Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

The Alhambra in Granada ~ The Jewel of Islamic Spain

September 13th, 2013 2 comments

Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain

The Alhambra is one of the Islamic World’s most beautiful creations. In fact, it’s the most visited site in all of Spain. Visitors from all the world are drawn to the Alhambra’s exquisite palace complex and gardens, all evoking the exotic past of Islamic Spain.

Alhambra, Granada

I had been dreaming of visiting the Alhambra since I took Art History in university. My husband had studied the significance of Andalucía (Al-Andalus in Arabic) in school, and he, too, was keen to see the Alhambra. However, our three children were less than thrilled about this full-day excursion. There were concerned it would be “boring history.”

Fortunately, we had a terrific tour guide, who was well versed in the history and culture of Andalucía. We wore headsets to listen to his detailed story-telling. Whenever we fell behind the group, even our children scrambled to keep up and not miss a word.

Alhambra Calligraphy & Tile

Muslims in Spain

In my last post I wrote about the Muslim surge into the Iberian Peninsula and about the Mosque of Córdoba, where Muslim caliphate ruled for nearly 300 years. This was followed by 200 years of Muslim Rule in Seville. Gradually Muslim power weakened, until a single tiny Muslim state survived in the mountains of Granada.

Alhambra Calligraphy Detail

Granada ~ The Last Muslim Enclave in Spain

By 1230, Muslims had been living for 800 years in Granada, the longest lasting Muslim enclave in Spain. At this time, the Muslim territory was reduced to about half of modern day Andalucía.

The Nasrid Dynasty ~ A Society of Taste & Luxury

The Nasrid dynasty ruled this Muslim territory from the lavish Alhambra Palace for 250 years. During this time, Granada became one of the richest cities in Medieval Europe, flourishing with artisans and traders. 

Alhambra Door, Tiles & Calligraphy

Even though Muslim presence in Spain had shrunk to a small territory, Muslim society in Granada was thriving. The Nasrid dynasty at Granada is remembered for its high levels of taste and luxury, symbolized by the delicate architecture of the Alhambra Palace.

While the rest of Europe was still in the Dark Ages, Granada experienced the final cultural flowering of Muslim society in Spain when the splendors of Alhambra reached their peak.

Alhambra Windows & Arch

The Alhambra Complex

Its name comes from Arabic: al-qala’at al-hambra, the “Red Castle.” From the outside, its red fortress on the hills of Granada are gorgeous and imposing.

Alhambra Mountains of Granada

Distinctive Architectural Features

With the construction of the Alhambra, Islamic art reached new heights of elegance. The architects and designers sought to refine existing architectural forms—such as geometric patterns, decorative calligraphy, and stalactite ceiling adornment. No matter how many mosques and palaces one visits, one can’t helped but be awed by the beauty of the Alhambra.

Alhambra Palace, Delicate Details

The Moors introduced new design elements, such as the peaceful inner courtyards, which offer a full sensory experience: the sound of the fountain, the feel of the water’s mist, the scent of the flowers, and the sight of the beauty all around.

Alhambra Fountain

The Palacio Nazaries

The Palacio Nazaries is the true gem of Alhambra. It is considered the most brilliant Islamic building in Europe. My favorite feature is the mesmerizing geometric patterns of the tiles, as well as the elaborate Arabic calligraphy.

Alhambra, Granada, Tile & Calligraphy

The Palace of the Lions is an icon with its lion fountains, intricately molded stucco, and elaborate stalactite-like vaulting.

Alhambra, Granada, Lion courtyard & Fountain

The Collapse of Muslim Rule

1492 was most important year in Spanish history, when Spain became united and when Columbus reached North America.

In Granada in 1492 the conquering Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel entered the emirate and took up court in the Alhambra. Even though they ultimately expelled the Muslims from Spain, the conquering rulers appreciated the beauty of the Alhambra and chose to keep it.

Alhambra, Granada, Palace Archway

The Alhambra complex has been heavily restored and continues to evolve. The Alhambra is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

To visit the Alhambra, it’s best to buy your tickets in advance or get there early. Each ticket is stamped with a 30 minute time slot for entry to the Palacio Nazaries.

Alhambra Palace Door, geometric pattern

To keep Alhambra in my mind, I plan to read Tales of Alhambra written by Washington Irving, an American writer and US Ambassador to Spain in the 1840s. He is best known for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. Written in 1831, Tales of Alhambra is a classic collection of short stories amid the grandeur of the Alhambra. Until I visit Andalucía again, at least I can read (and dream) about it.

Alhambra ~ Elegant Water Nook

In case you missed it, see my post on The Mosque at Córdoba.

Question: What are your impressions of Alhambra?

