(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The Alhambra, a Moorish palace complex that overlooks Granada, has captured the imagination of Westerners from the age of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain in the late fifteenth century to the present, as the continuing stream of tourists demonstrates. Robert Irwin has written a compact companion to the history, architectural features, and enduring attraction of the Alhambra. Although this book is in a small guidebook format, the text corrects many of the romantic myths about the Alhambra that most tourists encounter. This book is recommended as excellent reading for someone planning a visit to the Alhambra or for the armchair traveler.

Following an introduction that throws cold water on the myths and legends surrounding the Alhambra, the reader is prepared to be informed about what is known about this architectural monument. The author presents this information in four chapters. The first chapter guides the reader through the complex of structures that make up the Alhambra. The second chapter considers a history of the Islamic rulers and their chief ministers who contributed to the construction of the Alhambra. In the third chapter, Robert Irwin presents evidence for the geometrical proportions that permeate the entire structure and its decorative features. Finally, the fourth chapter examines the way the Alhambra has been perceived by authors and artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Irwin begins by taking the reader on a guided tour of the remains of the Alhambra palace complex in a chapter titled “The Fairy-Tale Palace?” He reiterates two cautionary points. First, the surviving structures and gardens of the Alhambra represent only a fraction of what was originally a “palace-city” with streets, a mosque, and workshops, among other things. A second point is that, from its beginnings when Muhammad I built the Alcazaba in the thirteenth century, it was progressively added to, remodeled, and restored. That process is ongoing as further restoration work continues. Irwin states: “The Alhambra is not a monument that is frozen in time; it is constantly being built and rebuilt.”

This chapter looks at structures in the order in which they were built. Only a few foundations remain of the thirteenth century Alcazaba, and there are partial structures from the Partal Palace built under Muhammad III (1302-1309). Therefore, Irwin's discussion focuses on the two most famous of the Alhambra palaces, the Palace of the Court of the Myrtles (the Comares Palace) and the Court of the Lions which, Irwin argues in the second chapter, was used as a madrasa or scholarly center for studying the Qur’an and other aspects of Islamic law and religion. Both of these palaces are oriented around central open courts with large rectangular pools. Irwin explains the architectural features of the structures. He separates later reconstructions and restorations from original features.

One strength of his discussion is to describe the architectural decoration and to recreate how these palaces were furnished and experienced. When most people think of the Alhambra, they picture the decorative tiles, stucco, and woodwork that adorn most of the surfaces. Many of the walls are decorated with tiles that incorporate geometric designs and calligraphic inscriptions. The ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors off the Court of the Myrtles is cedarwood marquetry with more than eight thousand pieces comprising the twelve-sided star patterns. The muqarnasceiling in the Hall of the Two Sisters located off the Court of the Lions is a “tour de force of the geometer's art,” with more than five thousand prismatic stucco pieces. Irwin calls the effect “a celestial explosion.”

In addition to this architectural ornament, the palaces were furnished with “carpets, cushions, and hangings.” Most of the seating was on the floor, which accounts for two features. First, the windows are lower than expected. Second, the lighting was primarily installed from the ground up, with candles placed in candelabras. Some of the textiles from the Alhambra survive, but they are scattered throughout collections of museums in many parts of the world. Likewise, many of the rooms in the Alhambra have niches in which large vases were placed. Again, examples of these “Alhambra vases” can be found in various museums....

(The entire section is 1763 words.)