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Beauty, Brutality & Motherhood – The Alhambra

Arches inside the Alhambra in Granada

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”

Inside the Alhambra

In the scorching cauldron of Andalucia, the Sierra Nevada mountains rise up to tickle the skies and gather enough snow to cover the peaks for most of the year. Beneath them, amidst rolling countryside of rust-coloured paths, cypress trees and white-washed towns, the city of Granada gets on with life.

On its steepest slope sits the Alhambra.

The Alhambra, Granada

Fountain & oranges inside the AlhambraThe name comes from the Arabic “al hamra,” the red one. Its stocky outside walls wear the standard European fortress look, albeit with an unexpected glimpse of charisma at sunset, when they glow a soft copper-red against the lilac night sky.

Inside, however, reveals a completely different world.

Like many castles in Europe, work on the Alhambra began seven or so centuries ago. Unlike most of the others, this work took place at the request of the Moorish Sultans, kings who used Arabic instead of Latin and who practised Islam instead of Christianity.

Their work and influence live on across the Iberian peninsula, from the architecture of the haunting Mezquita in Cordoba to the expressions of everyday Spanish. Ojalá in Castilian derives from In šāʾ Allāh in Arabic. Both translate to a form of “god be willing” that has taken on more of a “fingers crossed” meaning in more secular times.

Yet, it’s within the vast grounds of the Alhambra that the majesty of the Moorish heritage becomes clear. At the same time as French and English kings sheltered in draughty, damp castles eating turnips and porridge, the Nasrid kings basked among elaborate engravings, elegant courtyards and olive groves, sheltered from the angry sun.

Instead of howling wind and dripping rain, the lyrical chatter of fountains filled the air. Instead of wall to wall mildew, ivory carvings decorated the space.

Carvings inside the Alhambra in Granada

Carvings inside the Alhambra in Granada

Ancient History & Myths of Today

Yet for all the delicate beauty of the building, the history of the Alhambra issues another deeper message about today’s myths that link beauty with doing good, and motherhood with kindness.

When the Moors lost this paradise to the reconquest of the Catholic monarchs, the last sultan of the Alhambra sobbed as he watched them enter.

In an era devoid of political correctness, his mother turned to him and uttered the phrase that became immortal:

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”

Blue and white carving inside the alhambra

Ouch.

Not that the incoming mother, Queen Isabella, offered up a much better alternative. She sent her baby daughter off to marry the King of England, who turned out to be the murderous and maniacal King Henry VIII.

So it was with some trepidation that I walked around the rose-scented gardens of the Alhambra with my own mother, an inspirational woman who has also shown great courage, strength and guidance over the years.

She also tells me the truth.

“I’ve looked at your twitter feed. It’s boring. I don’t see the point.”

Ouch. Fair enough. Back to the drawing board.

And, hey, getting things into perspective, at least I don’t have to marry a tyrant.

Blue and white carving inside the alhambra

The Alhambra, Granada

Visiting the Alhambra

Unlike most tourist attractions, to get inside the Nasrid Palaces you MUST, MUST, MUST, MUST book in advance. If you turn up on the day, you are likely to gain admission to the rest of the (stunning) grounds but you may miss out on the intricate Nasrid Palaces.

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28 Responses to Beauty, Brutality & Motherhood – The Alhambra

  1. Henry Lee July 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Abi, thanks for the lovely article and photographs about the Alhambra in Granada. It all evoked great memories of my own visit a few years ago.

    • Abi July 16, 2011 at 5:13 pm #

      You are very welcome – thank you for taking the time to comment.

  2. Jenna July 15, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    After studying art history in college, I had a shortlist of places I had to go. This is one of them, and when I made it there, I was overwhelmed. It is just so beautiful. I never knew some of the history you mentioned, so thank you for sharing the fun facts and gorgeous photos.

    • Abi July 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

      Now I feel a little nervous…Having never formally studied art…Or history! I’m curious to know, though – what were the other places on the shortlist?

      • Jenna August 6, 2011 at 12:51 am #

        It took me a while to check this comment thread again…anyway, here’s the shortlist:
        Hagia Sophia
        Alhambra
        Chartres
        Taj Mahal

        Even though I did a lot of traveling after college, I have made it to only one of those places. But of course I could have made a “long list” of other places I really wanted to see, and some of them I have (like Borobudur & Prambanan). However, I’m not so into those famous sights anymore because I always feel a letdown, especially when they are SO crowded!

        • Abi November 2, 2011 at 12:17 am #

          I know what you mean about the crowds…It’s quite a hassle to get to see the Taj Mahal but completely worth it in my opinion. The Hagia Sophia blew me away…and, embarrassingly, since it’s closest to home, I haven’t been to Chartres…

        • hanelunterwegs October 2, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

          The Alhambra you can visit at night and forego the crowd to an extent. It is much less a hassle and with the lighting effect, the palace looks even more beautiful. However you miss a few spots, which are closed at night

  3. Susie Forbes July 18, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    Great article – your mum sounds just like mine!

