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The Alhambra [Hardcover]

Robert Irwin
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Sept. 30 2004 Wonders of the World

Read the Bldg Blog interview with Mary Beard about the Wonders of the World series (Part I and Part II)

The Alhambra has long been a byword for exotic and melancholy beauty. In his absorbing new book, Robert Irwin, Arabist and novelist, examines its history and allure.

The Alhambra is the only Muslim palace to have survived since the Middle Ages. Built by a threatened dynasty of Muslim Spain, it was preserved as a monument to the triumph of Christianity. Every day thousands of tourists enter this magnificent site to be awestruck by its towers and courts, its fountained gardens, its honeycombed ceilings and intricate tile work. It is a complex full of mysteries--even its purpose is unclear. Its sophisticated ornamentation is not indiscriminate but full of hidden meaning. Its most impressive buildings were designed not by architects, but by philosophers and poets. The Alhambra, which resembles a fairy-tale palace, was constructed by slave labor in an era of economic decline, plague, and political violence. Its sumptuously appointed halls have lain witness to murder and mayhem. Yet its influence on art and on literature--including Orientalist painting and the architecture of cinemas, Washington Irving and Jorge Luis Borges--has been lasting and significant. As our guide to this architectural masterpiece, Robert Irwin allows us to fully understand the impact of the Alhambra.


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Built mostly in the mid- to late fourteenth century atop a hill overlooking Granada, Spain, the Alhambra stands as a stunning example of Moorish architecture, the only Muslim palace to have survived since the Middle Ages. Its inordinate artistic detailing and disorderly layout--"underpinned," Irwin suggests, "by a geometry that [has] mystical resonance"--attract thousands of tourists every day. But the Alhambra has a complicated and often unclear history; it has served as a jail for debtors, invalid soldiers, and gypsies, and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was "a monument to murder, slavery, poverty, and fear." In addition, as the site of the Moors' last stand before being driven from Spain by the Christian Reconquista in 1492, it has come to symbolize, for many Arabs and Muslims, everything they have lost in recent centuries. An able writer and noted Arabist, Irwin has clearly done his homework--though the academic-leaning material lacks a certain passion and purpose--and his detailed prose is complemented by a striking array of photos and illustrations. Andy Boynton
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

Robert Irwin writes beautifully and is dauntingly clever but the stunning thing about him is his originality.
--Ruth Rendell

Irwin's book is a learned but entertaining companion for any visitor.
--Oleg Grabar

[Irwin] brings the majestic ruins to life. (Newsweek)

This book captures and conveys the mysterious attractions of the Alhambra.
--Doris Lessing (The Spectator 2004-01-17)

[A] fascinating book.
--Malise Ruthven (Sunday Times 2004-01-04)

Irwin's book is both a perfect introduction to the place and a first-rate account of its history.
--Mark Cocker (The Guardian 2004-01-10)

Edward Said pointed out that in writing about the Arab world, authors always have an agenda. Perhaps Irwin has replaced a Romantic illusion about the Alhambra with one more attractive to the New Age. Irwin is, however, modest about the possibility of ever knowing what the Alhambra was for. And his agenda seems to be nothing more sinister than to get us to look once more and to marvel once again at something we only thought we knew.
--Robin Banerji (The Prospect 2004-01-22)

[A] delicious, tart monograph.
--Vera Rule (The Independent on Sunday 2004-01-11)

In this rich, concise contribution to the literature, Robert Irwin uses his vast knowledge of medieval Islam to illumine both myth and reality, history and imagination, without disenchanting the romantic reader...Having been to the Alhambra many times, after reading this wonderful book I wished to go back--and see it for the first time.
--Shusha Guppy (The Independent 2004-02-13)

A fascinating and very manageable guide. Irwin takes in the history of the Alhambra's inhabitants, its cultural importance to Westerners and to a new generation of Islamic writers.
--Mirand France (Daily Telegraph 2004-01-17)

It is...greatly to Robert Irwin's credit that he has written a book on the subject that is sensible, scholarly, astringent and witty. It is a fine addition to what promises to be an outstanding series on the world's great monuments.
--Martin Gayford (Sunday Telegraph 2004-02-01)

The only Muslim palace to survive in the West, the Alhambra, a beautiful collection of buildings and gardens set against the mountain backdrop of Granada, has been fixed in travelers' imaginations since the 19th century works of American novelist Washington Irving made the site famous. Unfortunately, much of what we know and think about it remains more romanticized fiction than fact. Here, Irwin (a novelist and noted Islamicist) helps set the record straight. As he explains, the Alhambra has been highly--and often inaccurately--reconstructed over the centuries, changing and expanding with the shifting notion of how this collection of buildings had been originally used. No matter how beautiful, he asserts, today the Alhambra is a mere shadow of its former glory, when it dripped with beautiful tapestries and exquisite carpets. Irwin's direct and witty style makes this slim volume a joy to read, and his chapter on the depiction of the Alhambra in Western literature is especially useful.
--Olga B. Wise (Library Journal 2004-07-15)

