Our train for Granada left at an odious hour in the morning—so early that we almost missed it. We climbed aboard at the last moment, confused, dazed, disoriented, hungry, tired, frazzled, miserable.
I planned to read, but promptly feel asleep. The book I was reading was Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which I had started in preparation for our voyage. Irving is quite a special figure for me, you see, since I am from Sleepy Hollow. It was thus strange and gratifying to find out that he had lived in Spain as well, and had written a whole book about his time visiting the Alhambra.
In the weeks before our trip, this book only served to intensify the feeling of awe with which I contemplated my visit. Irving writes of the place with such Romantic intensity, such breathless wonder, that now Granada loomed ahead in my imagination like a dreamy fantasy.
But Granada is anything but a dream, as I realized in the train station when I woke up, dazed, drooling, and bleary-eyed. (Since March of 2015, Granada has been without a direct train connection; thus to get there from Madrid you need to take a train towards Córdoba, and then transfer to a bus at the Santa Ana de Antequera station.)
After taking a short nap and fueling ourselves with caffeine and churros, we headed towards the cathedral.
Granada is famous for being the last stronghold in Muslim Spain to fall to the Reconquista. It was captured during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs—Isabella and Ferdinand—in 1492, a year of great symbolic importance for Spain. In this same year, Columbus set sail for America (thus setting in motion the conquest of the New World, which greatly expanded Spanish power) and the Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain (cementing the country’s status as a Catholic nation).
This was the beginning of Spain as we know it—a unified, Catholic empire. Thus the Granada Cathedral, the Christian shrine erected in the last Muslim territory, has great symbolic importance in the national imagination.
The cathedral was built in a Renaissance style, atop the remains of the former mosque. It is a lovely building. The insides radiate with light. Everything is white and gold, and the space shines splendidly in the sunshine that pours in through the windows. The forms are clean and graceful—straight lines, gentle curves, perfect circles. The main altar sits underneath the central dome; and built into the walls on each side are a statue of Ferdinand and Isabella, knelt in prayer. Piety is not above propaganda.
After seeing the cathedral, we headed to the Royal Chapel, a large gothic structure right next door. Here is where Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, rest after their long and eventful reigns. Isabella wanted a modest tomb; but since she died before Ferdinand he got his way. The Chapel is as big as a church, with its own ornate altar and rows of pews.
In one corner of the chapel is a museum, which displays some objects used by the Catholic Monarchs themselves: a scepter, a sword, and a crown. The role symbols like these play in the exercise of power fascinates me. After all, for the most part power is not a physical force. Power is psychological and social; it lives in attitudes and rituals, and depends upon convincing people of its legitimacy. Symbols, therefore, play an essential role, not only in the pomp of power, but in its very existence, since it is through symbols that rulers render their legitimacy visible.
In the center of the main room were four cenotaphs: two for the Catholic monarchs, one for their daughter, Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), and one for her husband, Felipe el Hemoso (Phillip the Fair). These are elaborately decorated monuments, shaped like sarcophagi, but do not actually contain the remains. Each is carved into the image of the deceased, lying peacefully in death, surrounded by decorative motifs. It was hard to get a very good look at these, though, since they were separated with a grille and were too tall.
Right underneath these cenotaphs is the actual burial site. A stone staircase leads down to a little chamber in the floor, where you can see the coffins. These are astonishingly simple; they are plain and black, sitting in an undecorated granite room. These individuals had shaped an entire country as we know it; they are perhaps the most consequential rulers in Spanish history. Here they are, a pile of dust and ashes sitting in a black coffin.
I thought of those words of Hamlet:
Alexander dies, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust; the dust is earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer barrel?
We like to think that fame lends great people a certain sort of immortality. Their accomplishments, their work, their names are lauded and remembered throughout the centuries. But this is the emptiest form of ‘immortality,’ since you remain just as mortal, just as liable to disease and tragedy; and of course fame does not help you once you’re gone. Is it just vanity, then, that prompts people to seek glory and build themselves elaborate tombs?
Granada is in many ways a typical Andalusian city—the friendly people, the Moorish architecture, the difficult accent—but in one way it is quite different: it gets chilly. This is because Granada is up in the Sierra Nevada, at almost 800 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level. Thus, like Madrid, it gets very cold in the winters and very hot in the summers. On this January day, we were walking with our hands in our pockets and our necks buried in our collars.
After lunching on Granada’s famously generous tapas, we were visiting the Albaicín, Granada’s iconic historical center. This neighborhood sits on the hillside opposite the Alhambra.