    • Abi July 19, 2011 at 3:49 pm #

      Heh! ;)

  4. Ciki July 27, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Another great place I would love to visit. Very well written, Abi!c

  5. Emillo Agnew August 31, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    Hmmm…reading your tale makes me want to visit the Alhambra. Riding upon it …on a distant camel…hungover, from it’s intake of Hashish. Compliments of ‘an American’ Romanticist…resplendent in his ‘borrowed’ Arabian Shiek robes of blinding white, stained with resinous droplets of Hashish, haphazardly spilled from a ‘borrowed’ pidgeons-blood red rubies and South African diamond encrusted ‘hookah’. Compliments of a passing Dubai oil Prince…and his kaliedoscope entourage…of harem girls, psychopaths of a political persuasion, Jugglers, Acrobats, Rock stars, Belly Dancers, fugitive Hells Angel, and a writer…that suffered the continuous ‘attentions’ of the frightening, though eloquent, fugitive Hells Angel. A status, for which he felt ‘a need’ to publicly extoll, in some drug-induced hopes of seducing the writer.

  6. Carina September 6, 2011 at 2:17 pm #

    Your post is wonderfully written Abi (as always! ;-)), and I fell in love with the Alhambra or let’s say with the view towards Granada from the Alhambra when I travelled through Andalucia last summer. I definitely decided right from the spot that this was a kind of beauty I had rarely seen in the world before and can only highly recommend to visit the Alhambra when traveling through the region.

    • Abi November 2, 2011 at 12:18 am #

      It’s a magnificent view at the best of times, but when you can see the snow on the mountains in the distance…Ah…

  7. Sherry September 10, 2011 at 12:23 am #

    Intricate is the right word to use for this great Moor architecture. I am awed by the amount of detail and time that must’ve been spent to create these buildings. I have seen photos and saw documentaries on television, but how fascinating it must actually be in person. When I am in Spain for three months next year, I will somehow find my way to this place. I am envious that you got to share the experience with your mom (she sound cool).

    • Abi November 2, 2011 at 12:20 am #

      Make sure you leave yourself at least a full day to make the most of it. And try to avoid heading there in July or August if you can. It’s far too hot! Enjoy…

  8. Sean September 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I am moving to Granada in March and I am soo excited. I currently live in Barcelona but I can´t wait to go to Granada and see the many sites such as The Alhambra!! Any advice for someone going to Granada for the first time??

    • Abi November 2, 2011 at 12:30 am #

      Hmmm…to live? Not sure. Check out http://www.wildjunket.com for ideas.

      As for travelling…leave plenty of time to see the Alhambra. Avoid July & August if you can, bring plenty of water and BUY YOUR TICKET IN ADVANCE!! It’s one of the very few times where planning ahead is essential.

      The centre of Granada is small enough to wander around on your own and discover the souks, cafes, free tapas, historical monuments and great views that the city offers. Enjoy!

  9. Danny November 1, 2011 at 8:29 pm #

    Visited the Alhambra with my mother too. I paid for the audio guide then gave her the guided tour!

    • Abi November 2, 2011 at 12:31 am #

      Love it ;)

  10. Angela November 18, 2011 at 11:48 am #

    Just been to the Alhambra, truly stunning. I think the beauty of Andalucia is a proof that collaborations of styles produces masterpieces. This makes me inevitably think that the world would very much benefit from the collaboration of the different civilizations instead of their clashes.

    • Abi March 23, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

      I couldn’t agree more. More collaboration = better for everyone, whether we’re talking about architecture, medicine, art, the next i-gadget thingy. Everything.

  11. Farhana February 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

    I luv alhambra…it’s such an interesting place to visit.

    • Abi March 23, 2012 at 7:37 pm #

      It deserves all the praise it gets…

  12. s May 8, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    Love photos and information. Been there once, wish I had been able to spend more time.
    Thank you for reminding me of this extraordinary place.

    • Abi June 25, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

      You’re very welcome. It’s a huge place so I think it takes more than one visit to really make the most of it.

  13. sofie November 14, 2012 at 10:49 am #

    The hostel I stayed at in Granada was located on a mountaintop ‘across’ the Alhambra. What a view when sitting outside!

  14. hanelunterwegs October 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm #

    Hi there,
    This is one of the most beautiful blogposts on the Alhambra on the net! Beautiful pictures and good essay! Did you also visit the Alhambra at night? I bought the tickst online, the only hassle was to get them from the ATM of the La Caixa bank and it is an old inkjet printer,which prints each of your tickst. We were 4 of us and I had booked 4 tickets each and we got to the ATM abt 40 minutes before our time slot to enter the Nasride palace. I am so glad I followed the advice not to go by the main entrance ad take the side entrance, which lands you to visa vie the Palace of King Charles and behind it- hidden by it- the Nasride (Morish) palace!

  15. Jacob January 18, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    Great post, evoked some happy memories in me! really need to return to visit. although it was not so long ago i was last there. I stopped at a good hotel called abadia hotel if anyone is going i would reccomend there, it had an arabic theme similar to that of the alhambra.

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