Postcard from Granada

An ongoing translation project at the Alhambra makes me reconsider how I read this evocative monument.

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Gazing at the walls of the Alhambra is, for me, similar to gazing at the stars. In both cases, my observations are informed by fragments of  fact, bits of myth and legend, my own memories and an undeniable romantic sensibility.

This was my third visit to the Alhambra, on a breezeless night in July. And while I was far from alone, I could still lose myself, as I tend to do, in the intricate patterns and details of the carvings and mosaics, imagining the lives  of former residents and guests.

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On this night, my mind filled with images (admittedly inspired by 19th century paintings and Hollywood) of sultans, Catholic monarchs and the so-called vagabonds of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1832). I could also see my mother, fresh out of college in the summer of ’68, enthralled by the Royal Ballet of London in Generalife, the Alhambra’s gardens.

For me, this is the magic of the Alhambra, the stunning architecture that transports me into the past, as though I have stepped into a giant book. And like a child, I concoct my own version of the tale based on memory and imagination.

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While I cherish this rather fanciful experience, I am nonetheless intrigued by a new opportunity to “read” the Alhambra in a different way. I’m referring to the actual walls of the palace, which, for those who can decipher the elaborate Arabic inscriptions, are a vast book in and of themselves.

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Significant portions of the script have been translated over the years, but it is only recently that an exhaustive effort to translate all of the text in the Alhambra complex, over 10,000 inscriptions, has been undertaken.

Last March, researchers from Spain’s School of Arabic Studies, based in Granada, made public the first fruits of their labor – a book and DVD offering a virtual tour, in Spanish, through the 3,116 inscriptions cataloged in the luxurious chambers of the fourteenth century  Comares Palace (where I took all the pictures you see here). This is just the first phase of translations – four additional volumes are scheduled to be published in 2011. An English translation is forthcoming, as well.

According to researchers, only a minority of the inscriptions consist of poetry and Koranic verses, in contrast to popular belief. The bulk of the text extols the Nasrid dynasty, the last of the Moors to rule in Spain, as well as the Alhambra itself. Single words like “blessing” and “happiness” frequently occur. The name of Allah is the most common word so far, indicating how closely religion and power were intertwined. You can read more about the details of the translation project in this Guardian article.

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I haven’t bought the DVD – I don’t know if I am ready to take this scholarly leap. But then again, we can never know exactly what happened between the walls of the Alhambra. There will always be room to read between the lines.

Question for readers: How do you experience the Alhambra, or any other historical monument for that matter?


  • If you’d like to read more about the history of the Alhambra, click here.
  • You can see a (soundless) demo of the Comares Palace DVD here by clicking on “Demo CD Corpus Epigráfico”.
  • For now, the book and DVD, in Spanish, can be purchased at the monument’s bookstore. I also found them here.

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