Giving a series of lectures in Granada University, I was fortunate to see the celebrated Islamic capital through the eyes of its exceptional medieval archaeology team, fronted by Professor Antonio Malpica. He is focusing on the extraordinary site of Elvira Medina, the Umayadd forebear of Granada. Last year’s field survey revealed that the area was systematically provided with water conduits typical of the exceptional hydrological works to be seen in the later Alhambra palace. ‘See Medina Azahara outside Cordoba’, Malpica advised, ‘and then imagine what remains to be found at Elvira.’ I did. Azahara is a palace covering tens of hectares, invested with a grandiosity and a desire to create managed landscapes that makes the visitor fully appreciate how backward the Franks and Anglo-Saxons must have seemed to the Umayadds.
This grandiosity is nowhere clearer than in the inner courtyard of the Alhambra. As the visitor entered the emir’s inner sanctum, and looked down the long narrow pool gracing the colonnaded atrium, towards the throne room one sees one of the jewels of Islamic architecture. By contrast, the massive early renaissance Christian palace, ugly in its extreme, has the hallmark of France and Italy in this age of pomp, but is utterly remote from the simple, unaffected realities of antique architecture.
The Alhambra attracts two million tourists a year. Even on a rainy February Thursday the queues tailed back around the ticket office. However, note how the fascist architects virtually replaced all excavated traces of the Islamic town with its suq by an ornamental garden, designed to give the place the feel of a palace like Versailles. Note, too, how priority today is invested in constructing a massive theatre in the area of the Islamic palace gardens. How many archaeologists studied this terrain and the gigantic chasm currently being made to accommodate the theatre? As elsewhere, UNESCO through its World Heritage programme has unleashed untold opportunities for architects and, to some extent, developers, giving a place a global add-on value. The archaeology is simply a prescription for generating lengthening queues at ticket-offices. In a generation or two’s time, archaeologists will ask how it is that UNESCO behaved with such palpable ignorance.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 5. Click here to subscribe