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The south-eastern tip of Spain is a hot and arid place, very similar in its environment to our rocky deserts of the UAE. Cut off from the rest of the country by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, it has a dry Mediterranean climate.  The vegetation from Almeria inland is sparse and by the end of the summer everything is straw-coloured or gray. Driving through this landscape along the western edge of the mountains towards Grenada, the sudden increase in vegetation on the northern side of the range takes you by surprise. Then you see on a hill at the foot of the mountains a fortress with the colour of dried blood. Originally it had the name Al-Qal'at al-Hamra, the red city. Now it is know the world over as the Alhambra, ancient monument of the Moors.

    When you visit the Alhambra you enter another world. "It is an island surrounded by red and ochre walls, suspended in the sky and leaning against the snow-topped mountains".

    The fortress is host to various gardens and palaces in different styles, with influences from the ancient Berbers, from the Jewish employees of the Sultans, and from Persia.

    The first palace was constructed in the 11th Century by Samuel Ibn Najrellah, a Jewish viceroy of a Berber King, in a time when there was no enmity between the two peoples. Other parts were created by the last Sultan of Andalousia in the 13th Century. The princes of the Nasri dynasty created the heavenly gardens that evoke paradise.

    In 1236 the Catholic Rulers of Spain recaptured Cordoba from the Moors, who had occupied the land for several centuries. Seville fell ten years later. Those Moslims that did not flee to the Maghreb or Egypt, sought refuge in Grenada. Yusuf Ibn Nasr, the founder of the Nasri dynasty had made Grenada the capital of an emirate that stretched from Almeria to Gibraltar. For 260 years, Grenada, a city of fine arts and silk production, remained one of the most powerful cities of Medieval Europe.

    It was the civil war at the beginning of the 15th century that sounded the death knell for Grenada as a Moorish stronghold. The Alhambra held out till 1492 when Boabdil, son of Abu al-Hassan, gave the keys of the city to Ferdinand and Isabelle, Catholic rulers of Spain. The Alhambra was by then so famous for its symphony of palaces, trees and flowers, bathed in water and light, a mystical utopia, that the conquerors never dared to destroy it as they had Seville and Cordoba.

    The walk through the gardens, courtyards and palaces of the Alhambra is even now, almost 8 centuries after its construction, a magical experience. One of the experts that have made the Alhambra the subject of his research says that "the Alhambra does not really exist, it is a space to be created by yourself, with your sensitivity, your knowledge and your imagination". And this is true in a sense. Every person that walks through the gardens, along the waterways and under the trees and arches of this magical place will create his own image of heaven here.

    First there is a strictly Islamic garden, reproduction of the Garden of Allah, where large trees cast their shadow over rivers of pure water. This shows especially in the upper terraces of the Generalife, the main palace, where a staircase of water cascades down to the romantic Mirador pond. An ingenious system of capturing and distributing water from the nearby mountains, probably very similar to the present-day Arabic "aflaj" system, is still intact. The Generalife itself is located at the highest spot on the Cerro del Sol, the Hill of the Sun. Its arched and extravagantly decorated rooms look out over the Patio de l'Acegia. Originally it did not really belong to the Alhambra complex property. It used to be the place where the sultans withdrew for their private rest and recreation. The gardens that border the central ponds were first designed by the French during their occupation of Grenada in the 19th century. (The French did more than designing the gardens - in 1812 they blew up seven of the original towers of the complex, and it was only the action of a Spanish soldier, who cut the fuses, that no more damage was done).

    The gardens were recreated between 1931 and 1951, this time to contain the type of sweet-scented plants favoured by the Nasri Sultans: roses, sage, oranges, rosemary, and carnations.

    Then there is the Arrayane patio, the courtyard of myrtles, in the Iranian style such as inspired the Omayyad and Abbassid architecture of Damascus and Baghdad, where palaces are mirrored in large ponds, bordered with flowering and fruiting plants. In the Alhambra, the oldest building is mirrored perfectly in the still pond, and the upside down image below the actual building gives the impression that all is suspended in air.

    The most famous is the Courtyard of the Lions with its 24 columns of marble, its rooms with ceilings worked like lace, its floral frescoes and Arabic calligraphy, sculpted in stucco, like petrified poems. The arched ceilings between the columns recall the cave where the prophet Mohammed received his revelation of the Quran.

     This courtyard was originally called "Al riad al-sa'eed" - the Happy Garden. In the 14th century the corners between the irrigation channels used to be covered with low vegetation, hiding the base of the columns and in this way giving the impression of a real forest. In the whole Islamic world there is not one place that comes so close to the Quranic vision of the Gardens of Paradise!

    Its four narrow water channels symbolize the 4 holy rivers, the fountain symbolizes the origin of life; the stone is the eternity and the marble columns - the forest. It is a petrified garden of Eden with the perpetual movement of the water and the strict symmetry of all its elements.

    Off to one side is the "Hall of the Two Sisters", where the Sultan's favourite wives lived. Close by was the "Gossip room", the factory of intrigues that housed the rest of the harem that was guarded by eunuchs.

    In the great "Hall of Kings" entertainment was provided for residents and visitors.

    These palaces were built with very simple materials: bricks and uncut stones held together by mortar of chalk and iron-rich soil, that gives it the red color. It is an ideal fusion of architecture and nature, of buildings and gardens; in such a way that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Its subtle harmony grows on you as you lose yourself in the maze of walkways.

    The Alhambra is the fruit of a coming together of various cultures - a door to the golden age of Islamic art. The scientists who study the complex are continuously discovering new aspects. Only recently did someone notice that the lionís statues in the Court of the Lions are not all the same size. It turned out that six depicted males and the other six were females. The thousands of Arabic verses that are inscribed on the walls of the buildings have not all been inventoried, leave alone deciphered.

    One of the Spanish Alhambra experts, Jose Miguel Puerta, sums up his feelings for the Alhambra:

    "A solitary, holy space, place of infinite pleasure, of fertility, of eternity, on this hill close to the stars, turned towards God in the hope to merge with Him, for ever. All of that is there, in the red fortress, the Alhambra."




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