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A precious pearl set in emeralds


No matter how much a downturn in the global economy or a crisis in the Eurozone cause the nations of Europe to trim their sails, Europe can still boast that it is still the treasure house of some of the world’s most magnificent buildings. Although the people of Spain may be hurt right now from the economic cuts forced upon them by circumstances, their country remains at the centre of Europe’s heritage and has much to be proud of.

One of the most beautiful places on earth, the Alhambra palace in southern Spain is one of the contenders for the prize to be listed as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Reminding us of that Golden Age of Islam in Spain, the Alhambra speaks to the hearts of all people as a place of refinement and elegance. The subject of a million postcards, the Alhambra is a symbol of beauty itself. Just one look at any of those postcards makes us feel the heat of the Spanish sun and the coolness of the shade offered by the palaces’ courtyards.

The palace, mosque and fortress of the Alhambra lie in Granada on an outcrop of rock beneath the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Southern Spain. Despite a history of neglect and willful disuse, the Alhambra remains the most perfect example of Islamic art in Europe, unsurpassed by anything that has ever been built. Designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise itself, the Alhambra is made up of gardens, fountains and streams, a palace and a mosque, all within an imposing fortress wall, flanked by 13 massive towers. It was the residence of the Moorish kings of Granada and their court and it typifies the glory of Al-Andalus, that Golden Age of Islam in Spain.

When London and other cities in Northern Europe were no more than a collection of mud and timber dwellings, cities such as Granada, Toledo and Cordoba were the epitome of refinement and elegance, with paved streets, public parks, baths and libraries. Learning flourished and different religious communities lived together in tolerance and peace. The architectural summit of  this Golden Age was the Alhambra. Because of its pinkish walls and the dense green forest of trees and shrubs surrounding it, Moorish poets described it as a “pearl set in emeralds”. The very name    “Alhambra”, from an Arabic root, is derived from those same pinkish-red walls.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the whole city of Granada has been declared a national monument by the Spanish people. One of the last cities to fall into the hands of Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, during the “Reconquest” of Southern Spain, Granada’s Palace of the Alhambra was the scene from which those same monarchs sent off Christopher Columbus to discover the New World. Although they both had a total hatred of Islam, the king and queen so loved the ravishing beauty of the Alhambra that they wished to make it their own and Isabella even requested to be buried there, which she indeed was for 20 years, until being transferred to join the body of her husband in a specially built chapel in the town below.

No words can do true justice to the exquisite taste lavished upon this complex of buildings by a succession of Moorish rulers. Built chiefly between 1248 and 1390, under such kings as Yusef I, Mohamed V and Ismail I, the whole of the Alhambra is the quintessence of arabesque art. Thousands of other buildings have used the architectural style of the Alhambra as their model. Swirling vine leaves and foliage carved in stone, Moorish arches, white and blue tiles, all add to the palace’s beauty. Each of the buildings is built around a courtyard. There are fountains everywhere, with green cypress trees and myrtles reflecting the perfection of eternity. The trickle of gentle streams in the beautiful gardens reminds Muslims of the Gardens of Delight, “with rivers flowing underneath,” described in the Holy Qur’an. Sitting atop a plateau of rare natural beauty, the site is wafted by breezes from all directions, making it a cool and refreshing place to relax in the heat of the seemingly endless Spanish summer.
Now, the most popular tourist attraction in Spain, the Alhambra’s Lions’ Court has been the subject of a million postcards. Built in the second half of the 14th century by Mohamed V, this spectacular courtyard, restrained in its beauty, opens on to three beautiful rooms. In the centre is an unusual fountain in the form of an alabaster basin supported by 12 lions, which used to function as a clock, with the different hours spouting water from a different lion. When the palace was captured, its conquerors took apart the mechanism to see what ingenuity could possibly make it work. The clock has not worked since!

After King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had seized the Alhambra and made it their own, the whole complex was then consigned to oblivion for centuries. A succession of rulers made disastrous alterations, whitewashing over many of the walls, blocking up doorways and dividing up rooms. An earthquake in 1821 almost finished the building off, and the emperor Napoleon had wished to blow up the whole complex, as his wars in Spain turned sour. It was only the American writer, Washington Irving, who made the Alhambra known once more in the last century by his book, Tales from the Alhambra.

Just in passing, what a sad reflection on the human spirit this attitude of kings and princes give us. Once we have seized something which did not belong to us, we then care nothing for our prize. The acquisition, itself, is often the achievement. Wanting to own more and more things is the goal. We do this with things. We even do it with people, using them as a trophy to exhibit in front of others.

As we think, though, about our own list of new seven wonders, fitting for our own age, let us learn from what we read in the Holy Qur’an:
“Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, there are indeed signs for men of understanding.”
Holy Qur’an 3: 190
The exquisite beauty of the Alhambra palace is just one of those signs. It is a reflection of the sublimest achievement of man and an even greater reflection of the Creation around us. Perhaps the new list of the world’s wonders will help people spare a thought, just for a moment, for their Creator.

Fuente:The Egyptian Gazette
Tuesday, October 23, 2012 11:42:16 AM