For me, one of the greatest pleasures of traveling is personal encounters with great art and architecture – which I have collected in a book called Europe’s 100 best masterpieces. This is one of my favourites:
Nowhere else can the splendor of the Maghreb shine so beautifully as the Alhambra – the last and largest Moorish palace in Europe.
For seven centuries (711–1492), most of Spain was Muslim, ruled by the Islamic Moors from North Africa. While the rest of Europe lay dormant during the Dark Ages, Spain thrived under Moorish rule. It culminated in the Alhambra – a sprawling complex of palaces and gardens on a hilltop in Granada. The highlight is the magnificent Palacios Nazaríes, where the sultans and their families lived, worked, and set up the court.
Through the scented Myrtles courtyard, you enter into a world of ornately decorated rooms, stucco “stalactites”, ornate windows, and flowing fountains. Water – which was so rare and precious in the Islamic world – was the purest symbol of life. The Alhambra is decorated with water and water everywhere: it stands still, cascading, hiding secret conversations, and drips playfully fall.
As you explore the labyrinth of rooms, you can easily imagine the sultans smoking shisha, lounging on Persian pillows and rugs, heavy curtains on the windows and burning incense from lamps. The walls and ceilings are covered with intricate patterns carved into wood and plaster. (If the Alhambra’s intricate weaving patterns sound Escheresque, I drew inspiration from the Alhambra: artist MC Escher is inspired by the Alhambra.) Because Muslim artists avoided taking pictures of living creatures, they decorated calligraphy—by carving engraved letters in Arabic. Quoted from poetry and verses from the Qur’an. One phrase – “But God is victorious” – was repeated 9,000 times.
Generalife Gardens – with manicured hedges, mirrored pools, playful fountains, and a refreshing summer palace – is where the sultans took a break from palace life. Its architect, in a way, was the Qur’an, which says that Paradise is like a fertile oasis, and that “those who believe and do righteous deeds will enter gardens through which rivers flow” (Quran 22, 23).
The much-photographed courtyard of the Alhambra is named after the fountain of 12 marble lions. Four channels carry water outward – figuratively to the corners of the earth and literally to the Sultan’s private apartments. As the poem carved on the wall of the Alhambra says, the fountain flows with “pure water” like “a full moon that shines light from a clear sky.”
The largest room in the palace is the ornate throne room – the great hall of ambassadors. Here the Sultan, seated on his throne under a vaulted ceiling of stars, greeted visitors. The ceiling, made of 8,017 inlaid wooden blocks (like a giant jigsaw puzzle), indicates the infinite complexity of God’s world.
The throne room represents the passage of the torch in Spanish history. Here in 1492 the last Moorish king surrendered to the Christians. And here the two new kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, said “Sí, señor” to Christopher Columbus, beginning his journey to the New World that would make Spain rich. But the glory of the Alhambra continued, adding elegance and grace to Spanish art for centuries to come.
Today, the Alhambra stands as a thought-provoking reminder of a graceful Moorish world that may have flourished across Europe – but didn’t.