Apr 032016


Today is the birthday (1783) of Washington Irving, U.S. author, essayist, biographer, historian, and diplomat of the early 19th century. He is best known for his short stories “Rip Van Winkle” (1819) and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), both of which appear in his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. His historical works include biographies of George Washington, Oliver Goldsmith and Muhammad, and several histories of 15th-century Spain dealing with subjects including Christopher Columbus, the Moors and Alhambra

Irving made his literary debut in 1802 with a series of observational letters to the Morning Chronicle, written under the pseudonym Jonathan Oldstyle. After moving to England for the family business in 1815, he achieved international fame with the publication of The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. in 1819–20. He continued to publish regularly — and almost always successfully — throughout his life, and just eight months before his death (at age 76, in Tarrytown, New York), completed a five-volume biography of George Washington.

Irving, along with James Fenimore Cooper, was among the first American writers to earn acclaim in Europe, and he encouraged U.S. authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Allan Poe. Irving was also admired by European writers, including Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, Francis Jeffrey, and Charles Dickens. At a time when authors were either independently wealthy or had other professions, Irving advocated for writing as a legitimate profession in its own right, and argued for stronger laws to protect U.S. writers from copyright infringement in Europe.


“Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” are well known, so I would like to focus on Tales of the Alhambra which put the palace on the map in the 19th century. Shortly after completing a biography of Christopher Columbus in 1828, Irving traveled from Madrid, where he had been staying, to Granada. At first sight, he described it as “a most picturesque and beautiful city, situated in one of the loveliest landscapes that I have ever seen.” Irving was preparing a book called A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada, a history of the years 1478–1492, and was continuing his research on the topic. He immediately asked the then-governor of the historic Alhambra Palace as well as the archbishop of Granada for access to the palace, which was granted because of Irving’s celebrity status. Aided by a 35-year-old guide, Mateo Ximenes, Irving was inspired by his experience to write Tales of the Alhambra. The book combines description, legend, and narrations of historical events, up through the destruction of some of the palace’s towers by the French under Count Sebastiani in 1812, and the further damage caused by an earthquake in 1821. Throughout his trip, Irving filled his notebooks and journals with descriptions and observations though he did not believe his writing would ever do it justice. He wrote, “How unworthy is my scribbling of the place.”


Let’s begin with the name. Irving (and others) call the palace “THE Alhambra,” which is jarring to my ears because of the inherent redundancy. “Al” in Arabic means “the” – “Alhambra” means “the red (feminine).” So calling it “the Alhambra” translates as “the the red.” Ugh. I’ll use “Alhambra” without the direct article.


Alhambra was completed towards the end of Muslim rule of Spain by Yusuf I (1333–1353) and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353–1391). The complex is a reflection of the culture of the last centuries of the Moorish rule of Al Andalus, reduced to the Nasrid Emirate of Granada. It is a place where artists and intellectuals had taken refuge as the Reconquista by Spanish Christians won victories over Al Andalus. Alhambra integrates natural site qualities with constructed structures and gardens, and is a testament to Moorish culture in Spain and the skills of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian artisans, craftsmen, and builders of their era. The literal translation of Alhambra, “the red (female),” probably reflects the color of the red clay of the surroundings of which the fort is made. The buildings of Alhambra were originally whitewashed; however, the buildings as seen today are reddish.


The first reference to the Qal‘at al-Ḥamra was during the battles between the Arabs and the Muladies (people of mixed Arab and European descent) during the rule of ‘Abdullah ibn Muhammad (r. 888–912). In one particularly fierce and bloody skirmish, the Muladies soundly defeated the Arabs, who were then forced to take shelter in a primitive red castle located in the province of Elvira, presently located in Granada. According to surviving documents from the era, the red castle was quite small, and its walls were not capable of deterring an army intent on conquering. The castle was then largely ignored until the 11th century, when its ruins were renovated and rebuilt by Samuel ibn Naghrela, vizier to the emir Badis ben Habus of the Zirid Dynasty of Al Andalus, in an attempt to preserve the small Jewish settlement also located on the natural plateau, Sabikah Hill.


Ibn Nasr, the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, was forced to flee to Jaén to avoid persecution by King Ferdinand III of Castile and the Reconquista supporters working to end Spain’s Moorish rule. After retreating to Granada, Ibn-Nasr took up residence at the Palace of Badis ben Habus in  Alhambra. A few months later, he embarked on the construction of a new Alhambra fit for the residence of a sultan. According to an Arab manuscript since published as the Anónimo de Granada y Copenhague:

This year, 1238 Abdallah ibn al-Ahmar climbed to the place called “Alhambra” inspected it, laid out the foundations of a castle and left someone in charge of its construction…

The design included plans for six palaces, five of which were grouped in the northeast quadrant forming a royal quarter, two circuit towers, and numerous bathhouses. During the reign of the Nasrid Dynasty, Alhambra was transformed into a palatine city, complete with an irrigation system composed of acequias for the gardens of the Generalife located outside the fortress. Previously, the old Alhambra structure had been dependent upon rainwater collected from a cistern and from what could be brought up from the Albaicín. The creation of the Sultan’s Canal solidified the identity of the Alhambra as a palace-city rather than a defensive and ascetic structure.


The Muslim ruler Muhammad XII of Granada surrendered the Emirate of Granada in 1492 without Alhambra itself being attacked when the forces of the Reyes Católicos, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, took the surrounding territory with a force of overwhelming numbers.

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The architecture of Alhambra is inspiring, but it is the tile work that draws me. The Alhambra tiles are remarkable in that they contain nearly all, if not all, of the seventeen mathematically possible wallpaper groups (a special kind of tessellation). This is a unique accomplishment in world architecture. M. C. Escher’s visit in 1922 and study of the Moorish use of symmetries in Alhambra tiles inspired his subsequent  artistic work on tessellation. https://www.bookofdaystales.com/m-c-escher/  They have also inspired mathematicians specializing in the geometry of tilings, such as Roger Penrose, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/roger-penrose/ .


Here’s a very simple dish for stuffed eggs from an anonymous Medieval Arabic MS from al-Andalus http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/articles/veggie.html . The main problem is replicating murri which was a very common fermented condiment used in the Byzantine and Arab world. I use Thai fish sauce as a substitute.

Take as many eggs as thou wilt, and boil them whole in hot water; put them in cold water and divide them in half with a thread. Take the yolks quickly and crush cilantro, put in onion juice, pepper and coriander and beat all this together with murri, oil and salt and mash the yolks with this until it forms a paste. Then stuff the whites with this, insert a small stick into each egg, and sprinkle them with pepper, God willing.

Without precise measures you’ll have to experiment. I used about equal portions (1tsp per egg) of cilantro, chopped onion, black pepper, powdered coriander, oil, and fish sauce. Hard boil eggs, peel them, cut them in half lengthways, and remove the yolks.

Use a blender or food processor to blend together the yolks and condiments. Then refill the yolk section of the boiled whites and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.