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Hushed Magnificence of Alhambra

March 16, 1986|EDGAR J. BRACCO | Bracco is a Lyndhurst, N.J., free-lance writer.

GRANADA, Spain — If you linger at twilight in the gardens of the Alhambra, you may hear a soft sound. Some might tell you it is el ultimo suspiro del Moro , the last sigh of the last Moorish king as he left the fortress-palace of his ancestors forever.

And some may tell you that it is merely the whisper of wind in the cypresses.

You take it as you please. The wind does whisper in the cypresses, and over this palace and these gardens there does linger a touch of sadness for a way of life that will not return.

That last king, the one who sighed, left when Ferdinand and Isabella completed reconquering Spain from the Moors in 1492. The Moors were expelled, yes, but what they left behind makes Spain one of the glories of Europe.

Legacy of Beauty

All over most of the nation are mosques turned into churches, bridges, picturesque streets and alleys, innumerable buildings, gardens, tilework on random walls.

Turn in any direction and you will see examples of the beauty that the Moors crafted into the soul of Spain. You (as well as the experts) will find it hard to tell where Moorish leaves off and Spanish begins.

Among the endless elegances that still grace this graceful land, the Alhambra is the most splendid. It sits on a hill in Granada, and as you ride toward it through the city you may well wonder what there is to see here in all this modernity.

There is a great deal, although much is hidden behind commercialism and the march of what is called progress.

The cathedral, the Gypsy quarter of Sacromonte, the Sierra Nevada mountains with their crown of snow, the intricate alleyways such as San Bartolome and the Carrera de Darro that take you back to the Middle Ages with their narrow, mysterious windings, the flowered courtyards behind wrought-iron gates, the old houses leaning toward each other--all these manage to survive the tide of development.

Origin as a Fortress

But everything in Granada is merely prologue to the most spectacularly beautiful monument in Spain, the Alhambra. Al-hambra , the Moors called it, The Red, from the brown-red stone of which it is built.

It was constructed as a fortress-palace by the Moorish kings who dominated Spain from the 700s until 1492. One part of it, the Alcazaba, goes back to the 9th Century. Most of it dates from the 1200s, when it was erected as a fortress against attack but mainly as a retreat where the kings could write, read and recite poetry, hear and play music, listen to the fountains and the nightingales and murmur languorously to their loves beneath the limpid Spanish moon.

This double purpose, fortress and retreat, is obvious from many angles. In some ways it is a marriage of incongruities. Take the Patio de los Arrayanes (the Court of Myrtles.) In the center is a pool where once brightly colored flowers floated. Walks on each side invited leisurely strolling. At the far end are arcades with those delicate carvings called arabesques, which turn stone into lace.

Then above all this gentle elegance rises the rugged Comares Tower. This stark, pock-marked fortress makes no bow to beauty but is primarily a watchtower, with slits through which archers could cut down attackers.

Rank Had Privileges

But for the most part this fortress-palace is mainly palace. It was built for kings who believed that rank hath privileges and is to be used. They brought to Spain the concept of la vida dulce , the good life.

The Alhambra sits on its hill looking out over the plain to the Sierra Nevada. High though it is, the builders managed to get water to the upper levels. Water, to the Moors, coming as they did from their hot, dry desert, was a substance to be respected and cherished, not wasted.

The architects constructed fountains as poets create poems. They are aesthetic as well as utilitarian. Instead of just a pipe spouting water, they used lions' mouths, or outlets in delicately tiled walls or pools lined with flowers and trees, around which the spray played like shawls blown in the wind.

The main entrance to the Alhambra is through the Gate of Justice, a horseshoe-arch opening in the red stone walls. Your first impression is of withdrawal. The Alhambra looks down on the world below; you are far above the city and its noise, with only the winds and an occasional soft voice.

A World of Serenity

The distance is one of time as well as space. As you enter you find yourself leaving your world behind. If at the moment you have the need for it, the Spanish word for serenity is serenidad.

As the religion of the Moors forbade the making of human or animal images, the decorations, fragile as glass, delicate as chiffon, go in for curlicues, floral designs, bows, curves, all in a profusion that somehow manages to coalesce.

Tall, slim columns line shadowy arcades. Quiet pools reflect flowers, arches, the clean blue of the sky. Garlands of plaster outline buildings. Tiles, in many colors, cover walls. Sturdy old doors, in cedar and other woods, lead from room to room.

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