The Mosque of Córdoba ~ A Glimpse into Moorish Spain

August 1st, 2013 6 comments

Cordoba Forest of Columns

Ever since I studied Art History in university, it has been a lifelong mission of mine to visit the Islamic sites of Spain—so gorgeous and captivating. At last, I was able to accomplish this goal; just before Ramadan, I took a trip to Andalucía.

Where in the World?

Andalucía is Spain’s most southern region, which borders the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, nearly kissing Morocco.

Map of Andalucia, Spain

Today Andalucía features the typical symbols of Spain: flamenco, Spanish guitar, tapas, paella, and bullfighting. Meanwhile, the region has a long and varied history and was conquered by many groups. However, on my visit I was only interested in one period of history.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior detailIslamic Andalucía

In 711, Muslims from North Africa (mostly Berbers) landed at Gibraltar and surged into the Iberian Peninsula, which set Spain’s destiny apart from the rest of Europe. Within a few years virtually the whole peninsula was conquered by Muslims, known as the Moors, who became the dominant force for the next four centuries.

In Andalucía (Al-Andalus in Arabic) Muslim Rule lasted even longer—until 1492. Muslim political power and cultural development initially centered on the city of Córdoba, then Seville and finally Granada. During this period, these cities were prosperous, boasting beautiful mosques, palaces, gardens, universities, bustling markets, and expanding agriculture.  

Cordoba Mosque, Courtyard Archway

What I find fascinating is this: while the rest of Europe was wallowing in the Dark Ages, these Muslim cities of Al-Andalus were flourishing in every way.

I try to imagine life in Córdoba and Granada during this time: the clothing, the luxury, the courtyards, the men and women…

Am I clinging to the past? Maybe.

The Muslim World at that Time

At first, Al-Andalus was part of the Caliphate of Damascus, which governed the Muslim world at the time. In 750 the Omayyad dynasty in Damascus was overthrown by the rival Abbasids. In an unexpected plot twist, one Omayyad survivor got away.

History Stranger than Fiction  

This young member of the ruling Omayyad family, Abd ar-Rahman, escaped the massacre of his cousins in Damascus. After numerous adventures, Abd ar-Rahman arrived in Spain and persuaded the ruling Muslims to accept him as the emir of Al-Andalus, based in Córdoba.

It was Abd ar-Rahman who began constructing Córdobas Mezquita, the Mosque of Córdoba, one of the world’s greatest monuments. Abd ar-Rahman and his descendants built the mosque over two centuries with four phases of expansion.

Cordoba Mosque, Red Arches

Moorish Style

Abd ar-Rahman’s dynasty in Córdoba brought architects instilled with tastes and ideas from Damascus. These ideas were put to use in the construction of the Córdoba Mosque. This Moorish style, which echoed across Islamic Spain, introduced horseshoe-shaped arches, scalloped arches, exquisite tiles decorated in calligraphy and floral motifs, complex stuccowork, and peaceful inner courtyards.

Cordoba Mosque,  Intricate Arches

The craftsmen and artisans who built the Córdoba Mosque included Muslims, Jews and Christians, which is documented by their own signatures they etched into the mosque.

Cordoba Mosque, Craftsmen signatures

Those Famous Arches

Even though I had seen many photos of the arches, it didn’t compare to stepping inside the arcaded hall and seeing them for myself. My children—normally disdainful of any historical tourist site—grew subdued when they entered, even a little awe-stuck.  

Cordoba Mosque, Red Arches

At the time the mosque was built, the double arches were a new introduction to architecture and permitted higher ceilings. Originally the Córdoba Mosque had 1293 columns; today 856 columns remain. The building was architecturally revolutionary. The roof over the heads of the worshippers was supported by a forest of columns, suggestive of a palm grove.

The rows of red-and-white striped arches disappear into infinity, emitting a mesmerizing effect.

Cordoba Mosque, Arches

Meanwhile, the famous alternating red and white voussoirs of the arches were inspired by the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Dome of the Rock, Mosque in Jerusalem

The Prayer Niche

The mihrab portal (the prayer niche) remains intact today. The richly gilded niche was the caliphate’s artistic high point and features shimmering golden mosaics, the gold cubes of which were a gift from the Christian emperor of Byzantium. As a result, the mihrab gives off an aura similar to a Byzantine church. It’s one of the few places in the mosque where the Quranic inscriptions remain.

Cordoba Mosque, Mihrab, Prayer Niche

The Exterior

While I have seen many photos of the interior of the Córdoba Mosque, I had no clue what the outside looked like. I found the façade of horseshoe arches and arabesque motifs quite beautiful and mysterious.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior Detail

  Cordoba Mosque, Moorish Window Detail

 Meanwhile, surrounding this medieval mosque is a labyrinth of narrow streets and a lively neighborhood of shops. I could sort of—almost—imagine the place in the tenth century.

Cordoba Mosque, Exterior Steps

Significance of the Mosque & Córdoba

For three centuries the Mosque of Córdoba held a place of great importance for the Islamic community of Andalucía, serving as the Friday Mosque, as well as a place of teaching and for the faithful to conduct their five daily prayers.

