Inside the Alhambra


Inside the Alhambra: the Nasrid Palace
.

Visitors entering the Nasrid Palace do so by way of the Mexuar, in all likelihood a council room
where citizens might have their grievances addressed by administrators or possibly the ruler himself.  A low, modest room, the Mexuar has undergone radical alterations over time, and little remains of the original chamber.

          Alhambra: Mexuar.  © Casselman. 
For example, the wooden ceiling belongs to the 16th century and most of the early tiles (azulejos) have been replaced by tiles from other parts of the palace.  Under Charles (Carlos) V, the Mexuar was lengthened and turned into a chapel; at the same time, a gallery was added and Charles’s emblem (the Pillars of Hercules) and motto (Plus Ultra) inscribed in the walls, alongside the Nasrid coat of arms. In the 17th century, a wooden choir gallery was added at the northern end of the room.

From the Mexuar, you enter the palace complex proper via the Patio del Cuarto Dorado (the Court of the Golden Room). You wouldn’t guess it now, but this small, enclosed patio once served as a sheep pen and chicken coop, a far cry from times when the king held court there. He sat between the two doors of the southern wall, a dazzling, stuccoed tapestry topped by elaborately carved eaves.

 Southern wall of the Patio del Cuarto Dorado.
                        ©  M A Sullivan. 
Beneath the eaves, there hangs a string of delicate muqarnas (honeycombs), and below these three latticed windows. This wall is the most commanding single wall in the whole complex, and is a fitting preparation for the most lavish and imposing room in the Alhambra, the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors).

But how do you get to the Hall of the Ambassadors, a place reserved for dignitaries? Leaving the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, you head for the left hand door in the stuccoed wall; the right hand door leads to nowhere, a quirk that has been interpreted as deliberate in order to frustrate any attempt on the king’s life. I.e. you have to know your way around the Alhambra! Be that as it may, it does point to something typical of the Alhambra: a love for the unexpected.  Although the Nasrid complex is structured around two principal courtyards (Court of the Myrtles and Court of the Lions), there are numerous smaller units united at odd angles by passageways, as well as secluded, intimate alcoves, dead-ends, and fountains and gardens. This layout is alien to the Western mind, for whom palaces evoke majestic panoramas, long, wide and straight passages, regal entrances, stately staircases, and distance … there’s nothing like distance to impose awe and majesty. The Alhambra is anything but that, which is probably why Charles V decided in 1527 to build a palace befitting his imperial status, in accordance with architectural tastes Europeans would recognise.

So, to get to the Hall of the Ambassadors, you climb a few steps through a narrow and darkened passageway, before emerging into dazzling sunlight at the Patio de los Mirtos or Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles).

    Alhambra: Patio of the Myrtles.  Note the Reflection.
  A rectangular pool –imitating the shape of the Court—magically gathers the shimmering reflections of the surrounding walls and pillars.  But see it at night, too, if possible –and the Alhambra should be seen at night as well as in daylight-- when the moon or stars reflected on the pool’s glistening surface seem to leave the surrounding buildings suspended in the heavens.

The Hall of the Ambassadors (also known as the Throne Room) lies at the northern end of the Patio, in the large Torre de Comares (Comares Tower).  Immediately before it stands the Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Boat), so named from the inverted hull-like shape of the cedar ceiling in artesonado (elaborately patterned wooden recessed ceiling).  But there is another more likely meaning: the Hall of the Blessing, from the Arabic “baraka,” “blessing,” a sentiment that is expressed in Arabic on the walls. 
A similar root is found in Hebrew and other semitic
languages, and is a common male name in Middle
Eastern and North African cultures.  The most famous
for us is undoubtedly Barak Obama, the current
president of the USA. 
The purpose of the Sala de la Barca is unclear: consensus is that it was an ante-chamber or reception room leading into Hall of the Ambassadors, but it has also been suggested that it was a dining room, or even the king’s summer bedroom.

The Hall of the Ambassadors is the largest and most imposing room in the Alhambra.  Here in this richly decorated throne room the king awaited visiting dignitaries; here it was that the keys of the Alhambra were handed over to the Christians on January 1, 1492, and here it was that Charles V is reported to have exclaimed “Ill-fated the man who lost all this”!  And with reason, most will say.
It was the same Charles who authorised
the construction of a Church within
the Mosque of Córdoba.

    

      Hall of the Ambassadors.  © M A Sullivan. 
Standing two storeys tall, the walls of the Hall of Ambassadors are totally covered with intricate, multicoloured patterns beginning with the azulejos (tiles) at ground level, and followed upward by several levels of mesmerising stucco tapestries --reminiscent of oriental carpets-- interspersed with Qur'anic and poetic inscriptions. The thick walls are broken up at ground level by deeply recessed and decorated alcoves/windows with commanding views of the ancient whitewashed Albaicín quarter across the ravine.  Near the ceiling, rounded, delicately latticed windows filter the sunlight as it travels along on the walls. The ceiling itself is a tour de force: an artesonado  cupola made up of over 8,000 pieces of wood representing the seven heavens of Paradise. It looks like a galaxy of shooting stars, or a never ending display of fireworks, exploding simultaneously against the night sky. Half stars along the edges suggest both infinity and man’s finite reach, i.e. the impossibility of ever containing the heavens within human dimensions.


        Hall of the Ambassadors, Ceiling.
                          ©  Casselman. 
The whole ceiling is awesome and beautiful, and probably had a functional role too of transferring some of that awe to the person who sat beneath it: the king beneath the dome of heaven, so to speak. All that is missing now are the original bright colours in which the ceiling was once painted.  It is not hard to imagine awestruck visiting dignitaries facing the king, seated on his throne beneath such an illuminated canopy and surrounded by brilliant, stuccoed tapestries!

      Detail of wall in the Hall of Ambassadors.
                       © M A Sullivan.

Exiting from the Hall of the Ambassadors on your way to the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), you will notice, framed against the delicate arches leading out of the Sala de la Barca, the upper part of Charles V’s granite Renaissance Palace rising over the far end of the Court of the Myrtles. It intrudes, not as aggressively as the Gothic church in the centre of the Great Mosque of Córdoba but certainly as a reminder of the divide between two cultures.

After the Hall of the Ambassadors, you are directed towards the Court of the Lions (Patio de los Leones). It's a big step from omnipotence to intimacy; both courtyards are breathtaking albeit in different ways.

Sources:

Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992
Danby, Miles    The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge, Mass 2004
Jacobs, Michael     Alhambra London 2000 (paperback 2005)
Kuhnel, Ernst    Islamic Art and Architecture Ithaca 1966
The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra.
Casselman Collection: http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Arts.CasselmanImage
Sullivan M A  http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/spain/granada/alhambra/alhambraindex.html
For a good map of the Alhambra, go to: http://www.planetware.com/map/alhambra-and-generalife-map-e-agg.htm