“There is no conqueror but God.”
لاغالب إلا الله
When ‘Masterpiece’ was announced as the theme for Daily Post’s Photo Challenge this week, the first location that came to my mind was the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.
I’ve had the great fortune of spending an entire day exploring the Alhambra Palace and the adjacent Generalife Gardens when I visited Spain as part of my backpacking tour of Europe with a friend in the summer of 2011. Even though we visited some amazing cities and touristic sites in our tour, the Alhambra Palace without a doubt came out as my absolute favorite, the cherry on the cake; the place had so much history and architectural wonders to offer, and as a Muslim I felt like it was my duty to educate myself about Moorish history. And what better way to do this than to see for myself how the Moors lived in those last few years of Moorish rule in al-Andalusia.
When I was living in France, I visited some of the famous churches, basilicas, cathedrals, and abbeys like the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre and the Notre Dame in Paris, the l’église sainte Jeanne d’Arc in Rouen and the Abbé du Mont Saint Michel on the tiny island of Mont Saint Michel in Upper Normandy. Indeed, considering France’s strong (and much resented, it seems) Catholic past, it is hardly surprising that some of their famous monuments today were (and still are) in fact Christian places of worship. Even when we were in the Vatican City I took the opportunity to check out St Peter’s Basilica for myself, and climbed all 500 steps or so to the top where we could get a breathtaking view of the magnificent city of Rome and the Vatican City.
But these visits were nothing more than touristic in nature because I am not Christian and therefore did not feel that spiritual connection to these places as I believe some Christians (or even some non-Christians) would. I go in, appreciate the architecture and the religious artwork for a minute or two, then move on. And then, having ticked them off my list of places to visit, these places fall to the back of my mind into oblivion, until I dig them up again for the purposes of reminiscing every once in a while. (Like now.)
Visiting the Alhambra was an entirely different experience however, because the palace was more than just a royal residence for the Muslim Sultans of the Nasrid dynasty. When I visited the palace and the accompanying gardens I could see a shadow of the Golden Age for the Muslims in Europe reflected in the palace’s highly sophisticated architecture, which some historians have argued were quite ahead of its time.
What fascinated me the most about the palace was the walls, which were truly a delightful feast for the eyes. On almost every wall were inscriptions in Arabic calligraphy glorifying God such as the motto of the Nasrid dynasty لاغالب إلا الله , which means “There is no conqueror but God”, and also colorful tiles organized in intricate symmetrical geometric designs. Geometry and calligraphy are the two main decorative features found in the palace because Islam prohibits us from producing representations of living creatures such as humans or animals, and in particular any representations of God Himself or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). This aniconism is a precaution to prevent people from practicing idolatry.
According to a documentary I watched called Khawater which dedicated an entire episode to the Alhambra, nearly every inch of the palace walls are covered with calligraphy or geometric designs because the Muslims at that time feared emptiness in their lives, and sought to fill those empty walls with the remembrance of God and the celebration of beauty. I was impressed, to say the least, at the number of hours and the amount of energy and dedication that must have been put into accomplishing this by the “fairy hands” — that is, the artisans — and how amazing it is that these designs survived to this day through numerous political turmoils and one disaster after another for over half a millennium, so the generations that follow could see it all with their very own eyes.
The palace gardens were another memorable feature of the Alhambra. These gardens are a harmonious combination of water (fountains) and greenery. They are said to be the prime example of the Spanish-Muslim garden of that era and were created both as a jannah (paradise) on Earth and as a source of provisions for the Royal House. Interestingly, the fountains and pools in the garden served more than just a pure aesthetic and practical purpose, for they were also a reflection of the political strength of the Nasrid kings. This was because water (or more specifically, clean water) was such a rare luxury in medieval Europe that foreign visitors and ambassadors who visited the Alhambra were reportedly amazed to see that the Moors could afford what seems to be unlimited reserves of clean water, for both the monarchs and for the people.
Cleanliness was also one of the reasons why water became such an important feature of the palace and the surrounding grounds because Muslims are obligated to take their ablution before they perform their five daily prayers, which meant cleaning oneself at least five times a day. This was such a huge contrast to the Muslims’ European counterparts in medieval Europe at that time, who took baths only sporadically each year. It was said that small water passages were built throughout the palace complex offering clean water that one could simply scoop into one’s hand and drink, or even take one’s ablution with.
Even after I’d left the Alhambra that day I knew I’d be coming back again, perhaps with my brother who also shares a strong interest in the Muslims’ Golden Age in al-Andalusia and Moorish culture. Even though I am not of Moorish descent at all the Alhambra still left me feeling like this was the place of my ancestors, and I knew that even if I visited the palace of the Sultan of Johor here in Malaysia, I wouldn’t feel as awed or hooked with that strange sense of belonging as I did within the walls of the Alhambra.
This is why I chose the Alhambra as the place that defines the word ‘Masterpiece’; the palace’s status as a masterpiece is not only defined by its extraordinary architecture and its rich history, but also by the sense of wonderment it leaves me.
If you haven’t yet visited the Alhambra, I suggest you seriously start thinking why this place which has such strong Muslim roots happens to be the most visited site in Spain, a country which prides itself over its supposedly ‘Christian’ heritage. Trust me, this is one visit you’ll never regret.