Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
A Moorish Palace
By Washington Irving (1783–1859)
From ‘The Alhambra’

THE ALHAMBRA is an ancient fortress or castellated palace of the Moorish kings of Granada, where they held dominion over this their boasted terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain. The palace occupies but a portion of the fortress; the walls of which, studded with towers, stretch irregularly round the whole crest of a lofty hill that overlooks the city, and forms a spire of the Sierra Nevada or Snowy Mountain.  1
  In the time of the Moors the fortress was capable of containing an army of forty thousand men within its precincts, and served occasionally as a stronghold of the sovereigns against their rebellious subjects. After the kingdom had passed into the hands of the Christians, the Alhambra continued a royal demesne, and was occasionally inhabited by the Castilian monarchs. The Emperor Charles V. began a sumptuous palace within its walls, but was deterred from completing it by repeated shocks of earthquakes. The last royal residents were Philip V. and his beautiful Queen Elizabetta of Parma, early in the eighteenth century….  2
  Leaving our posada of La Espada, we traversed the renowned square of the Vivarrambla, once the scene of Moorish jousts and tournaments, now a crowded market-place. From thence we proceeded along the Zacatin, the main street of what was the great Bazaar in the time of the Moors, where the small shops and narrow alleys still retain their Oriental character. Crossing an open place in front of the palace of the captain-general, we ascended a confined and winding street, the name of which reminded us of the chivalric days of Granada. It is called the Calle, or street, of the Gomeres, from a Moorish family famous in chronicle and song. This street led up to a mansion gateway of Grecian architecture, built by Charles V., forming the entrance to the domains of the Alhambra.  3
  At the gate were two or three ragged and superannuated soldiers dozing on a stone bench, the successors of the Zegris and the Abencerrages; while a tall meagre varlet, whose rusty brown cloak was evidently intended to conceal the ragged state of his nether garments, was lounging in the sunshine, and gossiping with an ancient sentinel on duty….  4
  We now found ourselves in a deep narrow ravine filled with beautiful groves, with a steep avenue and various foot-paths winding through it, bordered with stone seats and ornamented with fountains. To our left we beheld the towers of the Alhambra beetling above us; to our right on the opposite side of the ravine we were equally dominated by rival towers on a rocky eminence. These, we were told, were the Torres Vermejos or Vermilion Towers, so called from their ruddy hue. No one knows their origin. They are of a date much anterior to the Alhambra. Some suppose them to have been built by the Romans; others by some wandering colony of Phœnicians. Ascending the steep and shady avenue, we arrived at the foot of a huge square Moorish tower, forming a kind of barbican, through which passed the main entrance to the fortress. Within the barbican was another group of veteran invalids; one mounting guard at the portal, while the rest, wrapped in their tattered cloaks, slept on the stone benches. This portal is called the Gate of Justice, from the tribunal held within its porch during the Moslem domination, for the immediate trial of petty causes; a custom common to the Oriental nations, and occasionally alluded to in the sacred Scriptures.  5
  The great vestibule or porch of the gate is formed by an immense Arabian arch of the horseshoe form, which springs to half the height of the tower. On the keystone of this arch is engraven a gigantic hand. Within the vestibule, on the keystone of the portal, is engraven in like manner a gigantic key. Those who pretend to some knowledge of Mahometan symbols affirm that the hand is the emblem of doctrine, and the key of faith; the latter, they add, was emblazoned on the standard of the Moslems when they subdued Andalusia, in opposition to the Christian emblem of the cross….  6
  After passing through the Barbican we ascended a narrow lane winding between walls, and came on an open esplanade within the fortress, called the Plaza de los Algibes, or Place of the Cisterns, from great reservoirs which undermine it, cut in the living rock by the Moors for the supply of the fortress. Here also is a well of immense depth, furnishing the purest and coldest of water,—another monument of the delicate taste of the Moors, who were indefatigable in their exertions to obtain that element in its crystal purity.  7
  In front of this esplanade is the splendid pile commenced by Charles V., intended it is said to eclipse the residence of the Moslem kings. With all its grandeur and architectural merit, it appeared to us like an arrogant intrusion; and passing by it, we entered a simple unostentatious portal opening into the interior of the Moorish palace.  8
  The transition was almost magical; it seemed as if we were at once transported into other times and another realm, and were treading the scenes of Arabian story. We found ourselves in a great court, paved with white marble and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles. It is called the Court of the Alberca. In the centre was an immense basin or fish-pool, a hundred and thirty feet in length by thirty in breadth, stocked with gold-fish and bordered by hedges of roses. At the upper end of this court rose the great tower of Comares.  9
  From the lower end we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty and magnificence than this; for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the centre stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil. The court is laid out in flower-beds, and surrounded by light Arabian arcades of open filigree work, supported by slender pillars of white marble. The architecture, like that of all the other parts of the palace, is characterized by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When we look upon the fairy tracery of the peristyles, and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war, and the quiet though no less baneful pilferings of the tasteful traveler. It is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition that the whole is protected by a magic charm.  10
  On one side of the court, a portal richly adorned opens into a lofty hall paved with white marble, and called the Hall of the Two Sisters. A cupola or lantern admits a tempered light from above, and a free circulation of air. The lower part of the walls is incrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles, on some of which are emblazoned the escutcheons of the Moorish monarchs; the upper part is faced with the fine stucco work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculptured by the hand into light relievos and fanciful arabesques, intermingled with texts of the Koran and poetical inscriptions in Arabian and Celtic characters. These decorations of the walls and cupolas are richly gilded, and the interstices paneled with lapis lazuli and other brilliant and enduring colors. On each side of the wall are recesses for ottomans and arches. Above an inner porch is a balcony which communicated with the women’s apartment. The latticed balconies still remain from whence the dark-eyed beauties of the harem might gaze unseen upon the entertainments of the hall below….  11
