This is an excerpt from A Year in Andalucía! The author and his wife have arrived at the Alhambra in Granada and are treated to the story of the Patio of the Lions by the docent at the entry gate.
Tale of the Alhambra: Patio of the Lions
We returned to the entry point for our tour to discover we were first in the new line forming after the last tour left. There was a bench to the side of the gate. Gaynor headed there because we were faced with a twenty minute wait. But I wanted to talk to the docent guarding the gate. He was dressed in a rumpled gray uniform, about sixty five, be-whiskered in silver, wearing horn rimmed spectacles and seeming a bit red in the nose, if you know what I mean. I asked him if he’d worked here long.
He responded, somewhat slowly, looking me up and down, ‘Nearly forty two years, now. You’re an American, aren’t you?’
‘Yes. San Diego.’ He smiled as if to say he knew it. My accent must have given me away. I continued, ‘But I’ll bet you’ve heard interesting stories about this place, José.’ His name tag also said ‘Sanchez.’
He then asked, ‘What parts of the Alhambra are you most interested in seeing?’ A chill breeze had picked up. It was about 3:30 PM. Days are short in December.
I’d done my homework. So I answered immediately, ‘The Patio of the Lions, first.’ This is the courtyard around which a Sultan’s residence palace and apartments were originally placed. There are twelve lions facing outward from the center of this courtyard. On their backs is the bowl of the fountain. Water enters the fountain through four channels in the courtyard and spurts out the mouths of the lions.
José pulled himself fully up to his 5’5” height. ‘Do you know how the lions came to be there?’
I hadn’t known. José said he’d tell us the story. He hoped Gaynor was listening too as we were the only ones there. I hoped my Spanish was up to the task.
‘Once upon a time,’ he said, ‘a new Sultan arrived from Damascus to take over governance of this area under the guidance of the Emir of Córdoba. This was in the days before the Emir became Caliph of Córdoba, the ruler of the entire Muslim world. At the time, there was an old red castle on Sabika Hill where we stand as well as ruins from Roman and earlier times.’ José stopped and coughed. Gaynor looked at me from the bench and smiled as if to say, you’d better remember this story: I want to hear all about it later. She’s learning Spanish but is not yet up to such an intense monologue.
‘When was this?’ I interjected, never certain what ‘once upon a time’ really meant.
‘In the early ninth century, but don’t interrupt me, or I won’t continue.’ I had the feeling I’d already exceeded José’s level of tolerance with the few words I’d spoken. I nodded agreement with his rules.
‘The Sultan was young, handsome and virile, but more important, related to the Umayyad Dynasty by blood’ José continued, a cold, brittle tone in his voice. But he soon warmed and softened to his subject again. ‘His name was Umar Ibn al-Rahman. Umar was a large man, slender of waist, and broad of shoulder, as a warrior should be who is now appointed Sultan by the Caliph in Damascus. His white turban contrasted with his black hair, beard and moustache and set off his well-tanned face and hands to good effect.’ José stopped again to extract a ruffled handkerchief and blow his nose.
He continued, ‘The turban was large and oval shaped, clearly of Persian design. A large green emerald set in gold was pinned through the front of the turban. He rode a big white horse with leather harnesses decorated with rubies and gold.
‘A large contingent of the nearby Sultan of Granada’s government staff, minor officials, wealthy townsmen and other hangers-on came to greet the new Sultan Umar of the Alhambra,’ José continued.
The Granada Sultan ruled lands to the west, while Umar in the Alhambra was overseeing lands to the south and southeast. In modern terms, Umar’s territory would be toward Almería and Mojácar. It was much later that the separate sultanates were joined and became ‘Granada’ alone.
‘All two hundred men in the new Sultan Umar’s retinue arrived just behind him and were present for the welcoming ceremony on Sabika Hill. Steaming platters of delicious meats roasted for the occasion, vegetables, breads and pastries from Granada were served. The air was one of conviviality and celebration. Musicians played lyres and flutes. A choir sang. Poets entertained.