Cordoba Mosque, Famous Red Arches

The Moors ruled from Córdoba from 756 to 1031. During the last century of rule Al-Andalus reached its peak of power and luster. At this time Córdoba was the biggest and most dazzling city in Western Europe with stunning libraries, observatories, aqueducts, as well as highly skilled artisans. Astronomy, medicine, mathematics and botany flourished, and one of the great Muslim libraries was established in the city.

The Fall

Alas, nothing lasts forever. In the 10th Century the fearsome general Al-Mansour took power and wreaked havoc. Soon the Córdoba caliphate collapsed into civil war, finally breaking up the caliphate into smaller Islamic kingdoms, with Seville and Granada among the most powerful.

In 1492, the Christian Reconquista (Re-conquest) defeated the last remaining Muslim states of Spain. Soon Fernando and Isabel famously expelled the Muslims (and Jews) from Spain. Ultimately, Islam was outlawed.

The Cathedral of Córdoba

While this building served as a mosque for 500 years, today it functions as a Catholic church. Its official name is “The Cathedral of Córdoba.” In the 16th century, a cathedral was plonked right into the center of the building, which destroyed a section of the mosque.

The Cathedral of Cordoba, Spain

The various stages of the cathedral were built in gothic, renaissance and baroque style, which are surrounded on all sides by the arcaded hall of the medieval mosque. Our tour guide kept referring to this an “amazing contrast” and “amazing juxtaposition.”

For me, I found this juxtaposition to be jarring—even disturbing. I understand the victorious powers routinely “destroy and conquer.” But I agree with Carlos I (Holy Roman Emperor from 1519) who exclaimed to the church authorities: “You have destroyed something that was unique to this world.”

The Cathedral Mosque of Cordoba, Spain

Another change is that the doors of the mosque that opened into the courtyard are now closed. At one time, theses open doors filled the mosque with light, and also opened the mosque to the ablution courtyard and to the community.  

Cordoba Mosuqe, Courtyard

Another obvious change—missing from the vast colonnaded space are the rows and rows of Muslim worshippers. Currently, over 1 million Muslims reside in Modern Spain, and to this day, Spanish Muslims are lobbying the Roman Catholic Church to allow them to pray in the complex. At present, the Spanish Catholic authorities and the Vatican oppose this move.

At least Muslims are able to visit this beautiful mosque…. And here am I, fulfilling one of my travel goals.

Finally Holly sees those arches

In my next post, I will discuss another Moorish gem of Andalucía: the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.  

Question: What are your impressions of the Córdoba Mosque?

Al Bustan Palace ~ Muscat, Oman

February 6th, 2013 7 comments

Al Bustan Palace Hotel

In my last post I wrote about our trip to Muscat, Oman. What I didn’t mention was where we stayed—Al Bustan Palace.

We had stayed in this hotel once before, exactly nine years ago. Since then, the hotel was closed for several years for renovation and refurbishment. Now managed by the Ritz-Carlton, the hotel was sure to be classy. I looked forward to seeing the changes, as well as experiencing a bit of extravagance and amenity.

Al Bustan Palace was originally built as a venue for the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council) to hold their 1985 summit. More palace than hotel, Al Bustan has won its share of awards as the best hotel in the Middle East. Also, the fort-like hotel exemplifies Muscat’s architectural requirements of Arabesque patterns, arches, and domes.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

If you visit Muscat, it’s worth staying at Al Bustan Palace—or at least coming for dinner to view the grand and stunning domed lobby, seven stories high.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Lobby

When we stayed here before, the interior design was pretty, but its Arabian theme was overly colorful and ornate by today’s standards. Now the room design is subdued with neutral colors and understated patterns.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Room

It’s also worth strolling the grounds—all newly updated and improved, along with the infinity pool and beach area.

Al Bustan Hotel ~ Garden

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The hotel is located on a private cove with a wide open beach offering snorkeling and dolphin-watching boat rides. Yes, dolphins.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

This Omani coffee man offered me dates and Arabic coffee every day (as was his job). Each time I had coffee with him, he asked me more about myself.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

The coffee man asked me where I was from, where my husband was from, how many children we had, etc. When he found out I lived in Dubai, he asked which was better—Dubai or Muscat. I gave a vague answer about each city being unique. He insisted I choose the best city. Finally, I told him Muscat was better because of its traditional and natural beauty. At last, he was satisfied.

The next day, I tried to pick up our conversation where we left off. Instead, he started from the beginning: where I was from and which I like better, Dubai or Muscat… I wondered, perhaps all us Western women look the same to him?

At any rate, the coffee and dates were fitting, and the hotel was lovely, a perfect anniversary getaway.

Al Bustan Palace Hotel Muscat

Question: Have you been to Al Bustan Palace?