Robert Irwin
The Alhambra

The Alhambra seems a place of enchantment. Tourism has made it a place of pleasure and instruction. It is easy for those who walk around it today to fantasise about the gilded and cultured existence of the Moors who once inhabited this palace complex—perfumes, prayer and women—a foretaste of paradise. Indeed, James Dickie has written that 'Granada before the fall was a paradise.' Though this must have been true in some respects, in others, Granada in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was a special kind of hell and some of the darkest chambers of that hell were to be found inside the Alhambra. The place is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear.

By the fourteenth century slavery had disappeared from most of western Europe, but not from Spain. The palaces of the Alhambra were built upon suffering and the spoils of war. Christian captives were employed as slave labour in their building. Fourteenth-century verses inscribed on the walls of the Alhambra actually make this boast:
You imposed chains on the captives and dawn found them at your door building your palaces as your servants.
The slaves were probably lodged at night in the prison of the Alcazaba (though there was another prison situated on the main street of the palace complex). The prison was a conically shaped underground chamber in the basement of the Torre de la Vela (the Watch-Tower) at the western end of the Alcazaba and the only access to it would have been by a rope ladder. The dungeon would then be sealed by a trap door, leaving the prisoners with no light and no sanitation. Elsewhere in Granada Christians were employed in plantation slavery.

According to the fourteenth-century historian and philosopher, Ibn Khaldun, the 'Christians pushed the Muslims back to the seacoast and the rugged territory there, where the soil is poor for cultivation of grain and little suited to growing vegetables.' Granada needed to import food from elsewhere, often from its Christian neighbours. It survived politically by paying tribute to Castile and soliciting protection from the Merinid sultans in Morocco. The sultanate's territories were never extensive and its existence was always fraught. The buildings of the Alhambra themselves testify to the poverty of Nasrid rulers, for, though their design and decoration may be magnificent, the materials used are not. As the poet and critic Theophile Gautier observed, the Alhambra was built 'neither in marble nor alabaster, nor even in humble stone'. The palaces are like so many film sets, faking their magnificence in stucco, wood and tiles, and in this respect the Alhambra resembles Mameluke monuments being put up in Cairo in the same century. Michael Rogers, in a study of the madrasa, or teaching college, of the Egyptian Sultan al-Zahir Barquq (r. 1382-9, 1390-99) has shown how that superficially magnificent building used sycamore wood as a substitute for bronze. Other precious materials were looted from the buildings of Barquq's predecessors. Since bronze, brass, marble and wood were all in short supply in Egypt, 'the shortage of decorative materials imposed inventiveness in their decoration and use...Fashion was necessity made a virtue.' Rogers's verdict on the madrasa of Barquq can also be applied to the Alhambra.

Critics have noted that both Nasrid art and poetry were deliberately Arab and archaic. Artists and poets looked back to grander times and more opulent palaces that had been lost to the infidel in thirteenth-century Seville and, before that, in eleventh-century Cordoba and they looked back even further to the political and architectural glories of Umayyad Syria and Abbasid Iraq. Scholars in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Granada were conscious of belonging to a backwoods culture on the perimeter of Islam. The great cultural centres were then in Cairo, Damascus, Samarkand and Herat. The whole of Muslim Andalusian culture was suffused by nostalgia for what could never come again. The Alhambra was an attempt to replicate the glories of previous palaces of vanished dynasties but with only limited resources.

The splendours of the Nasrid palaces pale besides those of their predecessors, the Umayyad caliphs of Cordoba. In the tenth century, when the Umayyad caliphs governed almost all of Spain, they built a palace a few kilometres outside Cordoba called Madinat al-Zahra. It was claimed that 10,000 workmen toiled on this palace. The Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus sent 140 marble columns for its adornment. The Hall of the Caliphs was lined with variously tinted slabs of marble and at its centre was a pool of mercury which caught the sunlight and which could be stirred so as to send dazzling flashes of sunlight round the room. The ponds of the palace needed 12,000 loaves of bread a day to keep the fishes fed. But the Umayyad caliphate was a provincial backwater by comparison with the Abbasid caliphate in the East and the splendours of Madinat al-Zahra could not match those of the Abbasid palaces in Baghdad and Samarra. When a Byzantine delegation arrived in Baghdad in 917, they were taken around one of the many palaces of the caliph. According to al-Khatib's History of Baghdad:
Now there were no soldiers here, but only the eunuchs and the chamberlains and the black pages. The number of the eunuchs was seven thousand in all; the number of the chamberlains was also seven thousand, and the number of the black pages, other than the eunuchs, was four thousand; the flat roofs of the palaces being occupied by them, as also of the banqueting halls. Further, the store-chambers had been opened, and the treasures therein set out as is customary for a brides array; the jewels of the caliph being arranged in trays, on steps, and covered with cloths of black brocade. When the ambassadors entered the Palace of the Tree, their astonishment was great. For there they saw birds fashioned out of silver and whistling with every motion, while perched on a tree of silver weighing 500 dirhams...
The ambassadors were also shown the gold brocade hangings, the carpets, the richly harnessed horses, the Park of Wild Beasts, the elephants caparisoned in peacock-silk brocade, the lions in chains, the lake of tin on which floated pleasure boats covered in gold embroideries, the tree with gold and silver branches and much else besides before being finally ushered into the throne room of the caliph. The string of Abbasid palaces in ninth-century Samarra spread out along the Tigris were ornamented with glass mosaic, marble, lustre ceramics, lapis lazuli, ivory and ebony. By comparison with the palaces of the caliphs, the Alhambra was a shadow of a shadow. (And looking further ahead, it must be apparent that the palaces of Saddam Hussein in Iraq owe more to American motels than they do to anything in the Islamic tradition.)

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.