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The Alhambra

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Having passed through the gate, you enter a large square in the centre of which you find a well whose curb is surrounded by a kind of wooden shed covered with spartium matting and where, for a cuarto, you can have a glass of water, as clear as a diamond, as cold as ice, and of the most delicious flavour. The towers of Quebrada, the Homenaga, the Armeria, and of the Vela, whose bell announces the hours when the water is distributed, and stone-parapets, on which you can lean to admire the marvellous view which unfolds before you, surround one side of the square; the other is occupied by the Palace of Charles V., an immense building of the Renaissance, which you would admire anywhere else, but which you curse here when you remember that it covers a space once occupied by a portion of the Alhambra which was pulled down to make room for this heavy mass. This Alcazar was, however, designed by Alonzo Berruguete; the trophies, the basreliefs, and the medallions of its facade have been accumulated by means of a proud, bold, and patient chisel; the circular court with its marble columns, where, in all probability, the bull-fights took place, is certainly a magnificent piece of architecture, but non erat hic locus.

You enter the Alhambra through a corridor situated in an angle of the Palace of Charles V., and, after several windings, you arrive in a large court, designated indifferently under the names of Patio de los Arraynes (Court of Myrtles), of the Alberca (of the Reservoir), or of the Mezouar (an Arabian word signifying bath for women).

When you issue from these dark passages into this large space flooded with light, the effect is similar to that produced by a diorama. You can almost fancy that an enchanter's wand has transported you to the Orient of four or five centuries ago. Time, which changes everything in its flight, has altered nothing here, where the apparition of the Sultana Chaine des coeurs and of the Moor Tarfe in his white cloak would not cause the least surprise...

The antechamber of the Hall of the Ambassadors is worthy of the purpose for which it was intended: the boldness of its arches, the variety and interlacing of its arabesques, the mosaics of its walls, and the work on its stuccoed ceiling, crowded like the stalactite roof of a grotto and painted with azure, green, and red, traces of which colours are still visible, produce an effect both charming and bizarre.

On each side of the door which leads to the Hall of the Ambassadors, in the jamb of the arch itself and where the facing of glazed tiles, whose triangles of glaring colours adorn the lower portion of the walls, are hollowed out, like little chapels, two niches of white marble sculptured with an extreme delicacy. It was here that th ancient Moors left their Turkish slippers before entering, as a mark of deference, just as we remove our hats in places that demand this respect.

The Hall of the Ambassadors, one of the largest in the Alhambra, fills the whole interior of the tower of Comares. The ceiling, composed of cedar, shows those mathematical combinations so common to the Arabian architect: all the bits are arranged in such a way that all their converging or diverging angles form an infinite variety of designs; the walls disappear under a network of ornaments, so packed together and so inextricably interwoven that I can think of no better comparison than pieces of lace placed one above the other. Gothic architecture, with its stone lace-work and its perforated roses, cannot compare with this. Fish-slices and the paper embroidery cut out with a punch, which the confectioners use to decorate their sweets, can alone give you any idea of it. One of the characteristics of the Moorish style is that it offers very few projections and profiles. All the ornamentation is developed on flat surfaces and is hardly ever more than four or five inches in relief; it is really like a kind of tapestry worked on the wall itself. One feature in particular distinguishes it-the employment of writing as a motive of decoration; it is true that Arabian letters, with their mysteriously winding forms, lend them., selves remarkably to this use. The inscriptions, which are almost always suras of the Koran, or eulogies to various princes who have built and decorated these halls, unfold upon the friezes, on the jambs of the doors, and round the arches of the windows interspersed with flowers, boughs, network, and all the wealth of Arabian calligraphy. Those in the Halls of the Ambassadors signify " Glory to God, power and wealth to believers," or consist of praises to Abu Nazar, who, " if he had been taken into Heaven while living, would have diminished the brightness of the stars and planets," a hyperbolical assertion which seems to us z little too Oriental.

Other bands are filled with eulogies to Abu Abd Allah, another Sultan who ordered work upon this part of the Palace. The windows are bedizened with verses in honour of the limpid waters of the reservoir, of the freshness of the shrubbery, and the perfume of the flowers which ornament the Court of the Mezouar, which in fact is seen, from the Hall of the Ambassadors through the doors and little columns of the gallery.

