Tuesday, September 13, 2011

El Alhambra

We left our hotel in Granada and walked through the city, seeking our way to a hillside ridge in the Albaycin neighborhood. It was a 45-minute walk, but actually more like a blind man’s tapping through the narrow alleys. First tapping down one cobblestoned way to our left, and then feeling we had headed too far away from the sun and thus trying the next steeper street to our right.

There was a certain urgency to our trek up this hillside neighborhood. It was getting on eight o’clock and the sun was due to set at around quarter of nine.

Finally, we rounded a corner, ascended an alley that was more like extended platforms than stairs and arrived at our destination: a small open plaza, called the Mirador de San Nicolas, in front of the church of the same name. A small church. Unremarkable, really, in a city where even grand churches are dwarfed by Granada’s cathedral. But dozens pilgrimage to this church’s plaza every evening because of its location.
From the plaza’s perch on this hill, the view opens dramatically like a sudden curtain presenting the city below, but more importantly, across a small valley, the grand and enormous El Alhambra.

Alhambra is a colossal complex dating back about a thousand years. It has served as fort, palace, mosque, catholic church, seats of various political powers, and royal retreat to its sultans and kings.

It is one of Europe’s most important historical sites, not just because of its age and sheer size, but also because it is the grandest manifestation of how the Catholics, upon succeeding (read: defeating) the Moors, didn’t demolish and rebuild, but simply subsumed the Moorish mosques and forts with surprisingly few changes. They integrated architectural and religious elements into redesigns of form and function; even leaving the inscriptions to Allah in place and adding their dedications to God right next to them; a religious mingling which is hard to imagine these days.

Alhambra is overwhelming in its enormity, its significance, its beauty, its historical richness, and its latent lessons quietly offered to the receptive.

After touring it for four hours in the early hours of the day, we had taken a siesta back at the hotel and then trekked to this plaza in time for the sunset.

We stepped away from the plaza and sat at an outdoor café and had drinks while waiting for the sunset. A bit offsides of the action. We watched others arrive and vie for a perfect photographic position along the wall. We watched the guitarist arrive and begin his flamenco performance, busking for euros.

All awaited the magical moment when the setting sun would bathe El Alhambra in an orange glow allowing The Red One (literally) to flaunt the awe of its presence and the origin of its name.

This vantage point is perfect for letting your imagination revive this multi-dimensional, multi-faceted complex in various eras. If you start from the right, you can see the fort, the earliest part with its labyrinthine design common to defensive structures.
In the middle, you see the palaces and churches. Now a church, but in this light, in our imagination, we can easily replace the church tower with one of a mosque.

And to the far left, beyond the edge of my composite photo, the Generalife area, which provide a retreat for the royalty. This area originally was the site of the camps for the Christian slaves which built the fort and later the palace structures. Later, it was transformed into a royal retreat with gardens and fountains. An early equivalent of Camp David, if you will.

The evolution of El Alhambra is a quasi-manifestation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: First safety; then development of political and social order; then a garden for creativity and spontaneity.

And yet, how magical can this moment be if elbows are jostling, trying to secure a space wide enough for a view and high enough to snap a photo over the rows of heads in front? Are we here for the moment? The experience and the awe? Or just for the picture? The picture is supposed to be a reminder of the experience. But in actuality, it is, at best, an inadequate, two-dimensional facsimile. Or, at worst, a robber who, as efficiently as a pocket thief, distracts you from the experience, leaving you no time to adequately stow it in your memory.

Stowing “it” in your memory requires more than just the image. Because “it” is not just the visual of the Alhambra. It is the experience of perceiving El Alhambra.

The experience consists of the warm dry air, which must be remembered through the skin. The warmth here in the foothills of Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is more bearable now than in the afternoon when the temperatures hovered in the mid-nineties. The warmth on this ridge is felt more intensely by the slight breeze, as if you were standing in front of warm heater.

The experience consists of the silence in the gap of the valley between this ridge and the monstrous, majestic Alhambra, contrasted with the sounds of the busker, the cars, the mopeds, and the tourists’ chatter.

The warm, sound-filled silence is complimented by clean scents blowing off the Sierra Nevada ridge on the horizon, across the hills and valleys and mingling with the Alhambra’s gardens fecund with pomegranate trees, lime trees, juniper hedges, cedar, the myrtle courtyard, and the flower gardens.

Ever so gradually, the light of this vista becomes richer. The sky, a deeper blue. The lit surfaces of buildings and walls, a sharper bright. The sun’s angle lowers, becomes more relaxed, lengthening shadows of the church steeples and buildings in the city below.

All of this luscious light casts Alhambra in more nuanced hues, deepening the red of its walls, revealing their rutty textures. The proud towers with their crenellation crowns.  The arched windows, darker now and thus inviting the reverse imagination of what a sultan or prince or king might thought at this slanting hour as he gazed out at this ridge or the kingdom below.

In a word, the experience of El Alhambra is, at this hour, more present.

I wanted to write so much more about the Red One. The interior detail of the Arabesques amazed me most. But I have run out of time to write more, so these photos will have to tell the thousand words:

 An arabesque detail.

From this panel:

And that panel would just part of a larger wall, or part of an arch like this one:
Click on this photo of the arch and appreciate the dappled sunlight coming through the grated "windows."

A fuzzy photo of an interior room, with stalactite, honey-comb arches and more detailed tiling:

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