Inside Alhambra

January 30, 2008

Mom and I are now in Granada. We've found a cozy pension overlooking Plaza Nueva; Alhambra hovers, on the hill just above. There was no problem getting tickets for the overnight train from Barcelona the day of departure.

I found one aspect of our journey down here both novel and amusing: Mom and I couldn't travel together. The railways in Spain still segregate women and men into separate compartments. Mom said that when she was taking Spanish in high school she had heard such accounts from people who had visited Spain: even several decades ago people must have found the practice remarkable. I'd neither heard of nor experienced such a thing, and I've taken trains around much of the world. Even in Iran, I shared my cabin with four young women on my initial rail journey across that country. I can't understand how the tradition can yet persist in Spain.

Mom and I spent both yesterday and today exploring Alhambra, which was truly lovely. I had lowered expectations before visiting, having seen such amazing Islamic architecture earlier on this trip. Some of those sites--especially those in Iran and Uzbekistan--were so amazing that I didn't think it possible that anything in Europe could compare. While much smaller, Alhambra impressed me every bit as much as Samarkand's Registan and Mashhad's Shrine of Imam Reza did.

The carved stone calligraphy and patternwork were of equal beauty to those I've seen elsewhere. There were also elements used around Alhambra which I had never seen used in Islamic art, primarily colorful mosaics composed of repeated geometric shapes. Perhaps such art does also exist in Arab countries--that's a part of the world I haven't yet visited. However, I suspect that use of such design is peculiar to Islamic art in the Andalucia region.

La Ghalib ila Allah
Another motif I saw throughout Alhambra which I haven't seen elsewhere was in the text itself. In Islamic art everywhere it's common to see the phrase, La ilah ila Allah. That's one of the basic tenets of Islam: "There are no gods other than God." What I saw everywhere in Alhambra was a variation: La ghalib ila Allah. I forget exactly what ghalib means, but I think that would translate as, "There are no conquerors other than God." A slight variation perhaps, but I've never heard the initial set phrase altered. I found it strange to see this variation as the most common phrase repeatedly etched into stone around Alhambra.

Last night, Mom and I took a stereotypically Spanish meal: paella, tapas, and red wine. I am absolutely relishing the flavors and ingredients used in this part of the world. Since reaching Spain I've had such good food: cheese, hot chocolate, creme brulee--dishes I've found unavailable this past year, living in and traveling around Asia.

The end of my overland journey is rapidly approaching. Tomorrow morning, Mom and I are taking a short bus ride down to Algeciras, a small city on the southern cape of Spain. From there it's a short ferry ride to Tangier, in Morocco. I will continue to travel on for some months, but will no longer limit my choice of transportation. My aim has been to make it from Urumqi to Africa overland. Once I've set foot in Morocco I'll probably take to the air once again.