The loop-holes of the interior balcony, pierced at a great height from the ground, and the ceiling of wood-work, devoid of ornaments except the zig-zags and the interlacings formed by the joining of the pieces, give the Hall of the Ambassadors a more severe aspect than any other halls in the Palace, and more in harmony with its purpose. From the back window you can enjoy a marvellous view over the ravine of the Darro...

From the Hall of the Ambassadors you go down a corridor of relatively modern construction to the tocador, or dressing-room of the queen. This is a small pavilion on the top of a tower used by the sultanas as an oratory, and from which you can enjoy a wonderful panorama. You notice at the entrance a slab of white marble perforated with little holes in order to let the smoke of the perfumes burned beneath the floor to pass through. You can still see on the walls the fantastic frescoes of Bartholomew de Ragis, Alonzo Perez, and Juan de la Fuente. Upon the frieze the ciphers of Isabella and Philip V. are intertwined with groups of Cupids. It is difficult to imagine anything more coquettish and charming than this room, with its small Moorish columns and its surbased arches, over-hanging an abyss of azure, the bottom of which is studded with the roofs of Grenada and into which the breeze brings the perfumes from the Generalife, - that enormous cluster of oleanders blossoming in the foreground of the nearest hill, - and the plaintive cry of the peacocks walking upon the dismantled walls. How many hours have I passed there in that serene melancholy, so different from the melancholy of the North, with one leg hanging over the precipice and charging my eyes to photograph every form and every outline of this beautiful picture unfolded before them, and which, in all probability, they will never behold again! No description in words, or colours, can give the slightest hint of this brilliancy, this light, and these vivid tints. The most ordinary tones acquire the worth of jewels and everything else is on a corresponding scale. Towards the close of day, when the sun's rays are oblique, the most inconceivable effects are produced: the mountains sparkle like heaps of rubies, topazes, and carbuncles; a golden dust bathes the ravines; and if, as is frequent in the summer, the labourers are burning stubble in the field, the wreaths of smoke, which rise slowly towards the sky, borrow the most magical reflections from the fires of the setting sun...

The Court of Lions is 120 feet long and 73 feet wide, while the surrounding galleries do not exceed 20 feet in height. These are formed by 128 columns of white marble, arranged in a symmetrical disorder of groups of fours and groups of threes; these columns, whose highly-worked capitals retain traces of gold and colour, support arches of extreme elegance and of a very unique form...

To the left and midway up the long side of the gallery, you come to the Hall of the Two Sisters, the pendant to the Hall of the Abencerrages. The name of las Dos Hermanas is given to it on account of two immense flag-stones of white Macael marble of equal size and exactly alike which you notice at once in the pavement. The vaulted roof, or cupola, which the Spanish very expressively call media naranja (half an orange), is a miracle of work and patience. It is something like a honey-comb, or the stalactites of a grotto, or the soapy grape-bubbles which children blow through a pipe. These myriads of little vaults, or domes, three or four feet high, which grow out of one another, intersecting and constantly breaking their corners, seem rather the product of fortuitous crystallization than the work of human hands; the blue, the red, and the green still shine in the hollows of the mouldings as brilliantly as if they had just been laid on. The walls, like those in the Hall of the Ambassadors, are covered from the frieze to the height of a man with the most delicate embroideries in stucco and of an incredible intricacy. The lower part of the walls is faced with square blocks of glazed clay, whose black, green, and yellow angles form a mosaic upon the white background. The centre of the room, according to the invariable custom of the Arabs, whose habitations seem to be nothing but great ornamental fountains, is occupied by a basin and a jet of water. There are four fountains under the Gate of justice, as many under the entrance-gate, and another in the Hall of the Abencerrages, without counting the Taza de las Leanes, which, not content with vomiting water through the mouths of its twelve monsters, tosses a jet towards the sky through the mushroom-cap which sur mounts it. All this water flows through small trenches in the floors of the hall and pavements of the court to the foot of the Fountain of Lions, where it is swallowed up in a subterranean conduit. Certainly this is a species of dwell ing which would never be incommoded with dust, but you ask how could these halls have been tenanted during the winter. Doubtless the large cedar doors were then shut and the marble floors were covered with thick carpets, while the inhabitants lighted fires of fruit-stones and odoriferous woods in the braseros, and waited for the return of the fine season, which soon comes in Grenada.