Like in any proper medieval city, the Albaicín is full of winding coblestone streets and narrow alleys, many of them steeply uphill. Though a modern city planner would doubtless consider this haphazard plan to be scandalously inefficient, the experiencing of walking through these old neighborhoods is incomparably more interesting than the regular grids of modern street designs. The unpredictability lends surprise to every turn of the corner. And the maze-like, twisting and turning streets make the space seem bigger than it actually is, since more of the city is hidden from view on each street.
On one of the neighborhood’s central streets, the Calle de la Calderería, there are dozens of touristy shops. Along with the more typical paraphernalia like T-shirts and plastic knicknacks, they were selling “Moorish” products: leather bags, incense, wooden boxes with arabesque decorations. Arabic music emanated from each of these shops, and just nearby a street vendor had a sign that advertised “Your name in Arabic, 1€.” I suppose many tourists come to Granada seeking some mystical, Oriental experience, and a few enterprising people have come here to fill that niche.
We kept walking up the hill. On the mountainside high up above, far beyond any buildings, I made out the remains of an old wall, climbing up and over the mountain into the distance. In a time without airplanes or automobiles, invading a place ensconced so high up in the mountains was a huge challenge. This is why it took so long for the Catholics to take Granada: its location is ideal for defense.
The sun was setting now, so we decided to go to the Mirador de San Nicolas, the Saint Nicholas Viewpoint. This is a little terrace next to an old church with the best view of the Alhambra in the city. By the time we arrived, it was already swarming with people.
A woman was selling pastel paintings of Granada, a guitarist and a singer were playing flamenco, and everyone else was a tourist. These visitors were doing the typical dance: posing for pictures, switching partners, posing for more pictures. The more ambitious and affluent tourists were fiddling with expensive cameras; the younger were pursing their lips for selfies.
We squirmed our way through the crowd and found an empty seat on the stone fence that marked the edge of the terrace. There we could sit, our legs dangling over the edge above the street below, looking at the Alhambra as the sun went down.
From the outside the Alhambra looks like a fortress, not a palace, and indeed it was both. As we learned later, all of the ornamentation is concealed within. The citadel sits on a hill with a commanding view of the surrounding city. One pointed spire breaks the skyline; the rest of the complex is rigidly rectangular, snuggled on the hill. In the distance beyond rose the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
We stayed for a long while. People came and went; the musicians kept playing; sitting next to us, British exchange students gossiped. The sun set to our right, flaring up in a brilliant fireball flash before fading and falling behind the horizon. Gradually, the daylight seeped out of the sky and the city began to stir. Now it was night, and now light came not from above but from the city below, each building a bright pinprick, just like the stars overhead.
The view was, in a word, beautiful. But why do we humans have this capacity for aesthetic appreciation? Beauty is not useful. Ugly buildings protect us from the elements just as well as beautiful ones. Beautiful scenes like this do nothing practical for us. So why did we evolve this sensitivity? Was it sexual selection, as Darwin thought, or just some kind of evolutionary byproduct of our more pragmatic intelligence?
This is just idle speculation. In any case, the feeling is there, and it is one of the things that makes us human.
There is an otherworldly sublimity to aesthetic pleasure. The experience is valuable not for reasons of the flesh, of practical necessity, or to fatten one’s wallet, but for itself. Gazing out at the city, I enjoyed a purely impersonal pleasure, a pleasure cleansed of all selfish motives. It is this pleasure, a somewhat cold and yet grand feeling, that ennobles you, for it teaches you to look on life with a detached appreciation. We learn to appreciate things for their own qualities, and not for how these qualities affect us.
So my thoughts ran, inspired by the view before me, until I got chilly and we had to go. We ate at another restaurant and went to bed early. The next day was our visit to the Alhambra.
The walk to the entrance is entirely uphill. As you approach, the fortress walls loom overhead. We passed by the Puerta de la Justicia, a fortified entrance, and above the door was the image of a single open hand. According to the guide book the hand’s five fingers symbolize the five pillars of Islam.
We picked up our tickets from a machine, skipped the line to get in, and were soon standing in the line for the Palaces. (It is highly advisible to buy your tickets to the Alhambra online, several weeks in advance, since the number of visitors per day is strictly limited.
After a few minutes on the queue we entered the Royal Palace (Plaza de Nazaríes). But here I hesitate to proceed. The insides of these palaces were so magnificent that I cannot help feeling that my attempts to describe them will be merely pathetic. To compensate for my own ignorance I have used the excellent guidebook, The Alhambra and Granada in Focus. Using this as a crutch, I will limp into this fool’s errand.
