A recurring theme in sci-fi stories and films is that of The Last Person on Earth. It feels something like that here in the Washington Irving Hotel next to the Alhambra in Granada looking out on the empty street next to one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions.
Ask yourself, where would you go if you were the last person on earth? To wander around the empty Alhambra was always the top destination on my list, and today – in this mad year of 2020 – I was able to live the fantasy.
After three months of lockdown, the Alhambra reopened, with social distancing and a complex set of traffic light controls, paperwork identity checks (seven times in one visit!) and nearly no visitors compared with the usual hordes that had put me off coming back here even in the “quiet” season. The old tourists’ complaint when they related their travels was always, “It was great but there were too many tourists.” And it was precisely the antidote to this idea that brought me here today: the sudden realisation that it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to wander around the magical palace with much-reduced visitor numbers. Not exactly alone in the Alhambra but the closest you will ever get.
To begin with, let me smugly savour the pleasure of staying in the American hotel in Granada without any Americans; because no visitors from the USA are currently allowed into Europe. Washington Irving popularised the Alhambra in his collection of essays, written while staying there in the early 19th century and Tales of the Alhambra put it on the map for the first intrepid tourists with their Baedekker guides and their stagecoach tickets booked through Cooks Tours. In post-Covid 2020, instead of arriving by two-horse diligence, I drove here from Alicante in the good little one-litre white Hyundai saloon which now sits resting in the vast empty expanse of the tree lined car parking terraces under the Alhambra walls.
The Patio de Leones is the most recognised feature of the Alhambra for the modern tourist. Some would use the word “iconic” but if you are tempted to use that word in any other context than Russian Orthodox painters, please refrain. Icons are not about popular recognisable trash imagery (as if Andy Warhol ever equalled Andre Rublev) so please use the term “icon” with its appropriate meaning. A “popularly recognised feature” is not an “icon.”
The lions guarding the fountain were never designed as a popular image, but for the pleasure of a small minority paying homage to a powerful sultan. When we intrepid explorers venture out of the lockdown and look at such marvellous sculpture and such hieratic architecture as that on display in the Alhambra, we must not kid ourselves. The political power structure that created this marvel, this wonder, this magical journey through chambers of praise to Allah, with its splendid choreographed calligraphy in stone, was all built on slavery and blood lust. Any craftsman or architect failing to please the sultan’s whim would not survive the swordsman’s blade.
To come out of a hundred days of Covid-19 lockdown in Spain and join a party of ten Spaniards – a family, two couples, a guide and me – in a celebratory walk around this site, was a kind of affirmation, a reconquest, a defiant gesture towards “the East”. The word “China” came up once in the guided tour – in relation to a medieval term for gravel. People looked uncomfortable hearing the word “China” and we all refrained from saying anything unkind, but there were “looks”. China is not popular now… But the reconquest of Granada (and its Alhambra) has always been a Spanish symbol for stopping the foreign spread into Europe. It is undoubtedly a “racist” message on one level, and yet the comparison of (Spanish) Catholic and (Iberian) Islamic art in close proximity on this site leaves little doubt about the superiority of Islamic craft techniques and hieratic art theory. The pathetic Catholic “contribution” to the Alhambra is both dull and embarrassing.
I can only walk around the Alhambra in astonishment at the power of Islamic art theory, craftsmanship and boldness of vision. I also reject it philosphically and side with the Catholic Kings whose superior military might – but very dull art – destroyed this civilisation and drove it from the Alhambra and from Spain.
I have many more photographs of the Alhambra to upload. Over a hundred today. I may put them all on a publicly accessible cloud. News on that will follow shortly-