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A sigh for Alhambra

A sigh for Alhambra
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First Published: Fri, Aug 19 2011. 09 18 PM IST

Carved in stone: (left) A view of Alhambra in Granada, Spain, at sunset; and the pools and gardens of Alhambra made it a paradise on earth. Photos by Thinkstock
Carved in stone: (left) A view of Alhambra in Granada, Spain, at sunset; and the pools and gardens of Alhambra made it a paradise on earth. Photos by Thinkstock
Updated: Fri, Aug 19 2011. 09 18 PM IST
The spot we were looking for was not marked on any map. No great man had been born there, nor had one died. There was no mountain peak someone had scaled there either. We had driven an hour looking for it, and had a vague idea we were near the right place.
We had been looking for a site remembering a loss, which was known for something as ephemeral, transitory and fleeting, as a sigh. This was where a man had turned his back one last time to look at a fort which was once his, from which he had ruled a land which was now no longer his; he had lost it. And there, at that spot, overcome with grief, he had let out an audible exhalation, a breath, a sigh—of despair and sorrow.
The man who sighed was Boabdil, the last of the Nasrid sultans of Moorish Spain. The Moors had ruled large parts of southern Europe for centuries. The Umayyads extended the early Islamic empire, later establishing the Caliphate of Cordoba, and science and arts flourished in the time when Europe was still in the Dark Ages. They knew the positions of stars more accurately than the world had known earlier; the scholars of that time wrote tracts on philosophy and mathematics; people belonging to different religions lived largely at peace with one another, and libraries were revered. Cordoba became the centre for Jewish scholarship.
Carved in stone: (left) A view of Alhambra in Granada, Spain, at sunset; and the pools and gardens of Alhambra made it a paradise on earth. Photos by Thinkstock
Then in 1492, Catholics surrounded Granada, forcing Boabdil to surrender, pushing the Moors into defensive positions. They had to leave their magical palace-city Alhambra. With its beautiful gardens designed symmetrically, and the palace itself, with its intricate, geometric patterns carved on the walls and the neat Arabic calligraphy, Alhambra was a marvel.
But Ferdinand and Isabella, who ruled Spain, wanted control. The Moors surrendered. Christopher Columbus apparently saw the surrender—later that year, he would get the royal approval to find a sea route to India and reach America instead (that year, the Catholics evicted the Jews from Cordoba—1492 was a busy year for Spain).
Defeated, the Moors retreated, Boabdil settling in the mountains of Sierra Nevada, before their eventual disappearance from Europe. Today, the Arabs who make their way to southern Spain do so to work. On the way from the coast to the Alpujarras valley, you see long stretches of greenhouses where Spanish farmers grow vegetables which Arab labourers pick.
Further away from the coast in the town of Lanjaron earlier that week, we had explored an old, abandoned “Arab” castle (as the locals called it), facing the inspiring mountains, its isolation underscoring its desolation, symbolizing defeat. An empire ebbed, another one rose. We were keen to be where the Moor let out that invisible sigh.
Here, Salman Rushdie describes the scene in his 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh: “He (Boabdil) departed into exile with his mother and retainers, bringing to a close the centuries of Moorish Spain; and reining in his horse upon the Hill of Tears he turned to look for one last time upon his loss, upon the palace and the fertile plains and all the concluded glory of al-Andalus... at which sight the Sultan sighed… whereupon his mother, the terrifying Ayxa the Virtuous, sneered at his grief. ‘Well may you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man,” she taunted him.’”
I wanted to look at Alhambra from that spot where Boabdil sighed, as he glimpsed the glory he had lost. It wasn’t hard to find the spot. It is a tiny patch of land, between two motorways. You cross the motorway at some personal risk, as there is no zebra crossing, nor a bridge or an underground walkway. Along the grass you find a weather-beaten milestone, where, in fading paint, the text says—Suspiro del Moro, or the Moor’s Sigh.
It looks like any other milestone, except that it is older, needing a fresh coat of paint. Even the road sign indicating the spot is faded, unlike the blue-and-white billboards pointing towards Granada. The stone looks unattended, and its surface is chipped, the paint fading, and the site looks desolate. Cars and trucks rush by, scarcely aware of the spot. There is no sign informing visitors—if we can be grandly described as such—why someone had thought the spot was important enough to mark it by placing a stone there.
At the café in the modern building called Suspiro del Moro, which also runs a convention centre and has an active swimming pool in which children were frolicking, I ordered something called Suspiro del Moro—a portion of caramel custard with vanilla and coffee ice cream, and a fresh slice of pineapple. I thought of the ingredients—coffee beans, sugar itself, the fruit, and the vanilla essence—and how they were introduced to Spain only after its conquests in the Americas, and the opening of new trade routes.
From that spot I looked towards Granada. A few stubborn trees block some of the view, but the hill stands out, and up on the hill, you can see the solid, invincible-looking fort, looking tiny, but at once pink and red, surveying the vast territory it commanded. Alhambra sat alone on the hill, which Rushdie called “that monument to a lost possibility… like a testament to lost but sweetest love, to the love that endures beyond defeat, beyond annihilation, beyond despair.”
And which can be felt only fleetingly, like a sigh.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 19 2011. 09 18 PM IST
More Topics: Detours | Salil Tripathi | Boabdil | Umayyads | Spain |