Thursday, February 12, 2009

La Alhambra - the talisman

Well folks, so far in our travels we have seen some amazing sights attributed to early civilizations but to date they have all centred around western civilisations. Today, we stepped out of that world and into one filled with evocatie images, patterns and sounds. For a little while, we transported back in time to that of the Nasrid dynasty of the Middle East cultures. And what an experience at La Alhambra.

This site as it is seen today dates back to the beginning of the14th Century but is has been developed on a site that was used even earlier. Our introduction to the site was on the bus tour yesterday where as I previously mentioned, we marvelled at the climb and the backdrop of the Sierra Nevadas.

The site itself is san-cars and so we park the car above the main entrance and ticket gate and walk down to purchase tickets and collect audio guides at the start of the day. The introduction has the following poem penned by the Granadian singer Carlos Caro:
Voice of Alhambra
I am the Lord of Glory, the miracle of life, the blessing of life.
I am the territory of light and one of the seven names of Paradise.
I assist to fool melancholy in the memory of the world, to forever ring in the folds of man.
I am the everlasting love, living world and the might of God.
Close your eyes and I will forever be with you.
It is read in a deep sonorous voice that echoes through your head - very evocative!
As we walk up and down the outer wall, making our way to the Justice Gate three quarters of a kilometre away we get our first glimpses of the architecture of this special place. Alhambra means red and it is said that the walls of the city glow red in the evening sky. Parts of the walls are covered in a red-ochre clay over the rust colour of bricks of old. The Justice Gate brings us to the area near the Nasrid Palaces as well as the Charles V Palace. You have a specified time that you must enter the Nasrid Palaces and if you are late, you are denied entry. By the time we get to this point, we have about 20 minutes before our entry time of 10 am and so we take a look first at the Charles V Palace. This is a much later structure, though still every bit as impressive!
The Alhambra sits guard high on the hill overlooking Granada. At the feet of its walls lies the area known as the Albaycin where the Moorish population settled to serve the needs of the palace and fort that towered over it. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing, it is a maze of tight and narrow streets intersperced with small squares. From above, you look down and see a white washed town capped with red tiled roofs. It is an absolute picture. You can just imagine sitting by this window, cross legged on the floor and gazing out over the scene below in cool comfort on a blazing hot summer day.
So at the alloted 10 am we and a small crowd of other visitors are herded down a narrow path to the start of our tour through the Nasarid Palaces. This is not a formal tour, but rather a self-paced journey of discovery, guide book in one hand, camera in the other and audio guide to your ear. You enter through a narrow courtyard with a doorway at the other end that entices with the view of a column. This first room, the hall of the Mexuar gives us our first look at eastern architecture and decoration and whets our appetite for more. The terracotta tiles, worn in parts are interspersed with glazed and highly decorated smaller tiles.

We continue to wander the rooms, sometimes moving forward, other times, retracing our steps to linger a little longer. Arabic writings cover porticos and lintels. Ceilings reach to the heavens and are richly decorated. Arches abound and small niches are found near most doorways. It is a place of peace and tranquility and the worn flooring intimates of the thousands of feet that have trod these halls over the ages. The commentary is excellent and is presented as though being told by the author Washington Irving who wrote 'Tales of the Alhambra'. He lived for a few years in the Nasrid Palace and the commentary talks in the first person, presenting his knowledge and understanding as well as myths and legends. It is very well done and it is easy to relate to the past life of the Palace, imagining that you are there.
Perhaps the most amazing parts of this palace are the Courts. These are open courtyards, symmetrical in design, balancing man and nature and always using the element of water which is explained as a living image of Muslim paradise. These courts are places of reflection and somewhere to commune with Allah or whatever other deity you feel the need to visit. They are all constructed with large slabs of white marble, water pools and fountains. In some, the pools are reflective pools with not a ripple breaking the surface - these reflect the beauty of the buildings surrounding them and the crisp blue sky above, while in others, water from fountains spills gently into them creating the gentlest undulations travelling towards the centre of the pool.

The system of fountains that are dotted throughout the palace is amazing. They are connected by channels trough hich water trickles musically on a constant basis - these channels are about 6 inches wide and 3 inches deep. I guess that in the hot dry days of the Granadan summer, they would also serve to keep these open areas within the Palace cool. Some are interlinked and feed water, the lifeblood of the Muslim into larger central fountains that are memorials or markers. The greatest we saw today was in the Court of Lions where the central fountain was once supported by 12 marble lions carved expressely for this fountain. They have not stood the ravages of time and the passage of waters through their mouths are are no longer in place supporting the fountain. This fountain was modelled after another at the entrance to Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem that was supported by twelve bulls representing the twelved tribes of Israel. Other fountains lead under porticos to feed this one and these porticos and the surrounding arcades are supported by 124 slim marble columns - what imagination and courage the ancient architects displayed!

All throughout the rooms, the carvings and the tilework and the decorated arched windows and doors continue. Just when you think you have seen the best there is, you enter another room just to be awestruck at another! Within other courtyards, there are gardens so that the whole palace surrounds a place of beauty.

Once we have done with the Nasrid Palaces, we climb the stairs and head back towards the entry via the Generalife - the leisure palaces of the Sultans of Granada. We walk alongside the outer fortifications of Le Alhambra and hear the legends of the various wall towers - the garson tower, the prisoner tower and the Tower of the Sisters.

The Generalife is set amogst even more gardens - formal and informal, working gardens and orchards as well as ornamental gardens. Michael goes to have a look while I make my way back towards the exit.

We now know that the reason that visitors are limited in number in time, is to help preserve the sense of awe and wonder. Too many people at a time would result in too much noise and jostling for photos. And in this world of calm and tranquility that would never do!

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