Around 7pm in autumn, a golden light cradles La Alhambra, a Moorish fortress and palace complex located in Granada, Spain. The reddish exterior walls and the surrounding woods stand with their shoulders square and crowns basking in the glow, as if to show off their undisputed majesty.
Indeed, the UNESCO World Heritage site is so revered that shortly after sunrise, a long line of tourists shuffle slowly through a winding queue at the entrance, waiting for their chance to visit what Salman Rushdie called the Moor’s Last Sigh developed over eight centuries of Nasrid rule in southern Spain. We did too. Step in for a peak at what we found.
La Alhambra, which means The Red One, was originally constructed during the mid 10th century by Badis ben Habus, the Berber rule of the Kingdom of Granada. It sits high above the surrounding city on the hill of the Assabica, and is separated from the neighborhoods on its northern flank by deep ravines and the Darro river.
Although the palatial complex and fortress features some of the finest examples of Islamic art, and the architecture’s not bad either, it reveals a haphazard construction process that extended over a period of many centuries.
The 1,530,000 sq ft palace city was renovated by a succession of dynasties from the 9th century to the 16th century, when the holy Roman Emperor Charles V inserted his own palace within the Nasrid fortifications. But during every epoch, particularly during Islamic rule, there was an emphasis on creating a heaven on earth couched within a rather plain shell.
And what does heaven look like? Think of the sound of trickling fountains and of rows of roses and orange trees. Think Calliphal horseshoe arches framing views of the valley, of detailed muqarnas (stalactite ceiling decorations) peering down at you from above. Think pretty painted tiles on towering walls. Reflection pools double the magic of the buildings, which feature increasingly finicky arabesques crafted by the Christian, Jewish and Muslim artisans of the time.
Carrying their iPads (the commoners camera of the 21st century?), iPhones and sometimes more sophisticated photographic equipment, visitors crawl through 13 towers, the Alcazaba fortress, the Nasrid palaces, which are the most frequently visited sections of the meandering complex, and the Generalife, which includes a high palace and low sculptural gardens used as a playground for the monarchs of Granada.
We also crawled, stopping at every carved door, marveling at the sheer number of people who flock to the site. It took us hours just to get through the palaces, and then we spent another watching the sun melt into the forest.
And around every corner, down every narrow passage, and in front of every golden arch, we felt so proud of this Arab world marvel. The Moors demonstrated remarkable sophistication as well as a celestial reverence for both nature and god.
It made us hopeful too that the parts of the Arab world embroiled in merciless self-destruction will one day emerge with a refreshed sense of purpose, in the same way that the Arabian Gulf countries have awoken from the slumber of their oil wealth into something of a green renaissance, an active and creative response to the climate and resource challenges of the day.
This is what La Alhambra inspires: a look within, a look without. And a desire to make our immediate surroundings a more beautiful place.
All images by Tafline Laylin. Please write for permission to use them.