The other day as we were strolling through the magnificent passages of the medieval Nasrid palace of the Alhambra, one of my sisters said that if felt like time traveling to walk through the passages. It was like being thrown into the stories we had read as children. I understood what she meant. When strolling through a medina in Meknes several years ago, I stood and watched upon a storyteller weave his magic around the gathered crowd. Between the sounds, smells, responses of the crowd, the whole brought to life the opening of one of my favorite childhood stories, Eleanor Hoffman’s Mischief in Fez. It was a pleasant sort of illusion–equal parts personal nostalgia and fairy tale.
Yet, “time traveling” as my sister called it is not all pretty imagination. Both my sisters walked in and out of the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Alhambra rather quickly. For all its spectacular interlace carving, its bands of complex geometric patterns balanced out by leaf-like carvings winding throughout the inscriptions, the chamber conjured for my sisters an all too palpable sense that this was a place where death had been passed down many a time. I cannot say those were the echoes in my ears. For my part, I stood staring into the carved wooden ceiling feeling the grandeur and wonder the chamber had so clearly been constructed to impose upon entrants. Our different reactions were, of course, two sides of the very same coin.
I walked through the chambers thinking, “What poor cousins our northern fortifications must have seemed to those who made or dwelt in structures like this.” It made me wish that I had brought Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North just to get the perspective of Arab traveler to reverse the gaze. (Yes, Ibn Fadlan lived in the 10th century and the Alhambra was begun in the 13th. Yes, he was from Baghdad, rather than Moorish Spain, but it would still be an salutary destabilization of my 21st-century North American lens.) Then, I paused. One has only to consider that the Alhambra relied upon humans for its defense rather than structure as did other Muslim fortifications in Spain. That fact sheds light on the comparative value placed on human life in such a place. Civilized beyond the dreams of the North? Perhaps, but perhaps not without cost. Another configuration, but hardly perfect. Hardly ideal.
If it’s true that the ceiling in that Hall was made to symbolize the seven heavens, then the placement of the throne in this room makes child’s play of the whole “divine right of kings.” For this reason, I suppose the echoes of death and power were perhaps more true than the echoes of poetry in the gardens. The past of fortresses and fortifications is more truly grounded in blood and bone than anything else. If you want a sobering read of the history of the Alhambra, keep going with the aforementioned history by Irwin. It washes away some of that sepia patina of fairy tale pretty quickly.
“The Alhambra seems a place of enchantment. Tourism as made it a place of pleasure and instruction. It is easy for those who walk around it today to fantasise about the gilded and cultured existence of the Moors who once inhabited this palace complex — perfumes, prayer, and women — a foretaste of paradise….Though this must have been true in some respects, in others, Granada in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a special kind of hell and some of the darkest chambers of that hell were to be found at the Alhambra. the place is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear.”1
Irwin goes on to talk about how the fact that the slavery that had been eliminated from much of Western Europe was alive and well in Spain and you can even find verses inscribed on the walls of the Alhambra that celebrate the power of slavery: “You imposed chains on the captives and dawn found them at your door building your palaces as your servants.” Real history is always a good antidote to our unmoored (pun definitely not intended) reimaginings of the past. While I am not yet finished with Irwin’s book, so far its sharp reassessment of a place whose very name has mythic resonance is a salutary one. What we humans create is–as are we–both beautiful and terrible.
- Robert Irwin, The Alhambra. Harvard UP, Wonders of the World Imprint, 2011, p. 69.