The Alhambra is a palace/fortress in Spain that was built by the Moorish monarchs between 1238 and 1358. Alhambra in Arabic means ‘the red one’ and it sits on Sabika Hill, the highest and largest of three hills to the north of the city of Granada. As a hint of how impressive the Alhambra is, let me quote Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, who declared: “God made the Alhambra and Granada in case he gets tired of his own house one day.” This is one of the world’s most visited heritage sites and once you’ve been there it is easy to see why.
The Alhambra was not always as grand looking as it is today though, and in fact for more than two centuries it fell into serious decline until the American writer Washington Irving, who lived there in 1829, wrote about its rather sad state in the “Tales of the Alhambra”. The book received worldwide attention, which embarrassed the Spanish government into taking action, eventually declaring it a national monument and involving many architects in its restoration, which continues today.
The Catholic Monarchs conquered the Alhambra, which was the last state in Muslim Spain, in 1492. While the Catholic Monarchs left much of the Alhambra intact, they did build the Roman style Palacio de Carlos V as a symbol of Christianity’s triumph over Islam.
Just beyond the Palacio de Carlos V is the Puerta del Vino that separates the residential area of the Alhambra from the Alcazaba, which is primarily a military fortress. The Alcazaba is shaped like a triangle with a large reinforcement wall that runs from north to south between three strong towers, making it completely independent from the rest of the Alhambra.
The Nasrid Palaces
The palaces of the sultans are the highlight of a visit to the Alhambra and entry is timed so purchase your entrance ticket on-line in advance of your visit since daily capacity is limited. Three palaces have been restored and all three are incredible: Palacio del Mexuar, Palacio de Comares and Palacio de los Leones. There is also a modified palace used by the Christian king while his own palace (Palacio de Carlos V) was being built. Although they are called palaces they are really a series of connected rooms and courtyards.
The palaces are outstanding displays of Islamic art and architecture. For instance:
- Typically the outside surfaces of Hispano-Muslim buildings are very austere; instead of windows in the walls, there often are just ventilation holes except on the upper floors where there might be balconies enclosed by latticework shutters. None of the houses in the Alhambra give any outward hint of what is inside.
- The door is the boundary between the public and the private; while the door was always open the entrance is designed so that privacy is protected and someone walking along the street can’t see inside. An example of a palace with this type of entrance is the Palacio de Comares.
- In the West, each space has a function such as a kitchen, living room, bedroom. In the Islamic world, all places may be used for any purpose.
- Water is fundamental to Islamic civilization both traditionally and symbolically. Water-holding elements have been integrated into the Alhambra as a complement to the architecture and interior spaces.
- Spaces were incorporated where inhabitants could avoid the strong summer sun or take advantage of the winter sun. There usually was an interior patio or courtyard that would provide light and ventilation to the interior and where rainwater could be collected. Everyday household duties would also be done here. Diffused lighting was desired in the interior rooms.
- There are three ornamental types of decoration: geometry (specifically the circle and its accompanying square); Arabic calligraphy; and plant-based decoration (vines and its branches, palms, pomegranates, pineapples, peppers, grapes, flowers, leaves).
Palacio del Mexuar
This is the oldest of the preserved palaces and served primarily as a hall for audiences and important meetings. There are two courtyards, the Patio de la Mezquita and the Patio de Machuca.
The Oratory is a small mosque, oriented as required towards Mecca, and has a spectacular view to inspire meditation.
The sultans received their subjects in the Cuarto Dorado.
Palacio de Comares
This palace is representative of the Hispano-Muslim architectural design used in houses, with the bent entrance to the open-air courtyard around which rooms are spread.
The Patio de los Arrayanes was the centre of family life and where you find water, vegetation and open sky.
The portal of the Palacio de Comares is considered to be one of the supreme works of Islamic art.
The Salon del Trono, located within the Torre de Comares, is one of the most outstanding rooms in the entire Alhambra, its interior space a cube within the largest tower in the Alhambra. The walls are completely covered with decorations; the lower section covered with tiled baseboards featuring different geometric combinations and the space above with plasterwork panels that look like tapestries.
Palacio de Los Leones
Here you will find the most famous fountain in all of the Alhambra, the Fuente de los Leones. It is in the Patio de los Leones, a gallery of arches supported by columns. The fountain is at the centre: 12 lions, the guardians of power, and water, the purifier and fountain of life.
The Sala de Dos Hermanas is the palace’s main room. It is covered with one of the most exquisite mocarabe domes in all of Islamic art.
At the end is a balcony covered with a lantern window made of stained glass, within a delicate, vaulted, wooden framework.
Palace converted into the Christian Royal Palace
By the time the Christian Monarchs took over the palaces, a lot of damage had been done and funds were allocated towards preservation. A royal suite (“the Emperor’s Chambers”) of six rooms was constructed around the Muslim palaces. At its centre they constructed the Patio de Lindaraga with lush gardens, a Baroque fountain and porticoed galleries on three sides.
The terraced area on the other side of the Palaces was until quite recently in the hands of private owners. When it was turned over to the state, extensive landscaping was done and today it is a very pleasant spot to spend some time before going on to the Generalife gardens, which I write about separately.
“The Official Guide: The Alhambra and the Generalife” (339 pages), by Jesús Bermúdez López, can be purchased in the gift shop; it is excellent and was a source for this article.
Travel in southern Spain is surprisingly easy and so rewarding
1st stop Madrid
Córdoba and its Mezquita
Seville, the capital of Andalucía
The drama that is Ronda
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015