Robert Irwin is a great historian of the medieval Arab worldby Robin Banerji / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The Alhambra Author: Robert Irwin Price: Profile, ?15.99
Early on in his investigation of the Alhambra, the greatest work of Islamic architecture in Europe, I was pleased to realise that Robert Irwin is not worried about being speciously relevant. Irwin pursues his own interests – Ibn Khaldun on the link between oranges and politics, the influence of irrational numbers on Islamic architecture, 19th-century orientalist painting – and in doing so, he undermines the pseudo-certainties of that epic we’ve heard too much about recently: the clash of civilisations. The responses to the death of Edward Said, and the flood of books on the Arab world, Islam, and al Qaeda have all seemed to reinforce the idea that orientalism, the western study of the Arab world and Islam, is fundamentally concerned with power. Journalists, scholars and the inhabitants of think tanks propagate the notion that the study of the history and languages of the Arab and Muslim peoples will help the west in a fight against radical Islam. This orientalism as Kremlinology is not limited to books published in the last couple of years.
There is, however, an alternative to orientalism as power: histories of the Arab world or the middle east designed to be read for pleasure. Robert Irwin is a historian of the medieval Arab world and of Islamic art; he also writes novels. He’s an orientalist but of a different kind to that of his teacher Bernard Lewis. At the beginning of The Arabian Nightmare, Irwin’s slightly silly but hugely enjoyable pulp thriller set in medieval Cairo, we’re told that his story is for reading in bed, as a stimulant for dreams. And even in his more ambitious non-fiction, Irwin always has a sense of humour about what he is doing, and always writes as if reading should be enjoyable, a stimulant to the imagination. In his history of The Middle East in the Middle Ages: the Early Mamluk Sultanate 1250-1382 Irwin wrote, "it is tempting to… argue that the mamluk institution was a response to Islam’s failure to legitimate other, more satisfactory, ways of distributing political and military power." But he is not really tempted by the seeming clarity of this single timeless cause. He points out that the history of the Islamic lands from the 800s to the 1800s cannot be so easily tidied up: like other places at other times, politics, economics, geography and climate have all shaped events. In any case, his heart is elsewhere. In Night and Horses and the Desert: an Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature, Irwin writes, "I am not indifferent to easy pleasure in literature, so sex and comedy do find their place in this anthology. However, I am more interested in giving the English reader a taste of the authentic strangeness of the medieval Arab past, and its sheer alienness."
This taste for strangeness permeates The Alhambra. Granada’s palace is one of the primary sites of orientalism, a palimpsest scrawled over by countless writers. But despite Washington Irving’s houri-haunted patches, or Ruskin’s Islamaphobic fulminations, or Lytton Strachey’s tart put-down ("sheer Earl’s Court") Irwin shows that historians still don’t know for sure what the Alhambra is. When we tourists climb the Sabika hill above Granada and pick up our ticket for the show, what are we actually looking at? "The finest example of a medieval Muslim palace is in western Europe. Indeed the Alhambra is the only Muslim palace to survive the middle ages," Irwin writes in the introduction. But the Alhambra was not a palace like Versailles or the Hermitage. It was a palace town, in which 40,000 people lived. That town has long since gone and the remaining buildings are not a palace as we would understand one. Furthermore, the buildings and gardens we now visit are not as old as they appear, and they’re certainly not what a medieval inhabitant would have seen: "The box-hedging and the ivy of the Partal’s garden…are anachronistic, as are all the gardens of the Alhambra in almost all their details. However, they are very pretty." And this pretty anachronism extends beyond the greenery to the Alhambra’s two architectural jewels, the Court of the Myrtles and the Court of the Lions. The spare and beautiful Court of the Myrtles, where a crenellated tower looks down on a courtyard, in which a long narrow pool is haunted by gold fish and flanked by hedges of myrtle is yet another anachronism. Originally, in the 14th century, the tower had no crenellations and the myrtles were sunk a yard deep, so as not block the view of the pool, and so on.
Our relative ignorance of what most rooms or buildings in the Alhambra were actually for is a licence to speculate. Irwin argues that the Court of the Lions (named after its fountain, which rests on stone lions) is "a gorgeous frame for religious asceticism," a cloister designed for Sufis by mystically inclined intellectuals. Despite the fact that Irwin comes across as a bit mystically inclined himself, his argument is quite convincing. He delves into the intellectual life of the 14th-century Nasrid court and shows that it was permeated by Sufism and neo-Pythagorean number mysticism. Thus the proportions of length to width to height in the Court of the Lions are not whimsical (as 19th-century observers believed), but were based on the relationship between whole numbers and irrational numbers, for example 1:?2. Everywhere in the palaces the trained eye will spot rectangular grids that have been generated by the square roots of 2, 3, 5 and so on. So it’s out with odalisques and black eunuchs and in with number-crunching mystics.
Irwin implies that it was the relative backwardness of the 14th-century Nasrid court, a consequence of its place on the edge of the Arab world, that meant that a madrasa, a religious foundation common in the middle east since the 11th century, was still catching on in Spain in the 14th. So despite efforts over the last couple of centuries, the Alhambra cannot stand in for the golden age of Arab civilisation. Instead it seems it was produced by a petty dynasty, and on the cheap. And just as it would be a mistake to read the late medieval Arabian Nights to learn about the early medieval court of Harun al-Rashid, so the Alhambra can tell us little about the palaces of the Umayyads of C?rdoba, let alone those of the Abbasid caliphs of Iraq, a more likely site for the fabled Arab golden age.
Edward Said pointed out that in writing about the Arab world, authors always have an agenda. Perhaps Irwin has replaced a Romantic illusion about the Alhambra with one more attractive to the New Age. Irwin is, however, modest about the possibility of ever knowing what the Alhambra was for. And his agenda seems to be nothing more sinister than to get us to look once more and to marvel once again at something we only thought we knew.