Marzipan & Ivory

April 20

Fear is the mortar that holds the walls of the Alhambra. Meter by meter, the builders heaped their fear higher and wider, until it barricaded out the world. As I follow my father under the portcullis, I wonder who these walls were built against. Possibly us.

The Moorish palace is the ivory treasure hidden behind ramparts of brick and horror. Locked away for centuries, the palace has belonged to Moorish sultans and Catholic kings. When its royal sheen rubbed off, gypsies and their donkeys made a home under the inlaid ceilings and marble columns, until Washington Irving wrote these halls into international fame.

Ivory scrollwork knits fantastic knots across the hall, weaving a fine lace over the windows. Like a shower of pointelle petticoats, the plasterwork cascades down the walls in frilled tiers. Though stained with age, the plaster-lace has neither frayed nor worn thin. In the flourishes and arabesques, I see the flutter of larks and jasmine, but they dissolve into abstract extravagance when I try to find them again. I keep losing my way in the pattern, lost in a dizzying labyrinth of sunflowers, shields, owls, seashells, and pineapples.

Alcoves the size of milk-crates are ensconced in the walls. In miniature, they remember the palace’s chambers. The palace is a fractal folding in on itself—an infinite repetition of the exquisite.

Honeycombed screens veil the windows. Narrow and deep, the windows open like book covers, looking out on rows of orange trees. The perfume of orange blossoms is creamier than honeysuckle and tinged with cinnamon, as if the Sultana just glided past on a froth of white silk.

Vines of twisting script panel the walls, telling the palace’s stories in immortal ivory. Here, form and function intertwine to write a spell, words written into power, the union of meaning and being, divine writing. Prayers chase across the walls. Keyhole archways frame each new chapter. The palace’s fluted columns are wrapped in a skin of intricate poetry.

In the Myrtle Courtyard, sparrows skim the mirror pool. Slicing the still air with tapered wings, they peel away from the pool, fluttering to the screened façade that veils the throne room like a trellis of plaster primroses. The sparrows cling to the fragile fretwork, wings frothing the air as they scrabble to hold onto the delicate arabesques. Yet the Sultan’s dearest treasure wasn’t chiseled out of plaster, gold, or ivory. The reservoir was his jewel, a meter deep and bright as a polished mirror. Water is power.

A glade of marble columns and orange trees shades the Patio de los Leones. From an alabaster fountain, the Sultan’s wealth bubbled up clean and cool, carried on the backs of a dozen carved lions. In the plaster frieze that canopies the cloister, sparrows make their roost. Each marble column is frosted in an abundance of stone blossoms and climbing vines. The masonry is as fine as white icing roses piped on a wedding cake. I wonder if anyone has ever licked the marble hoping it will taste like marzipan and buttercream.

The dome of the Sala de los Abencerrajes unfolds like an accordion. Its plasterwork has been pinched and creased into artificial icicles. Cool and white, they fill the dome with the glisten of winter. An evaporation pool languishes in the center of the chamber and as the dew rises, a chill trickles down from the plaster icicles.

A different chill drapes the Throne Room. Black glazed tiles glitter like obsidian glass, paneling the chamber in perpetual twilight. The walls are latticed with knotted stars and trailing script. These rigid constellations are reflected on the ceiling, where gold and silver galaxies are inlaid in dark wood. Pinpricks of sunlight pierce filigreed screens in every alcove. The light would have sifted down in a shower behind the Sultan. The fraying halo would erase his edges. Backlit, his face would be unreadable.

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