It evokes a setting for the Arabian Nights…
The Moors disapproved of representational art, and the Alhambra is chiefly adorned with geometric designs in a wealth of variation. Inscriptions in Arabic or Kufic characters are integral with the stucco decoration. To those of us who cannot read them, they look merely decorative, however, they are verses of the Koran or poems in praise of the architecture and the sultans. Interspersed with these inscriptions is the grave reminder, repeated over and over on every wall, “Only God is Conqueror.”
The world in which al-Ahmar, the first Nasrid King, built his pleasure dome was dark and meancing. A realist, al-Ahmar bought peace for his kingdom by going in person to the Christian king of Castile, Ferdinand III, and becoming his vassal, even though this meant providing Moselm troops to fight King Ferdinand’s Moslem enemies. In spite of the basis moral enmity between Christian and Moor in Spain, considerable intercourse existed. Al-Ahmar’s subjects adopted certain Christian styles of dress and of arms, and the Christians provided an enthusiastic market for the crafts of Granada, such as magnificent textiles, carpets, tooled leather, carved ivory, inlaid woods, and wrought metals. Sometimes there were even voluntary marriages between Christians and Moslems, including arranged royal matches.
…There was probably an air of reckless abandon about Granadine society, for it was a doomed one and realized it. Al-Ahmar used his dearly bought peace to improve the prosperity of his country, and it became so rich that it was reputed to have discovered the secret of turning base metal into gold. Neighboring Christians, eyeing its rich industries and fruitful countryside, became more zealous than ever in their efforts to save its infidel soul.
Al-Ahmar lived to be seventy-nine, and left a thriving kingdom. Of his twenty successors, the most distinguished was Yusef I ( 1333-1354) , a cultured and chivalrous king who ruled his subjects wisely, fended off the Christians, and established the University of Granada, over whose gates he wrote, “The world is supported by four things only: the learning of the wise, the justice of the great, the prayers of the righteous and the valor of the brave.”
Yusef also found time to build the most beautiful parts of the Alhambra: notably the Hall of the Ambassadors, and the Hall of the Two Sisters. Expert engineering, begun by al-Ahmar, brought an abundance of water to the heights of the Alhambra, and the murmuring of fountains mingled delightfully with the songs of birds and the rustling of foliage. Perhaps it was the continuity of sound, coupled with the repetitious style of decoration, that gave the palace its strange feeling of timelessness.
As in paradise, there were never any abrupt transitions; one lived there shut off from the world, the light filtering in through lattices and stained glass or falling obliquely into courtyards. Each room, each court, with its airy and fragile arches, was an end in itself. And, in a hundred variations of wording, the poetical inscriptions said, in effect, “this is perfection; why seek further?” No wonder that a wordly and pragmatic soul like Charles V could see no point in Alhambra…