The Alhambra by Night and Day: A Photo Essay

All color images Leica M10; all black and white images Leica Monochrom

As everyone living in the continent he sailed to knows by heart, in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Less well known to some of us is that, in that same year, the Christian Reconquista of Spain was completed upon the defeat of the last Moorish sultan. The Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella was peacefully handed the keys to the Alhambra, which the Nasrid emirs of Granada had built over the previous centuries. It remains the greatest example of Moorish architecture in Spain. We found it captivating.

Today, the Alhambra is the second-most visited attraction in Europe, even as it is limited to fewer than 9000 tickets each day. Having now spent time in both the Andalusian blast furnace of a June day and on an absolutely sweltering evening, it’s easy to understand why. What follows is meant to be neither an historical summary nor a visual tour, but simply a series of photos from both excursions, some in color, some in black and white, showcasing what was, to us, one of the most amazing places we’ve ever visited.

Visiting the Alhambra today is not like going to a Mayan ruin or Angkor Wat. It’s not like going to the Taj Mahal. It feels alive — from its gardens in the vast Generalife, to its fountains and ever-present flowing water. You can feel the presence of the magnificent Nasrid artisans and craftsmen who rendered the walls with poetry. One remains grateful for the wisdom of the later Christian kings who — contrary to their treatment of the Aztec and Maya — respectfully preserved the culture that came before them.

The three Nasrid palaces, as well as the hillside summer palace over the Generalife, look out onto Granada, from which the Alhambra was a separate royal town. The distance from the modern city isn’t far, but it’s a separate world. Visiting with hundreds of others at the same time leaves no space for contemplation, and it was too hot to imagine doing this anyway. But if ever there were a place about which one could say he felt transported to another time, it’s the Alhambra.

It’s exceedingly hard for a photographer to maneuver for position among the crowds and find a shot. Capturing the delicacy of the craftsmanship seems almost futile, but over the two different tours, we were able to take a number of pictures worth keeping.

There is such a blend of styles apparent over the transition from one palace to the next, it remains a miracle of sorts that neither Ferdinand and Isabella — the latter of whom chose to be buried here, before her surviving husband moved her to their mausoleum in Granada below — nor their heir Charles V obliterated the palaces they conquered. While there was a long period of disrepair, and at one point Napoleon trained his cannons on it, more than 500 years later, the Alhambra is preserved. In fact, you can visualize Moorish architecture as a beautiful undercoating to all of Andalusian culture, making it special even in a broader Southern European territory not lacking for cultural delights.

It’s hard to say which element within the interlocking palaces will stay with us the longest. The various ceilings of the Hall of the Abenerrajes, the last palace to be built before the Nasrid’s collapse, deserve monumental status in their own right.

We left in early evening and had just enough time to make it across to the Albaicin to look back upon the Alhambra in the fading sunlight. It’s a magical place.

We’re grateful to Blanca Espigares Rooney of Tours by Locals, who was our friendly and erudite guide for our group’s night visit, and in fact, her family were among those who have lived in the Alhambra over the past century. Thanks also to Maria Garcia of Viator who managed to conduct a 4:30 PM tour on the hottest of days navigating the gardens to keep us cool.

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