mocárabes are an architectural recreation of the inside of a cave. Like the wooden ceilings, they are composed of thousands of tiny segments. These pieces are not random, but are organized into types; according to my guide book, there are seven distinct shapes in one ceiling. These shapes could be combined in any sequence you like, but in practice are organized into breathtakingly complex patterns. What supernatural patience would be required to create something like this? Imagine the poor workman, surrounded by thousands of identical pieces of stucco, fitting them together piece by piece, one by one. I get a bit woozy thinking about it.
I can hardly say more. We passed through the Hall of the Ambassadors and the Courtyard of the Lions, nudging our way through the crowd and taking pictures of everything. It was hard to know how to react to it all. It was like being given one hour to study a foreign language; I didn’t know where to start or what to do. So I shuffled somewhat apologetically through the buildings, my mind a perfect blank, just looking, seeing, observing. Finally, we ended up walking through a more domestic building. It was here that my girlfriend pointed out to me the room where Irving stayed. There was a sign posted over the door.
It was such a strange experience seeing that man’s name here in Granada. I couldn’t connect it all together in my mind. Irving’s Alhambra was so different from mine. His was a place of princesses and warriors; mine a land of smart phones and tourists. His, an enchanted palace; mine, a swarming tourist trap. What connected us two, we children of the Hudson? What brought us both here, so many years apart? How had my life made such a perfect circle? I felt at that moment something I rarely feel, the pull of destiny; and I did not know what it meant or whether it meant anything at all.
We left the room and walked out onto the balcony. Before us was Granada, rows and rows of white houses shining in the sun. It was as bright and cloudless as every Andalusian day, but still quite chilly. To my left, I could make out the viewpoint from which we had seen the Alhambra the previous day. If I squinted, I could see the crowd gathered there, and I wondered if any of them could see me. And I realized then how perfect a metaphor this was for my experience with Irving. Here I was, looking back on the place I saw the Alhambra from the day before. And here I was, looking from Europe to America rather than the reverse. The wind whipped up, and a chill ran through me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was locking eyes with my past.
We were standing in the Palace of Charles V. This is one of the Christian edifices in the complex, built after the Reconquista. It’s a rather strange building. The perimeter is square, but the inside contains a circular courtyard that reminded me most strongly of the bullring in Ronda. Certainly the building was nice, but after walking through the Moorish Palaces, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by it.
We wandered up the stairs to the second floor, and discovered there an art museum. Mainly for some relief from the cold, we went inside. I don’t have any strong memories of the museum. We simply weren’t in the mood to be viewing paintings. I did very much appreciate the heat, though.
After that, we saw the Alcazaba, the old Moorish fortress. This sits at the most westerly end of the complex, overlooking the city below. It is a severe and military structure, of featureless sand-colored rock. A watchtower stands at the tip of the hill, surrounded on both sides by walls. We stood on these walls for a while, enjoying the view of the city on one side, and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada on the other. I wasn’t very interested in the fortress itself; it wasn’t made to be pretty, but to be strong.
Next we went to the Moorish baths. It’s hard to guess their former function by looking at them now; they appear as simple rooms, below ground, in a small brick structure. In general, the most charming feature of Moorish baths are the star-shaped holes in the ceiling, allowing light to stream into the otherwise dark and damp interior. Other than this, however, they are unadorned. Nearby, there was a church, which we peeked in. But this couldn’t hold our interest. In retrospect, I think we were more than a little fatigued at this point.
But we still wanted to see the Generalife. This is the old retreat of the Granadan sultans. It is situated on the other end of the hill, about a ten minute walk from the palaces. Not much of a getaway, if you ask me.
It is beautiful, though. The walk to the Generalife takes you through a garden, with plants neatly arranged in little square plots, dividing the space into rows and columns. But it was the middle of January, and there was not a flower to be seen; bushes and bare branches were our welcome party. This is the only thing I regret about going when we did. Otherwise, the middle of January is a great time to visit the Alhambra, if only because it’s the least crowded time of the year.
