Under my byline

Palace of allusions

Posted in Architecture/Design, Art, Books by Rrishi on 13 June 2009

OVERLEAF 33

Alhambra arabesqueA TV ad for home security systems a few years ago showed the youthful father of a good-looking nuclear family turning on the home alarm at night. As he did so, from the keypad a host of 0s and 1s spilled out in all directions across the wall, around corners and onto ceilings, until all surfaces of the house, and thus the family within, were protected by this flickering binary mesh. It was sufficiently disquieting to remain lodged in the memory — and I was reminded of it recently, while reading about new discoveries at the Alhambra, the castle-palace of Granada in Spain.

Researchers of the School of Arabic Studies of Spain’s Scientific Research Higher Council are using 3-D laser scanners and digital cameras to record all of the estimated 10,000 inscriptions on the walls, pillars, arches and ceilings of the Alhambra. Once captured, the text is transcribed and then translated, from classical Arabic to modern Spanish.

About two thirds of the inscriptions will be converted by year-end, and the rest by 2011. But all 3,116 inscriptions of the 14th-century Palace of Comares (part of the Alhambra) are archived and have been released as a book and an interactive DVD. Using the DVD you can wander through the palace and zoom in to view specific inscriptions, and their translations. It is in Spanish now but will eventually be available in French and English as well.

These modern Spaniards are not the first to try to read the stones. When the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed the Reconquista in 1492, expelling the last Moorish king from Granada after 700 years of Muslim rule, their chief prize was the Alhambra — and they were so struck by its beauty and wealth of calligraphy that they hired specialist translators to read its walls.

It took longer than expected. Few scholars know classical Arabic well; the ancient Kufic or cursive scripts used are not easy to read; and many inscriptions are in inaccessible places — around the tops of tall pillars, on ceilings. Five centuries on, the work nears completion.

So what does the Alhambra say? The results are a surprise. For one, there are far fewer Qur’anic verses and less poetry than the researchers expected — only about 10 per cent of the total. The commonest words by far are those in the Nasrid dynasty motto: “There is no victor but Allah,” repeated hundreds of times.

Then there are single, domestically scaled words like “happiness” or “blessing”. Aphorisms, such as “Be sparse in words and you will go in peace.” Words in praise of particular rulers or their architectural additions: “Glory to our master Abu ’Abd Allah.” Yusuf I even maintained a secretariat of poets, who selected or composed suitable lines for the craftsmen.

It’s oddly satisfying to contemplate this welter of pompous, playful, earnest, superstitious words under and around which the king and his court lived — nothing as austere as wall-to-wall religion. Nowadays, dulled by a surfeit of written stuff, we are becoming a visual culture. Six centuries ago, less was written, so that even visual art was derived from texts.

Like the 0s and 1s of the home-alarm ad, the Alhambra texts protect and exalt — but they also amuse and even, perhaps, acted as salutary reminders to the inhabitants of their many debts to the past (which is to say, their responsibility to the future).

We moderns clearly feel the lack of the long view: after all, we name our homes, choose mottos to tattoo on our bodies, dress in symbols, name our children with an eye to their future… Our nature abhors a moral vacuum.

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