The Alhambra is a citadel located on the Red Hill, southeast of the city of Granada. It is a complex settlement, formed by several parts and built mainly under the Nasrid dynasty although it has some Islamic precedents and some Christian endings.
In the Arab sources it appears mentioned a fortress on the hill of the Albayzín, referring to the period of Ibn al-Khatib. It is also mentioned a Madina Alhambra, built by Sawwar b. Hamdun at the end of the 9th century. We also have references to the Alhambra in the memoirs of King ‘Abd Allah, the last ziri dethroned by the Almoravids in 1090. He speaks of the construction his grandfather had planned with a palace on the Red Hill, in order to get away from the people who hated him.
The configuration of the palatine city is the work of the Banu al-Ahmar dynasty. The creation of a space of their own for political power, separated from the rest of society, is a reality that occurred with some frequency in the Islamic world. This is related to the fact that political authority is not exercised by interfering in the problems of the citizens, but by simply maintaining the balance between the different groups.
The Alhambra is a territory that can be divided into four parts, and was built in different phases: the military zone or citadel, the palaces, the area corresponding to the city itself, and the periurban space with its orchards and almunias, especially the Generalife.
History of the Alhambra
In 1238, Muhammad I arrived in Granada and met with the city’s nobles, from whom he had previously received an invitation in the Alcazaba mosque. But, finally he went to the Alhambra, where he marked the foundations of the castle and brought water to the hill from the azud and an acequia. His intention was to create a stable settlement, for which he built some important defences in the area of the Alcazaba and provided the whole with water.
Muhammad II shaped the palatine city with the construction of the royal mosque of the Alhambra and the baths located in front of them. He built the Wine Gate, which separated the Alcazaba from the residential area, and is assumed to have built the gate of arms and the outer wall. He is also credited with the Palacio del Partal, located on the northern side of the hill.
But the most important moment of the Alhambra is marked by the performances of Yusuf I and Muhammad V. The first one made the doors of Seven Floors and Justice. The remodelling of the Wine Gate was the work of the second. The two most important palaces were due to these two emirs, the Comares palace to Yusuf I and the Lions palace to Muhammad V. The Comares Palace is of aulic character, while that of the Lions is more residential. The increase in agricultural space is also attributed to this period, with the inclusion of the Albercón de las Damas.
The Alhambra underwent transformations from the moment it passed into the hands of the Catholic Monarchs. The main ones were a reinforcement of its defenses to adapt them to the use of artillery. They also improved the hydraulic infrastructure by increasing the number of cisterns. Without a doubt, political reasons motivated these works, the symbolism of the war trophy and the international aesthetic desire. This royal will continued with Queen Joan, who, despite her well-known appeal, demonstrated her supremacy with the tax with which the Moorish population was aggravated by the conservation and maintenance of the Nasrid palaces. His son, Carlos V, also contributed to the maintenance, although he also incorporated a Renaissance Palace, exceptional in the history of universal architecture.
King Philip V also made his contributions, and Charles III promoted the work of the academics of San Fernando Arab Antiquities in Spain, the first attempt at a scientific approach to the monument. After the Napoleonic occupation and its military adaptation, the French army in its retreat ordered its destruction, although it did not happen in its entirety. In this way, disaggregated and abandoned is how it was known by the Romantic travellers, who wrote and graphically represented their vision of the monument.
Who built the Alhambra?
To get to the origin of the foundations of this monumental complex, we must go back to the 11th century. It is estimated that by then a building already existed, since the structure is built on the hill of the Sabika, obviously a strategic point for the construction of a fortress. Despite this, it was not until the 13th century (more specifically in 1238) that the fortification on this hill became the residence of the Nasrid royalty, moved from the old Alcazaba of the Albaicín by the first monarch Muhammad ibn Nasr, also Muhammad I.
This founder of the Nasrid dynasty was the promoter of the fortress-palace that today stands over the city of Granada and that we know as the Alhambra. Muhammad I located his residence in the keep, a building that is part of the construction of the Alcazaba area. The first uprisings and reconstructions of the first Nasrid sultan would be continued by his successors Muhammad II and Muhammad III, who promoted the fortification of the place. It should be noted that the Generalife area is said to have been built by the first successor of the Nasrid dynasty, Muhammad II, during the same 13th century.
It was not until the second half of the 14th century that the Alhambra reached its greatest splendor with the sultanates of Yusuf I (1333-1354) and the following reign of Muhammad V (1362-1391). To these monarchs are attributed such remarkable constructions as the Palace of Comares, the Patio de los Leones, the Baths or the Puerta de la Justicia.
After the conquest of the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the place became the residence of the Christian royalty. For this reason, several Christian buildings were built from this moment on, such as the Palace of Charles V (1526) or the church of Santa María de la Encarnación de la Alhambra (1581). All these and more buildings are what make up what we know today as the Alhambra of Granada.
