The Poetry of Sala de Dos Hermanas (the Hall of Two Sisters)

Why would she say something like that? I ask Selma as we enter the Sala de Dos Hermanas, the Hall of Two Sisters, adjacent to the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) at the center of the Alhambra. I’m referring to what Aixa, Boabdil’s mother, said to him as he handed the symbolic keys of Granada to Isabella and Ferdinand on Jan 2, 1492.

How the Hall of Two Sisters (Sala de Dos Hermanas) got its name

The Hall of Two Sisters, Sala de Dos Hermanas, got its name from two marble flagstones on the floor. In this exquisitely designed hall, Aixa and her son, Boabdil, lived for a short while. The floor is impressive but the ceiling is breathtakingly intricate, with carvings and calligraphy of epigraphic poetry. In fact, many of the walls of the Alhambra are covered with kufic calligraphy. “Only God is victor “is the most prevalent, but all over the palace walls are inscriptions of Arabic poetry by  “Ibn al-Yayyab (1274-1349), Ibn al-Jatib (1313-1375) and Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393)”.

The ceiling of the Hall of Two Sisters
The ceiling of the Hall of Two Sisters

Aixa must have been around our age when she said it, Selma responds, or maybe a bit younger. Selma makes her inference based on Boabdil’s age at that time. Selma and I have children around the same age.

As I marvel at the magnificence around me, I imagine the young Aixa watching her toddler Boabdil in this room. She might have smiled as he trailed his chubby fingers in the stream leading to the Patio of the Lions. She might even have taught him how to tell the time of day by the spouts of water from the mouths of the twelve lions in the courtyard. The fountain was designed to tell the time, but once undone, it was impossible to put it together again, so now, tourists enjoy simultaneous spouts from the lions.

Anniqua and Selma Dos hermanas in the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) Outside  the Hall of Two Sisters
Dos hermanas in the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones)

Aixa might have pointed out the verses inscribed on the wall and read them to her son. The Arabic verses on the wall praise the gardens beyond the rooms designated to the women and children.

Were those memories clouded when she said what she did to her son at the lowest point of his life?

Who knows if she even said it, says Selma. But we all know of people who can pull you down when you’re at your lowest. That speaks of their own weakness. Or maybe it was her frustration of having to live her life through the men around her.

One can only imagine the bitterness of those leaving the beauty of the Alhambra to live in permanent exile. I wonder too if Aixa memorized and took with her the verses adorning the walls, and whether they brought her peace to overcome her bitterness when she admonished her defeated son with, “Now you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

In the Hall of the Two Sisters, Ibn Zamrak’s words are inscribed in Arabic:

I am a garden graced by every beauty:
See my splendor, then you will know my being.
For Mohammad, my king, and in his name
The noblest things, past or to come, I equal:
Of me, a work sublime. Fortune desires
That I outshine all other monuments.
What pleasure I provide for eyes to see!
In me, any noble man will take fresh heart:
Like an amulet the Pleiades protect him,
The magic of the breeze is his defender.
A shining dome, peerless, here displays
Evident splendors and more secret ones.
Gemini extends to it a touching hand.
Moon comes to parley, stars clustering there
Turn no longer in the sky’s blue wheel:
In the two courts, submissively, they linger
To be of service to their lord, like slaves.
It is no marvel that the stars should err,
Moving across their marks and boundaries,
And are disposed to serve my sovereign lord,
Since all who serve him glory in his glory.
The palace portico, so beautiful
It bids to rival heaven’s very vault;
Clothed in a woven raiment fine as this
You can forget the busy looms of Yemen…

The gardens of the Alhambra

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

IF THINGS GO ON like this,’ Ama was saying in a voice garbled by a gap-toothed mouth, ‘nothing will be left of us except a fragrant memory.’

His concentration disrupted, Yazid frowned and looked up from the chess-cloth. He was at the other end of the courtyard, engaged in a desperate attempt to master the stratagems of chess. His sisters, Hind and Kulthum, were both accomplished strategists. They were away in Gharnata with the rest of the family. Yazid wanted to surprise them with an unorthodox opening move when they returned…

Thus begins Tariq Ali’s Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree, which I read when it was published in 1992. This is the story of a Muslim family in Spain during the Reconquest.

Shadow of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali
Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali


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