Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Public Alhambra: Comares Palace - Yusuf I & Muhammad V

While touring Alhambra, I met a nice couple from Greenwich and we fell to talking about this amazing monument. The wife asked who built Alhambra. That’s not such an easy question to answer, but I did explain how various rulers ordered construction on certain parts, later adapted or altered by their descendants. The Comares tower is one example. What we see today is the influence of two of the major rulers from the 14th century; Yusuf I, my hero in Sultana: Two Sisters, and his son with Butayna, Muhammad V.


There has always been a bastion at this particular spot of Alhambra, from perhaps even before the rule of Fatima’s grandfather, Muhammad I. Several scenes in the series take place in this hall; the return of Muhammad I’s body to Granada and the ascendancy of Muhammad II in Sultana; Fatima’s confrontation with her murderous, full-blood brother Muhammad III after the sudden demise of their father in Sultana’s Legacy; Yusuf I’s meeting with the rebel Marinid princes in Sultana: Two Sisters. The Comares tower became a likely backdrop for several momentous events in Alhambra and Granada’s history.


That the Comares tower definitively served as the throne room of Fatima’s relations comes from a poem inscribed within the central, north-facing alcove of the hall. The verses name the ruler in whose name the tower was built as Yusuf I and as such, either his chief minister Ali ibn al-Jayyab or that man’s successor, Ibn al-Khatib composed the words. They refer to the nine alcoves in the room as a group of constellations, with the central alcove as the most important because the monarch sat there:

“…My lord Yusuf, sustained by God, clothed me in dignity with robes of undeniable distinction, making me the throne of the kingdom (kursi mulk), the grandeur of which is born up thanks to the Light, the Seat and the Throne.”


Before entering the Comares tower at the north, there is a shaded arcade of eight pillars beneath arches, mirrored at the south end of the Court of Myrtles. Next is a hall referred to as Sala de Barca, for its boat-shaped ceiling. Muhammad V ordered its construction as an extension of the Comares hall, possibly dating to as late as 1367 because after that year, all further expansion at Alhambra in his reign bears the regal name he adopted after the Granadine recapture of Algeciras (al-Jazirah al-Khadra), al-Ghani bi-Llah, which means ‘he is who is satisfied by God.’ Fire destroyed the original ceiling in 1890.

I love the hidden spaces of Alhambra – actually, not really, since the authenticity of my series would be better if I could see everything – and the Comares hall obliges by having two doors, one leading up into the tower and another for the ruler’s private oratory. The imagination can run wild in this place, wondering about the intrigues that unfolded in the throne room.

Muhammad V finished the work his father Yusuf I started on the Comares hall. Light streams into the room through the lattice in each alcove, illuminating a 16th century terracotta floor. At its center are ceramic tiles glazed in gold, blue and white. In the days of the Nasrid sovereigns, no one crossed this space because the 99 names of God in Arabic were inscribed here. I assume this significance is part of why the original floor is missing.


Since the rooms to the south were destroyed by Charles V, speculation also remains about what lay behind the fa├žade. Was the space reserved for foreign dignitaries during their visits to Alhambra? Did the important ministers like Ali ibn al-Jayyab, Ibn al-Khatib or Muhammad’s faithful boyhood tutor Ridwan have rooms there? In Sultana: Two Sisters, I described the upper floors as being part of an extension of the harem, placing Butayna and Maryam’s chambers in the south end of the Court of Myrtles. I imagined them peering through the latticework at events unfolding outside the throne room. The likely position of the harem seems too small to have accommodated the rulers and their families over generations. Also, the modern access at the south end from the Court of Myrtles to Muhammad’s crowning achievement, the Court of Lions, did not exist during Nasrid rule. The Catholic Monarchs linked those two areas.


Next, I’ll wrap up with the last public space visitors can still see, the baths attached to what was once the great mosque of Alhambra, built by Fatima’s brother Muhammad III. I had hoped to also show pictures of the royal graveyard (rawda) where some of the monarchs like Muhammad II, his grandson from Fatima, Ismail I and Ismail’s son Yusuf I, were interred along with their illustrious matriarch, Fatima, but it appears conservation efforts are underway. I was fortunate to see some of the gravesites in an earlier visit. No bodies lie there. When the Nasrids lost Granada forever in 1492, they took the bones of their ancestors out of Alhambra. They may have reinterred them at Mondujar, where the last Sultana, Moraima, was buried. The gravestone of Muhammad II is in the Alhambra Museum in Charles V’s rotunda.

When I’m back in New York, I’ll share more about Alhambra, the private world of the Nasrid bath, harem and the summer palace.   


Happy Thanksgiving if you’re celebrating in the US.

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