We will not describe the Hall of the Abencerrages, which is precisely like that of the Two Sisters and contains nothing in particular except its antique door of wood, arranged in lozenges, which dates from the time of the Moors. In the Alcazar- of Seville you can find another one of exactly the same style.

The Taza de los Leones enjoys a wonderful reputation in Arabian poetry: no eulogy is considered too extravagant for these superb animals. I must confess, however, that it would be hard to find anything which less resembles lions than these productions of Arabian fantasy; the paws are simple stakes like those shapeless pieces of wood which one thrusts into the bellies of pasteboard dogs to make them keep their equilibrium; their muzzles streaked with transverse lines, very likely intended for whiskers, are exactly like the snout of a hippopotamus, and the eyes are so primitive in design that they recall the crude attempts of children. However, if you consider these twelve monsters as chimere and not lions, and as a fine caprice in ornamentation, producing in combination with the basin they support a picturesque and elegant effect, you will then understand their reputation and the praises contained in this Arabian inscription of twenty-four verses and twenty-four syllables engraved on the sides of the lower basin into which the waters fall from the upper basin. I ask the reader's pardon for the rather barbarous fidelity of the translation:

" O thou, who lookest upon the lions fixed in their place! remark that they only lack life to be perfect. And you to whom will fall the inheritance of this Alcazar and Kingdom, take them from the noble hands of those who have governed them without displeasure and resistance. May God preserve you for the work, which you will accomplish, and protect you forever from the vengeance of your enemy! Honour and glory be thine, O Mohammed! our King, endowed with the high virtues, with whose aid thou hast conquered everything. May God never permit this beautiful garden, the image of thy virtues, to be surpassed by any rival. The material which covers the substance of this basin is like mother-of-pearl beneath the shimmering waters 9 this sheet of water is like melted silver, for the limpidity of the water and the whiteness of the stone are unequalled; it might be called a drop of transparent essence upon a face of alabaster. It would be difficult to follow its course. Look at the water and look at the basin, and you will not be able to tell if it is the water that is motionless, or the marble which ripples. Like the prisoner of love whose face is full of trouble and fear when under the gaze of the envious, so the jealous water is indignant at the marble and the marble is envious of the water. To this inexhaustible stream we may compare the hand of our King which is as liberal and generous as the lion is strong and valiant."

Into the basin of the Fountain of Lions fell the heads of the thirty-six Abencerrages, drawn there by the stratagem of the Zegris. The other Abencerrages would have shared the same fate if it had not been for the devotion of a little page who, at the risk of his own life, ran to warn the sur vivors from entering the fatal court. Your attention will be attracted by some large red spots at the bottom of the basin - an indelible accusation left by the victims against the cruelty of their murderers. Unfortunately, the learned declare that neither the Abencerrages nor the Zegris existed. Regarding this fact, I am entirely guided by romances, popular traditions, and Chateaubriand's novel, and I solemnly believe that these crimson stains are blood and not rust.

We established our headquarters in the Court of the Lions; our furniture consisted of two mattresses which were rolled up in a corner during the day, a copper lamp, an earthenware jar, and a few bottles of sherry which we placed in the fountain to cool. Sometimes we slept in the Hall of the Two Sisters, and sometimes in that of the Abencerrages, and it was not without some slight fear that I, stretched out upon my cloak, looked at the white rays of the moon which fell through the openings of the roof into the water of the basin quite astonished to mingle with the yellow, trembling flame of a lamp.

The popular traditions collected by Washington Irving in his Tales of the Alhambra came into my memory; the story of the Headless Horse and of the Hairy Phantom solemnly related by Father Echeverria seemed very probable to me, especially when the light was out. The truth of legends always appears much greater at night when these dark places are filled with weird reflections which give a fantastic appearance to all objects of a vague outline: Doubt is the son of day, Faith is the daughter of the night, and it astonishes me to think that St. Thomas believed in Christ after having thrust his finger into his wounds. I am not sure that I did not see the Abencerrages walking through the moonlit galleries carrying their heads under their arms: anyhow the shadows of the columns always assumed forms that were diabolically suspicious, and the breeze as it passed through the arches made me wonder if it was not a human breath.



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