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The Alhambra

From the church of San Nicolas, on the other side of the valley, the Alhambra, like all Moorish buildings externally very plain, with its red walls and low, tiled roofs, looks like some old charter-house. Encircled by the fresh green of the spring-time, it lies along the summit of the hill with an infinite, most simple grace, dun and brown and deep red; and from the sultry wall on which I sat the elm-trees and the poplars seemed very cool. Thirstily, after the long drought, the Darro, the Arab stream which ran scarlet with the blood of Moorish strife, wound its way over its stony bed among the hills; and beyond, in strange contrast with all the fertility, was the grey and silent grandeur of the Sierra Nevada. Few places can be more charming than the green wood in which stands the stronghold of the Moorish kings; the wind sighs among the topmost branches and all about is the sweet sound of running water; in spring the ground is carpeted with violets, and the heavy foliage gives an enchanting coldness. A massive gateway, flanked by watch-towers, forms the approach; but the actual entrance, offering no hint of the incredible magnificence within, is an insignificant door.

But then, then you are immediately transported to a magic palace, existing in some uncertain age of fancy, which does not seem the work of human hands, but rather of Jin, an enchanted dwelling of seven lovely damsels. It is barely conceivable that historical persons inhabited such a place. At the same time it explains the wonderful civilisation of the Moors in Spain, with their fantastic battles, their songs and strange histories; and it brings the Arabian Nights into the bounds of sober reality: after he has seen the Alhambra none can doubt the literal truth of the stories of Sinbad the Sailor and of Hasan of Bassorah.

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From the terrace that overlooks the city you enter the Court of Myrtles--a long pool of water with goldfish swimming to and fro, enclosed by myrtle hedges. At the ends are arcades, borne by marble columns with capitals of surpassing beauty. It is very quiet and very restful; the placid water gives an indescribable sensation of delight, and at the end mirrors the slender columns and the decorated arches so that in reflection you see the entrance to a second palace, which is filled with mysterious, beautiful things. But in the Alhambra the imagination finds itself at last out of its depth, it cannot conjure up chambers more beautiful than the reality presents. It serves only to recall the old inhabitants to the deserted halls.

The Moors continually used inscriptions with great effect, and there is one in this court which surpasses all others in its oriental imagery, in praise of Mohammed V.: Thou givest safety from the breeze to the blades of grass, and inspirest terror in the very stars of heaven. When the shining stars quiver, it is through dread of thee, and when the grass of the field bends down it is to give thee thanks.

But it is the Hall of the Ambassadors which shows most fully the unparalleled splendour of Moorish decoration. It is a square room, very lofty, with alcoves on three sides, at the bottom of which are windows; and the walls are covered, from the dado of tiles to the roof, with the richest and most varied ornamentation. The Moorish workmen did not spare themselves nor economise their exuberant invention. One pattern follows another with infinite diversity. Even the alcoves, and there are nine, are covered each with different designs, so that the mind is bewildered by their graceful ingenuity. All kinds of geometrical figures are used, enlacing with graceful intricacy, intersecting, combining and dissolving; conventional foliage and fruit, Arabic inscriptions. An industrious person has counted more than one hundred and fifty patterns in the Hall of the Ambassadors, impressed with iron moulds on the moist plaster of the walls. The roof is a low dome of larch wood, intricately carved and inlaid with ivory and with mother-of-pearl; it has been likened to the faceted surface of an elaborately cut gem. The effect is so gorgeous that you are oppressed; you long for some perfectly plain space whereon to rest the eye; but every inch is covered.

Now the walls have preserved only delicate tints of red and blue, pale Wedgwood blues and faded terracottas, that make with the ivory of the plaster most exquisite harmonies; but to accord with the tiles, their brilliancy still undiminished, the colours must have been very bright. The complicated patterns and the gay hues reproduce the oriental carpets of the nomad's tent; for from the tent, it is said, (I know not with what justification,) all oriental architecture is derived. The fragile columns upon which rest masses of masonry are, therefore, direct imitations of tent-poles, and the stalactite borders of the arches represent the fringe of the woven hangings. The Moorish architect paid no attention to the rules of architecture, and it has been well said that if they existed for him at all it was only that he might elaborately disregard them. His columns generally support nothing; his arcades, so delicately worked that they seem like carved ivory, are of the lightest wood and plaster.

And it is curious that there should be such durability in those dainty materials: they express well the fatalism of the luxurious Moor, to whom the past and future were as nothing, and the transient hour all in all; yet they have outlasted him and his conqueror. The Spaniard, inglorious and decayed, is now but the showman to this magnificence; time has seen his greatness come and go, as came and went the greatness of the Moor, but still, for all its fragility, the Alhambra stands hardly less beautiful. Travellers have always been astonished at the small size of the Alhambra, especially of the Court of Lions; for here, though the proportion is admirable the scale is tiny; and many have supposed that the Moors were of less imposing physique than modern Europeans. The Court is surrounded by exquisite little columns, singly, in twos, in threes, supporting horseshoe arches; and in the centre is that beautiful fountain, borne by twelve lions with bristly manes, standing very stiffly, whereon is the inscription: O thou who beholdest these lions crouching, fear not. Life is wanting to enable them to show their fury.

Indeed, their surroundings have such a delicate and playful grace that it is hard to believe the Moors had any of our strenuous, latter-day passions. Life must have been to them a masque rather than a tragi-comedy; and whether they belong to sober history or no, those contests of which the curious may read in the lively pages of Gines Perez de Hita accord excellently with the fanciful environment. In the Alhambra nothing seems more reasonable than those never-ending duels in which, for a lady's favour, gallant knights gave one another such blows that the air rang with them, such wounds that the ground was red with blood; but at sunset they separated and bound up their wounds and returned to the palace. And the king, at the relation of the adventure, was filled with amazement and with great content.

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Yet, notwithstanding, I find in the Alhambra something unsatisfying; for many an inferior piece of architecture has set my mind a-working so that I have dreamed charming dreams, or seen vividly the life of other times. But here, I know not why, my imagination helps me scarcely at all. The existence led within these gorgeous walls is too remote; there is but little to indicate the thoughts, the feelings, of these people, and one can take the Alhambra only as a thing of beauty, and despair to understand.

I know that it is useless to attempt with words to give an idea of these numerous chambers and courts. A string of superlatives can do no more than tire the reader, an exact description can only confuse; nor is the painter able to give more than a suggestion of the bewildering charm. The effect is too emotional to be conveyed from man to man, and each must feel it for himself. Charles V. called him unhappy who had lost such treasure--desgraciado el que tal perdio--and showed his own appreciation by demolishing a part to build a Renaissance palace for himself! It appears that kings have not received from heaven with their right divine to govern wrong the inestimable gift of good taste; and for them possibly it is fortunate, since when, perchance, a sovereign has the artistic temperament, a discerning people--cuts off his head.


William Somerset Maugham