The Alhambra (Red Castle in Arabic), is a massive (and magical) palace that graces the skyline of Granada in the Andalusian region of Spain. It’s hard to believe, but The Alhambra started as a teeny-tiny fortress built on top of Roman ruins way back in 889. Given that it’s (at least) 1,130 years old, it’s not hard to see why it’s one of Spain’s most visited sites. To really understand the significance of what is widely considered to be the crown jewel of the Nasrid Dynasty, we need to backtrack.
Let’s start in the year 711 when the Moors first made their way into Spain. An army led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad invaded Andalus (Visigoth Spain) via the Strait of Gibraltar and announced that Spain was going to be Muslim and come Hell or high water, they were gonna like it. What came next was a nonstop will-they-won’t-they conquer until 732 when the Moors had managed to invade all the way to France where the Francs defeated them at the Battle of Tours and the Asturians in Northwest Spain at the battle of Cavedana.
At this point, all of Visigoth Spain, aside from the newly formed Christian Kingdom of Asturias, became Al-Andalus also known as the Caliphate of Cordoba and Islamic Iberia. It was one Hell of a time to be a Moor in Spain. For the next several hundred years, the Moors continued to prosper, and Al-Andalus slowly evolved into one of THE spots to be for academics with constant advances in trigonometry, astronomy and even surgery.
It widely debated today on what it was like to be a Christian, Jew, or Pagan during this time. It’s known that non-Muslim men were subject to a tax called “Jizya” and that there were “intermittent bouts” of persecution against Dhimmis, though it was rare. It’s also known that non-Muslims were considered second-class citizens but didn’t wind up in a massive ethnic purge like most conquests during that time. For the most part, the Moors were tolerant, and it only helped their cause as Al-Andalus continued to grow into a cultural hub of Europe.
Side note: Dhimmi translates to “protected person” in Arabic. A Dhimmi is a non-Muslim person living in an Islamic State with legal protection to practice their religion, own property, exercise freedoms, etc. as long as they pay a tax.
Fast forward to the mid 13th century when Nasrid Emir Mohammed Ben Al-Ahmar decided to pull a full-on Fixer Upper and renovate the Alhambra into most of what we know today.
At this point, the Moors had ruled for around 500 years, and the Christian Kingdoms up North were starting to expand with the hopes of eventually taking back Spain. By the year 1333, the Alhambra went from whimpy fortress to swanky palace, and the Emirates of Granada were all about it despite their slow demise across Iberia.
Court of Myrtles
The Christians continued to spread south in an attempt to reclaim Spain and slowly eliminated the Moorish rule down to Granada. The Moors continued to rule Granada under the Nasrid Dynasty for another 244 years until The Fall of Granada in 1492. They fought against Los Reyes Catolicos in the Guerra de Granada (Granada War) for ten years until January 2nd, 1492 when the 22nd Nasrid King, Muhammad XII of Granada, also known as Boabdil, surrendered.
It’s said that Boabdil, was entirely surrounded by Isabella and Ferdinand’s men when he went forward to kiss both of their hands in the act of handing over Granada to them. He gave them the keys and said, “these are the keys to paradise. “
Despite 800 years of Muslim rule and the medieval Catholic’s incessant need to torture and murder anyone who wasn’t Christian enough, Isabella and Ferdinand allowed that he be exiled to Las Alpujarras. I’d say he got a fair deal considering they also provided him with the estate where he would presumably live out his days in the sweet spot between the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean Sea. (Boabdil eventually left Las Alpujarras for a fresh start in Fez, Morroco but that is beside the point. )
The Alhambra officially became the Royal Christian Court of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabel I of Castile. Over the next few centuries, much of the Muslim work was removed and replaced with all the Catholic fixins such as replacing the mosque with a church and adding an overall more Castillian look. #spanishchic It would also be home to the place where Christopher Colombus came and asked for support along with a small loan to go sailing for the “West Indies.” Years later, it would also become home to The Palace of Charles V.
Palace of Charles V
Gradually, more and more of the Moorish influence within the Alhambra was either damaged or replaced with a Renaissance style that fit the time. In 1812, the French put the last nail in the coffin by destroying a few of the remaining towers during the Peninsular War. After that, The Alhambra slowly slipped into abandonment and went under renovations by Jose Contreras and his later generations throughout the mid-1800s. In 1829, American author Washington Irving took up residence in The Alhambra and to this day is praised a vessel for educating the West on Islamic and Spanish history.
“Perhaps there never was a monument more characteristic of an age and people than the Alhambra; a rugged fortress without, a voluptuous palace within; war frowning from its battlements; poetry breathing throughout the fairy architecture of its halls.” –Washington Irving
You can read more of what Irving had to say in Tales of The Alhambra which is a series of essays and short stories surrounding The Alhambra.
An example of Christian influenced architecture post reconquista
Now that I’ve given you a bit of backstory on the people who contributed to and inhabited the Alhambra – let’s get into some of my favorite things about one of Spain’s most fascinating landmarks.