In his remarkably concise, original and readable study, The Alhambra, Irwin deploys impressive scholarship to skewer many of the myths that have grown up around the beautiful palace complex of Nasirid Granada: 'legends, lies and honest mistakes are as much a part of the story of the Alhambra as is the factual record,' he writes. 'So are vandalism, inadequately researched and botched restoration work and distortions caused by the demands of the tourist trade.' It is these myths and distortions that Irwin sets about dismantling, a task he clearly enjoys...Irwin shows that the Alhambra has meant many different things to many different people. If the Victorians liked to see it as a symbol of Oriental luxury and debauchery, then many modern Arabs have seen it as a symbol of defeat, 'an icon of exile and loss.'
--William Dalrymple (Times Literary Supplement 2004-07-16)

The Alhambra is a succinct, witty, often acerbic compendium of facts, legends, and outright delusions about this Nasrid architectural masterpiece. He also manages, with style and flair, to convey a surprisingly rich store of detail on medieval Andalusian culture and life...He is the ideal companion: amusing, learned, curious, often eloquent...The Alhambra contains much precious detail drawn from the Arabic sources, historical as well as literary.
--Eric Ormsby (New York Sun 2004-09-13)

Robert Irwin has written a compact companion to the history, architectural features, and enduring attraction of the Alhambra. Although this book is in a small guidebook format, the text corrects many of the romantic myths about the Alhambra that most tourists encounter. This book is recommended as excellent reading for someone planning a visit to the Alhambra or for the armchair traveler…His thesis about the geometrical foundations of the design and the use of the Alhambra as 'a palace to think in' is persuasively argued.
--Karen Gould

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable book about a remarkable place Feb. 22 2006
By FrKurt Messick HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
One is almost immediately captured by this book from the very opening paragraphs - there is wonderful description of the Alhambra from the perspective of tourist guidebooks which would lead a visitor through the many palaces, chambers, and courts, filling in detail about the history from both Muslim and Christian eras. Then author Robert Irwin lets the reader know the sad truth - almost all of what is presented on this virtual tour is almost all false. The Alhambra is, if nothing else, a greatly misunderstood place, perhaps an architectural embodiment of Emerson's dictum about greatness.
The Alhambra, a grand structure on the outskirts of Granada in southern Spain, is in fact a series of palaces, perhaps more akin to the Forbidden City in China than any European or Islamic palatial counterpart. It is also the only medieval Islamic palace to survive - tradition was among Islamic rulers was to abandon the palace of the old ruler in favour of building a new one, and often the old palaces were razed for building materials - if not by the new ruler, then by the population around the old palaces, now no longer guarded. It is somewhat ironic that it may be because the Alhambra came to be part of Christendom that it, as a classic Islamic building, came to survive at all.
Irwin gives a revised tour of the facility following the virtual tour of false information - in this he describes the different palaces, the functions of different buildings and courtyards, and the influence the Alhambra has had both in artistic imagination as well as political and military significance.
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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
48 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remarkable book about a remarkable place Aug. 12 2005
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
One is almost immediately captured by this book from the very opening paragraphs - there is wonderful description of the Alhambra from the perspective of tourist guidebooks which would lead a visitor through the many palaces, chambers, and courts, filling in detail about the history from both Muslim and Christian eras. Then author Robert Irwin lets the reader know the sad truth - almost all of what is presented on this virtual tour is almost all false. The Alhambra is, if nothing else, a greatly misunderstood place, perhaps an architectural embodiment of Emerson's dictum about greatness.

The Alhambra, a grand structure on the outskirts of Granada in southern Spain, is in fact a series of palaces, perhaps more akin to the Forbidden City in China than any European or Islamic palatial counterpart. It is also the only medieval Islamic palace to survive - tradition was among Islamic rulers was to abandon the palace of the old ruler in favour of building a new one, and often the old palaces were razed for building materials - if not by the new ruler, then by the population around the old palaces, now no longer guarded. It is somewhat ironic that it may be because the Alhambra came to be part of Christendom that it, as a classic Islamic building, came to survive at all.

Irwin gives a revised tour of the facility following the virtual tour of false information - in this he describes the different palaces, the functions of different buildings and courtyards, and the influence the Alhambra has had both in artistic imagination as well as political and military significance.

There are bits of fancy here - the Sala de los Mocarabes, a room whose name comes from the stalactite decorations on the ceiling, is in fact a room without stalactite decorations (those having been burned centuries ago, but the name endures). Names and symbols throughout the buildings incorporate both Islamic and Christianised names, with a not insignificant Jewish influence as well in many respects. The Alhambra was built and preserved over a period of social tolerance and cultural flowering, but allowed to fall fallow during Spain's slow decline as a world power.

