Or: Tiles and Ceilings and Fountains, Oh My!
There is really only one word for the Alhambra: Amazing!
Having said that, I shall now proceed to contradict myself by filling the page with many other words.
Perhaps it is the sheer vastness of the palace. Perhaps it is the long and varied history. Perhaps it is the beauty of the Moorish artwork that covers the inside from floor to ceiling.
When confronted with something as overwhelming as the Alhambra, the only way my mind could process it was to look for details. The little things that add together to make the whole.
The many marble walls are etched with looping, mathematically artistic Arabic writing. I found myself (much as a young child would do when learning to read) scanning the walls for the oft repeated “Praise Allah” symbol. It looks rather like a handwritten “a W” or our hand sign for “OK.” Whenever I found it I felt the same thrill as a child would in finding the familiar in a vast expanse of beautiful, yet unintelligible, mural.
And, oh! The tiles! Some are laid out in the usual way of repeated squares but with sunburst designs that match up with other tiles. Some, my favourite, are done in huge interlocking shapes, with each line or eight-pointed star having its own tile. When you consider the way those lines weave under and over each other, what an incredible logistical nightmare it must have been to create that wall of tiles! I have heard that if you start in the middle eight-point star and follow one line through the labyrinth of other lines, it will lead outward like a maze, touching other stars, detouring around comets, leaping out and touching the far spaces of the wall and eventually lead back to your central eight-point star. This is the symbol of your life. You start with God when you are born and life leads you hither and yon, but as you journey you must return to God over and over again. I longed to sit and follow one of those lines in the mosaic but, of course, I must follow my guide and make room for the other 7,999 tourists that visit the Alhambra each day.
Oh dear! I haven’t mentioned the fountains yet! The whole castle is built upon the idea of an oasis in the desert, complete with cooling caves and green gardens. There is water in almost every room. Often the water takes thin troughs that lead directly through the centre of the marble floor like a river flowing right through your room. Sometimes the sources spring mysteriously from holes in the wall like an underground spring in the desert. Sometimes, the rivers flow from one of the many fountains. The sound of this water rippling, trickling, and splashing adds a liquid white noise that adds an elegant and cooling atmosphere to the air, no matter how hot it gets. And, oh! Does it get hot! Our guide told us it went to 47 Centigrade this summer. Ouch! Even marble would be hot at that temperature.
And then there are the ceilings!
Sometimes ceilings of beautiful white marble that drip like stalactites in a cave. The intricate designs remind me, as plebeian as it sounds, of the inside of egg cartons, the eight-sided cones in the middle that support the eggs. But these are hanging upside down in interlocking patterns. Other ceilings are massive, carved inlaid wood. One of the main rooms boasts a ceiling that slopes inward in seven slanting layers. These represent the seven levels of heaven. Seventh heaven (yes, that’s where the saying comes from) is the highest a human can obtain. There is an eighth level, but that is reserved for God alone.
I am so very glad that La Alhambra is not reserved for God alone. In fact, with all the political and cultural fighting that has gone on between the Moors and the Catholics, it is amazing that La Alhambra has survived to this day. It is still there, looking plain but imposing on the outside, high on the hillside overlooking Granada, waiting to welcome its eight thousand visitors a day.