  From the Court of Lions we retraced our steps through the Court of the Alberca, or great fish-pool; crossing which we proceeded to the Tower of Comares, so called from the name of the Arabian architect. It is of massive strength and lofty height, domineering over the rest of the edifice, and overhanging the steep hillside which descends abruptly to the banks of the Darro. A Moorish archway admitted us into a vast and lofty hall which occupies the interior of the tower, and was the grand audience chamber of the Moslem monarchs; thence called the Hall of Ambassadors. It still bears the traces of past magnificence. The walls are richly stuccoed, and decorated with arabesques; the vaulted ceilings of cedar-wood, almost lost in obscurity from its height, still gleam with rich gilding and the brilliant tints of the Arabian pencil. On three sides of the saloon are deep windows, cut through the immense thickness of the walls, the balconies of which look down upon the verdant valley of the Darro, the streets and convents of the Albaycin, and command a prospect of the distant Vega. I might go on to describe the other delightful apartments of this side of the palace: the Tocador or toilet of the queen, an open belvedere on the summit of the tower, where the Moorish sultanas enjoyed the pure breezes from the mountain and the prospect of the surrounding paradise; the secluded little patio or garden of Lindaraxa, with its alabaster fountain, its thickets of roses and myrtles, of citrons and oranges; the cool halls and grottoes of the baths, where the glare and heat of day are tempered into a self-mysterious light and a pervading freshness: but I appear to dwell minutely on these scenes. My object is merely to give the reader a general introduction into an abode where, if disposed, he may linger and loiter with me through the remainder of this work, gradually becoming familiar with all its beauties.  12
  An abundant supply of water, brought from the mountains by old Moorish aqueducts, circulates throughout the palace, supplying its baths and fish-pools, sparkling in jets within its halls, or murmuring in channels along the marble pavements. When it has paid its tribute to the royal pile, and visited its gardens and pastures, it flows down the long avenue leading to the city, tinkling in rills, gushing in fountains, and maintaining a perpetual verdure in those groves that embower and beautify the whole hill of the Alhambra….  13
  The peculiar charm of this old dreamy palace is its power of calling up vague reveries and picturings of the past, and thus clothing naked realities with the illusions of the memory and the imagination. As I delight to walk in these “vain shadows,” I am prone to seek those parts of the Alhambra which are most favorable to this phantasmagoria of the mind; and none are more so than the Court of Lions and its surrounding halls. Here the hand of time has fallen the lightest, and the traces of Moorish elegance and splendor exist in almost their original brilliancy. Earthquakes have shaken the foundations of this pile, and rent its rudest towers, yet see—not one of those slender columns has been displaced; not an arch of that light and fragile colonnade has given way; and all the fairy fretwork of these domes, apparently as unsubstantial as the crystal fabrics of a morning’s frost, yet exist after the lapse of centuries, almost as fresh as if from the hand of the Moslem artist.  14
  I write in the midst of these mementos of the past, in the fresh hour of early morning, in the fated hall of the Abencerrages. The blood-stained fountain, the legendary monument of their massacre, is before me; the lofty jet almost casts its dew upon my paper. How difficult to reconcile the ancient tale of violence and blood with the gentle and peaceful scene around. Everything here appears calculated to inspire kind and happy feelings, for everything is delicate and beautiful. The very light falls tenderly from above through the lantern of a dome tinted and wrought as if by fairy hands. Through the ample and fretted arch of the portal I behold the Court of Lions, with brilliant sunshine gleaming along its colonnades and sparkling in its fountains. The lively swallow dives into the court, and then, surging upwards, darts away twittering over the roof; the busy bee toils humming among the flower-beds, and painted butterflies hover from plant to plant, and flutter up and sport with each other in the sunny air. It needs but a slight exertion of the fancy to picture some pensive beauty of the harem, loitering in these secluded haunts of Oriental luxury.  15
  He however who would behold this scene under an aspect more in unison with its fortunes, let him come when the shadows of evening temper the brightness of the court, and throw a gloom into the surrounding halls: then nothing can be more serenely melancholy, or more in harmony with the tale of departed grandeur.  16
  At such times I am apt to seek the Hall of Justice, whose deep shadowy arcades extend across the upper end of the court. Here were performed, in presence of Ferdinand and Isabella and their triumphant court, the pompous ceremonies of high mass on taking possession of the Alhambra. The very cross is still to be seen upon the wall where the altar was erected, and where officiated the grand cardinal of Spain and others of the highest religious dignitaries of the land.  17
  I picture to myself the scene when this place was filled with the conquering host,—that mixture of mitred prelate, and shorn monk, and steel-clad knight, and silken courtier; when crosses and crosiers and religious standards were mingled with proud armorial ensigns and the banners of the haughty chiefs of Spain, and flaunted in triumph through these Moslem halls. I picture to myself Columbus, the future discoverer of a world, taking his modest stand in a remote corner, the humble and neglected spectator of the pageant. I see in imagination the Catholic sovereigns prostrating themselves before the altar and pouring forth thanks for their victory, while the vaults resound with sacred minstrelsy and the deep-toned Te Deum.  18
  The transient illusion is over; the pageant melts from the fancy; monarch, priest, and warrior return into oblivion with the poor Moslems over whom they exulted. The hall of their triumph is waste and desolate. The bat flits about its twilight vaults, and the owl hoots from the neighboring tower of Comares.  19

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