GRANADA, SPAIN, January 16, 2017 – If it is true, as some wise person once said, that “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” then the Alhambra in Spain is the architectural equivalent of that featureless book.
For nearly 250 years the Alhambra palace in Granada, Andalusia, Spain, known affectionately as “The Red Fortress,” served as the palace, harem, residence of court officials and, at one time, a garrison of 40,000 soldiers. Even so, though massive in scale, its relatively unassuming exterior opens into an ultra-decorated interior filled with ornate designs and geometric patterns that virtually cover every inch of its walls, ceilings, courtyards and cloisters.
Begun in the 9th century by the Islamic Caliphate, most of what visitors see today is the result of two reigns between 1333 and 1391. Yusuf I and Muhammad V provided most of the inspiration in what is regarded as the greatest expression of Spanish Muslim art and architecture in the world.
As an inscription on one wall in the Alhambra says, “Nothing in life could be more cruel than to be blind in Granada.” But there is more to the history of the Alhambra than the Moorish influence, for the Christians ousted the Muslims in 1492. In the process, the palace became the residence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Indeed, it was at the Alhambra in the same year that Christopher Columbus obtained his commission to seek a new route to India. For their part, the royal pair stayed busy that year, spending much of their time partially restoring the various palaces to Renaissance preferences.
Among the most enchanting aspects of the Alhambra is the constant sound of flowing water emanating from its fountains. Combined with tiled pools and channels, water is an integral feature of the structure, as is the intricate lacy filigree featured in the Hall of the Two Sisters. The honeycombed patterns, while numerous, somehow retain their simplicity to create a harmonious and pleasing ambiance for all who visit.
Also present are the delightful warbling sounds of nightingales that embellish the omnipresent sound of the cascading water.
Ferdinand and Isabella were also responsible for establishing the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 in an effort to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms. Though not officially abolished until 1834, the Inquisition only had jurisdiction over baptized Christians. There was a loophole, however. Freedom of religion was non-existent during much of the period in which the Inquisition thrived which, therefore related to all royal subjects.
Construction on the fortress began in 889 A.D. on the site of a small Roman fortification. But over several hundred years the Alhambra gradually fell into ruin until it was renovated and rebuilt in the 13th century.
Today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which Moorish poets have described as “a pearl set in emeralds,” referring to the color of the buildings and surrounding woods.
Oddly enough there are also caves encircling the Alhambra which are used as homes. Despite the historical importance of the palace, travelers get a strong dose of contemporary living when they view hundreds of television antennas emanating from the caves.
Visitors today do not enter through the Gate of Justice, the original access. Due to overwhelming attendance, the primary entrance could not accommodate modern-day throngs. The Alhambra is one of those places where visitors frequently fail to allow themselves enough time to see it properly, missing many of the site’s most interesting features.
Among the most popular sites is the Court of the Lions, a rectangular courtyard that is roughly 116 feet long and 66 feet wide. It is surrounded by 124 white marble columns supporting a low gallery with a pavilion penetrating into the court at either end. The delicate and ornate walls extend to a domed roof, while the walls are covered with blue and yellow tiles, with an enameled blue and gold border.
Directly in the center of the courtyard is the Fountain of Lions. Twelve sculpted white marble lions support an alabaster basin that gurgles with the sound of water gently lapping the pool. The lions are not created with anatomic accuracy, but are instead designed to symbolize strength.
Often travelers in a hurry fail to experience the Palacio de Generalife or the “Garden of the Architect.” The Generalife has been restored several times since its creation in the 14th century. Situated on the summit of Monte Mauror is the Martyrs’ Villa commemorating the Christian slaves who were forced to build the Alhambra and confined in subterranean cells when not at work.
Also situated on Monte Mauror are the Vermilion Towers which is a Moorish fortification complete with underground cisterns, stables and accommodations for more than 200 men.
The Alhambra is well worth a visit, and proof positive that under Ferdinand and Isabella, at least, “the reign in Spain didn’t always fall upon the plain.”
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Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club
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