It is a country of dreams, fragile pavilions, airy courtyards, and meticulously planted gardens, cool trickling fountains and pools, refuges from the harsh summer heat of Southern Spain, that the Moors called Al-Andalus. In this country the bougainvillea vines make a splash of dark red or electrical magenta against whitewashed plaster walls, and curved roof tiles of a peculiar faded hue, somewhere between rose pink and honey. In the afternoon, the cicadas make a churring sound in the oleanders in the great enclosed garden of the citadel of the Alhambra high on the Albaicin hill, in the city of Granada.
The place seems deserted of people, only my daughter and I exploring the paths where the white dust settles softly in our footprints as we pass. Behind us is the ruined citadel of the Alcazaba, the fortress looking out over the city below, and the sprawling palace complex of towers and courts, whispering with myrtle leaves and the trickle of water. The Patio of Myrtles – the Comares Tower, the Hall of the Ambassadors, its interior walls covered with a fine tracery of intricate plaster lace. Our footsteps fall with a faint scuffing sound on the stone floors. The Lions’ Court, water bubbling from a great stone basin, born up on the backs of oddly stylized, almost Chinese-looking stone lions, at the center of a forest of slender pillars, branching into more elaborate arching trees of plaster filigree. To me it is a wonderland, a place of enchantment, but something about the rooms opening into the Lion’s Court creeps out my daughter. She feels a sense of oppression, the whisper of something bad having happened there, and runs ahead. I follow, doing my best to drink it all in, the fabled rooms and gardens, loggia and court. There was the Queen’s mirador, a tower with an airy latticed window, once with a view into the town below- all ornamented with plasterwork, with tile and magnificent woodwork, the last grand flowering of the Moorish kings in Spain, their paradise on earth, planted with flowers and shrubs to make a living carpet, ornamental trees swaying gracefully in the cool breeze. Boabdil, the last king of Granada, departed in 1491, asking of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Monarchs that the gate out of which he left be stopped up and never used again. At the head of the pass leading down towards the sea, he looked back at his glorious citadel and wept.
Granada, the last remnant of Moorish control on the Iberian Peninsula. Once, at the peak of power and glory, the great dynasties—the Umayyad, and after them the Almoravids and the Almohads held all but Asturias in the far north-west, and went over the Pyrenees as far as Tours before being pushed back by Charles Martel. Moorish rulers held the great cities of Toledo, Cordoba, Seville; shining beacons of learning and culture in the darkness of the European Middle ages. Gloriously adorned with gardens, running water, street-lighting, Cordoba boasted subtle philosophers, learned doctors of medicine, poets and mathematicians, and an atmosphere of toleration that drew on the finest scholars from all three religious traditions. Abd-al-Rahman III, who held supremacy as the Caliph of Cordoba built himself a great palace outside the city, called the Medinat-al-Zahra – palace, garrison and city all at once, splendid and sprawling – as glittering and ultimately as fragile as a blown glass sculpture. It existed only a bare half-century as the Versailles of Iberia, before it was razed nearly to the ground, and the Caliphate collapsed into a muddle of warring city states. The Christian Reconquest slowly gathered, retaking Toledo by the 11th century, brought to a glorious conclusion by Ferdinand and Isabella in this very city, in the shimmering fairy-tale palace that my daughter and I now explored. Within a few years and decades many others followed King Boabdil into exile, probably many of them looking one last time over their shoulders and weeping for that lost paradise, that splendid dream that was no longer theirs. The exiles took skills, intellect and trade contacts with them, and Spain glittered for a while, and then grew moribund, rigid, overtaken in intellectual, industrial and mercantile energy by other countries.
But some still dream, of colonnaded gardens, and fountains of clear water from the snow-melt of the Sierra Nevada, and of taking back the lost paradise of Al-Andalus, caring little that what made it so, was liberty from religious orthodoxy, and the free exchange of ideas, in the courtyards of Cordoba and Toledo, with the blossoms of orange trees perfuming the twilight air.