This week we switched gears – many times, actually – and drove down to Granada where we saw the Alhambra. It is the greatest Moorish palace in existence, built in the 1300s before Isabel and Ferdinand (dubbed by the Pope the “Catholic Monarchs”) drove out the Moors from southern Spain. 1492 was the big year, the year that the Moorish regime was expelled from Granada, its last redoubt in Spain. In fact, the Hall of the Ambassadors at the Alhambra was the location where Columbus met with the Catholic Monarchs and got his traveling papers, as well as where Boabdil, the last Moorish king (Abu Abdullah in Arabic) agreed to leave this exquisite palace and head south.
I expected to be impressed by the Alhambra, but it really knocked our socks off. Despite a good deal of ham-handed renovation over the centuries, it is clear that the original designers of the palace were extremely gifted in mathematics, hydraulics, and in creating very beautiful spaces to glorify Allah. The walls are decorated with three-dimensional tessalations, or repeating geometric shapes. They inspired MC Escher in his drawings that use positive and negative spaces in ways that create optical illusions. Fountains, pools and flowing streams are everywhere.
Recent study has shown that the dimensions of the various spaces were designed using the Pythagorean theorem which lends to the sense of natural order and harmony. I’m not sure I understand this, but it seems they used the ratio of the base to the hypotenuse of triangles as a geometric base on which to plan the various architectural elements.
I loved the Fountain of the Lions. Twelve stone lions stand in a circle and support a round pool of water, and through an elaborate mechanism (which was broken at the time of the conquest and hasn’t worked since), the water was to have poured out of their mouths according to the hour of the day. Can you imagine hearing the sound of one lion, two, or twelve, to indicate the time? The lions are undergoing cleaning and restoration now, so the fountain had been disassembled. In their temporary exhibit, we could actually see them much better than had the fountain been assembled. The lions were cut out of marble so that the lines of the marble outline the flanks of each. The work is remarkable.
Spain was a Moslem country for 700 years, and so much of our “western” culture came from this Moorish influence. The Spanish language retains a lot of Moslem words. European mathematicians learned algebra and the concept of zero from the Moors. In architecture, there was much borrowing back and forth between the cultures. The horseshoe-shaped Visigoth (6th century!) arch and the 11th century Romanesque arch were used by the builders of the Alhambra, and the design of Catholic cloisters was based on Moslem palaces and villas. Next week, we’ll be heading across the strait of Gibraltar to see the Moslem culture as it has evolved in current-day Morocco.