‘Then the ceremony over, the Sultan’s men erected tents not too far from here, for the coming night: elegant white silk tents trimmed with gold. Cushions in beautiful colors were piled into the tents. The Sultan would not enter the old red castle which had not been used for years. First his architect would look it over on the morrow and carefully make his recommendations.
‘Sultan Umar soon retired, it being late in the day.
‘When the sun arose the next morning, the Sultan’s men were up and preparing a meal over open fires, moving supplies into smaller buildings around the castle and scouting Sabika Hill for the best locations to commence construction of new facilities already planned. The architect was inspecting the red castle. Particular attention was paid to where and how to best guard the Sultan’s chest of gold, silver and jewels. Picks and shovels were already at work in a building constructed of solid gray stone near the old red castle: the chosen spot to bury the chest.’
I looked at José with new respect. This guy knew his stuff.
‘Months later, the women and children arrived in a large caravan of fifty wagons with furniture, rugs, clothing, exotic animals, more gold and jewels, building materials and delicacies to eat and drink from Persia. The red castle had already been completely refurbished and the Sultan moved his family straight into their apartments. Sabika Hill was alive with the sounds of construction as the foundations for the new Alcazaba’ – fortress – ‘and Alcázar’ – palace – ‘were built. A second castle was also well underway, as well as homes for all those who accompany the Sultan, food stores, tanneries, potter shops and so on.’
José paused. He looked at me to see if I was still with him. I was.
He continued, ‘The Sultan governed over three hundred square miles from his lofty perch on the Hill. Ruling this extensive domain took much of his time.
‘But he also loved his family, especially his lovely blonde wife from the north of Europe and his two daughters, aged twelve and fourteen. He spent time every day walking with them over Sabika Hill, enjoying picnics under the olive trees and telling stories of the old days in Damascus. At night, the Sultan commanded his poet read to the family from books they brought with them from the east.
‘Occasionally, Sultan Umar, a warrior in his own right, would be called to lead his battle hardened troops to defend nearby towns, especially those to the south on the Mediterranean coast. Berber tribal groups, fierce fighters from North Africa, attempted to gain a foothold on the European mainland. These interlopers were foreigners who must be stopped, even if they were Muslim.
‘Even rarer for the Sultan were the trips to the far north of Ibéria to defend against the encroaching Christians making trouble for the Muslims. The Christians were usually disorganized and easily defeated. It seemed there were always battles going on that needed the Sultan’s attention, either on his Emirate or the territory of an ally.
‘When at home after the battles, Sultan Umar was a wise and considerate ruler, widely loved and respected. His soldiers in particular were obedient and loyal which made what happened next especially hard for him to understand.
‘A few years later, the Sultan noticed that his daughters, especially the older one, had far exceeded the beauty of his wife, striking and elegant in her own right, and he began to fret for the future of Aila, beautiful like the moon, full figured, with fair skin, dark hair like her father and stunning blue eyes like her mother; and for tall and slender Zabra, who moved like a gazelle, and had inherited her mother’s blonde hair and her father’s dark eyes. The Sultan was aware that his subjects throughout the realm knew his daughters were prizes worth kingdoms.
‘How could he, the wisest of all Sultans, preserve them for the best life had to offer, such as the proposed match of Aila with the wealthy son of the Sultan of Granada? Umar awaited the expected acceptance of his marriage proposal.
‘Umar had expressed his fears on this subject to his wife, who had taken the Muslim name of Mahabbah, and who counselled caution. To his favorite solution, locking Aila and Zabra in the tower of the new Alcazaba, she said, “Our dear daughters would waste away to nothing. They would never in their lives be happy again.” The Sultan knew his wife was right. Wives were always right. That wasn’t the solution to his problem.
