Text and pictures by Mathias Tugores
IN 1492, Spain had more than one reason to celebrate: on October 12, Columbus crossed the great Dark Sea and discovered the New World, while in early January, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel the Catholic drove the Moors out of the country. The Reconquista was a slow process which lasted nearly eight centuries.
In 711, 5,000 Berbers under the leadership of Tarik landed in Gibraltar. Within a matter of five years the whole of the Iberian peninsula (with the exception of the small Christian nuclei in northern Spain) was theirs and the course of Western civilisation was altered. The culture and science they brought converted Moorish Spain into a land of learning well ahead of its time.
At times, the Islamic presence in Spain flourished, at times it dwindled into warring and fratricidal fiefdoms. The Moors and the Christians went on building fortifications and castles to consolidate and expand their territories.
It was in Granada, which rose at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, that the Moorish architects, inspired by educated emirs keen on Art, built their most outstanding works, both military and civilian. They transformed the capital of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) into a jewel, the most important architectural achievement of the Middle Ages.
The favourite of the last Moorish kings whose empire was shrinking under the raids of the Reconquest was a small independent state stretching from Gibraltar to the frontier of Murcia.
Medina Al-Hamra (the city of Alhambra) stood up on the Red Hill, one of the three mounds over Granada. It was shaped like a vessel whose prow, formed by the alcazaba (the citadel) was oriented towards the city, with a length of over 700 metres and a maximum width of 200 metres. It was the seat of the government and the sultan had his residence there.
Sober-looking from the outside, the spell begins when one walks past the 14th-century Puerta de la Justicia, a rectangular tower linked by one of its flanks to the city wall. It fronts the Puerta del Vino (the Wine Gate) whose name was derived from a wine market which stood there from 1554. The intricate labyrinth of the medieval city led to the upper part of the Alhambra where around 2,000 inhabitants lived.
Though the palaces of the Alhambra were built during different epochs, they nevertheless give the impression of unity and harmony. The Alhambra grew from century to century; from its beginnings it went on unplanned, extending from the alcazaba which was built near the end of the 9th century.
In 1238, Muhammad ben Yusuf ben Nasr, the ruler of Arjona, took possession of the city. As the alcazaba was not regarded as fit for a king, he and his successors relentlessly built small palaces, mosques, schools and baths all around the grounds. Over the years the Alhambra grew to be a palatine city housing an aristocratic population in constant growth. Its Palace of Camares with its Hall of the Ambassadors and its Patio of the Arrayanes, the centre of the diplomatic and political activity of the Alhambra, comprised the most important nucleus of the residential area.
Its Patio de los Leones (Lion courtyard) was the nucleus of the private house of the Sultan. By the end of 1362, when the structures surrounding it were being built, there was nothing standing except the Hall of the Two Sisters. It is today Spain’s most precious Moorish monument. The fountain after which it is named is believed to have been inspired by the one which according to the Bible stood at the entrance to the temple of Jerusalem. It was known as “Sea of Bronze” and was supported by the bulls of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Twelve marble lions surround a basin which is thought to have been richly decorated. Along its rim is engraved a poetic composition of Ibn Zamrak which explains how the complex and ingenious hydraulic system supplying water to it functioned.
The courtyard is lined with 124 slender columns of white marble. Their capitals, which were originally painted, are highly elaborate: the ceilings of the arcades enclosing it are exquisitely worked and the walls covered with delicate pillow-lace-like stucco ornamentation.
Slightly off-centred, the Generalife, which derives its name from “Djennat al Arif” (high garden) was used by the sultans as a country residence. The architecture, gardens, and the view the Generalife commands makes it a delightful and serene place.
Islamic culture in Spain, which had begun to flourish in earnest during the reign of Abderraman I, came to an end in January 1492. The Reconquista which had been initiated as early as the year 718, when in Covadonga King Pelayo crushed the troops of the emir of Cordoba, was finally over.