Sunday, February 15, 2009

Alhambra, Evening Light

Why write the name of your lover on every orange in Seville, or make promises about spring and the cherry trees when, as the day wants to pass into tomorrow, you might walk unknowingly into bliss up the narrow hill roads of the Albayzin to the Mirador San Nicholás to gaze upon a beauty nothing else can match?

You reach the little view point near Mezquita Mayor de Granada, the new mosque serving Granada’s re-surging Muslim population, and there, before you, the Alhambra in evening light all along La Sabika hill, and in the far-off nearby, the Sierra Nevada, its snows fresh from last night’s storm. The air is cool but not cold, with lovely freshets rising off the green valley and the river Darro. The view point is filled with people, dogs, babies, and traveling hippies selling handmade jewelry. You don’t need any handmade jewelry, but you have a look anyway because it’s all part of the scene. And as the sun drops lower, the light on the palace walls drops too, a brighter yellow gone all ruddy warm. You stand at the edge of it, needing nothing else to feed you, imagining the colorful, silk-draped world the Muslims created in southern Spain long ago, and you decide that it was good.

That was the moment I had been hoping for, the moment to end my suffering after an oh-so-ordinary tour of the Alhambra. What, with 6,000 people passing through each day, each one required to follow a guide, for better or for worse, and that guide speaking whatever language you speak, her eye on you so that you don’t wander off to a quiet corner and enjoy yourself, wander off to feel the place as Irving felt it, alone, in the dark, his body a pile of tender bones upon the cold, hard invulnerable floors. No. You won’t get any such luxury here, and certainly little enjoyment, trapped inside a sea of people, group after group, wave after wave, the click and whir of countless little cameras, the swish-swishing of fat legs meeting in the middle, the plastic bag sound of a million square yards of Gortex, all of it, all of them together a tired mass of writhing eels, and you, yourself, the worst little eel of all.

The Alhambra, to say something of its history, dates from the 9th century, when it was built as a hilltop fortress by the Muslim rulers of the day. Over the next few hundred years, it was expanded into a fortress palace. Then in 1492, Abu Abd Allah, the last Muslim king of Granada, handed over the keys to Ferdinand and Isabella. Various obscenities followed—the razing of the mosque for construction of a Catholic church, destruction of part of the Palacio Nazaries for the Palacio de Carlos V, and the eventual closure of the bath. Later, the fortress was abandoned and forgotten and occupied by beggars and thieves. During Napoleon’s little Narcissism, the great Alhambra was used as a barracks and livestock stable. Washington Irving took up residence here in 1829, and wrote down the stories from the palace’s history in his famed Tales of the Alhambra. That book helped illuminate the obvious need to restore and preserve the palace, which Spain did and so, much later, garnered the honor of UNESCO World Heritage status.

All that really is just history, because the Alhambra is a live thing, a glorious thing, a beauty beyond compare when you gaze into its future from across the river with your friends. The light falls against it, and a little brown bird goes whiffling by. A dog barks at a puppy asleep on its master’s discarded sweater. In the mountains there, the high clouds come down to cover them.

That’s just about as much beauty as you can take. On the way back down the hill, you are careful to avoid speeding cars, wrong turns, and excrement in the road.


  1. Beautifully written! I am so jealouse.... Seems like you are having so much fun! Hope you enjoy it because it looks nothing like Texas! Keep having a great trip
    P.S. Obed and Isaac say Hi!!

  2. The article is very interesting. Seems like you are having so much fun!I Hope you enjoy it.Keep having a great trip.