We went in. My first thought was that the place looked very much like the insides of the Alcázar in Seville, which indeed it does—since that building was made in imitation of the Alhambra. But the original is without doubt superior.
Everywhere the walls are covered in elaborate stucco ornamentation. These often use floral or vegetal motifs, twisting vines, budding flowers, curling leaves; but these forms are so stylized that they have only the most cursory resemblance with real plants. Another constant element of the ornamentation was the calligraphy: curvy Arabic script that adorns rooms and surrounds doorways. Of course I could not read a word of this, but I learned from the guidebook that one of the most common inscriptions is the motto of the erstwhile sultans: “God is the only conqueror.”
The final effect of this decoration is starkly different from that of Christian edifices. Catholicism is a religion of the eye; images were crucial to the religion, not least because most of the congregation could not read. Thus the elaborate mythology of Catholicism is represented in devotional images, a kind of visual Gospel for the letterless. Islam is, by contrast, a religion of the ear, or so it seems to me. The abstract arabesque decorations are a kind of petrified music, washing over the eye like a visual fugue.
Another striking difference with much Christian architecture is the size. These palaces are not monumental structures, designed to crush the viewer with the weight of the heavens. Rather, they are built on a human scale. The ceiling, the doorways, the courtyards—they are delightfully intimate and comfortable. You feel that you could really live here, that it was designed for people and not gods.
This is related to another quality of Moorish architecture. Hardly any effort is put into the façade; in fact from the outside the palaces look quite modest. The whole orientation is, rather, internal. Islam is an introspective and introverted religion, or at least it was here. The plain outside reveals a labyrinthine interior, with hallways and courtyards, a private world cut off from the outside. One feels that one is walking through the passages of a subtle and brilliant mind.
This brings me to another distinctive difference: the layout. Christian cathedrals and palaces are usually planned in an orderly, symmetrical shape. It is hard to get lost in a cathedral, since the floor plan is so easy to sense once you are inside. The Moorish palaces, by contrast, are twisting, mysterious, and surprising—just like the Albaicín outside. I had no idea what to expect every time I rounded a corner or went through a doorway. This makes a walk through these palaces something like the unfolding of a great story, where each twist is refreshing and unforeseen while still maintaining the cogency of the whole.
I must pause here. I do not want to give you the wrong impression of my visit. Though I could not help but be amazed, there were simply too many tourists there to lapse into romantic daydreaming, or even to properly analyze my experience. The place was simply swarming. Every few feet, I had to duck or stop suddenly in order to avoid ruining someone else’s picture. My face might be inadvertently hanging on somebody’s refrigerator in Berlin or Singapore. Who knows?
The best corners and crevices for pictures were inevitably occupied, and had a line of people already waiting for their turn. It always amuses me to see somebody, usually young, go from a blank expression to an ecstatic smile in seconds when the camera is pointed at them. Of course, once the picture is taken, the blank expression returns, and the determined hunt for photo opportunities begins again.
Let me return to the architecture. Apart from the stuccoed patterns, the bottom half of the walls are covered in the Alhambra’s famous tessellations. These tiles are a marvelous manifestation of Moorish mathematics. The culture which built this palace understood geometry on a deep level; and this understanding is manifested in the elaborate patterns of colorful shapes arranged so that they have every type of symmetry possible on a flat plain—rotational symmetry, mirror symmetry, and other sorts of symmetries I can’t hope to explain. The great Dutch artist M.C. Escher found these patterns fascinating, and you can clearly see the influence in his work.
In the sides of some doorways were little niches, elaborately decorated, which looked like mihrabs (the nooks in Mosques that designate the qibla, the direction of Mecca, towards which prayers are directed). According to the guide, however, these were for holding jugs of water.
Water, you see, has a special significance in Islam, no doubt because the religion grew up in a desert. Water is here elevated into a powerful and multivalent symbol. Like life itself, water flows constantly—always the same and yet ever new. Like a mirror, water reflects the visible world, in the same way that the visible world is only a reflection of the divine reality. It is pure and life-giving; it washes the body in the same way that piety cleanses the soul.
The pools and rivulets of water that abound in the Alhambra thus reinforce the idea of impermanence that formed an essential part of the perspective of the erstwhile rulers: “The only conqueror is God.” All earthly conquest is merely a temporary changing of hands. Everything human will pass away. According to the guide, this is why the materials used in the construction of these palaces were not chosen to last. While the walls were necessarily built to be solid and permanent, the palace itself was constructed from materials that would fade with time. To me this is a wonderfully poetic.
