Update June 6th 2012: Sadly, Al Andalus Alhambra, Second Life, closed on June 6th 2012. My slideshow of the build will remain on this site as a reminder.
It is one of the most stunning palaces in the whole of Europe, one that brings together light, life, culture and geometry in a stunning tour de force of medieval Islamic architecture – albeit one forced to incorporate western European styles as exemplified by the Palacio de Carlos V. It is the Calat Alhambra, al-Qal‘at al-Ḥamrā’, the Red Fortress.
Occupying the top of the hill of the Assabica in southwestern Granada, the palace symbolised the height of the Islamic presence in Spain, with Granada itself the last of the great city-states of Islam within Spain to ceded itself to Christian rule when Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city in January 1492.
Christian history would have us believe that the reconquista of Al Andalus – the Moorish name for Spain – was a Christian fight against an invading and oppressive Islamic nation – yet nothing could be further from the truth. Alhambra in many respects stood at the pinnacle of some 700 years of progressive Islamic rule in Spain which saw places such as Cordoba recognised as remarkable centres of learning for all – some 70 public libraries lay within its walls at a time when the rest of Europe saw books and learning the reserve of religion and those who ruled, while the teachings of ancient Greece – so thoroughly embraced by the people of Islam – were often regarded as heretical by the church.
Alhambra takes its name from the rich red clays of the soil upon which it is built, rather than from any bloody elements of its history – although in some respects the fortress did initially grow out of bloodshed: following a particularly violent meeting between the Muladies and Arabs, the latter fled south to take refuge in a red castle on or near the site during the rule of ‘Abdullah ibn Muhammad (r. 888–912). In the 11th Century, and in a bid to preserve a Jewish settlement, the ruins of the red castle were rebuilt by Samuel ibn Naghrela, although accounts of the time state it was easily overrun.
However, the Alhambra we know today was started by Ibn Nasr, who fled south to avoid persecution by King Ferdinand III of Castile. In 1238, he arrived at the palace of Bādis and set about enlarging the Alhambra into a palace complex fit for a sultan.
And it is this citadel palace that is beautifully brought to life by the Al-Andalus Community Project. Spread across two regions, Al Andalus 1 and Al Andalus Generalife, which themselves reflect the layout of the Nasrid dynasty’s citadel, the build is quite simply stunning.
The citadel comprises several distinct elements: the Royal Complex comprising the Patio de los Arrayanes (perhaps Alhambra’s most famous element), Patio de los Leones, Salón de los Embajadores, Sala de los Abencerrajes, over thirty watchtowers, living spaces for staff, as well as outlying pavilions located in the Palacio Generalife, or Garden of the Architect (Jennat al Arif in arabic). Much of this has been reproduced in the Second Life build, which avoids any of the reconstruction undertaken post-reconquista and attempts to represent the Alhambra at the pinnacle of its glory as a centre of rule and of culture – although there is a concession to another great Moorish building to be found within its walls.
There are a number of teleports to the build that can be found in Search. These include Patio de Los Leones, the auditorium (which appears to be under the Patio del Mexuar), and just inside the original entrance of the Puerta de la Justicia, in the la Plaza de los Algibes.
Where you roam from any of these is entirely your choice – there is a lot to wander around, and no set order in the direction you may opt to take. There are numerous notecard givers to be found around the citadel, each of which provides more detailed information on the section you are visiting.
While there are some doubts that Alhambra’s growth beyond the original expansion started by Ibn Nasr was seen as a part of some over-arching plan for the citadel, the original royal complex was exquisitely designed over successive generations using a geometric progression based on a simple Pythagorean principle to achieve the stunning and harmonious design evident in the complex as a whole. The progression was based on the relationship between the length of a side in a square with that of its diagonal, and is elegant in its simplixity and magical in its meaning.
To explain: take a square and then measure the diagonal between two corners. This measurement becomes the long side of a rectangle with the same base length as the original square. Now take the diagonal of the rectangle and use that as the long side of another rectangle, again with the same base length as the original square. Now take the diagonal of that rectangle, and make it the length of the long side of a third rectangle.
When you do this, you get two intriguing results: the first is that the diagonals of all four progress through the square roots of 2, 3, 4 and 5. The second is that the third rectangle is exactly twice the height of the original square.
This approach to building the Alhambra is repeated around the original royal complex, and is perhaps most notable in the Patio de los Arrayanes, where the Torre de Comares rises behind it, to form a perfect geometrical and symmetrical design that is reflected perfectly in the water of the Patio’s infinity mirror. It lends the Patio an even greater feeling of sitting in harmony with nature.
The use of this progression is in evidence elsewhere within the royal complex, both in the buildings and in the layout of the courtyards and gardens. Similar geometry is also evidence in varying forms within the ornate wall coverings and carvings.
It is also something that has been captured in some measure in the Second Life reproduction.
Take the Patio de los Leones, for example (right). Here the progression using the square and rectangle can clearly be seen. The lower section of the pavilion (up to the bass-relief) is the square. The diagonal of this square gives the elevation of the wall to the eaves of the pavilion. It’s a very subtle nod to the original, and it is sad in some respects that the nature of Second Life, where scale is compromised by things like the average height of avatars (7+ feet) and the default placement of the camera, that this ratio / progression isn’t always obvious or achievable throughout the build.