In April of 2012, I was in Spain, driving through towns and cities. It was a journey I was planning for some time, the list of places to see was long; from Toledo to Alcazar in Seville, from Cordoba to Al-Hambra, and from Valencia to the city of Gaudi, Barcelona. However, Alhambra was one place where I left my heart. I have never seen a palace so beautifully designed that while it was grand it was still cozy and comfortable. As I passed through the rooms and court yards of Al-Hambra in late evening, I realized this is the only residential building where garden is not an appendage to the palace. In Al-Hambra, builders were able to integrate the garden with living spaces thus creating a paradise on earth.
The English word “paradise” is simply a transliteration of the Old Persian word pairidaeza referring to a walled garden. It comes to us through Xenophon, the Greek essayist and historian, who heard it in 401 B.C. in Persia where he fought with Greek mercenaries. (Paradise as A Garden – Elizabeth B. Moynihan)
The myth of paradise is the oldest myth that can be found in most cultures. The first written account of paradise is found in Sumerian cuneiform tablets. In all these myths, from various times and places, paradise is described as an idyllic place or garden of flowing rivers, fruit laden trees and a never-ending life of peace and comfort.
The Persian walled gardens of antiquity were rectangular in shape with four walls to keep out the encroaching sand and sun of the harsh desert clime. The gardens were planted with fruit trees, herbs and flower bushes, and shallow water channels were laid across the length and breadth of the garden for their cooling and soothing effect. These gardens were not meant to be walked in but were enjoyed from a pavilion built at the edge of the garden. In the evening, after the sun had gone down people sat in the shaded pavilion and enjoyed the cool fragrant breeze wafting over the scented herbs and flower beds as they looked over the beautifully laid out garden.
The Persian garden was emulated by many other cultures including Arabs who came into contact with the Persian Civilization in the seventh century. The Arabs adopted the custom of building gardens and a century later brought that tradition with them to the Iberian Peninsula. In early 13 century the Nasri dynasty (1238-1492) of Jaen, Malaga and Granada built their royal residences and gardens on a hill overlooking the city of Granada.
Perched on the narrow end of the Sabika hill, is the royal palace of Al-Hambra (the red palace) and Generalife (janat al-arif, The Garden of the Architect). The two of the most significant and beautiful pieces of architecture from Muslim Era Spain.
Al-Hambra is one of those rare architectural monuments which have to be seen in person to truly appreciate its beauty. Pictures cannot capture the beauty and serenity of its rooms and landscaped court yards. Al-Hambra is modest in terms of its size or scale. However, its builders were able to achieve a synthesis of architecture and royal gardens into one complete whole. Living quarters open on to small landscaped court yards, like the Court of Lions. These interior court yards are planted with lemon trees and myrtle hedges. Water as an element of landscape architecture is masterfully incorporated into the architecture. The water fountains, reflecting water pools and water rills are integrated into the living spaces as an extension of gardens just beyond the door steps.
Twentieth century American architect Louis Khan said, “Architecture is light.” In Al-Hambra, one sees the masterful manipulation of light as it is reflected by the water, or comes in single shafts of light through filigree window screens. The long reflecting pool in the middle of Court of Myrtle not only reflects the portico of seven arches but can also reflect moon in late evening and stars in the night. The cool breeze touches the water surfaces and transports the sound of gurgling water from rills and fountains like angels whispering in your ears.
According to Jeffrey Bale, a writer, “This place was built to be extraordinarily beautiful, melding man, nature, and art in to a heavenly abode.” If there is paradise on earth than it must be the palace of Al-Hambra. My advice when you visit Al-Hambra, go in mid afternoon when the shadows are lengthening, put aside your camera, and sit at the one end of Court of Myrtle and just look at the reflections in water listen to birds chirping and gentle breeze touching your face. Close your eyes and you are in paradise.
Mr. Jeffrey Bale is a garden designer and a writer of several books on gardens of Italy and Spain. He has visited Alhambra three times over the course of past 25 years. In his blog post he provides a detailed look at the history of the royal buildings built in Granada. Jeffrey’s blog with many beautiful pictures and architectural plans is worth reading.
There is a longer documentary produced by British Channel 4, narrated by Bettany Hughes. It is quite comprehensive and the early part of the documentary covers Alhambra with some detail.