For me, one of the greatest joys of travel is to personally associate with great art and architecture – which I have collected in a book. Top 100 Masterpieces in Europe. Here’s my favorite one:
Nowhere more beautiful than the splendor of the Moorish civilization – the last and greatest Moorish palace in Europe.
For seven centuries (711-1492), most of Spain was Muslim, ruled by Islamic Moors in North Africa. While the rest of Europe slept through the Dark Ages, Spain flourished under Moorish rule. The end result was the Alhambra – a sprawling complex of palaces and gardens on a hill in Granada. And the highlight is the magnificent Palacios Nazaris, where the Sultan and his family lived, worked and ran the court.
You enter through the perfume court of Myrtles, a world of ornately decorated rooms, stucco “stalactites”, filigree windows and bubble fountains. Water – so rare and precious in the Islamic world – was the purest symbol of life. Alhambra water, equipped with water everywhere: standing still, cascading, with secret conversation masks, and drip-dropping play.
When you explore the labyrinth of rooms, you can easily imagine the sultans smoking hookahs, sitting on pillows and Persian carpets, lighting heavy curtains and lamps in the windows. The walls and ceiling are covered with intricate patterns carved in wood and stucco. (If the Alhambra’s built-in patterns show Escheresk, you’ve got it back: the artist MC Escher was inspired by Alhambra.) Because Muslim artists avoided painting living creatures, they embellished it with calligraphy – engraved in Arabic and quotations from poetry. Verses. A phrase – “Only Allah wins” – has been repeated 9,000 times.
The General Leaf Garden – manicured hedges, reflective pools, playful fountains and a summer palace – where the sultans took a break from palace life. Its architect, in a way, was the Qur’an, which says that heaven is like a succulent oasis, and “those who believe and do good deeds will enter the gardens through which rivers flow” (Qur’an 22.23).
The courtyard, where many pictures of the Alhambra lion have been taken, has been named for the 12 marble lion fountains. The four channels carry water outwards – figuratively into the corner of the earth and literally into the Sultan’s private apartment. A poem carved on the Alhambra wall says that the fountain flows “crystal-clear water” like “a full moon shining from a cloudless sky.”
The largest room in the palace is the ornate throne room – the grand hall of ambassadors. Here the Sultan, seated on his throne under the star-domed roof, received the spectators. The ceiling (like a giant jigsaw puzzle) made of 8,017 pieces of wood, indicates the complexity of God’s infinite universe.
In Spanish history the throne room represents the ephemeral of the torch. It was here that the last Moorish king surrendered to the Christians in 1492. And it was here that the new king, Ferdinand and Isabella called Christopher Columbus “Sí, señor”, embarking on his voyage to a new world that would enrich Spain. But the glory of the Alhambra has survived, adding a charm and grace to Spanish art for centuries.
Today, the Alhambra stands as a thought-provoking reminder of a fascinating Moorish world that may have blossomed throughout Europe – but it did not.