Monday, March 23, 2009

Alhambra and Abravanel's Revenge

We spent the first half of the day at the Alhambra, the Islamic fortress of al-Andalus.  It was a palace, a fortress, and a small city, housing over two thousand people at the height of its glory.  Its name means “the red one,” referring to the red local stone from which it was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries.  It was the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian peninsula, falling in 1492.  The sultans of Grenada lived there, along with their harems, advisors, entourage, and soldiers. 

The sultan’s gardens cover much of the grounds, and they are extraordinary.  The Moors who built the palace were not long-time gardeners, as they were desert dwellers, from North Africa.  But they were influenced by the Persians and the famous gardens of Baghdad, so they shaped their landscapes in that tradition: interior walled courtyard gardens that emphasize symmetry and tranquility, with water features at the center.  Each garden contains a combination of fruit trees, flowers, vegetables and herbs, making them both beautiful and practical.  They embrace nature rather than conquering it.  We could learn a lot from these gardens, which are soothing, meditative—and ecologically sound. 

The central garden, outside the sultan’s living quarters, contains a fountain made up of twelve lions.  This was a gift from the Jews of Grenada to Sultan Mohammed as a sign of friendship.  The lions represent the twelve tribes of Israel.  What a lovely thing—a powerful symbol of peaceful co-existence in `a bygone age.

The palace of the Alhambra is mind-boggling.  Each room is more amazing than the last, with koranic verses in elegant calligraphy filling the walls, brilliantly colored tiles, arched windows, and ceilings right out of “Arabian Nights.”  The effect of the whole was restful, ordered, inspiring.

I was especially struck by one room, which served as the sultan’s hall of justice until Ferdinand and Isabella took it over and made it into their own royal chamber.  As a result, the walls feature tile plaques with the motto of each kingdom.  The original design, for the sultan, proclaimed, in Arabic, “Allah is the only victor.”  When the Catholic monarchs conquered the palace, they inscribed their own motto, in Latin: “Plus Ultra,” which translates, roughly. into “More Beyond” or “Always More.” 

The difference between these two mottos explains a lot.  It captures the divergence between the Royal Palace in Madrid and the Islamic palace of the Alhambra.  The Royal Palace is all about excess, about showing off one’s wealth, about “Plus Ultra.”  The Muslims seem more secure with their power and affluence, not needing to be so showy.  They are more concerned with symmetry and beauty than ostentatious display—which is not surprising given their tradition’s ban on imagery and inclination to attribute all success to God rather than their own human glory. 

And I think that this difference also helps explain why the Golden Age for Jews in the Iberian peninsula happened under Islam.   It strikes me that at its height, the Islamic empire was secure enough to tolerate, and even empower Jews.  By contrast, the Christian empires, for all of their gaudy glory, were at heart always insecure.  We Jews, despite our meager numbers, somehow constantly represented a threat to them.  They feared us, and because they feared us, they persecuted us.  Perhaps the same insecurity that led them to display their power so ostentatiously also led them to oppress us.   Similarly, the self-confidence of medieval Islam was good for the Jews.   It is interesting to contemplate the implications of such a theory for our own time, when anti-Semitism is the order of the day in an Islamic world that has fallen so far from its glory days.

After leaving the Alhambra, we were given an hour to eat our lunch in Grenada.  I used this time to walk to the Grenada Cathedral.  There, in the Royal Chapel, one finds the graves of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Over twenty years ago, I wrote my rabbinic thesis on the Spanish expulsion, so I have lived with Ferdinand and Isabella and their villainy for a long time.  Remembering Don Yitzchak Abravanel, the courtier who vainly pleaded with them to revoke the decree, and Maimonides and Solomon Ibn Verga and so many, many more of my people, I had a mission to find that place and stand on their graves.  I would have spit if I could have.  Instead, I quietly gave them the middle finger, then said “Shehecheyanu,” celebrating the fact that they are dead and I am here.  Then, in a salute to their other victims, I went to an Arab stand and bought a falafel for lunch.

We spent the rest of the day driving to our hotel in Costa del Sol, along the beautiful Mediterranean coast.  Tonight we go to sleep early, as we head across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco tomorrow.

1 comment:

Dr. Andrew said...

Wonderful blog, great stories and a new sense of history. Your clarity of mind is refreshing. Sounds like you are having a wonderful and productive time in Spain. Keep up the blog; we love it.