Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Alhambra close to reading all its writing on the wall

One of Spain's most enduring historical mysteries is close to being solved as experts decipher and translate more than 10,000 Arabic inscriptions adorning the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada.

The intricate Arabic inscriptions carved into the ceilings, columns and walls inside the imposing hill-top fortress have long fascinated visitors. They contain everything from snatches of poetry and verses from the Qur'an to clever aphorisms, pious wishes and boastful slogans.

There are so many of them, however, that nobody has ever managed to study each and every one. Now a team of researchers armed with 3D laser scanners and digital imaging software is slowly working its way around the complex recording, transcribing and translating every inscription.

"There is probably no other place in the world where studying walls, columns and fountains is so similar to turning the pages of a book," said Juan Castilla, of Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), who heads the team.

"The Arabic script was used not just to show obedience to Allah but also as a decorative element, effectively replacing the plastic arts," he explained.

Castilla's team, which has been working for the past seven years and is more than a third of the way through the project, aims to finish its work by 2011.

The elegant Arabic script contains a large amount of sloganeering, with praise for the Nasrid dynasty who ruled Granada for two and half centuries predominant. The Nasrid motto - "There is no victor but Allah" - is the most common inscription found so far.

"Many of the verses we have found praise the monarch responsible for the building work or point out the qualities of the architectural feature they are attached to," said Castilla.

The Nasrids ruled what became the last Moorish kingdom of Spain, finally handing over Granada and the Alhambra to a Christian army in 1492. The loss of Granada marked the end of seven centuries of Muslim rule in southern Spain. Researchers said that, contrary to what was previously believed, less than 10% of what they found were Qur'anic verses or poetry, although this would still account for up to 1,000 inscriptions across the sprawling complex.

Poet-designers were employed in a special secretariat of writing. There they composed the verses or chose the slogans and phrases from the Qur'an to be used on the buildings.

A spokesman for CSIC said: "These artists designed the spaces in which their words were to be inscribed, sometimes writing especially for the building in question and other times choosing from previously written compositions.

The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who captured Granada, were so impressed by the Alhambra that they immediately started renovation work and started their own catalogue of inscriptions, which was never finished.

"It seems incredible that there is no exhaustive catalogue [of the inscriptions] in the 21st century," said Castilla.

Pithy aphorisms offered snatches of wisdom and advice to visitors. "Be sparing with words and you will go in peace," reads one.

A DVD and book have been published containing the findings in the Alhambra's 14th-century Comares Palace.

Tremlett, Giles. 2009. "Alhambra close to reading all its writing on the wall". The Guardian. Posted: April 7, 2009. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/07/alhambra-granada-wall-inscriptions

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