OCTOBER 15-18: GRANADA and the ‘legendary halls of the Alhambra’ W.Irving (1832) PART 1

Posted on Feb 15, 2012 in category


“I remained…spellbound in the old enchanted pile,” wrote Washington Irving in his book, ‘Tales of the Alhambra’. Irving had taken his friend’s advice and decided to retell what he’d learnt about Granada and its iconic Alhambra after his stay of several months in one of its apartments. Irving relates how 40,000 men once served the Moorish emirs and caliphs within the vast fortress which was “studded with towers”. Granada was the last stand for the Moors of Spain (A.D.1492) and the Christian Kings continued to use it as a royal fortress. Emperor Charles V began an arguably ugly Renaissance-style palace within the Alhambra but failed to finish it due to earthquakes and a revolt. Irving called it ‘an arrogant intrusion’. King Philip V and his wife Elizabeth of Parma were the last Spanish monarchs to live in this “object of veneration” (Irving). Governors of the province lived there as did French Napoleonic commanders. Generally, the Alhambra fell into ruin for many years. Irving and his friends came under the spell of its “witching charms” as do tourists today.


‘Gate of Justice’ was the entrance to the Alhambra in Irving’s day. A tribunal was regularly held here by the Moors to quickly judge petty crimes. 



King Charles V’s Fountain lies beneath the ‘Gate of Justice’


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There are two versions of the symbolism of the ‘hand’ and the ‘key’ according to Washington Irving: firstly, the ‘hand’ represents the ‘emblem of doctrine’; the ‘key’, the ‘key of faith’. Secondly, the people superstitiously believed that they were ‘magical devices’ that protected the Alhambra from destruction and if the ‘hand’ ever reaches around to grab the ‘key’ the Alhambra will be doomed.



A section of the old northern military area or ‘Alcazaba’ whose walls are ‘studded with towers’. Some sections are likely to be Roman.


Entering the ‘Nastrid Palaces’, Washington Irving related that “the transition was almost magical” like a scene from the Arabian Nights. True, walking into the ‘Court of the Alberca’ or ‘Court of the Myrtles’ a vast fishpond nearly 40 metres in length and a little over 9 metres in width cools the arabesque courtyard that has Moorish peristyles at either end as well as two ‘scupper’ type ground fountains and a commanding ‘Comares Tower’ guarding the upper end.


Water was precious to the Moors who originally came from a desert climate. Hygiene, sustenance and of course religious ablution were its special qualities.


‘Bring me someone thirsting

my fountain will quench him with water clear, sweet and pure.”

A poem by Ibn al-Jalib, a Moorish poet whose poem was inscribed on an archway at the entrance to Salon (Hall) of the Abencerajes.


The water system of the Alhambra is extensive. Its source is the River Darro and a combination of aqueducts, reservoirs, vaulted underground cisterns, pipes, pools and fountains ensued a constant and plentiful supply to all sections of the Alhambra beginning with the Nastrid palaces flowing towards the ‘Generalife’, the personal recreation area of Granada’s rulers, and into the Royal Water Channel that feeds back into the fortress mostly underground.

For a great explanation of the water system see: http://ocs.editorial.upv.es/index.php/ISL/ISL2014/paper/viewFile/154/115

Speaking of fountains, the quintessential fountain or really system of eleven fountains is situated in the ‘Court of Lions’. As W. Irving stated, “There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty and magnificence than this..”. Constructed by Muhammad V in his second period of rule (A.D.1354/59-1362/91), the court of the Lions and its series of fountains within the Palace of the Lions have been undergoing a huge restoration project that began in 2002 and is only now coming close to completion. The Court’s centrepiece is the fountain consisting of a dodecagonal basin with twelve Macael marble lions radiating from its centre ‘like warriors for Islam’. Some researchers believe it was based on the ‘Sea of Bronze’ fountain from Biblical Jerusalem that had twelve bulls instead of lions. Each of the twelve lions has been restored as well as a complete overhaul of the filtration and pumping system. Visitors were not allowed to photograph the restored lions on display before they were to be set in place within the court. Security was very tight and this will continue once the fountain is up and running.


A photo from a display in the ‘Court of Lions’



Restoration of the plumbing system



A big job to restore ‘a magic charm’ (Irving)

The alabaster basin has a twelve verse poem or ‘qasida’ by poet-vizier Ibn Zamrak  inscribed on it. Metaphors describe water as ‘liquid silver’ that flow through the spouts with ‘generosity’ and ‘bravery’. Another poem by the same poet (A.D.1354-59) is located nearby in the ‘Hall of the Two Sisters’ carved in stone:

I am the garden adorned with beauty:

one glance suffices to reveal my rank.

The mansion is sublime, for Fortune

raised her higher than any other house.

The shining stars would willingly descend

and from their heavenly orbit cease,

too stand among these courtyards still

and slave-like do the bidding of the king.

Never was such a fortress seen as this,

so spacious or of such a prospect clear.

Washington Irving recounts how poetry played such an important role in the Moorish court. His guide nicknamed ‘the son of the Alhambra’ told him that even the poor begging for food could always receive bread (gold too!) if they begged in a couplet of verse.

The ‘Hall of the Abencerrajes’ owes its name to the legendary massacre of knights here by the orders of Granada’s last Moorish caliph, Boabdil. According to legend,the red iron-oxide in the central fountain are the stains left behind from the victims’ blood. The central cupola is the highlight of this private chamber.


Ornate stuccoed ceiling from the ‘Hall of the Two Sisters’


‘Hall of the Ambassadors’ or ‘Comares Hall’ is the largest room in the palace.  It was built by Yusif I in the middle of the 14th century A.D. This was Washington Irving’s favourite spot to look at onto the town of Granada and its sunset.


Its wooden ceiling represents the Islamic paradise of seven superimposed skies. “Eternity is an attribute of God. Rejoice in the good…” (inscription from ceiling)


For a virtual tour of the Alambra

The ‘Generalife’ or ‘Gardens of the Architect’ was the sultans and sultanas’ retreat as well as the palace kitchens’ garden. The original water system is still used today although a couple of extra reservoirs have been added in the modern era. Nasrid vegies and fruit are still grown there such as beans, artichokes, aubergines, almonds, pomegranates and figs. Modern additions have also been added to the palace over time including an open-air tiered theatre in the gardens.


The ‘Water Stairway’


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              The ‘Main Canal Court’ originally had only 12 jet fountains, the others were added in the 19th century



The ‘Sultana’s Court’ was originally part of a palace bath. The colonnaded structure was a Renaissance addition in A.D.1584 although the water jets were reported to be prolific in 1526 by a visiting Venetian ambassador


Just like Washington Irving whose time at the Alhambra, ‘my Moslem elysium’, had come to an end and who was summoned to return to the ‘dusty world’, I returned to the town of Granada asking the same question as did Irving, how to endure the ‘commonplace’, after the ‘poetry of the Alhambra’?



A well-earned ‘Alhambra’ brand beer and free tapas at a packed ‘Bodegas Casanada’ saw me join the Spanish siesta tradition.





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