Finding What We Lost… Or Nearly.

Gaudi CathedralElizabeth Bishop suggests in “One Art” that “The art of losing isn’t hard to master” which may work with keys, wallets, even passports; but the question is more serious when we lose cultural monuments because of the passage of time.

This forgetting nearly happened to two of the cultural monuments in Spain that now seem central to the country and its history: Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, and the Alhambra in Grenada.

The fierce struggles and disruption of the twentieth century that nearly tore Spain apart are certainly part of the reason for this near neglect, but another cause may be the utter strangeness of Gaudi’s vision and the fact that the Alhambra is the great palace of the Moorish kings, driven from Spain centuries ago.

As to the Gaudi, its ferocious weird exterior, still being worked on, and its luminous interior are unlike anything I’ve ever seen; Gaudi said the work was for generations to come, resigned to leaving the cathedral unfinished, and unfinished it remained, and seldom visited, until a Japanese touring company in 1992 used a photograph on a brochure. The Japanese began to come, and soon after that, the work recommenced and will continue for the next thirty years—or until the cathedral in finished, a sign of the significance the Spanish allot to their culture even in the midst of high unemployment.

This forgetting nearly happened to two of the cultural monuments in Spain that now seem central to the country and its history: Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona, and the Alhambra in Grenada.

The Alhambra is strange in its own way, to us moderns, because of its emphasis on tranquility. Even a crowd of tourists can’t drown out the sound of water running in channels through its lush gardens, or the view of a shady courtyard from the Sultana’s bedroom, open on three sides. But the Alhambra, too, was neglected for hundreds of years and might have tumbled down from its pinnacle, eventually, if not for the American writer, Washington Irving, who spent a year living in an abandoned wing when he was the U.S. Ambassador to Spain.


His Tales of the Alhambra,” written in 1822, was widely translated; its author’s renown—he’d already written his romantic epic of the headless horseman of Sleepy Hollow—brought readers and then travelers to Granada, and long-term restoration of the palace and its gardens.

Irving’s touch is so delicate, his humor so charming in these tales, which he collected on site, that no reader could fail to want to see his magic palace. My favorite tale is “Legend of the Prince Ahmed Al Kamel, or the Pilgrim of Love,” in which a prince and a princess of the Alhambra, separated by politics, are united through the efforts of an owl and a parrot.

These creatures offer to help the prince with his quest, but the going is not easy: “They travelled much more slowly than accorded with the impatience of the prince, but the parrot was accustomed to high life and did not like to be disturbed early in the morning. The owl, on the other hand, was for sleeping at mid-day and lost a great deal of time by his long siestas…The prince had supposed that he and the parrot, being both birds of learning, would delight in each other’s society, but never had he been more mistaken. The one was a wit, the other a philosopher. The parrot quoted poetry, was critical on new readings and eloquent on small points of erudition; the owl treated all such knowledge as trifling and relished nothing but metaphysics.”

In spite of the problems of their association, the owl and the parrot were able to arrange the essential meeting, through a series of disguises, and the prince and princess were married.

The tale concludes, “Almed gratefully requited the services which they had rendered on his pilgrimage. He appointed the owl his prime minister, and the parrot his master of ceremonies. It is needless to say that never was a realm more sagely administered or a court conducted with more exact punctilio”—surely Ambassador Iving’s dream of his tenure in Spain, with an allure that placed the Alhambra back on the tourists’ map, leading to its splendid restoration.

James Voyles, John Hancock liked this post

Sallie Bingham is a writer, teacher, feminist activist, and philanthropist.

She is best known for her family memoir, Passion and Prejudice published by Knopf in 1989. Her most recent work is titled The Blue Box: Three Lives In Letters, published by Sarabande Books in 2014.

Her forthcoming book, tentatively titled Doris Duke: The Invention of the New Woman will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, most likely in 2016. More on the book and Doris Duke can be found in Sallie's blog.

Sallie's complete biography is available here.


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  1. jim voyles says

    Beautifully done. All the more astonishing in view of Spain’s financial crisis. Imagine 21% sales tax.

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