By Sairah Zubair Khan
The Alhambra is known by many names, Qalat Al Hamra, The Red One, ‘A Pearl set in Emeralds’. It comprises a series of palaces, used for leisure purposes by the Sultans and Sultanas of the Nasrid Dynasty, in the first three decades of the 20th Century. Walking around the magnificent palaces in the arid Spanish sun, one’s mind drifts off to a time long ago…
The Sultanas in their finery, surrounded by maids and children. Glancing over the fortified city walls, the heady aroma of roses and orange blossom in the air.
A Palace and Garden built to glorify God and depict the Islamic ideals of flowering trees, rivers and pools of water.
The Inscription above can be seen throughout the palace walls, carved into mosaic and formed on plaster decorative tiles. It translates as “Wa La Ghalib Ila Allah”. “Only God is the Victor” It forms the Nasrid Royal Motto and is present on the Royal Standard.
One of the best-preserved gardens, adjacent to the Palace district is that of the General Life, Jannat Al Arifa (Garden of the Architect). It has also been referred to as The Governor’s Garden and the vegetable garden of the Gypsy Festivity Organiser. A leisure place for the ruling dynasty, to get away from the official state affairs of the Palace.
There is religious symbolism once again that God, Allah is the architect, the Creator of the Universe.
Nowadays it is a venue for music and dance festivals, with flamenco shows in the purpose-built amphitheatre.
The gardens contain water, light and orchards full of fruits and vegetables. Some have described them as being a ‘heavenly vault’. A return to the nomad tent, shutting out the outside world, creating a feeling of ethereal peace and tranquillity. The Jannat prefix refers to ‘the gardens’ as a place of vegetation and cultivation.
Seven vegetable gardens, wildflowers, meadowland and fruiting trees of figs, apricots, pomegranates and orange blossom make up the 500 acres (220 hectares) of the General Life.
The Alhambra Palaces all have elongated patios, with water being the focal point. Inside the General Life, a canal exists. It is named The Acequia. It is an example of ingenious hydro-technology. Water is a vital commodity for the whole town, was drawn from a river four miles (six kilometres) upstream. It reached the Alhambra by a water pipe, the Acequia del Sultan. It became an aqueduct, upon reaching the walled area. Running downhill parallel to the street, then branching off to form pipelines.
The complex hydraulic system that regulates water levels in the pools, is quite stunning. There is great significance and symbolism of water throughout Islamic Culture as shown here in the General Life gardens.
In the Water Stairway, water is the feature of a handrail channel. It is divided into three flights, each with a fountain and handrails that channel cool, delicious running water. The sun shines through the laurel trees, creating a hazy escape on a hot day.
One can imagine the beautiful ladies of the court, retiring to the Patio de la Sultana. A Baroque garden laid out, in the area the of Palace Hammam baths. It has many ornamental water fountains and flowering trees.
The Patio and Court of the Sultana’s Cypress tree contain a central pond with a myrtle hedge. In the middle of the pond, is a smaller pond with a stone fountain. Small fish dance in the water and birds come to drink from the plentiful supply.
The General Life allowed for privacy and solitude. A space where one could look down and observe the ruling kingdom, visitors were not permitted into these private quarters.
When wandering around, absorbing the beauty of the flora and fauna in situ, a smile appears as you begin to relax and take in the surroundings.
As a family, we were visiting for the fourth time, to this magnificent place. Yet each visit resulted in the discovery of a delightful hidden alcove, a cool and shady area that we had missed on the previous visit!
It is true to say, this really is ‘heaven on earth’.