The Alhambra is full of surprises, and the entrance to the palace is one of the greatest of them. The huge, unfinished, modern palace of Charles V. is an unexpected feature in the midst of Moorish architecture and surroundings; but the Alhambra palace is so concealed behind it that the traveler would hardly suspect its existence. This palace formerly occupied a much larger space than at present and had two suites of apartments, for winter and summer respectively. It bad then four courts; the winter portion was where the palace of Charles V. stands, the summer palace was on the north, along the heights above the Darro and in full view of the snowy mountains. The present entrance is by a narrow lane to some low-roofed buildings, and then through a small, insignificant doorway. The stranger pauses in the hall within, where the guardian of the palace receives his fee, and offers for inspection and record the album of the place. We spent a few moments in looking at the autographs of distinguished men, and when we had found that of Washington Irving, with the date 1829, were satisfied to move on.
The first visit to the Alhambra is like a dream in fairy-land or an enchantment. I did not go into hysterics, as De Amicis and some others seem to have done, nor did a sense of the romantic prevent me from a serene and practical enjoyment of the manifold delights of the place. But all desire to analyze the different parts of the palace, to study it with a ground plan, or to do tourist or professional work in observing and describing the courts and halls, the fountains and arabesques, immediately passed away. It seemed as if the duty of the hour-for even in such a place a conscientious traveller thinks of duty -was to see and to enjoy. And so we went on from court to court, from one hall into another, gazing at sculptured walls and ceilings, at exquisite tiles, and delicate lacework of flowers and geometric patterns, at visions of artistic beauty within, and beautiful views through superbly formed windows, and looking into rooms where pious’ sentences and maxims from the Koran were blended with choice traceries. Such are some of these sentences: “There is no conqueror but God,” “God is our refuge,” “The glory of the empire belongs to God,” “There are no gifts among you but those of God,” “Blessing,” “Felicity,” “Perpetual salvation.”These are repeated on walls and capitals of columns, and combined and interwoven in the most varied and intricate patterns with Oriental decoration. It is impossible not to interpret these records religiously, and not to believe that they reveal the reverential and grateful feelings with which the Moors regarded the one only living God, whose greatness and goodness they thus inscribed upon the walls of their most beautiful buildings. Yet here we meditated, of necessity, upon the inconsistency of man; for in these rooms, whose walls are inscribed with sacred sentiments, and whose ceilings are gilded and starred like a heaven, among these white and elegant palm-like marble pillars, with the blue of the heavens overarching the courts and the pure water of the Sierra rising in myriad forms of beauty in patios and gardens, scenes of cruelty and lust and barbarity have been enacted over and over again. Besides these tragedies, the palace of the Alhambra has witnessed softer scenes of love and poetry, gorgeous pageants, and those gatherings of beauty and rank where delicious music, and the glitter of priceless jewels, and the forms of fair women and brave men added life and joy and glory to the matchless environment.
All these have passed away and are only food for reveries and musings which delight the vagrant fancy, as we sit in the morning in the “Court of the Myrtles,” watching the goldfish, or stand at sunset in the shadow of a carved window and see the crimson crown on the mountains, or pace to and fro under the colonnade of the “Court of the Lions,” when the moon floats above it in the air, like the Moor’s crescent symbol, while the shadows deepen, and all is still except the twitter of the martlets in their tower or the notes of the nightingale from the near gardens.