Thus, we didn’t dwell on these gardens, but went on straight through to the Generalife. Like the Moorish palaces, this is a fairly modest structure in size. In fact, I know people with houses bigger than this, which is a testament to the lack of ostentation of these Moorish sultans. The building is oriented around a large, rectangular, central courtyard. This is the water garden. Here again we see the quality of introversion and the preoccupation with water that we saw with the Moorish palaces. A long pool extends from end to end, with jets of water making arcs in the air that mirrored the horseshoe arches that surround the courtyard. A little fountain sat on one end; and trees and plants, many still green, lined either side of the pool.
Of course, there was a line to take a picture at the best spot—right in the entrance, looking straight out over the pool to the other end. I dutifully waited my turn, took a picture, and then walked to the side facing west. From here you can see the Alhambra, nestled on its perch, looking delicate and fragile. That same feeling I felt in the tomb of the Catholic Monarchs came over me, the feeling of doomed impermanence. How long will the Alhambra last? How long will these gardens last? Finally, humanity has come together to protect our heritage, after hundreds of years of destruction. But time conquers all, and slowly and inevitably the passing years will sink their teeth into this and every other human creation, and destroy it. It may happen gradually, or in one catastrophic instant. Should that inevitability bother me?
Perhaps I was just feeling melancholic because, the night before, I was rejected for a teaching position in Germany for next year. I was again without plans. Thoughts of the future hung over me like storm clouds, darkening all I saw. But of course, the future is always uncertain, even if we do have a plan. No amount of planning or preparation can bring any guarantee. This is the nature of life. Still, having a plan provides some degree of psychological comfort, at least, even if this comfort is ultimately illusory. The fate of the Alhambra is a magnificent testament to the uncertainty of life. Here it stands. But where are the people who built it? Gone; vanished. And if such a magnificent civilization could cease to exist, what hopes do our plans have?
We kept walking, and soon I snapped out of it. The place was delightful. We passed through the Generalife and reached a stairway. This is the famous Water Stairway that leads up to a viewpoint at the top of the complex. The name comes from the little streams that run down either side of the stairwell, where the railways are normally. The walk up was interrupted by several small circular areas with a fountain in the middle. It’s unbelievably romantic; suddenly I felt that I was walking through a Disney cartoon or something. At the top, we could see the terraced gardens below, rows and rows cut into the hillside, all covered with trapezoidal ferns and flower plots.
Another stairwell led down, and we found ourselves walking through a long promenade covered with trees. Thus we were led to the entrance. We had seen everything we’d come to see. Four hours had gone by, and soon the next batch of tourists would be entering. It was time to leave. I turned for one final look at the Alhambra, feeling like Boabdil himself—the last Moorish ruler—who famously turned and gave a final sigh before retreating across the Straight of Gibraltar. What must have gone through his head, to leave behind something so precious as this?
On the walk down, we passed a statue of Washington Irving. On the base was inscribed “Son of the Alhambra.” It was lovely to meet him face to face after all these years. I said hello, took a picture, and kept moving.
I haven’t much more to tell. That night, we went to see a flamenco show, which was good; but since I’ve already written a description of a flamenco show in my post about Seville, I will pass over this. The next morning, we woke early to take a Blablacar home. We rode with an affable and unhurried Andalusian couple, and slowly made our way north, after various stops along the way, to Madrid.
How many artists and poets have made works about the Alhambra? How many writers? Washington Irving, one of the best American writers, had to make up a dozen fairy tales to express his feelings, and even that wasn’t enough. Scholars have studied every square inch of the place; brilliant minds have analyzed the mathematics, the architecture, and the history. And yet all this writing and drawing and studying, to which this is my pathetic contribution, seems so puny in comparison with their subject, the Alhambra. It is the finest monument of a lost civilization, a testament to the splendor and impermanence of human genius: “A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”