Namaya - Writings, Podcast, Art & Musings.

Court of the Lions: Al- Hambra

Court of the Lions: The Moor’s Last Sigh  25 August 2023

In the seventh Century, heralded by the prophet Mohammed, a religious fervor called Islam rose out of the desert of Arabia. It swept like a tidal wave across the Middle East, North Africa, and Iberia and finally stopped at Poitier’s battle in France. The Iberian Peninsula conquered and contested for centuries by Neolithic tribes, Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, and others, gained the presence and richness of the newly found Islamic world. While Europe floundered in the long chaos of the Middle Ages, the Moorish courts flourished. At the center of this Empire is the Al Hambra in Granada and the architectural jewel, the Court of the Lions.

Granada lies in the plains at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Southern Spain. In the center of this valley, carved out of the top of a mountain with a commanding view of the region, is one of the seven wonders of the modern world, the Al-Hambra, the Red Fort. As the centuries passed, the Alhambra transformed itself from a military bastion to an oasis of gardens, a center of learning and culture, and the apogee of Islamic civilization.

The steep path up to the Alhambra requires a walk over a kilometer in length. The cobblestone path at each twist and turn offers a glimpse of the elegant city of Granada below. The hillsides are wildly overgrown with forests and the ruins of ancient walls and portals that barely hint at the hundreds of armies that have traversed this hillside and the thousands of soldiers who died in an attempt to conquer it. The moat surrounding the fortress, more than forty meters deep, hints at the virtual impossibility of seizing it. Today, peacefulness envelops you as you approach the outer ramparts of the massive red stone fortress walls. Walking to

At the core of this citadel, the paths are lined with fruit trees and lush gardens. At one time, vendors of food, textiles, exotic birds, and jewels from all corners of the globe lined these roadways, filling the air with dozens of languages as they called out their wares.

In the center of this complex stand the Nasrid Palaces that personify the soul of Islamic culture and allow its genius to be best expressed in a perfect symmetry of architecture, one that is lyrical and expressive, yet, out of necessity, ruled by logic and the constraints of weight and time.

In the central courtyard is the Alberca, known as the Blessed or the Myrtle Court, with its reflecting pools some forty meters long and less than three meters wide. Standing at the far end, you look through several portals, elegant vulva-like arches that recede into the distance. In the courtyards, the mellifluous sounds of fountains and running water are music to the ear, while the perfume of myrtle trees and orange blossoms fragrance the air. Islamic culture, with its music, architecture, and even its sacred literature, has a sensual fluid sensibility.

Walk further through more portals and passageways, and you finally reach the true center of the Empire, the Court of the Lions. The central focus of the garden is the fountain of the Lions, representing nourishment from the four directions of the globe with narrow channels leading to each cardinal point of the compass. It mirrors a common theme in the Koran: Heaven is a garden with abundant running streams. Once planted with fragrant gardens, the inner courtyard garden beds are now filled with crushed stones. The counterpoint balance of stone and garden, sensuousness with symmetry, rationale and intuition, is reflected in each facet of this architectural jewel, the Court of the Lions. In the center of this courtyard are twelve stone lions that are oddly still and tranquil and embody a stasis as if time has been suspended.

From the 700s to the 15th Century, the rest of Europe was in the thick sleep of the Middle Ages; the courts of the Moorish kings held a welcoming place for scholars who divined the secrets of astronomy, architecture, literature, art, hydraulics, and enough disciplines to fill a modern university. The Islamic court, though it preferred its subjects were Muslim, welcomed Jews and Christians; scholars and artists of all faith lived and worked here.

The graceful calligraphy on the walls are lyrical and flowing verses of the Koran, the words of Allah as spoken through the prophet Mohammed, adjacent to love poems meticulously scripted in plaster, sculpted into the arches and walls. The love poems became flowers that transformed into birds and peacocks. Artists expressed their devotion to Allah through this mystical vision in every facet of life and nature. Nature was not separate from life but integral to it. In the Court of the Lions, one could find the perfection of Islamic culture ordered by beauty, logic, and cohesion.

In the Court of the Lions and its adjacent throne room, a vaulted gilded ceiling carved in wood and inlaid with gold and brass lays out the cosmology of the heavens. Allah is the alpha and the omega in the constellation’s epicenter. The representation of the ineffable was neither a caricature of God nor a pantheon of Saints painted across the ceiling or on the walls. God was alluded to by the simplicity of a star at the center of the heavens. In Islam, God is ineffable, and to represent Allah in a picture or drawing is considered heretical.

By the late 1400s, the Christian armies of Ferdinand and Isabella had conquered the other Moorish kingdoms of Castile, Seville, and Cordoba. The Reconquest had replaced the crescent moon of Islam with the cross all over Spain, and now it was making its way to this fortress. As the last Moorish Emperor Boabdil contemplated his future, he drank sweetened tea, listened to his generals and weighed the options, but he knew that his end could not be forestalled. He looked up at the calligraphy on the wall to the words of the Koran: “Allah’s will shall be done,” which spoke so clearly about the inevitability of time. Tiny swallows darted through the inner sanctum, flickers of dark light against the white plaster courtyards. The Oud, the distinctive Arabic guitar, and the singers’ voices resonated in the warm wind. Perhaps they played a lamentation for an empire that at one time stretched to France and embraced the entire Iberian Peninsula. It has been reported that Boabadil wept at the fall of his Empire, but his mother scolded him: ‘If you could not fight like a man, at least don’t weep like a woman.’

One can understand why the expression “the Moor’s Last sigh” arose. In a court dedicated to art, beauty, and order for the past seven hundred years, the world of the Moors was collapsing and gave way to the austere Catholic monarchs of Spain. Within a few short years of Boabdil’s surrender, the tolerance of Islam gave way to the Spanish/ Catholic Inquisition. Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain.

Today, in the Court of the Lions, you can still find the essence and perhaps the ghosts of the Emperors of these Moorish palaces. Come in the winter months when the new invading armies and the tourists are few, and you have the luxury to slowly and gracefully absorb the genius of Islamic art and architecture. As you walk through these rooms, imagine the pace of time when a sculpture might take months to carve a verse of the Koran into an arch or glaziers, spending years making individual acres of geometric tiled walls. In the Court of the Lions, you can hear the voices of the Arabic rulers, poets of the court reciting verse to the playful sound of the oud, smell the fragrance of jasmine and oranges, and feel the cool breezes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For a moment, if you allow yourself, you can step back in time.



Scroll to Top