Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Private Alhambra: Fatima’s Perspective

For devout Muslims of the medieval period and our times, the Qur’an informed about daily rituals of cleanliness, associated with prayer rituals. “O ye who believe! When you intend to offer the prayer, wash your faces and your hands up to the elbows, wipe your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles.” Personal hygiene became such an important aspect of Moorish life that there were at least twenty-one public baths within Granada during the medieval period. The best preserved of these can still be seen today, from the eleventh-century Zirid (Berber) dynasty. Called El Banuelo, visitors can find it along the Carrera del Darro, a narrow street flanking the Darro River. Just follow the route of the 31 bus from Granada Centro to Albaicin; entrance is free from 10am to 2pm, Tuesday through Saturday.

El Banuelo has the typical layout of a Moorish bathhouse. The low-hanging entrance (mind your head) leads to four chambers; a changing room where visitors left their clothes, the cool room for general washing and massages, the warm room for cleansing and scrubbing, followed by the hot room, where bathers could soak. Bath attendants would have provided towels. Women could have had their bodily hair removed and their nails, hands and feet painted with henna, while men enjoyed a shave. Bathing hours included specific times based on gender. Visitors made gradual progress through each space, so the bath ritual might last hours.

In Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, Fatima would not have resorted to using this or any other public bath, not even the one attached to the mosque her brother Muhammad III had ordered constructed. Instead, Fatima would have accessed the bathhouse at Alhambra. Sandwiched between the Court of Myrtle and the northeastern edge of the Court of Lions built in the reign of Fatima’s great grandson, Muhammad V, this space has been opened to the public starting December 2013  just for a month – click here for more details. Maximum capacity is 15 people. If you are lucky enough to have a visit to Alhambra during this time, admission to the Palacios Nazaries gets you into the royal baths, called Banos Arabes.

Fatima would have known it as the hammam begun in the time of her son, the fifth Nasrid sovereign Ismail I, a space also worked on by his son, Yusuf I. One of the poems of Yusuf’s minister Ibn al-Jayyab inscribed above the door welcomed Fatima and generations of her family:

“Enter in the name of God into the finest house, a place of purity, a room to be respected: this is the bath of the royal palace, on which great minds labored. Fire makes a pleasant heat here and pure water flows….”

An earlier version of the bathhouse must have existed before these rulers came to power at the beginning of the fourteenth century, but the current structure is all visitors can see. Entry came from two, second-story access points, from a vestibule just off the Court of Myrtles and a short hallway from the Court of Lions. The upper level also held the living quarter of the bath superintendent. The ceiling beams and panels show evidence of bright paint. There would have been a lantern fitted into the center of the ceiling. Anyone who leaned over the wooden balustrade would have seen a marble white fountain below on the first floor of the room. Four slender columns offered support. Stairs led down to the first floor.   

On the lower floor immediately beyond the pillars were two recessed alcoves situated across from each other. Two plaster-worked arches linked by a central column enclosed these alcoves. Assuming the hammam of Alhambra followed the general plan of most Moorish baths, this place might have allowed Fatima and her family to undress and get their towels, relax here or enjoy a massage. There was also a storeroom and a latrine behind the northernmost alcove. From the moment of their arrival, would-be bathers wore wooden shoes to protect their feet from the heat and spills in the bath.

Next came the narrow cool room, known to Fatima as al-bayt al-barid, reached via a short hallway running to the east. A small cold-water basin remains here on the eastern wall framed by a painted horseshoe arch.

The central room was al-bayt al-wastani in Fatima’s time, a heated room with three vaulted spaces. Warmth rose from beneath the tiles. The recessed channel in the middle of the floor allowed for the run-off from bathers to drain away, while one marble step on either side supported the columns in the room. Bathers would have soaped and washed here, with pails or buckets of water thrown over them to rinse off.

Lastly, they would have arrived at the hot room, al-bayt al-sakhun. It had two marble tanks, one on the east and the other to the south, where bathers could immerse themselves.

How did the Moors of Alhambra maintain this bath? On the lower level, accessed through the rooms the Catholic Monarchs added and an enclosed garden below, you will find redbrick walls along a warren of tunnels. They provided storage space for the wood required to heat the furnaces. These hallways also allowed those who worked behind the scenes to keep the baths heated and cleaned from disturbing the solitude of the bathers. 

The ceiling of each of the bathing rooms features skylights or madwas, which provided ventilation. Each had a green or white glaze and red glass covered them, some shaped like eight pointed stars and others like tears. In the chambers lit by the skylights, Fatima and her family would have found luxury and comfort, but centuries of damage and neglect led to the closing of the royal bath. Only restoration work has allowed the space to open to the public again.

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