From the high green ridge above, or from the white city below, the Alhambra is a decided disappointment. Its walls are massive, harsh and faded. Its buildings crowd one another from view. Its tiled roofs slant off at improbable angles and clashing planes. To visitors raised on Washington Irving's memories of tinkling fountains and moonlit marble, or lured by visions of secret gardens and palaces of dazzling and delicate beauty, it is simply impossible that this—this great ugly pile of peeling stone shouldering its way out of a forest of English elms—should be the Alhambra.
And they are quite right. What you see from above or below is not the Alhambra that has inspired travelers and poets for nearly 800 years. To find that Alhambra—the Alhambra that one entranced writer said was "indisputably, the most curious and in some ways the most marvelous building that exists in the whole world"—you must leave the high green ridge and the white city and look for a graveled path that winds through a green park to an arched stone portal called the Gate of Justice. There you must enter, climb a little to the summit of a plateau that looks off toward the white peaks of the mountains beyond, and begin to search. It won't take very long. Just listen for splashing fountains and watch for a long green pool beneath a sky of pure Spanish blue...
To describe the Alhambra in detail is rather like dissecting a butterfly: you may learn a lot about it, but somehow you lose the magic. And yet the magic itself is a challenge. Of what does it consist? The play of southern sunlight on pools of dark green water? Cypresses thrashing in the rain against a black and billowing sky? Shadows from a silver moon traced on white marble? A red rose reaching up from a quiet green bower?
In the years since Irving mounted his horse in Seville and braved the hazards of the wild, bandit-ridden Sierra Nevadas simply to live and write in the Alhambra, hundreds of writers have dutifully sailed off to Spain to climb the citadel's graveled paths and, standing before it in stunned pleasure, try to answer that very question. Surprisingly, most have succeeded. For there is no mystery to the Alhambra. It is beautiful because the Moors, like the Greeks so long before them, learned to shape the color and texture of stone according to the disciplines of harmony, proportion and simplicity and then decorate it accordingly. "The Moors," as A.E. Calvert said, "ever regarded what architects hold to be the first principle of architecture—to decorate construction, never to construct decoration."
The Alhambra is set on a long, wooded hill rising some 500 feet above Granada like the Acropolis of Athens. Above and to the east is a high mountain ridge brushed with snow. Below is a vast and verdant plain stretching off to the Medial terranean some 40 miles away. On the north, sharp cliffs plunge down to a swift, shallow stream bubbling out of the mountains; on the south a gentle slope fades into a park of magnificent, if incongruous English elms—a gift to Spain in the 18th century from the Duke of Marlborough, hero of the War of the Spanish Succession. And immediately below, spilling out of the foothills and onto the green plain, like a river into a delta, is Granada, with its old, narrow, sometimes cobbled streets, its small white houses and the high spires of famous cathedrals.
It is from Granada that most visitors first see the Alhambra. Sometimes it is from the narrow curved road by the river at the base of a great cliff where an enormous wedge of stone has been cut out by some ancient storm. Sometimes it is from the Plaza of Saint Nicholas from which the Alhambra, the Generalife and the whole vista of the Sierra Nevadas are spread before you. Whichever it is, the first effect is the same: a sense of dismay that this cheerless, almost monastic silhouette is the famous Alhambra.
Even up close, as you pass through an arched gate into the elm forest and approach the fortress, a sense of disappointment persists. At close quarters, in fact, the Alhambra is even less attractive. The walls, red from a distance, are a faded, splotchy orange; the Gate of Justice is unimpressive; the Wine Gate is scarcely noticeable: and the first building you see, the Palace of Charles V, is a disaster; square, squat, impregnable and dour, it would serve nicely as a London bank.
At last, however, having turned over your tickets to polite uniformed guards, you slip into a dark chapel with a handsome wood ceiling and pass through it into the Arabian Palace where, in a sudden flash of sunlight, doubts and disappointment dissolve and you see at last what has evoked more than seven centuries of lyrical praise.
The first thing you see in the Arabian Palace is the Court of the Myrtles. It is a long narrow courtyard paved in white marble with a shallow pool flanked with low green hedges. Latticed windows weathered to a deep chocolate brown peer down from beige walls and, at the north end, the square shape of a turreted tower rises against the sky. There are slender pillars and arches and two fountains bubbling over into basins. In the depths of the dark green water schools of goldfish dart with trained precision toward visitors to wait for food, their scales flashing like red-gold sequins.
It is the essence of simplicity, this courtyard. But the impact is overpowering. In this simple blend of white marble and green water, of gentle curve and sharp line, of latticed wood and sculptured stucco, the ancient artists have set the tone for the wonderland of courts and gardens and halls that follows.
From the Court of the Myrtles, visitors can go in several directions, but most, almost irresistibly, it seems, head straight for the Hall of the Ambassadors, where, the guidebooks tell you, the enthroned kings of Granada greeted emissaries to the kingdom. This marvelous room, tucked beneath the huge Tower of the Comares, is a perfect square with a domed ceiling 60 feet high. Eight arched windows offer a panoramic view of the Vega, and the walls are crocheted into writhing patterns of Koranic verse, religious commentary, lines of poetry and, over and over, its builder's bitter acknowledgment that "there is no conqueror but God." For a moment, as you pause to absorb it, there is silence and from across the valley, you can hear laughter of boys playing in a schoolyard, the tinny echo of a church bell and the murmur of water splashing its way among the rocks in the river below.
