A Cluster of Soap Bubbles is how Theophile Gautier described the decoration of the Alhambra. Yet in spite of its fragility, it has survived many a more substantial palace, and lastingly evokes a setting for The Arabian Nights.
Of a man with a sad and pensive air, North African Arabs say, “he is thinking of Granada.” The Arabs lost Granada in the year that Columbus discovered America, but still, so it is said, there are Moselem families in North Africa who keep two door keys, one of which is more than five centuries old and was made for a lock far away across the Strait of Gibraltar. The last Arab ruler of Granada, Mohammed XI, or Boabdil as he is known in the West, was not even allowed to keep his keys; that is to say, the keys of his palace, the Alhambra.
On January 2, 1492, he turned them over to his conquerors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, and left by way of a southward mountain road, pausing, for one tear-dimmed look backward at a point that has ever since been called “The Last Sigh of the Moor.” Boabdil’s people called him “the poor devil” , a name that reveals a certain sympathy for a man whose lost palace compared very favorably with the Koran’s description of a paradise.
A medieval Arab writer once remarked that the Alhambra was too much like paradise and that, therefore, Allah had been obliged to curse it. The curse was that of continual internecine quarreling and bloodshed, and thse things eventually brought about the downfall of the dynasty that built it.
During the two and a half centuries of its heyday as the residence of the Nasrid kings of Granada, the Alhambra was without doubt the most elegant, sophisticated, and beautiful dwelling in all the Western world. The name “Alhambra” refers to a complex of buildings on top of a hill called the Sabika, that rises like an acropolis in the midst of the city of Granada. The residence, which is the most beautiful part of the Alhambra, is itself divided according to the customary palace planning in the Near East. The main outer gate is called the Gate of Justice, the area in front of palace gates being the traditional seat of justice among the Moslems. Next comes the throne room and other halls and courtyards for official entertaining, and then the king’s private quarters and the harem, with windows overlooking the sheerest descent of the hill.
Theophile Gautier, who lived for several months in Granada in the 1840′s wrote describing a sunset: ” the mountains sparkle like vast heaps of rubies, topazes and carbuncles; the spaces between are filled with a golden dust, and if, as often occurs in summer, the peasants are burning straw in the plain, the wisps of smoke which slowly rise heavenward are colored by the rays of the setting sun with exquisite tints.”
The walls looked to Gautier , who was allowed to live in the palace for a few days, like “plaster embroidery,” and the delicate honeycomb moldings like “a cluster of soap bubbles which children blow with a straw,” and in fact the Alhambra is not that much more substantial since it is made of nothing more enduring than stucco on top of reed scaffolding.