AMONG the northern toes of the Sierra Nevada, on a hilltop overlooking the city of Granada, stands the Alhambra – the most complete Islamic fortification and royal palace remaining in Europe. Built as a fortress in 889, it was enlarged in the mid-13th Century during the Nasrid dynasty, and after the fall of Islam in Spain, in 1492, became one the residencies of the Christian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. It was eventually abandoned, partially destroyed by Napoleon’s troops, became a haven for the homeless, was rediscovered by European intellectuals and restored to its former glory – and is now Spain’s premier ancient monument and number-one tourist attraction . . .
Ancient places stir the imagination – and not necessarily because of their fascinating histories. Sometimes it’s the human stories they do not tell that spark curiosity and our desire for knowledge.
I walk around the Alhambra, with its Muslim fortifications and magnificent Nasrid Palace, and the dates, and the sultans, and the emirs, and the kings and queens, they don’t really interest me. Names and numbers; the history of the rulers interpreted by the rulers – as if the ruled did not exist. But it is the work of the ruled that has survived.
I want to peer inside the lives of the master-masons, the engineers who channelled melt-water from the mountains to this fortified hilltop, and the craftsmen who created the shadowed gardens. I want to touch the fingers of the artisans whose skills and labours embellished the walls with intricate mosaics, filigree and delicate carpentry. And the tilers whose work we tread upon with scarce a glance. And the men who mixed the mortar. And the labourers who made the bricks.
Their stories will remain untold. But they have left their mark in this monument, and in doing so have demonstrated to the world they were as skilful, as imaginative and as accomplished as anyone born since.