Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 6, 2021

Set on one of the hills of Granada, Spain, the 14th-century Alhambra is one of the best-preserved medieval Arab palaces in the world.

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Splendour in Granada

Spain’s jewel of medieval Arab architecture makes this southern city a must-see

We drove across Andalusia from Córdoba to Granada on quiet back roads, where the rolling symmetry of olive groves gave way to pine-studded hills and fields bright with ripening barley. The grey clouds that had threatened all day finally let loose and we entered Granada in a teeming downpour. Parking near our hotel in the Plaza Nueva, we got out and looked up at the most famous hill in Spain. There above us was the best-preserved medieval Arab palace in the world — the Alhambra. We crossed our fingers and hoped for a sunnier day tomorrow.

The Alhambra was built by a succession of Moorish kings. The Moors had come from North Africa to Spain early in the eighth century and, in three short years, attacked the Visigoths and over-ran most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Islamic occupation brought with it advanced agricultural techniques that in turn enabled the flowering of gracious cities — especially Córdoba.

At its peak, Córdoba had a population of half a million people and was one of the largest cities in the world. Poets, philosophers, artists and craftsmen were drawn to it from all over Europe. Elegant townhouses enclosed patios adorned with fragrant blossom trees and tinkling fountains in a style that still gives so much charm to the cities of southern Spain.

The Christian re-conquest, launched in northern Spain in 950, slowly pushed the Moors back south. When Córdoba was sacked in the 13th century, many citizens fled to Granada. The first part of the Alhambra to be built was the alcazaba, or defensive fortress, high on one of Granada’s three hills. Later, a palace or alcázar was built, surrounded by a medina and a lush series of formal gardens.

For the next century, Granada enjoyed its golden age, until finally this last Muslim bastion in Spain fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492. With the Catholic armies approaching the city, the young Moorish king Boabdil, fled south. Folklore claims that, as he looked wistfully back at Granada, his mother scolded him: “Do not weep like a woman for what you would not defend like a man.”

The Alhambra was in fact saved by its beauty. When the Catholic monarchs saw it for the first time they were captivated and ensured that it would be protected. And so it was for two centuries, until the ravages of Napoleon’s troops took their toll. Only in 1870 was the palace declared a National Monument.

The loss of almost all trace of Moorish Spain is often lamented, but the wonder is that anything survives at all. While remnants of Moorish fortresses remain, pleasure palaces like the Alhambra were built of nothing more substantial than brick- and stucco-covered rubble. They were never intended to last. Each new ruler tore down the palace of his predecessor and replaced it with his own. The palaces were light and ephemeral: nothing more than sumptuously decorated pavilions adorned with rich wall hangings and carpets.

The next morning, we awoke to the sound of steady rain outside our window; it hadn’t done any good to cross our fingers. After breakfast, huddled under an umbrella, we splashed our way to the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) where Ferdinand and Isabel are buried. When we left, the rain had almost stopped.

We headed uphill to the Alhambra and realized that lunchtime and rain had conspired to reduce the number of visitors so that we could better appreciate this wondrous place. The soft light also diffused sharp shadows and enhanced the delicacy of the incomparable stucco decoration.

Although we had recently experienced more than our fair share of water, to the Moors, who were Berber and Arab tribes from the Sahara, water was one of the great delights and riches of nature. The palace was designed as an oasis, where water was used to shimmer and cascade, to bring life and contrast to the decorative stucco and tiles.

In fact, it’s impossible to think of the Alhambra without water — at least in its most memorable spaces of the Court of the Myrtles and the Court of the Lions.

The Court of the Myrtles has at its centre a long narrow pool flanked on either side by low trimmed myrtle hedges. Scarlet goldfish flash in the water and, at either end, small fountains create just the right amount of sound and movement. A short passage through a delightful double doorway leads into the 14th-century Court of the Lions, called by many the climax of Nasrid art.

At its centre a fountain is supported by 12 grinning stylised lions — author James Michener thought they looked more like puppy dogs. Water spouts from their mouths into narrow channels no more than a few inches wide. These channels lead in four directions to the furthest points of the court, and beyond it into adjoining galleries, where they terminate in small fountains. To complete this perfection, four tiny fountains are set flush in the floor under the galleries in each corner of the court.

The forest of slender double columns and arches that make up the galleries of the court itself defy description. Alexandre Dumas called it “a dream petrified by the wand of a magician.” Just try to hang back between tour groups to see the court free of people for a moment and you’ll see what Dumas meant.

The most magnificent internal room in the Alhambra is the Hall of the Ambassadors — the audience chamber of the Moorish rulers. A superb cedar ceiling 18 metres above the floor crowns walls richly decorated with tiles and intricate stucco patterns and inscriptions from the Koran. From here, steps lead to the Royal Baths where almost every square inch of patterned stucco above the geometrically tiled lower walls is richly painted in red, blue and gold.

Leaving the Alhambra, we passed through the Renaissance palace of Charles V, a superb circular galleried courtyard set within a square building. But it seemed out of place after the Moorish splendour.

From one of the towers of the alcazaba we had gazed across at the Albaicín, the warren-like maze of streets of the medieval Jewish quarter on the second of Granada’s three hills. It looked as though it would provide a spectacular view of the Alhambra. In the early evening, we worked our way up through the streets and alleys of white-walled houses to the Mirador de San Nicolas, one of several miradors, or lookouts.

When we turned and looked back, we saw the crenellated towers of the alcazaba. With a backdrop of the snow-tinged Sierra Nevada, a watery sunset warmed the red walls and towers that gave their name to the palace: Alhambra means “the red one.”

As daylight faded, floodlights began to illuminate the palace. We lingered until it was almost dark. Walking back down towards the Plaza Nueva I remembered the words on a plaque in the garden of the alcazaba — a plea for beggars in Granada written by the Mexican poet Francisco de Icaza:

“Spare him a penny, woman,

For I cannot call to mind

A sadder fate for a human

Than to be in Granada — and blind”

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