The Alhambra rests on the spur of a crop of low mountains. Below it lies the rambling accretion of the medieval city, overlaid with the concreted-over modern metropolis on the peripheries. Previously crumbling, now feted, it is the main attraction for this region and stands as the epitaph and perhaps the greatest achievement of a culture now extinguished.
The Islamic culture of Iberia holds a strange place in the lore of the Judaeo-Christian world. Partially reviled as the proximate outpost of a heathen empire, the first incursions in the ninth century CE led to the wholesale importation of Arabian culture into Europe. The post-Roman Visigothic Christian kingdoms were overrun almost immediately.
However Islamic Iberia suffered pressure from the Christian kingdoms to the north almost continuously and succumbed after 600 years. The great capitals of Cordoba and Granada were captured by force of arms and were reconfigured into some of the core territories of the most aggressively Catholic culture in Europe – Castilian Spain. Iberia was reunited for the fist time in a thousand years under Christian monarchs, which almost immediately thrust itself westwards to occupy the New World. Islamic heresy was vanquished, upright Christianity was victorious, the proper order was restored.
But seen from another view, Islamic Iberia was an oasis of (relative) peace and tolerance, where Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in (relative) harmony. The distance from Arabia and the comparatively enlightened rulers of Al-Andalus allowed a cultural efflorescence with no contemporary equal. We still see the echoes of that culture in our mathematics, our music and our visual art. Many of the classic Greek texts returned to European life not from the libraries of monasteries but in Arabic translation via Al-Andalus. The tolerance afforded non-Muslim populations of Iberia was high, especially in comparison with the frankly genocidal attitudes of Christian Europe in relation to the Jews. Al-Andalus also housed a burgeoning Jewish culture which produced such notables as the medieval polymath Maimonides (who wound up in Cairo). From this perspective the destruction of the medieval Islamic culture of Iberia was cultural vandalism of the highest order, and the conquerors little better than barbarians.
The final collapse of Al-Andalus is usually dated to 1492, the year in which Granada, the last remaining Islamic polity in Iberia, surrendered to the Catholic monarchs. That was a momentous year. The Jews of Spain and their immense cultural knowledge were expelled, many to take up residence within the more tolerant Ottoman Empire. Also, later in the year an Italian navigator in Spanish employ sailed west in search of the treasures of Cathay, instead finding something rather unexpected.
As it happened, Columbus was given his commission within the halls of the Alhambra, the pinnacle of late Islamic culture in Iberia. Upon receiving its surrender, Ferdinand and Isabella had set it up as one of their several palaces throughout their kingdom. I didn’t understand why they chose to occupy the seat of their enemy rather than set up their own grander capital.
Later I realised: they didn’t know how.
The Medieval Spanish monarchs were barbarians in comparison with the refinement of the rulers of Al-Andalus. The Alhambra was the home and palace of the final Islamic dynasty, the Nasrids. It was Islam’s final fortress, but unlike the castles of Christendom it wasn’t a heavily fortified monstrosity. Instead it is a paradise on Earth.
It is nearly impossible to visit the Alhambra and not feel like you are walking through a giant jewel. Every surface is embellished in some way, often with fine carvings that give the walls a fractal texture. On inspection the carvings turn out to be elaborate geometric patterns more familiar from Persian carpets. Looking closer, some of these resolve into Arabic calligraphy. The skills of the artists are extraordinary.
Despite the limitations of the geography and also the requirements of a functional palace, every space within the Alhambra seems to be perfectly designed. Coming round a corner you are confronted with aligned columns which frame a fountain or the mountains beyond. The formal geometry of garden spaces emphasises the elegance of the main buildings. The throne room seems lit from within as light filters through high windows and cascades down mosque-like faceted walls. Even the columns look like they’ve been constructed out of thousands of crystals pouring down from the roof like angular stalactites.
In my mind, I imagine the handover of the Alhambra from the last Nasrid ruler to Ferdinand and Isabella. He is proud, beaten but unbowed, and leaves with his retinue to seek refuge in North Africa. His notional conquerors, with stinking leather and clanking weapons, filter throughout the palace and seek to make it their own. But in the end they will be the ones who are conquered. They know that they cannot construct something like this. It is the end product of hundreds of years of civilisation which has a degree of refinement that they can barely understand, let alone replicate. Ferdinand and Isabella sit down to the grubby business of government, faintly uneasy, feeling like Goths at the gates of Rome.