The Alhambra by Robert Irwin

Inside Granada's poisoned paradise
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The Independent Culture

They say that when Boabdil, last prince of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, fled the city in 1492, he stopped on high ground for a valedictory look at his residence, the Alhambra. "God is great," he sighed as he watched troops of the Catholic kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, enter his realm, and he burst into tears. His mother, Sultana Aysha La Horra (the Intrepid), exclaimed: "You do well to weep like a woman, for what you failed to defend like a man."

The Moor's Last Sigh is one of the countless legends that have accreted to the Alhambra, and make its name resonate with exotic mystery. In this rich, concise contribution to the literature, Robert Irwin uses his vast knowledge of medieval Islam to illumine both myth and reality, history and imagination, without disenchanting the romantic reader. The "Red Fort" remains "a sunlit place of many mysteries".

The Alhambra is the sole survivor of the Muslim medieval palaces. Once, the shores of the Euphrates, now bristling with oil rigs and pipelines, were lined with magnificent edifices of which a few foundations remain. The Alhambra survived because the Catholic kings kept it as a Christian palace. Later it was "allowed to go to rack and ruin". Its discovery by the romantic writers and travellers of the 19th century led to its restoration, which continues to this day.

The Alhambra was built by the Nasrids, who ruled from 1230 to 1492, as a self-contained city of residential palaces, administrative buildings, towers, a grand mosque and a citadel, with courts and gardens, pools and fountains. Over time, wars, plagues, fires and neglect took their toll, and what we see today is only a small part of the original ensemble. Yet enough remains to enchant the millions who flock to it every year.

Irwin begins with a fascinating tour of the buildings and gardens. The former's designs were based on principles of ancient geometry with mystical resonances, while the gardens were a reflection of the heavenly Eden. Following the Islamic interdict of graven images, walls and ceilings were covered with an infinite variety of abstract motifs incorporating the Nasrids' motto "No victor save God", and Quranic verses.

Irwin introduces the dramatis personae, and the history unfolds. The buildings and gardens were a "poisoned paradise", built by slaves and riven with poverty and fear, the scene of murderous rivalries when "violence was the chief engine of politics". Of the first nine Nasrid sultans, seven were assassinated, while their two most celebrated viziers, Ibn al-Khatib and Ibn Zamrak, were murdered. Both these poet-statesmen played "a crucial role in the planning and overseeing" of the Alhambra. They were influenced by Pythagorean ideas that geometrical shapes and numbers indicate deep truths about the universe. Muslim Spain was multicultural, and Irwin also traces Jewish and Persian influences.

Finally, he tells of the Alhambra's rediscovery by the Romantics and its influence on the imagination of writers and artists. In the 1770s, Henry Swinburn was the first to alert the world to the dilapidation of the Alhambra. But it was the American writer Washington Irving who went to Granada in the 1820s and wrote several books that opened the floodgates. The Alhambra became a stop on the Grand Tour.

Moorish Spain became an inspiration for painters and musicians. Architects and decorators were no less influenced by the Alhambra: from Owen Jones, who supervised the Crystal Palace, to Le Corbusier.

Irwin's entrancing travel book is also an excellent guide, full of fascinating characters and juicy anecdotes. When there is so much nonsense about "the clash of civilisations" at the time, he tells how the Moors created a truly ecumenical society where Jews, Christians and Muslims produced a flowering of the arts and sciences. Having been to the Alhambra many times, after reading this wonderful book I wished to go back - and see it for the first time.

Shusha Guppy's latest book is 'Three Journeys in the Levant' (Starhaven)