All Islam in site of sultan's last sigh

The Alhambra
July 23, 2004

For centuries after the Arab and Berber invasion of Andalusia in the 8th century, Muslims ruled most of Spain and Portugal. From the 11th century, Toledo, Córdoba and Seville fell, one by one. The attack on Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella was the final offensive in the Christian Reconquista. In January 1492, the last sultan of Granada, known in the West as Boabdil, sighed his legendary last sigh before taking ship to exile. The American writer Washington Irving, who lived in the Alhambra in 1828, quotes Boabdil's mother's sneering comment: "You weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man."

Any of the 6,000 tourists a day who visit the Alhambra palace in Granada know that it is a mystical experience, the honeycombing of stucco and use of light and water soothing the mind, in contrast with the church that breaks up the forest of pillars inside the Great Mosque in Córdoba to reflect Christian military power. The chronology at the front of Robert Irwin's book is developed in its corpus to create a readable history. We see the cruelty of the sultan who built the Alhambra's mosque when he punishes a jailer for feeding prisoners, who were being starved to death, by executing him in such a way that his blood pours over them. We share Charles V's pity for Boabdil when he says: "Had I been he or he been I, I would have made this place my sepulchre."

Much of this book is about Western attitudes. John Ruskin, who condemned "useless luxury", regarded the Alhambra as a moral obscenity, influenced as he was by a hatred of Islam after the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when sepoys slaughtered Englishwomen. Christian boots have worn down the lustrous tiles on which Muslims would have walked barefoot. Irwin advises tourists to look at the palace from ground level, just as its Nasrid builders would have seen it when it was lavishly furnished with carpets and silk. The book has a lithograph of a bearded 19th-century tourist hammering off pieces of stucco while his wife keeps lookout. A photograph shows a bogus Persian dome added to the eastern pavilion in the Court of the Lions in 1858. The painter David Roberts thought the palace was not grand enough and tried to improve it by exaggerating its scale. In the 1930s, Torres Balbas mistook one of Alhambra's mihrabs for a doorway and removed it.

More recently, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish compared the Reconquista with the loss of Palestine, while the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh laments the way the modern Arab world has lost its connection with the renaissance that culminated in the Alhambra. As Irwin shows, the Alhambra is as important as a symbol of an Islamic past remembered, an Islamic present lamented and an Islamic future awaited, as it is for being one of the loveliest buildings the world has ever seen. Irwin is a brilliant Arabic scholar and a storyteller. The Alhambra , aimed at scholar and tourist alike, is a must for anyone visiting Moorish Spain.

Trevor Mostyn is editor, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa .

The Alhambra

Author - Robert Irwin
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 214
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 1 86197 412 4

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