Irving's book on the Alhambra and the surrounding territory of Granada remains one of the best guidebooks to the region--and one of the most entertaining travelogues ever written. Anyone who has visited (or plans to visit) southern Spain will be thrilled by the account of Irving's trip, but I'll go further: you need not ever go there to enjoy this classic work of history and humor.
Irving stayed at the Alhambra for three months in 1829 and jotted down notes concerning its history and legends. Early in his visit, Irving was accosted by Mateo Ximenes, a credulous and indigent "son of the Alhambra" who soon proves a worthy and endearing companion, a guide to secret chambers, and a conveyor of whimsical traditions. A couple of years later, while in London, Irving wrote "The Alhambra," describing his idiosyncratic hosts, recounting the millennium-old history of the Moorish occupation, and transcribing fresh versions of the palace's medieval legends and myths, many of which resemble stories from the "Arabian Nights." The first edition appeared in 1832, a second American edition was published four years later, but Irving extensively revised and enlarged the book in 1851, incorporating material unavailable or unknown to him in the 1830s. This last edition is the one most commonly available today.
The result is easily Irving's most accessible book, filled with wit and anecdote. Alongside the history of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, Irving intersperses tales (both historical and mythical) of enchanted caves, imprisoned princesses, and buried treasure. His admiration for Islamic heritage is obvious throughout: "The Arab invasion and conquest brought a higher civilization and a nobler style of thinking, into Gothic Spain." And he regularly denounces the prejudices (both medieval and contemporary) "so strongly characteristic of the bigot zeal, which sometimes inflamed the Christian enterprises" and which have prevented his fellow Europeans from studying a rich and justifiably proud tradition.
As Irving accurately summarizes, Moslem Spain was "a region of light amid Christian, yet benighted Europe; externally a warrior power fighting for existence; internally a realm devoted to literature, science, and the arts; where philosophy was cultivated with a passion . . . and where the luxuries of sense were transcended by those of thought and imagination." Plus, the Islamic "occupiers" and Christian warriors certainly knew how to tell a good story. This book will delight both history and literature buffs.