August 24, 2018

MOORISH TALES

Words Mitalee Deshpande

The construction is more astonishing because of the fact that the architects designed the lavish palaces with modest means

Notre Dame-Cathédral

A CASTLE, A SULTAN’S PALACE, AND A CITY, ALHAMBRA IS A FORTRESS OF JUXTAPOSITIONS WITH OPEN COURTYARDS LEADING TO CLOSED ROOMS, INTRICATELY DECORATED CEILINGS FOLLOWED BY UNADORNED WALLS, AND AN INTERPLAY OF SURFACES AND VOLUMES

Dale Limosna, Mujer. Que no hay en la Vida nada Como la Pena de ser Ciego en Granada.” (Give him alms, woman. For in this life there is nothing so pitiable as to be blind in Granada). Amidst the Sierra Nevada terrain of Al-Andalus, surrounded by cacti and blooming flowers, the fortress city of Alhambra stands proud overlooking the city of Granada. Built by the Moorish nomadic tribes of North Africa, Alhambra was also known as the ‘Red Castle’ because of the sun-dried red bricks used to build the outer wall. Alhambra not only contains palaces and the medina, but also houses, shops, and alleyways, almost identical to those of Africa. Alhambra has seen the rise and fall of almost 24 sultans. Initially the ruling place of Hispanic Muslims, it was later occupied by Christian missionaries. As bare as it looks from the outside, the inside is colourful and intricate. The patterns on the ceilings are based on two simple geometric shapes, the circle and the square. The geometry signifies the order of the universe. The complex mathematical constructions have the power to leave one mystified even today. The stalactites or the muqarnas was the peak of Islamic architecture.

It is conceptualised that Alhambra is made out of words. The inscriptions on the wall are a decorative element of their own, but if all the structural elements are removed, we’d be left with poems written in two different scripts, often in the first person perspective of a woman. One is the Kufic script, which fits in perfectly with the geometric elements. The naskh script, with its curves and lilts, is in italics and is used even today for correspondence. The construction is even more astonishing because of the fact that the architects designed these lavish palaces with modest means. The Comares Palace was the official residence of the sultan. The throne room was the centre of power, where heavenly and earthly powers become one. The ceiling of the throne room is the mastery of Islamic artistry. The wooden construction represents heaven and plays with the subtle movements of lights and shadows. The Comares facade encompasses every design element – the colourful tiles, inscriptions praising the Sultan along with the muqarnas.

The hammam was a room that the palaces just couldn’t function without. Bodily hygiene and ritual cleansing formed a major part of Islamic traditions. The beautifully carved skylights helped in adjusting the amount of steam required. Marble floors carried under them a complex system of pipes that were connected to the boiler and created steam. The water supply of Alhambra was a labyrinth of canals, tanks, conduits, subterranean pipes, pools and wells. The water conduits in the rooms cooled down the hot air in the room. The absence of windows in the lower floors was a brilliant architectural feat as it allowed the hot air to rise and move out from the windows on the top floors, thereby keeping the cool air in the room.

The Nasrid Empire peaked in the mid-14th century. Muslims from around the globe came to visit the Alhambra. However, Alhambra was never safe; it was always under threat by not just enemies outside the fortress walls but also from plots and schemes between the closest members of the royal family. It is said that only a few rulers of the Alhambra died a natural death. When the neighbouring kingdoms declared war, Muslims were forced to find solace in Granada as a result of which the concentration of artists and craftsmen in the city led to a better economic life. Created in the 14th century, the paintings in the kings’ hall narrate the stories of courtly saints. The members of the Nasrid Empire were primarily tradesmen and maintained close relations with Geneva, Pisa, Venice and the courts of Egypt. This led them in making the figurative portrayal of stories. The cultural exchange gave way to the commissioning of arts from France or Italy. The workshops of the medina manufactured products exclusively for the court.

White china plates decorated with heavy indigo patterns adorned the racks of the shops. The Acequia Real or the Royal Canal supplied the needed water for the manufacturing process. Towards the 15th century, the defences of the fortress could not stand up to the Christian missionaries. The Pope planned a crusade against Granada which would be fought by the collective forces of Castilla and Aragon. Isabella and Ferdinand, the rulers of Castilla and Aragon, eventually moved into the Alhambra. The handover to the Catholics occurred without any violence as a result of which the Alhambra is well preserved today. The 700-year rule of Islamic culture on the Iberian Peninsula finally came to an end. As much as Isabella and Ferdinand were fascinated by the Islamic architecture, they wanted to customise it to their liking. The mosque was converted into a church and the Catholics stamped the Alhambra with the PLVS VLTRE meaning ‘Beyond the known boundaries of the world’, which later became the motto of Spanish kings.

In the 16th century, when Charles V visited the Alhambra, he was impressed by its architecture and wanted it to become the ruling seat of his empire. Empress Chambers are the reconstructions carried out by Charles V for him and his spouse. The need to stand out from the Nasrid empire palaces and to build something monumental in a completely different architectural style led to the construction of a palace so grand, the Nasrid Empire would look minuscule next to it. Charles V used the old palaces as a benchmark to make the new one more palatial. The palace was built but funds were required not only for the construction but also for the maintenance of the Nasrid Palaces. The taxes kept on increasing. The Castilian language was enforced upon the city of Granada and Arabic was declared obsolete. The repressed moriscos tried defending themselves with rebellions until 1609 when all the Moriscos were expelled to Africa. As a result, the expertise was lost. The Alhambra lay in ruins. The land was barren, the fortress crumpled under the weight of their absence.

Alhambra was on the verge of becoming history. It fell down from its pedestal with a defeated thump. People started using the palaces as stables, workshops or as taverns. The once glorious fountains were now used as washing wells. Although stripped of its opulence, the fragments of Alhambra became the new muse for romantic writers and artists. Washington Irving, the American writer and diplomat brought back the sumptuousness of the fortress to life through his words. His stories weaved popular ideas, dreams and realities together to create sagas of lost Moorish treasures, princesses and noble knights. It became an object of desire for most writers in the 19th century. A unique combination of Muslim and renaissance architecture, Alhambra dictates stories of various centuries through its structures. Today, Alhambra is a cultural phenomenon. Looked after by the World Monument Fund, the organisation is bringing in technology to shed light on the dark crevices of the fortress. With virtual tours and ongoing restoration works, the Alhambra is slowly being refurbished to its former glory.

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