‘One day Umar had an idea. He called the Commander of his army, a twenty nine year old, brave in battle but also of considerable charm and good looks, into his inner chambers in the palace. The Commander had just been promoted by the Sultan on the death of his predecessor during the hard fought battle in Castile. What the Sultan could not know – who did? – was that Commander Ibn Muhammad was courting Aila under her outside window in the castle late into the warm nights of summer, while she dropped beautiful red flowers and notes of love to him from above. The Sultan had no suspicions. The Commander was far too old to attract young Aila, in Umar’s mind.
‘My dear Muhammad, I’m concerned for the safety of my daughters, especially at night. Access to the palace is guarded from the entrances to the courtyard. I trust your men. But what if a guard fell asleep or was murdered? A rogue could be to the second floor rooms of the girls in seconds and my wife and I would be none the wiser.
‘Muhammad knew it was a mistake to contradict the Sultan. He simply nodded in agreement, his heart in his throat anticipating that his own plans were about to be thwarted.
‘”So, here’s my idea, Muhammad. At night, we release the twelve lions into the courtyard. If fed lightly, these lions will be formidable barriers to anyone contemplating trouble. In the morning, we put them back in their cages.” To this, Muhammad immediately responded, “Yes, oh mighty Sultan. This idea is much better than using the elephants or hyenas.”
‘To himself, Muhammad heaved a sigh of pleased relief – you can imagine. He loved Aila with all his heart and he and Aila both knew of her imminent betrothal to the Sultan of Granada’s son, an indolent and unattractive man. To fulfill their undying love for each other, Muhammad and Aila had worked out a getaway that bypassed the courtyard.
‘All twelve lions were delivered roaring into the courtyard after dark on the third day. The Sultan and his wife were very pleased with how quickly the safeguards were in place. They slept soundly with relief. That very night, though, Aila climbed down the outside wall of the castle on a knotted silk rope. She had secretly made her means of escape from one of Muhammad’s turbans. The thirty yards of cloth in the turban were more than enough and silk is very strong. Her sister, Zabra, an accomplice in the plot, pulled the silk rope back into Aila’s room and hid it beneath a loose stone.
‘The pair escaped into the night on two stallions selected by Muhammad for speed and endurance. They left hidden from sight by travelling the ravine between the Alhambra and what would become the Generalife, the gardens of the Sultan. The pair cleared the ravine and, unseen, headed east through the fertile plain now known as the Vega de Granada, the Plain of Granada. Months later, rumors put them in Baghdad. But Sultan Umar Ibn al-Rahman never discovered the truth of their whereabouts. The couple lived happily ever after.
‘Of course, the Sultan was furious, especially that his Commander had betrayed him. He was also very sad for the loss of his beloved and beautiful Aila. He called the vizier into his chambers. The vizier was wise beyond his years, a good administrator and right hand man to the Sultan. He was an accomplished poet and negotiated and wrote the agreements between the Alhambra sultanate and their allies and enemies.
‘But the reason for this conference was the vizier’s reputed strong magical powers, more so than any vizier in Iberia at the time. The vizier was aware that his career, nay his very head, was on the line.
‘”Oh mighty Sultan,” the vizier said in answer to the obvious question, “I will put a charm on the lions. They will be turned to stone. If ever your Commander returns or Christians arrive at the gate with mischief in mind, the lions will immediately revive and devour either the Commander or the Christians, or both. The advantage is that you will never have to feed them again, but they will always be sturdy and ready to go. They will never again roar all night.” The roaring had been a vexing problem even when the lions were kept down the hill in cages. The courtyard was proving to be no different.
‘The vizier had obviously read of the Roman games in the Coliseum but put his own twist on what the lions ate.
‘“How do I know this charm of yours will work, my good vizier?” doubt showing in Umar’s gestures and demeanor.
‘”Oh mighty Sultan, the charm will work without question. Anticipating your concern, I propose a test. Bring a group of Christian prisoners with you after the next battle. Take them into the courtyard. Voilà! You will witness the charm work.”
Excerpt from pages 2-15 of the book now available on Amazon.