THE NASRID PALACES
Court of Lions
Arguably, the most exciting part about visiting The Alhambra is the Nasrid Palaces. Every turn is more breathtaking than the last and is filled with ornate Islamic influence that is simply unmatched elsewhere in Spain. The palaces are made up of three main structures: The Mexuar, which is the oldest hall and was used for meetings and as a courtroom. Next up is the Palace of Comares which dates back to Yusuf I and is followed by The Palace of the Lions.
THE REAL MEANING BEHIND THE NAME “ALHAMBRA”?
Contrast in colors between The Alhambra (left) and Albaicin neighborhood (right)
Interestingly, it’s still debated whether or not The Alhambra which as I mentioned, translates to “red castle” is named because, well, it’s a red castle or if there is a bigger meaning. Firstly, The Alhambra was not originally red. It was completely whitewashed and has only developed a brown/reddish hue by accident over time. Many believe it was given the name due to the flame-like look it had at night when fires illuminated the palace to continue on the day after sunset. Others think it could be in relation to the beard of Mohammed Ben Nasir aka original founder of The Alhmabra who was known for his red hair.
THE BRUTAL MASSACRE AT THE HALL OF ABENCERRAJES
In my opinion, The Hall of Abencerrajes is one of the most beautiful areas of The Alhambra.
It’s said that Sultan Moulay Hacen (Boabdil’s father) beheaded 30 men in this room. The Abencerrajes were a North African family that was invited to dinner in the palace as a trap. The Sultan had been told of an affair between his wife and one of the Abencerrajes’ by a rival family, the Zenetes. His jealous rage led to a dinner invitation as a means to circle and kill them. Ironically, “There is no other help than the help that comes from God, the clement and merciful One” can be found as a haunting inscription above the pendetives at the entrance. There is a large rust stain beside the marble fountain in the center of the room which is said to be stained from blood of 30 Abencerrajes men.
ISLAMIC GEOMETRY & MATHEMATICS
Islamic art stays away from any figurative images to avoid false worship and generally sticks to patterns. But these are not just any patterns, the geometric art found throughout The Alhambra has wow’d mathematicians for years. According to MC Escher on Moorish philosophy, “These patterns are sometimes seen as symbolizing the Islamic principle of “Tawhid” (the unity of all things) and “Mizan” (order and balance), which are the laws of creation in Islam. “
What isn’t covered in mathematical tessellations, is calligraphied. Most of the stecco is carved into poems or phrases. You can find “There is no conqueror but God” endlessly repeated throughout the palaces. Many researchers believe they used this for an apotropaic purpose, which is just a fancy way of saying to “ward off evil”
SYMBOLISM IN WATER
Not only were the Moors lightyears ahead of the rest when it came to water supply and irrigation, they of course found a way to make it poetic. The Alhambra is full of fountains and streams with their own symbolism that doubles as a way to keep the air cool and add a nice touch to the garden. The gardens were designed to please all five senses and the murmur of water is the cherry on top. In the Palace of Lions, you can find this inscription above the central fountain “A running stream evokes the illusion of being a solid substance and one wonders which one is in truth fluid.”
Like any good fortress, you need miles and miles of sight on all sides to A.) Communicate with other towers throughout the Kingdom in the event of an attack and B.) Have a great view with your morning coffee. What I wouldn’t give to watch a sunrise from
The Alhambra is even visible from Las Gabias, a small town around 10km away, where one of the only remaining towers is still standing. (The Christians tore most of them down.) Towers just like this one, were placed all throughout the region and would communicate with The Alhambra using smoke signals. Don’t forget, Romans were there first – makes you wonder what they were up to? There are Roman ruins in Las Gabias as well that hint to a large Roman Villa… but more on that another time.
Moorish tower used for communications to Alhambra-Las Gabias
After you’re done with The Alhambra, I recommend:
Generalife pales in comparison to The Alhambra, but what doesn’t? Palacio de Generalife was the summer palace of the Nasrid rulers and is easily accessible from The Alhambra if you don’t mind a nice stroll. It’s gardens are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen and this was in early March before everything had really bloomed! Most of the time you can buy access to Generalife with your Alhambra ticket!
Wander Albaicin and Sacramonte
view of Albaicin & Sacramonte from The Alhambra
When you’re done at The Alhambra, take a few hours and discover the Albaicin and Sacramonte neighborhoods! These are the beautiful pueblo blancos you can see from The Alhambra and are two of Andalucias most unique barrios! So many winding streets full of tapas bars ready for you to pop in and out of! Plus, there’s always the sound of a spanish guitar in the distance.
Museo Cuevas del Sacramonte
This ethnographic caves museum in Sacramonte showcases cave houses and the unique nature and history in this area. It’s a beautiful walk with stunning views of the surrounding area and Alhambra.
Oh yeah, and definitely have a drink (or five) @ my fave, Restaraunte El Balcon de San Nicholas.
BOOK YOUR TICKETS HERE
Remember, The Alhambra is the most visited tourist attraction in Spain so you will definitely want to book your tickets in advance! They only allow a certain amount of people inside at a time so be prepared for a wait, even with your ticket. But I promise, it’s worth it!
I hope you enjoyed this read on what is considered to be
The Crown Jewel of The Nasrid Dynasty