People such as Washington Irving, Benjamin Disraeli, the Duke of Wellington, the vicomte de Chateaubriand, Victor Hugo and other notables of later mainstream Anglo-American and European culture drew inspiration from and were fascinated with the Alhambra. Indeed, some artists of some periods began to have a distaste for the kinds of Arabesque and medieval influences derivative of the Alhambra, for it has become far too commonplace in their opinion. More modern figures such as Jorge Luis Borges have also drawn inspiration from the site.

Robert Irwin's book is a treat to read, giving a sense of the place from an aesthetic, philosohpical, architectural, and historical sense. His tracing of the influences expanding from this almost mythical and mystical place is fascinating.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good supplment, against other material but can't stand on itself. June 25 2007
By Reviewer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The good: debunks some of the myths, gives a good background to some of the names and how the appearance was radically altered by perceptions of what people thought (and what they wanted to think) represented Moorish architecture.

The bad: He spends so much time explaining why this or that is not true that we almost learn about the Alhambra by what it is not. He never really gets has a together, narrative history here, which makes it difficult to get a 'grasp' on the place by just reading this book alone.

Also He unfairly criticizes Irving's Tales of The Alhambra (apparently Washington Irving was at once dull, but too imaginative, prejudiced against Moors but sympathetic to Bobadil, cheering for the Spanish yet anti-Catholic - and yes Irwin contradicts himself on the same page!) while (strangely) praising movies like the 7th Voyage of Sindbad (which was filmed there). Shows a lack of understanding or depth about Orientalist Art, which doesn't stop him from talking about it.

The guide he suggested to buy, available at the site and in Granada, is far better- (unfortunately not available in the US) its published by Ediciones Edilux, called "in focus' in English and available online if you google it.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE guide to the Alhambra. Feb. 24 2007
By Steve R - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Visiting the Alhambra is a once in a lifetime, must do event. See it first from the plaza adjacent to the little church of St. Nicholas across the valley. And when you do finally go in to the Alhambra, bring this guide.

It's the sort of guide one might have had when visiting this place two hundred years ago--more Baedeker than Lonely Planet. It emphasizes the wonder of the place rather than entrance prices and opening times. Written in a narrative style that plays up the history of this magnificent palace, it is a joy to read both before and during one's visit. In fact, a careful reading of the book prior to visiting the Alhambra is bound to enhance the visit tremendously (as, after all, the Alhambra is so popular you'll be limited to a 15 to 30-minute window to make your entrance into the most stunning part of the complex, the Nasrid palace.) For that reason you'll want to know ahead of time what you'll be looking at, because once you're inside the rooms and courtyards go by in a blur--a gorgeous procession of delicate columns and sparkling fountains. If you're trying to read your guidebook for the first time in the midst of it all, you'll miss most of it. Once you are inside, you're much better off just using the book for a quick consultation as you enter each new room, gallery, or alcove.

Irwin's 'Alhambra' tells you what you really need to know about this place (one of Europe's most magnificent palaces) including the unfortunate fact that much of what you will see (or are seeing) has been recreated; the presumed use of each area of the palace is at best an educated guess (and at worst, a shot in the dark). Even some of the carved inscriptions are misleading (assuming you can read medieval Arabic). As Irwin notes: "...Contreras, who knew no Arabic, rearranged them [the inscriptions] in such a way that it is no longer possible to make sense of them" (p. 47, hardbound). Regardless, there is beauty in this truth, and this book has it in spades. Your standard tourist guidebook will not confront you with such sincerity (although you'll need it for the basics mentioned above: entrance prices, opening times, etc., as Irwin is not concerned with those).

The hardbound version of Irwin's 'The Alhambra' makes a great keepsake to remind you of your visit, and you can put it on your shelf next to the copy of Washington Irvings' 'Tales of the Alhambra' you picked up in the gift shop. Bottom line--if you are going to visit the Alhambra, do it right: bring this book, and read it ahead of time.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Decent Introduction to the Alhambra Feb. 16 2009
By Naeem Ali - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The Al Hambra is one of the few medieval structures from the Islamic World that is still standing today. It is considered "... by common consent, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and there are many who would even go beyond that qualified judgement." (authors words).

For a person reading about Al-Hambra for the first time, this book gives a good description of the rooms, how these rooms may have been used and a description of the very delicate yet complicated abstract geometric patterns that cover the walls and ceiling of the Al-Hambra structures.

I was not too keen about the last chapter where the author described what others wrote about the Al Hambra or how the British and French viewed the place. I was only interested in the history of the structure itself and the people who occupied and built it. I would have preferred to see more details of the society and the minds that created such a unique and amazing structure.

The book is well written and interesting but I have to admit I will try to get a copy of Washington Irwins book on the Al Hambra, as recommended by other reviewers of this book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars very good book on Alhambra Oct. 17 2007
By Mr. Mohammad K. Aljassar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The book gives a good overview of the history of Alhambra palace and Islamic Spain. Some minor translation problems as the author try to root some of the names of the various rooms in the palace to its Arabic origin. Nonetheless, the book is well written, and is an excellent source for beginners on the Alhambra palace.
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