Gardens and open spaces in the Alhambra
23 July 2007 | Grenada
The Alhambra must be fascinating to serious students of garden and landscape design. The rest of us can luxuriate in the lovely flowers and scents and the cool sight and sound of water. (By the way, if you´re reading this in chronological order, ie oldest first, this is one of 5 posts on the Alhambra, which could be read in any order, you might like to go the Contents page and decide.)
As you explore, you can trace the progression from the rigid formality of Hispano-Islamic Classicism, through the stately majesty of 16th century empire, the soft and multiple flowerings of 19th century romanticism and the re-imaginings of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In all of these, water plays a central role. For the Moors, Paradise was very like a garden. Water is glorified and blessed, and the garden patios of the Alhambra bring these beliefs together. In the severe lines of the great courtyards of the Nasrid palaces, the pools are great rectangles of still water. They reflect and soften the hard edges, right angles and severe geometry of the courtyards, shimmering and colouring the entire space. Here water moves quietly, making only the smallest of whispers, giving cause to reflect on the bounty of Allah and the fragile thread on which life depends.
These evolve into ever more complex arrangements of plants and water. The Arabs loved the date palm, and many remain in Grenada. (In Cordoba, by comparison, the palms that were planted in the courtyard outside the Mosque were replaced by the orange trees which still grow there.) In addition, an early sultan installed a complex hydraulic water system, fed by the Acequia Real (Royal Conduit) which brought water from the Generalife into the waterless crag of the palaces and the fortress. In the gardens of the Generalife, this allowed the creation of the wonderful Water Staircase, down each side of which runs, at hand height, a rill of fast, cold water refreshing as you climb up from that palace to its highest view point.
The later gardens of the Catholics have more luxuriant planting, including many more plants in the water itself. Here we find lilies and reeds, the interplay of fish in the leaves, and overhanging branches bringing a different effect of light and shade. Their fountains became more elaborate than the earlier ones, and you can hear the movement of water in jets and streams.
By the nineteenth century the Alhambra (largely ignored for some 300 years) was 'rediscovered' by the Romantics. Gustav Doré made engravings and painters such as Mariano Fortuny, Owen Jones and Lopez-Mezquita recorded and fantasised about the palaces, fortress and gardens. Their works, even when distorted by orientalist romanticising of the past, are a valuable help to the archaeologists today. This is particularly important in recovering the magnificent polychrome on the stucco work, only fragments of which survive.
Their impact is clear in some of the planting, even much more modern developments such as the Cypress Walk.
In the 20th century some areas of the gardens were re-laid out, including the 'New Gardens' in the lower part of the Generalife. These were informed by all sorts of elements of the past, including, in 1951, a reinterpretation of an Islamic garden (designed by the architect Prieto Moreno). The picture is a fountain from that garden.
If we had a garden nowadays, we would rethink the whole design to learn from the tranquillity and inspiration of these outdoor spaces. These gardens manage heat and cold, provide spaces for gracious living, and are both a feast for the senses and a stimulation to the mind. For Sarah, who had the good fortune to live in the gardens of Stowe as a child, they would be yet another dimension to the long view that is required of any serious gardener.