The Alhambra, Granada

The Alhambra (meaning ‘red fortress’ in Arabic) is an ancient palace and fortress built by the Moorish rulers of Granada in southern Spain (known as Al-Andalus when the fortress was constructed), occupying a hilly terrace on the southeastern border of the city of Granada.

Granada - Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005

Granada - Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005

Once the residence of the Muslim rulers of Granada and their court, the Alhambra is now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions exhibiting the country’s most famous Islamic architecture, together with Christian 16th century and the later additions of the ornate gardens that can be seen today.

In the warmer months the Alhambra can become so full of tourists that the Palace (full of art and antiquities) closes it’s doors quite early. They only allow a set number of visitors inside per day, so if you arrive later than midday you could be locked out. You can still enter the grounds, and walk the walls, but you won’t get to see many of the treasures.

Granada from Alhambra - Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005
Granada from Alhambra
Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005

My suggestion is to get there no later than 11am. If you’re staying in Granada be aware that it’s quite a hard walk from most of the tourist hotels so, unless you speak Spanish and can find the right bus (and bus-stop) it’s probably best to get a taxi.

The Palace of Charles V, within the Alhambra, was erected by Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in 1527. Its most westerly feature is the alcazaba (citadel); a strongly fortified position. The rest of the plateau comprises a number of palaces, enclosed by a relatively weak fortified wall, with thirteen towers, some defensive and some providing vistas for the inhabitants.

Completed towards the end of Muslim rule in Spain by Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Muhammed V, Sultan of Granada (1353-1391), the Alhambra is a reflection of the culture of the last days of the Nasrid emirate of Granada. It is a place where artists and intellectuals had taken refuge as Christian Spain won victories over Al Andalus. The Alhambra mixes natural elements with man-made ones, and is a testament to the skill of Muslim craftsmen of that time.

Alhambra - Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005

Alhambra - Copyright: Phil Wiley 2005

The literal translation of Alhambra “red fortress” derives from the colour of the red clay of the surroundings of which the fort is made. The buildings of the Alhambra were originally whitewashed; however, the buildings now seen today are reddish.

The first reference to the Qal’at al Hambra was during the battles between the Arabs and the Muladies during the rule of Abdullah ibn Muhammad (r. 888-912). In one particularly fierce and bloody skirmish, the Muladies soundly defeated the Arabs, who were then forced to take shelter in a primitive red castle located in the province of Elvira, presently located in Granada. According to surviving documents from the era, the red castle was quite small, and its walls were not capable of deterring an army intent on conquering. The castle was then largely ignored until the eleventh century, when its ruins were renovated and rebuilt by Samuel ibn Naghralla, vizier to the King Badis of the Zirid Dynasty, in an attempt to preserve the small Jewish settlement also located on the Sabikah hill. However, evidence from Arab texts indicates that the fortress was easily penetrated and that the actual Alhambra that survives today was built during the Nasrid Dynasty.

The magnificence of Alhambra is well portrayed in this slideshow.
The music, ‘Granada’, is provided by Andres Segovia on the guitar.

Ibn Nasr, the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, was forced to flee to Jaen in order to avoid persecution by King Ferdinand and his supporters during attempts to rid Spain of Moorish Dominion. After retreating to Granada, Ibn-Nasr took up residence at the Palace of Badis in the Alhambra. A few months later, he embarked on the construction of a new Alhambra fit for the residence of a king. According to an Arab manuscript published as the Anónimo de Granada y Copenhague,

“This year 1238 Abdallah ibn al-Ahmar climbed to the place called “the Alhambra” inspected it, laid out the foundations of a castle and left someone in charge of its construction”

The design included plans for six palaces, five of which were grouped in the northeast quadrant forming a royal quarter, two circuit towers, and numerous bathhouses. During the reign of the Nasrid Dynasty, the Alhambra was transformed into a palatine city complete with an irrigation system composed of acequias for the gardens of the Generalife located outside the fortress. Previously, the old Alhambra structure had been dependent upon rainwater collected from a cistern and from what could be brought up from the Albaicín. The creation of the Sultan’s Canal solidified the identity of the Alhambra as a palace-city rather than a defensive and ascetic structure.

The Muslim rulers lost Granada and Alhambra in 1492 without the fortress itself being attacked when King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile took the surrounding region with overwhelming numbers.