Searching for meaning in Alhambra

There’s this game I used to play when I was a kid. It was an empathy game, I realize now, but back then it was just a way to pass the time. I almost always played it in the car. Car time was, for a kid in the 80s whose parents refused us a Gameboy, the most ruthless of all possible boredoms. It was also the era when you could leave your kids in the car while you went grocery shopping and not get arrested. I had to occupy my mind.

So, when trapped in a car, I would allow my eyes to alight on some random person and I’d wonder, “What is it like to be you?” It requires some imagination, this game. An ability to transport yourself into someone else’s skin, to pretend that you can feel what they feel, want what they want, fear what they fear. But it also requires context. I could look into a car and see a young woman singing, her body bouncing, hands drumming the steering wheel, and I could feel her joy. I knew what it was like to be her, because I knew how great the right song could make me feel.

Playing the empathy game in Europe has been more challenging, if only because I’m most inspired to play when I’m walking around in ruins. And there are a lot of ruins. People have been building and destroying dynasties in this part of the world for so long that you can stand in the remnants of a two thousand year old city and have only the barest sense of what went on. Here, the foundations of a house. There, the baths. That was the temple; we found statues there. We’re pretty sure they stabled the horses over here. And yet, even though all that’s left are mosaic floors and shards of pottery it is still possible to imagine living in a Roman city in the first century. We’ve enough context provided to us throughout history that there’s still a wisp of those first people walking around, ghosts I can relate to in some way.

The Alhambra is a different experience all together. It is beautiful and vast and totally foreign. I have no context for it. It was built as a fortress, but a lavish palace for the emir was added later.

This “red fort” atop the hill was the last city to fall to Ferdinand and Isabella’s Reconquista, and they only came for it because Isabella fancied the city. One can hardly blame her. Granada is lovely.

Exterior of the Alhambra with snow-capped Sierras in the background. It’s an imposing sight from the outside, but the inside is the real treasure. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

After an eight month siege, the emir agreed to leave in exchange for a bunch money, land, and the safety of his people. The victorious Christian King and Queen rode into the city dressed in traditional Arabic garb, proving that cultural appropriation has a long and storied heritage.

One of many honeycombed ceilings in Alhambra. Photo by Ryan Haskett.

I thought at first that it was the lack of furniture in the rooms that made it so difficult to imagine what it was like to sleep here, to eat, to host a dinner.

A wall of elaborate design work, carved into plaster. The windows are carved as well; they are not stained glass. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

But even taking that into account, I could never get a handle on what it was like to live there. It’s so grandiose, so opulent, even without a trace of fabric or the scent of tea and roasting meats.

Triple arches leading to the women’s quarters. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe that’s the point.

Exquisite detailing on the walls. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

Maybe the place is the point, not the people.

Honestly, it just goes on and on like this. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

A visitor, a dignitary, a disgruntled citizen would be so overwhelmed by the sight of it that they would forget themselves. They would acquiesce. They would succumb to the sweet anesthetic of splendor that drips from every pore of the place.

Domed ceiling. Photo by Ryan Haskett.

Every great palace does this, yes? It plucks your foundations right out from under you with the warm and heavy brushstrokes of opulence and grandeur and a majestic view.

The view from the palace. Photo by Ryan Haskett.

It worked on me anyway. I gave up trying to figure it all out and just let the beauty of it all wash over me. It was a great, if unsettling, day.

Sunlight bursts through the bell tower of the Catholic church that was built inside the grounds after the Reconquista. Photo by Ryan Haskett.

There is so much more to Alhambra than just the palace. If you plan a trip – and you should – you’ll need to buy a timed ticket for the palace in advance. That ticket should also grant access to the rest of the grounds. Plan to spend most of the day here. There’s the fort to explore and the massive gardens.

A small taste of what awaits you in the gardens. They are massive. Photo by Tricia Griffin.

It’s a splendid place and a welcome change of pace from all the churches and archaeological museums we’d been seeing. Be prepared to be undone.


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