Imagining the Alhambra

Nestled on a steep hill overlooking Granada sits the Alhambra with its red walled fortress and palaces. From its towers the distant snow covered ramparts of the Sierra Nevada are visible. The highest peak Mulhacén, is named after Abu I-Hasan Ali or Muley Hacen (in Spanish), a 15th century Emir of Granada who is believed by legend to be buried on its summit. Arriving by plane this peak of 3,478 metres (11,411 ft), the highest in Spain, confronts passengers before the descent into the valleys near Granada covered with mile upon mile of olive groves. After landing, cars and buses travel along the highways of modernity passed shopping malls until entering the bustling narrow streets of the old city, where one then climbs to find peace and serenity in an oasis of gardens and the Moorish palace at the Alhambra.

How then does one understand the Alhambra? Is it a place representing Islamic conquest, rule and surrender; a monument celebrating the triumph of Spanish unification; a court where Columbus sought finance and patronage before sailing to the New World beginning new conquests and empires; a place of politics, romance, intrigue, tales, and legends; an archeological site; a museum of design, architecture, engineering and hydrology; a site of botanical and horticultural inquiry: a place of religious inspiration, and an imagined community living now through history.

A book is a tactile thing. We touch it, we feel it, we read it. Paper has its own texture, when we are not being transported to other worlds, times, visions and places by the words printed across its pages, we can see the fibers, textures and ink of which the page is composed. Similarly, the Alhambra is felt, not just seen: its arches and vaulted domes of mocarabes, carving stalactites from empty space and creating intimate spaces: delicate arabesques framing windows, miradors, patios and oratories with views opening onto gardens or the city far below; intricate mosaics, and patterns etched into stone along with Arabic words, phrases and poems talking of God, and wisdom; doors and passages seemingly leading nowhere opening to courtyards or rooms; the ever present sound of water flowing from fountains; the scent of flowers; high walls and towers shielding the outside world from that hidden within, as well as commanding views and power; the interplay of light, shadow and colour both within the Nasrid Palace, Gardens and Generalife during the day and red glow as evening descends; and the relief against which this tactile experience of the Alhambra is felt, that captivates and transports one’s imagination to another time and place, when contrasted with the Palace of Emperor Charles that was added to the site with its brutalist style, in homage to classicism and Catholicism.

I can imagine the Emir in the Court of the Ambassadors receiving noble visitors, of supplicants entering through the Gate of Justice, the busy medina with its workers and traders adjacent to the Nasrid Palace, soldiers in the Alcazaba watching Granada or washing in the bath house, life in the royal residences, children running through the gardens, horticulture being developed in the Generalife shaping agricultural development in Andalusia, bells ringing from the Watch Tower telling farmers in the valley it was time to irrigate their crops, flowers blooming in summer, and the cold days of winter with an icy chill blowing from the Sierra Nevada. Finally, I see the last Emir departing with tears of sorrow for North Africa with the bones of his ancestors never to return, except for Muley Hacen buried on the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada. Those ancestors had built a beautiful palace and kingdom, which was ultimately peacefully surrendered by its last Moorish ruler to prevent its possible destruction.

On the bell gable of the Watch Tower, a plaque declares that on the 2nd January 1492 in the Christian era after “777 years de la domincion Arabe”, Catholicism was victorious under Ferdinand and Isabella. Of course, in less than 50 years the Inca Empire had been conquered in the New World, its culture brought to heel, its wealth stolen, most of its building and temples torn down to be rebuilt as cathedrals celebrating the Catholic Church, and later thousands upon thousands dying in Andean silver mines financing economic growth, wars and empire. Ironically, recalling the Inca terraces, I am reminded that they too were horticulturalist and hydrologists that experimented with improving crops in relation to their environments and developing irrigation systems.

Standing at the Alhambra looking 500 years back to 1492, or the 777 years that the Moors ruled in southern Spain their history seems so far far away, and time passed slowly bringing us forward through epochs of competing European discoveries, trade and empires consolidated under absolute monarchs, to the world of today where there have been global conflagrations, and the speed of technology and economies of scale bring us closer together. Although time and history seems to pass slowly,  change perhaps is actually swift and sudden, with events having their own momentum or impetus. Islamic conquest spread swiftly, and equally the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and subsequent conquest of the New World was equally cataclysmic in sweeping away the histories of other peoples.

Technologies change worlds, the galleon, cannons and muskets meant armadas were able to establish dominions in far off lands. Today, information technology and digitisation, has swept away inventions and created new economies, through changes that fifty years ago seemed to be only fantasy or science fiction. Books are no longer bought physically but are read online, whilst images are mostly captured electronically although I still like to make photographs using film. Even photography is a medium that has only existed around 150 years before displacing arts such as painting and drawing. The reporting of news and events is no longer local but spreads globally at the click of a button, and goods from one country can be purchased in another through the internet. The market is no longer in the medina, or protected by the shadow of the Alhambra, a castle or monarch, but instead like most transactions exist in cyberspace.

How then do we view and represent the Alhambra? Is it as a series of images inhabiting our mindscape, momentary memories, that the unconscious will recover with the passage of time and emotion, revealing pictures as the remainder of a holiday like the empty fragments of shells worn by the tides, or are these images, these photographs ordered by theme and content, journeys of inquiry and imagination, the tactile reminder of a place that we read, and are touched by.

As I reflect on the Alhambra, and my passage through it, I remember two Arabic phrases that greeted visitors on the walls of the Nasrid Palace, Everything that you own comes from God, and, Enter and fear not ask to ask for justice, for you will find it. Perhaps too history, and the communities we imagine inhabiting the past, are never really owned and we should not fear to enter, because in these special places we find ourselves.

May 2017 Alhambra OM2 Fuji100 13

All photographs taken using an Olympus OM-2, G. Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 lens on Kodak Portra 800, Fuji Superia 400 and Fuji Superia 100.

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