“The Alhambra is at the very summit of perfection of Moorish art, as is the Parthenon of Greek art. We can find no work so fitted to illustrate a Grammar of Ornament as that in which every ornament contains a grammar within itself.”
—Owen Jones, The Grammar of Ornament, 1856
To patterns enthusiasts, the Alhambra looms large in the imagination—“a pearl set in emeralds,” according to Moorish poets, alluding to its whitewashed clay buildings nestled in a dense wood of English elms. A shambling series of interconnecting quadrangles, the Alhambra began its life as a small fortress in 899 in present-day Granada, Spain. It took off in its ascent from mere building to legend in the 11th century, when the Moorish king of Granada, Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar, renovated its ruins, a project continued and embellished upon by his successor Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada, in 1333.
Flash forward several centuries, when British designer Owen Jones extolled the place in a now-seminal volume from 1836. He later gave Moorish pattern and the Alhambra pride-of-place in his Grammar of Ornament, one of pattern’s most cited works.
I have never visited the Alhambra, and I felt shy about approaching the topic at all. It ranks right up there with Shangri-La and the Trocadero, beribboned names so evocative of glories, it’s hard to reconcile the versifying tales with an actual place you could easily visit. It has tongue-tied many storied authors and critics. Washington Irving (of Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) spent a season dwelling within the Alhambra’s walls and produced an effusive volume about it. Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh includes an extended reference to the palace in exile. Always the Alhambra seems to evoke a sense of distance, of unreachability. Perhaps dreaming about it from afar, trolling the internet for snatches of its indescribable beauty, is the fairest way to approach the subject after all.
Something of the Alhambra’s magic seems tied up in the fabled names it’s accreted to itself. “Alhambra” itself means “the red [female],” from the red clay foundations of the original buildings. I was entranced by the names of its celebrated halls, like the Court of the Lions and the Fabulous Fountain. Here an oblong, fantastically filigreed courtyard has at its heart an alabaster basin supported by 12 lions in white marble, each of which spurted water at its appointed hour during the day. Around the base of the fountain appears both a poem by Ibn Zamrak and a detailed explanation of the advanced hydraulic system powering the fountains.
Even mathematicians are besotted by the Alhambra. Math-minded illustrator M.C. Escher visited the palace in 1922, a turning point in his career. In the book Islamic Patterns and M.C. Escher’s Tessellations, the author explains Moorish philosophy on pattern, how pattern and mathematics reflect the turning sides of a single aesthetic coin: “Muslim intellectuals recognized in geometry the unifying intermediary between the material and the spiritual world. These patterns may be seen as symbolizing the Islamic principles of ‘Tawhid’ (the unity of all things) and ‘Mizan’ (order and balance), which are the laws of creation in Islam.”
Escher visited twice, concluding that repetitive patterns gave a whiff of a higher source of knowledge, predating mankind. He was fascinated by the “laws of the phenomena” he saw in the Alhambra’s every surface—the order, reflections, repetitions and transformations, each so simple, but combined to approximate every possible form of pattern variation plane geometry can produce.
A simple image search of “Alhambra patterns” is enough to intoxicate. Scholars have debated the point, but it seems officially agreed that the Alhambra includes examples of all 17 of the so-called “wallpaper groups,” all of the possible permutations one can make with a repeating pattern on a flat plane. Naturally, you can rapidly scale to infinity if you tried to tally all the possible figures in patterns: stars, waves, crescents, but also buttons, dogs, wheels, ISDN modems—literally any object under the sun. The wallpaper groups concern themselves only with the rules that govern the figure’s repetition, reflection or transformation, not the figure itself.
In his Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving recalls a magical evening spent under the spell of a female Andalusian guitarist who played for him and other palace inhabitants in the Hall of the Abencerrages:
“Happy should I be, if it could awaken in her bosom one kind recollection of the lonely stranger and sojourner, for whose gratification she did not think it beneath her to exert those fascinating powers which were the delight of brilliant circles; and who will ever recall with enthusiasm the happy evening passed in listening to her strains, in the moon-lit halls of the Alhambra.”
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