The ceilings were just as beautiful as the walls. The wonderful geometrical patterns in the wooden ceilings were made from thousands of individual pieces of wood attached to one another. The designs are so stunning that you cannot help giving yourself a neck ache looking up at them. And even more incredible than these wooden ceilings were the Mocárabes. These look like the inside of a cave, and this was intentional. According to tradition, the Koran was revealed to Muhammad by an angel in a cave outside Mecca. Thus caves, like water, have a special significance in Islam.
Like the wooden ceilings, the Mocárabes are composed of thousands of tiny segments. These pieces are organized into types; according to my guide book, there are seven distinct shapes in one ceiling. These shapes could be combined in any sequence you like, but in practice are organized into breathtakingly complex patterns. What supernatural patience would be required to create something like this?
I can hardly say more. We passed through the Hall of the Ambassadors and the Courtyard of the Lions, nudging our way through the crowd and taking pictures of everything. It was hard to know how to react to it all. It was like being given one hour to study a foreign language; I didn’t know where to start or what to do. So I shuffled somewhat apologetically through the buildings, my mind a perfect blank, just looking, seeing, observing.
Finally, we passed the room where Irving had stayed, and walked out onto the balcony. Before us was Granada, rows and rows of white building shining in the sun. It was as bright and cloudless as every Andalusian day. To my left I could make out the viewpoint from which we had seen the Alhambra the day before. The wind whipped up and a chill ran through me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was locking eyes with my past.
Some minutes later we were standing in the Palace of Charles V. This is one of the Christian edifices in the complex, built after the Reconquista. It’s a rather strange building. The perimeter is square, but the inside contains a circular courtyard that reminded me most strongly of the bullring in Ronda. After walking through the Moorish Palaces, I couldn’t help but be underwhelmed by the severe edifice. The conquering Christians had far worse taste than the Muslims they displaced.
There a few other things to see. We went to the Alcazaba, the old Moorish fortress that sits at the most westerly end of the complex, overlooking the city below. Next we went to the Moorish baths, and then to the church nearby. Yet everything seemed plain and unremarkable after seeing the Royal Complex. Granted, we were quite tired at this point.
But our energy returned when we went to the Generalife. This is the old retreat of the Granadan sultans. It is situated on the other end of the hill, about a ten minute walk from the palaces. Not much of a getaway, if you ask me.
The walk to the Generalife takes you through a garden, with plants neatly arranged in little square plots, dividing the space into rows and columns. It was the middle of January, however, and there was not a flower to be seen; bushes and bare branches were our welcome party.
Like the Moorish palaces, the Generalife is a modest structure, roughly the size of a typical American house. The building is oriented around a large central courtyard: the water garden. Here again we see the quality of introversion and the preoccupation with water that we saw with the Moorish palaces. A long pool extends from end to end, with jets of water making arcs in the air that mirrored the shapes of the horseshoe arches that surround the courtyard.
I walked over to the western side, from which you can see the Alhambra nestled on its perch. Here it stands: a magnificent testament to the uncertainty of life. Where are the people who built it? They have vanished. And if such a magnificent civilization could cease to exist, what hopes do we have? None, I suppose. Slowly and inevitably the passing years will sink their teeth into this and every other human creation, and destroy it all. If the Alhambra can teach one lesson, it is to accept impermanence.
We passed through the Generalife and reached a stairway. This is the famous Water Stairway that leads up to a viewpoint at the top of the complex. The name comes from the little streams that run down either side of the stairwell, where the railways normally are. The walk up was interrupted by several small circular areas with a fountain in the middle. At the top we could see the terraced gardens below, rows and rows cut into the hillside, all covered with trapezoidal ferns and flower plots.
Another stairwell led down, and we found ourselves walking through a long promenade covered with trees. Thus we were led back to the entrance. Our visit was over. Four hours had gone by and soon the next batch of tourists would be entering. It was time to leave. I turned for one final look at the Alhambra, feeling like Boabdil himself—Granada’s last Moorish ruler—who famously turned and gave a final sigh before retreating across the Straight of Gibraltar.
On the walk down, we passed a statue of Washington Irving. On the base was inscribed “Son of the Alhambra.” It was lovely to meet him face to face after all these years.
How many artists and poets have taken inspiration from the Alhambra? How many writers? Washington Irving, one of the best American writers, had to make up a dozen fairy tales to express his feelings, and even that wasn’t enough. Scholars have studied every square inch of the place; brilliant minds have analyzed the mathematics, the architecture, and the history. And yet all this writing and drawing and studying, to which this is my pathetic contribution, seems so puny in comparison with their subject, the Alhambra. It is the finest monument of a lost civilization, a testament to the splendor and impermanence of human genius:
“A Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”