x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The humbling beauty of Islamic architecture

On Spain and the humbling beauty of Islamic architecture.

For eight glorious days I've had the pleasure of having two of my best friends from high school to stay with me in Spain where I'm spending the summer. Although life has moved on since high school, scattering us to different universities, we have remained as close as ever. Initially they asked if they could see as much as possible of Madrid, as well as visiting Bilbao, Granada and Seville (if possible), with maybe a trip to the beach - Valencia or Barcelona would do. As I considered all these proposals and balanced them with time considerations, budgetary constraints, geographical realities and the fact that I still had to be up at 7am on weekdays for work, the word "ambitious" came to mind.

So after much debate, we sorted out our priorities: Harry Potter, high-speed roller coasters, Granada, Toledo and as much culture as we could suck out of Madrid. On our third day, and our third destination, nobody could contain their excitement. Seeing Granada in one day is a mission in itself (it's 425km from Madrid) but we had one goal in mind: the Alhambra. The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex which was built in the middle of the 14th century by the Moorish rulers of Granada in southern Spain, the literal translation of Alhambra - "red fortress" - alluding to the colour of the local clay that was used to build it. It is the most famous example of Islamic architecture - even with later additions such as the Palace of Charles V, built in the 16th century, and alterations to the buildings and gardens.

Completed towards the end of Muslim rule in Spain, the Alhambra is a reflection of the culture of the last days of the Nasrid emirate of Granada. During the reign of the Nasrid dynasty, the Alhambra was transformed into a kind of fortress city, with an irrigation system that impressively is still, for the most part, functional today. Walking through the palace you really get a sense of how the design mixes natural elements with man-made ones, and is a testament to the skill of Muslim craftsmen of the time.

I first visited it 10 years ago and this time I was pleased to find that I was still impressed. It's not as huge as Versailles, but there is something a lot more striking about the Alhambra's architectural beauty, especially the Generalife (Jennat al 'Arif - The Architect's Gardens). The combination of the breathtaking view over the city, and the balance between the fountains, green mazes, grottos and paths lined with myrtle in full bloom, embody the word "tranquillity". Designers of modern buildings could learn some lessons from the beauty of the calligraphy, the balconies, the complex ceiling designs - all dreamt up by architects seven centuries ago. Visiting it is a truly humbling experience.

Although the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi evokes something of an Andalucían dream, we have no really old Islamic buildings, and certainly nothing on this scale that inspires so much awe by its sheer simplicity. Instead, buildings in the emirates tend to have a cultural theme, such as the sails of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Burj Al Arab. While I admire that, my trip to Granada planted in me a longing for traditional Islamic architecture. It doesn't always have to be about gigantic skyscrapers. There's something priceless in finding harmony between the environment and the home that makes a place like the Alhambra, one of the most visited sites in the world today. So maybe instead of trying to mirror New York or Hong Kong, we should focus on creating something unique by revisiting our Islamic heritage and seeking inspiration from that instead.