Granada’s Grisly Gate: A Moorish Survival Gets Restored

I haven’t been to Granada yet, but ever since reading Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra” when I was little, I have longed to go. Nearby the Alhambra Palace is the Puerta de Bibarrambla, an enigmatic structure in the middle of a forest that surrounds the mountain where the Alhambra sits. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for a massive gate like this to be located in the woods, where hardly anyone can see it, and that’s because how it ended up here is a rather unfortunate tale of local bad decisions trumping architectural history and preservation.

Gatea

Originally, the gate was built in the 11th century, as part of the city wall that surrounded Granada. Its nickname is the “Arch of the Ears”, but there is a dispute as to why it bears this name. Both stories, I’m afraid, have somewhat grisly aspects to them.

One story is that this was where the official city weights and measures were used, to weigh sacks of flour coming into the marketplace. If the sacks were shown to weigh more or less than they should, because a miller or trader mixed sand into the ground flour or wetted down the flour to make it weigh more, the penalty was having part or all of the miscreant’s ear cut off for attempted fraud. This was not uncommon in Spain during the Middle Ages, and this visual scarring of a thief is still practiced in some societies.

Another story concerning the origin of the gate’s nickname is that during the 17th century, a wooden viewing platform that was built atop the gate during a festival collapsed, killing a number of people. Taking advantage of the fracas, thieves went among the bodies and removed valuables, to the point of cutting the earrings from dead women at the accident site. To me, this seems less likely to be the source of the name, since the penalty for manipulating the flour sacks seems much more specific and of longer duration, but we’ll probably never know for certain.

Gate2

What we see of the gate today is something of a pastiche, since the original structure was torn down in the late 1800’s, despite having been listed as a National Monument of Spain, thanks to some bad decision-making by local officials. It was only partially reconstructed in the forest surrounding the Alhambra in the 1930’s, thanks to the efforts of the lead architect in charge of the Alhambra complex, who wanted to find a place to rebuild the gate fragments being held in museum storage. As a result, although it was certainly good to rebuild the gate so that it could be seen, there’s nevertheless something slightly false about the structure, because it’s neither in situ nor as it originally appeared.

Restoration and conservation will, apparently, involve incorporating some more original elements, which have only recently been rediscovered, and making the site of the gate more accessible to visitors, but the structure will be staying where it is: there is no talk of it ever being moved back to downtown Granada to function as a gate again, which seems a pity. In essence, it’s little more than a garden folly, at this point. That being said, there is something rather admittedly romantic about this ruined structure, out in the middle of nowhere, that would make me want to seek it out.

In any case, you can read more about the interesting history of the gate by reading this rather lengthy article concerning the preservation efforts surrounding it. If your Spanish is not quite up to that, and you don’t want to suffer through Google Translate, briefer information in English is provided on the official Alhambra website, including about some of the other gates and structures around the complex. I note, from the latter site, that I particularly like the look of the Gate of the Pomegranates (“Granadas”) built for the Emperor Carlos V, even though there is absolutely nothing Moorish about the structure. Both gates are definitely now on my bucket list.

Gate12

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