By now, of course, the Alhambra has you in its spell. After this you wander in a sort of bemused trance from one passage to another, not really sure where you are or how you got there. You only know that one enchanting place follows another: the Queen's Patio with four slim cypress trees and the ominous iron gate
where, say the legends, Juana the Mad was confined; the apartments in which Washington Irving composed the sketches and impressions that were to make the Alhambra so famous; a small angular garden rich with the smell of orange trees and the gurgle of a fountain in the center. And everywhere you see the miracles of carving: on walls, on capitals, on arches. It is stucco carved into lace, a magnificently simple arrangement "of the straight, the curved, the inclined," repeated over and over in patterns at once geometrically and artistically perfect.
For such a small area—the Arabian Palaces occupy no more than a fraction of the hilltop—the succession of rooms and courtyards seems endless. There are the royal baths, with tiles of gold and blue and red, and the vast baths still full of pure mountain water. There is a small open courtyard between palaces where, on one bare, insignificant wall, Arab craftsmen created a masterpiece of pure decoration: a simple mass of decorative inscriptions and vegetation entwined like a wild tangle of tropical growth. And, in haphazard succession, there are the harem, with its inevitable, if unlikely, hints of exotic passions and exciting intrigues; the Mirador of the Lindejara where the Sultana, lolling on silken cushions, looked out at Granada; and the Hall of the Two Sisters where enormous plaster stalactites drip from a high ceiling like icicles in a cavern.
There are other wonders too: the Hall of the Abencerrajes, where, the legends say, one mad king cut off the heads of his sons; the Hall of Kings; the Hall of Queens; and a profusion of capitals, friezes, medallions, ceilings, domes, ribbon work and dadoes. Lastly there is the Court of the Lions.
According to the anonymous contributors to the Guide Bleu, the Court of the Lions is "the most precious example of Arab art existing in Spain." According to Marino Antequera, author of the best of the local guidebooks, it is to Granada "what the square of Saint Mark's is to Venice ... Notre Dame to Paris... St. Peter's to Rome." The writers are correct. But Senor Antequera's statement suggests a scale and a grandeur that the court, or for that matter, the whole palace does not have. Indeed, if there is one false impression that descriptions and photographs have created, it is that the Alhambra is huge. It isn't. It is small and delicately proportioned, exquisite rather than magnificent. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the Court of the Lions.
"There is something about a genuine work of art," writes Senor Antequera, "which escapes all possible imitation and reproduction ... such is the sensation we feel before this Grenadine court."
How true. Like the first sight of the Court of the Myrtles, or the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Court of the Lions, with its perfect proportions, its arcades, its slim columns, its tracery, its arches and, in the middle, its famous fountain with those odd, supposedly leonine animals bristling like mastiffs below, is, quite simply, stunning.
Probably everyone who has seen the Alhambra has eventually come to ask: "What was it like before?" As they emerge from the wonders of the palace and confront the sprawling jumble of towers, churches, hotels, and shops that now clutter the site of the Muslim citadel, they can't help wondering what it was like before the Christians clumped up the hills and began four centuries of alteration and neglect. Was it all like the palace within? A vision of courtyards and gardens and pools? Great palaces standing in green parks? With fierce warriors riding their spirited desert-bred steeds through cobbled streets? And silk-veiled maidens peering out through latticed windows?
There are those who think not. Senor Antequera, who impatiently dismisses most romantic notions about the Alhambra as nonsense, believes that what is left is really all there ever was and that the Christians actually saved it from decay, rather than destroyed it. And if aerial views suggest that he is wrong in believing that the construction of Charles' palace did not wipe out a large part of the Arab masterpiece, he still offers a convincing argument that the whole crest of the hill could not possibly have equaled the splendor of the palace. The palace, after all, was the king's and it would have been here that the full splendor of the age would have been concentrated. Furthermore, with thousands of troops quartered within the walls—some say 40,000—it would be unlikely that there would have been much room left for many other palaces.
But even if this is so, the Alhambra, with its great wall and turreted towers newly built of the red clay that gave it its name—"The Red Fortress"—must have been a striking sight. And the palace itself must have been fantastic. In those days the now mellow walls glowed with rich blue, vermillion and red. Through the stained glass that filled the windows, the sunlight poured into the chambers with the muted and mysterious radiance of a cathedral. On the marble floors lay piles of precious carpets and silken cushions. Even the very air was enriched—with the scent of orange trees in the gardens, and rare perfumes seeping up through vents in marble floors. And of course, there were the people too: servants pattering about with trays of fruit and splendid pots of a new and exotic beverage called coffee; harem girls lounging in languid splendor by low windows near cool gardens; ambassadors bringing terms from other rulers; generals telling tales of battles; nobles launching fresh intrigues; and, of course, kings—waiting and wondering when the end would come.
With the reconquest the end did come and with it the decay that would go on for centuries. First the Christians altered it, then abandoned it—to smugglers, gypsies, and bandits. Soldiers came and went. Winter winds howled through it. Summer suns baked it. The fountains went dry, the pool cracked, and weeds flourished in the gardens. So it went until, in the 19th century, Washington Irving came to write the tales that would bring the world to its rescue and launch the work that has at last begun to restore the incomparable glory of its incomparable past.