Thursday, 10 October 2013

Spain and Poetry 1: Poetry of the Alhambra

I just spent almost ten days back in Andalucia, where I sojourned (seems like the right word) with a friend almost two years ago. No real change; it's still one of my favourite places in the entire world. This time I travelled with my friend M (I'll call her that for privacy, and it sounds James Bond-ish.) It was one of her lifelong dreams to travel in this part of Spain and see dancing horses and flamenco, among other delights, so our first few days in Jerez de la Frontera were particularly wonderful. We also took a day trip to Cadiz, where I swam in the warm Atlantic, and then travelled on to Cordoba, and finally to Granada, mainly to visit the Alhambra.

The Alhambra is a dream. I'm not sure I've ever visited a place which so deserves the title. It really is all that the hype says it's going to be, and considerably more. M and I went there in the morning expecting to spend about three, maybe four hours...we were there for five and a half, and only left because we really had seen just about everything and were getting tired. When we left and descended the hill on which it stands, back down into Granada, it was like waking up. The gardens and palaces instantly felt dreamlike. Pictures can't really do it justice, though they provide a clue, and I don't have words poetic enough for it (though I may try...) At one and the same time, it felt like a fairytale but you could also imagine real people living there, moving through its hallways and gorgeous rooms, breathing in the impossibly fragrant air of the Generalife. As well as its extreme beauty, the Alhambra has incredible historic significance. The "Reyes Católicos", Ferdinand and Isabella, completed the Reconquista of the Muslim kingdoms here, and flags were raised from one of the fortified towers to signal the victory. Many writers have stayed and walked there, including Washington Irving, who wrote his Tales of the Alhambra and revived interest in the place.

Al-Andalus - Islamic Spain - was a society where poetry was pre-eminent, and poetry has always been incredibly significant in the Muslim and Arabic worlds. It is now known that many of the walls of the Alhambra are covered with poetry. This link to an Alhambra website, and this article on The Alhambra: Poetry, Calligraphy and Arabesque are particularly useful, with many translations and examples of the lush, beautiful poetry on its walls. I don't read Arabic and I don't speak more than a few words, so in the place itself, most of it was lost on me. It certainly feeds into my love of poetry in public places and poetry as public art, though. Arabic script is extremely beautiful and can be admired even if you don't know its meaning.

These photos are from the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Nasrid Palaces:

Some of the script is a poem celebrating the victory of Muhammad V at Algeciras in 1369.

In the Courtyard of the Lions, poetry appears on the edge of the lion basin:

In part, this poem reads:

For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparent light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.

As well as the Islamic poetry, there were other traces. This plaque quotes the great Andalucian poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, writing in tribute to the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla, who lived for a few years on one of the streets of the Alhambra. I hope I am correctly translating this as "He went to Granada for silence and time,/and Granada gave him even more, harmony and eternity."

In the Generalife gardens, I came across this plaque, quoting a letter written by a poet - I haven't quite puzzled this one out yet.

Whether you're there for the architecture, the gardens, the history, the poetry, or all of these, I can't recommend the Alhambra too highly. I hope to go back some day.

There was more poetry for me to encounter in Spain, of course, and a blog post or two to come will deal with the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and other moments where I crossed paths with poetry and poets.

All photos ©  Clarissa Aykroyd 2013


  1. The Alhambra, though I've not visited it, is one of my chief 'dream places', as I might call them. I periodically return to it in imagination, and in the pages of Washington Irving's fantastic book. As a very young man, when all seemed possible, I even had the very pleasant but really crazy ambition to build a much smaller version of the Alhambra here on some particularly Mediterranean California hilltop and spend the rest of my days there, doing all sorts of things, none of them remotely practical. Fortunately such wild imaginings no longer plague me, and I am happily left with the very real Alhambra itself to think of and perhaps to visit. Now you've given me the Arabic poetry angle, so I can really get started in a fine and adventurous new (and yet old!) direction.

    1. I have yet to read the Washington Irving myself, though I bought a copy as a gift for someone else. As you can imagine, his book is everywhere in Granada, in Spanish and English and other languages. Actually, we also walked through the rooms at the Alhambra where he stayed - there is a plaque.

      I think in your setting, a mini-Alhambra might at least be feasible. :) I hope you can go some day. I doubt you would be disappointed. The fact that it has poetry on its walls just adds another wonderful dimension.