One cannot remain long in the Alhambra with out becoming sensible of its romantic influence. It is in the very air, and in spite of gypsies and beggars and a hundred practical distractions, which are more importunate and exigent in Spain than almost anywhere else, the moment one can. get away alone, whether in the gardens of the Generalife, or in the palace courts, or in the grounds of a private villa, the spirit of the past asserts its control; then history, which is more wonderful than the Arabian Nights, and legends which Irving has dressed with poetic skill, and the poetry of imagination, which has woven a subtle spell around this royal fortress, come thronging into the mind, and the most prosaic traveller becomes rhythmic, while the painter, the poet, and the scholar enjoy the delicious sentiments which fill and sway them, as only fine natures and cultured souls can be moved and enriched. But as the spirit of the Alhambra can hardly be transported across the Atlantic, I may not leave it without a glance into its beauties, which shall be more descriptive than sentimental. First, then, from the entrance hall one proceeds, by turning, to the Court of the Myrtles, also called the Court of Blessing. This is an oblong open court one hundred and forty feet long by seventy-four feet wide. In the centre, filling a large portion of the patio, is a long pond, set in the marble pavement and full of goldfish. The edges are bordered with grass and a carefully trimmed hedge of myrtles. On the north and south sides are galleries supported by a marble colonnade. Over the south gallery is a second one, and the principal entrance was beneath on the right, until the modern palace blocked it up. The pillars which support this gallery are light and graceful, and each capital is different; slender arches, like bending palm branches, spring from these capitals, and at the base of each the words “Perpetual Salvation” are inscribed in Cufic characters. From this court the lofty tower of Comares is seen rising above the roof, and this tower and the colonnades are reflected in the crystal mirror of the water. This must have been a most beautiful entrance to the palace, where optical effects produced by brilliant gilding and vivid colors, water, light, and shade, combined to lend their enchantment.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is the largest in the Alhambra, and occupies the whole of the tower of Comares. It is thirty-seven feet square and seventyfive feet high in its central dome. This was the throne room of the caliph. Azuelos of varied colors wainscot the walls for four feet from the pavement, and above this they are covered with stucco work of the most delicate patterns, mingled with coats of arms and inscriptions. These walls are of immense thickness, so that the window recesses are like small doorless rooms. The ceiling was originally a wonderful work of stucco, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, porphyry, and jasper. This, having been destroyed, has been replaced by a ceiling of wood, with inlaid work of white, blue, and gold, made in the shape of circles, crowns, and stars. There is a glorious panorama from the windows. The floors, which are now of common material, were once of polished alabaster.
The Court of the Lions-so called because of the fountain which is supported by twelve beasts, which are to be looked at not as works of art, but simply as symbols of strength -is familiar to all. This court has been drawn and painted and photographed from almost every point of view, and described architecturally, artistically, and rhetorically. It impresses one as small until he has walked around it, then he begins to notice the harmony and exquisite elegance of all its parts, and accepts the statement that it is the most perfect Moorish court in existence. This oblong court is surrounded by galleries supported upon one hundred and twenty-eight white marble columns, alternately isolated and in pairs. There are two projecting pavilions, elaborately ornamented and roofed with domes. The fountain in the centre is a superb alabaster basin with a smaller basin above. A poem is engraved upon the lower basin in praise of the founder of the court. A pipe sticks out of each lion’s mouth, and the general effect of the fountain in operation is said to be fine; but we did not see the lions spouting. The Hall of the Abencerrages opens into this court, with an exquisite door and a honeycomb stalactite roof. It was here that the last but one of the Moorish sovereigns made the Christian maiden, Isabel de Solis, his wife, under the title of Zoraya, “the Morning Star.”
The discarded sultana, imprisoned in the tower of Comares, sought safety for her son, Boabdil, by letting him down from a window, by night, into the ravine of the Darro. The powerful family of the Abencerrages espoused the cause of Zoraya, the Zegris that of Ayesha, the mother of Boabdil. In 1482 Boabdil dethroned his father; and, instead of making friends of the hostile clan, he is said to have beheaded thirty-four of their chiefs, whom he had invited to a banquet in the Court of the Lions. The surviving family joined Ferdinand and Isabella, and Ayesha girded her son for defensive battle with a sacred sword. It was in vain. The place was taken January 2, 1492, and Boabdil, having given up the keys of the fortress and prostrated himself before his conquerors, departed forever from the stronghold and palace of his ancestors by the gate of the Siete Suelos, which was walled up in accordance with his request. From the lofty height of the Alpuxarras, which is still known as “the last sigh of the Moor,” he gazed with streaming eyes upon the beautiful Alhambra, while his stern mother, embittered by the misfortunes of the son for whom she had labored and sacrificed in vain, spoke the bitter words, “It is well that you should weep as a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”
The “Hall of Justice,” with its wonderful ornamentation and curious paintings upon skins adorning the ceiling; the “Hall of the Two Sisters,” with the boudoir of the sultana at one end; the royal bathrooms, and the mesquite, or mosque, and its court, have each their peculiar beauties of form and decoration, and legends and traditions of special interest. Books have been written about them all, and Senor Contreras was employed by the government for many years in discovering and renewing the adornments of walls and ceilings, and in repairing the ravages of decay and time. A recent fire damaged a small part of the building; but it is being again repaired, and there is reason to hope that this characteristic and beautiful Moorish palace will be preserved for the study and delight of generations to come.