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The Generalife garden

Fifty metres or so above the residence and the Alhambra hill, separated by a ravine, stands the charming pleasure-house and garden of the Sultan of Granada, Generalife (the House of the Architect). The building is apparently of the second half of the thirteenth century, and therefore belongs to a late period in Arab history. In the year 1526 it was visited by Navagero, a Venetian noble; but at that time the supremacy of the Arabs had been dead and buried for a lifetime, even in their last stronghold at Granada.

 Navagero found castles and gardens in ruins, but from his clear Italian style of description an informal account is to be obtained of the former condition of the Generalife garden, though it is wrapped in fantastic phraseology and is over-full of sentiment. Thus he writes:

One leaves the encompassing walls of the Alhambra by a door at the back, and walks into the lovely garden of a pleasure-house that stands a little higher. This, though not very large, is a striking building with wonderful gardens and waterworks, the finest I have seen in Spain. It has many courts, all abundantly supplied with water, but one in particular with a canal running through the middle, and full of fine orange-trees and myrtles. One gets a view outside from a loggia, and below it the myrtles grow so high that they almost reach to the balcony. The foliage is very thick, and the height so nearly the same that it all looks just like a green floor. There is water flowing through the whole palace, and even at will in the rooms, some of which are joined on to a grand summer-house.

Farther on he finds a court which is “ full of greenery and wonderful trees,” with a good conduit: if certain pipes are closed up, a person walking on the green lawn sees all of a sudden that there is water under his feet, and that everything threatens to be swamped, but he can turn the water off quite easily and without being observed.

There is another remarkable court, though not a large one, which has ivy growing so thick that the walls cannot be seen: this court stands on a rock, and has several balconies, from which one looks down into the deep valley where the Darro runs—a charming, ravishing view. In the middle of this court there is a fine fountain with a very large shell, The pipe in the middle shoots the water more than ten fathoms into the air; the amount is astonishing, and nothing could be more attractive than the appearance of the waters as they fall.

On the very highest part of the castle grounds, in one of the gardens, there is a wide stairway, leading up to a little terrace; from it there falls out of a rock the whole of the water that is distributed over the palace. There it is held back by a great number of taps, so that one can let it out at any moment, in any manner, and in any amount one pleases. At the present time the stairs are so made that after every few steps there comes a wider one, which has a hollow place in the middle for the water to collect in. The balustrade on either side of the stairs also has a depression in it like a small gutter. But above there are taps for each of these divisions, so that one can at pleasure turn on the water into the gutters of the balustrade, or the hollows of the wider steps. Also one can at will so increase the flow that it escapes all restraints and overflows the steps,-wetting anybody who happens to be there: many little jokes may be played in this way.

In spite of all destruction, all restoration and rebuilding, we can reconstruct the past from Navagero’s garden description, with its beauty and charm. The great court still shows its long canal cut right through the middle. If the myrtles are not kept so well and are less tall, they still show the same plantation on both sides. From the loggia on the south we look down on the cool court, out of which we come to the chief garden-room, passing through a pillared double gate on the north side. This gate is the most attractive, owing to the vista which it gives, of all the relics that have been preserved of the architecture of the Arabs, who were unusually sensitive to the picturesque. On the other side lies the ivy-grown garden court that gives a view of the rock overlooking the Darro valley. Similar fine views are given from balconies on the west, and on the east we pass through the Canal Court, and other buildings put up later in the sixteenth century, into a beautiful little court, which is really a kind of water-meadow, with flower-beds planted at intervals.

Old cypresses tower above as a border to this charming picture (Fig. 111).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Whether one of these ancient trees, called the Cypress of the Sultana, can really be six hundred years old, we must leave an open question. The many little streams, that appear in this place even more frequently than in the canal garden, flowing all over the cistern brims and the various paths, would make us suppose that here we see Navagero’s so-called “conjuring mirror” (Figs. 112 and 113). 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


  Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


A garden gate, belonging to a later age, leads out through the east wall to the terraces that ascend on the east side, and then to the water stairway described by Navagero —in these days to the Belvedere, which was built in the nineteenth century. The terraces proper are at the side of the steps, and were possibly always planted with shrubs and flowers.

The new feature is the water stairway, which we have never yet met with in an Arab garden design. But such features existed in Roman gardens and it is not impossible that the Arabs imitated them from Romanised Spain. It may well be, however, that Hellenistic gardens repeated this wter scheme, like so much else, from Byzantine tradition, and the Arabs may likewise have known it in Eastern Islamic gardens. A curious description lends colour to this view. An Arab geographer, who lived about the time (fourteenth century) in which the Generalife gardens were made, describes in his book on Egypt a water stairway as a work of great antiquity, saying that Joseph made it at God’s command, and that at the time he was writing it was utterly destroyed. “ One part of the estate of el -Menrah,” says the author about an older place, “ is the Park of Sahum. This is one of the wonders of the world, because of its marvellous waterworks; it has a water stairway between two towers; this is sixty feet long, and has streams above and in the middle, the upper one watered from the upper part, the middle one from the middle part, the lowest one from the lowest part, all in a strictly regulated amount.” Here we first find fully described the practical joke of suddenly sousing an unsuspecting visitor, though this has appeared before in Roman gardens, and possibly the origin might be found in Hellenistic gardens, as artifices for water were very much admired. The practice in the Generalife is only a slight extension of a disposition shown in a thousand ways in Western Europe.

The Generalife was only one of the pleasure-houses that the Nebrissian Dynasty built above their Alcazar (fortress), the Alhambra. Navagero says he climbed up to another and yet another pleasure-place, but that even then they were in ruins. No other country of those where the Arabs established their rule has such important relics to show. 


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