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Remarkable book about a remarkable place
on 6 January 2006
One is almost immediately captured by this book from the very opening paragraphs - there is wonderful description of the Alhambra from the perspective of tourist guidebooks which would lead a visitor through the many palaces, chambers, and courts, filling in detail about the history from both Muslim and Christian eras. Then author Robert Irwin lets the reader know the sad truth - almost all of what is presented on this virtual tour is almost all false. The Alhambra is, if nothing else, a greatly misunderstood place, perhaps an architectural embodiment of Emerson's dictum about greatness.
The Alhambra, a grand structure on the outskirts of Granada in southern Spain, is in fact a series of palaces, perhaps more akin to the Forbidden City in China than any European or Islamic palatial counterpart. It is also the only medieval Islamic palace to survive - tradition was among Islamic rulers was to abandon the palace of the old ruler in favour of building a new one, and often the old palaces were razed for building materials - if not by the new ruler, then by the population around the old palaces, now no longer guarded. It is somewhat ironic that it may be because the Alhambra came to be part of Christendom that it, as a classic Islamic building, came to survive at all.
Irwin gives a revised tour of the facility following the virtual tour of false information - in this he describes the different palaces, the functions of different buildings and courtyards, and the influence the Alhambra has had both in artistic imagination as well as political and military significance.
There are bits of fancy here - the Sala de los Mocarabes, a room whose name comes from the stalactite decorations on the ceiling, is in fact a room without stalactite decorations (those having been burned centuries ago, but the name endures). Names and symbols throughout the buildings incorporate both Islamic and Christianised names, with a not insignificant Jewish influence as well in many respects. The Alhambra was built and preserved over a period of social tolerance and cultural flowering, but allowed to fall fallow during Spain's slow decline as a world power.
People such as Washington Irving, Benjamin Disraeli, the Duke of Wellington, the vicomte de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo and other notables of later mainstream Anglo-American and European culture drew inspiration from and were fascinated with the Alhambra. Indeed, some artists of some periods began to have a distaste for the kinds of Arabesque and medieval influences derivative of the Alhambra, for it has become far too commonplace in their opinion. More modern figures such as Jorge Luis Borges have also drawn inspiration from the site.
Robert Irwin's book is a treat to read, giving a sense of the place from an aesthetic, philosohpical, architectural, and historical sense. His tracing of the influences expanding from this almost mythical and mystical place is fascinating.