Alhambra - Tower of Comares

The Alhambra and the backdrop of the magnificent Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Tower of Comares

by Lawrence Bohme

The two great Nasrid palaces which have come down to us intact are popularly known as the Tower of Comares and the Courtyard of the Lions. But the Moors knew them for the father and son who built them: respectively, Yusuf I and Mohammed V, whose reigns roughly correspond to the first and second halves of the 14th century.

The name Comares comes from the Arabic word camariyya, which means stained glass, for the coloured panes which once adorned its windows but were blown out by an explosion in a powder-house below on the river bank, in the 16th century.

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about a Moorish palace, from a Western point of view, is that one does not enter through a great, ceremonial gate but, rather, by means of a discreet, lateral passageway, harkening back to the desert people whose tents had to be protected from the wind and sand. Although the entrance to the palace of Comares is framed in one of the most beautifully patterned walls in the Alhambra, it seems modest and small compared to the monumental scene which lies at the end of its tunnel-like corridor.

The great pond is named for the fragrant myrtles which grew around it, in corrupted Arabic, arrayanes. The Sultan's children by his four official wives lived in the high building at the far end of the pond, on the right, although the construction of the Palace of Carlos Quinto, which looms behind it, entailed the destruction of all but the magnificent façade.

The Sultan's official wives - the Koran only allowed him four - lived in the upper apartments on each side of the courtyard.

This alcove of the courtyard is richly decorated with plaster encrustations, and conserves some of the original colours with which the entire palace was painted.

The great crenellated tower contains the Throne Room, or Hall of Ambassadors, where the Sultan received his official visitors.

The antechamber of the Throne Room is called the Sala de la Barca, in English, the "Room of the Ship", a name which is customarily explained by the long, hull-like shape of the inlaid wooden ceiling. But it is the result of another misinterpretation. The Spanish confused the Arabic word for "blessing" - pronounced BARaka - with their own barca, ship. It was called Room of the Blessing because its walls are inscribed with words which commend the Sultan who built the room to God.

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Two interesting details catch our eye as we step through the elaborately carved arches which separate this room from the great tower itself. On either side are exquisitely fashioned niches, where jugs of fresh water were placed for the visitors to wet their lips.

And in the recess to the right, a step further on, we glimpse the exquisite interior of a tiny mosque, where the Sultan could withdraw to pray.

The bay windows of the great vaulted room before us were once glazed, sending streams of colour into the shadows. The Sultan and his vizirs would sit in these alcoves, surrounded by an aureole of light, when they received visiting dignitaries. All of these windows were destroyed by the explosion of 1590, and since replaced with wooden latticework.

The smaller, upper windows are filled with a delicate plaster openwork, illuminating the tapestry-like relief patterns on the walls.

The greatest of the many marvels of this unique room is, undoubtedly, the domed ceiling, with its wooden inlay representation of the Islamic universe. The Moors were masters of this kind of encrustation, which is known in Granada as taracea and mass-produced in the form of boxes and table tops for sale in the souvenir shops around the Cathedral.