Parts of the Alhambra
The Alhambra is a palatine city, planned and built to be the seat of the Nasrid dynasty between 1238 and 1492. Its urban layout is representative of a wide tradition in the medieval Islamic West, and specifically in al-Andalus. Throughout its more than two and a half centuries of evolution and growth, it organized its different spaces in an area of about 105 thousand square meters, without counting the surrounding exterior areas and the adjacent buildings. Next, we are going to outline each of the most outstanding parts of the essential visit to the Alhambra.
The Generalife was the royal residence of a large almunia irrigated by the Alhambra Royal Canal. It is a villa with gardens used by the Muslim kings as a place of retreat and rest. It was conceived as a rural villa, hence the ornamental gardens and orchards. The royal orchards were common in the Spanish-Arabic courts, and are the result of the reforms and additions made by the different sultans. This palace, in the vicinity of the Alhambra, must have been built between the 12th and 14th centuries. Its palace has the same type of transept as the palace of El Partal, since both are contemporaries. The archaeological remains of Dar al-Arusa show its composition around three courtyards and the remains of an interesting and spacious bath. From the outside, there are two pavilions located to the north and south, connected by a courtyard that runs along the watercourse. Although the view we have today of the pavilions has been greatly reformed over the years. After the conquest in 1492, the Catholic Monarchs granted this space to a warden for its custody and use, passing it to the Granada-Venegas family in perpetuity from 1631 until the space was incorporated into the State in 1921. The complex of buildings, patios and gardens make it one of the greatest attractions of the city of Granada.
The palaces were the buildings that gave the reason of being to the urban set of the Alhambra. Two palaces have been preserved in all their height, and the same number have been partially preserved. This integral conservation of the medieval Islamic palaces is an exceptional case that we can only appreciate in the Alhambra. This is due to the integration that the Catholic Kings made within the network of royal residences that they possessed in the main cities of their kingdoms. The careful maintenance and restoration, the absence of natural phenomena, the little frequency of conflict and the periods free of negligence, have allowed to prolong this apparent prodigy.
The Comares Palace represents the culmination of the architectural type of mansion developed around a rectangular courtyard with porticoes on the smaller sides and a large central elongated pool with gardens on its sides. This type was used in the Nasrid kingdom for important houses and palaces. Its immediate origin seems to be in the Alcázar Menor in Murcia. The one in Comares was started by Yusuf I between 1333 and 1354, and was finished by his son Muhammad V. It was a royal Alcazar or residence of the Nasrid sultans since its construction. It is preceded by the Mexuar or administrative area of the emirate and its longitudinal axis is oriented in the north-south direction. It occupies a plot of 2940 square meters, of which 851 square meters correspond to its large courtyard. At its northern end, the headquarters of the royal throne, the Salón de Comares, stands out. It is a large qubba-type room with a square floor plan and cubic volume, with a wooden vaulted ceiling that represents the seven heavens of the Muslim paradise.
Muhammad V later built the Happy Garden, which would later become known as the Lions Palace, and which is attached to his father’s. It has an elaborate design with a rectangular courtyard, distributed according to the model of the cross garden, equipped with a large central fountain and four orthogonal channels. It has porticoes on all four sides and projecting pavilions on the two smaller ones. These last characteristics, exceptional in Nasrid architecture, have been interpreted as influences from the contemporary palaces promoted by Pedro I of Castile. Its main nucleus is on the north side, dominated by its Qubba Mayor or Sala de Dos Hermanas. The decoration is based on muqarnas made with plaster, instead of the usual wooden frames of previous palaces.
We have partially preserved the palace of Partal, attributed to Muhammad III. It is built by open pavilions aligned on a north-south axis. The first of these is associated with a large pool of 340 square metres and the southern one with another smaller U-shaped pool. The remains of the other palace were integrated into the Convent of San Francisco, which was converted into a Parador de Turismo in the 20th century. It developed the type of very elongated rectangular-shaped cross garden, which was crossed on its longitudinal axis by the Acequia Real. Part of its rooms have been preserved, the qubba viewpoint on the north side and the archaeological remains of its bath.
Charles V Palace
After visiting Spain, Charles V, King of Spain and Emperor-elect of Germany, decides to build his own royal palace. The initial project included a large arcaded square to the west and a smaller one to the south. But the Emperor decided to build his own palace in the “Roman” style due to the influence of Captain General Luis Hurtado de Mendoza. The project was assigned to Pedro Machuca, trained in Rome. After his death it is his son who continues to model the palace with the completion of the circular courtyard. In 1619 the high colonnade of the courtyard was completed and work continued until 1637. The building remained unfinished until, in 1923, Leopoldo Torres Balbas began a program of recovery of the same for a museum.
The Alcazaba is nothing more than a castle or fortress used as a means of protection or refuge from an authority. The Alcazaba is characterized by having a small medina or town inside, unlike castles. The Nasrid authorities, installed in this strategic space of the city, were used to being separated from society, a reality that occurred with some frequency in the Islamic world. It has been related to the fact that political authority is not exercised by interfering in the problems of the citizens, but by limiting itself to maintaining the balance between the different groups.
The Alcazaba is the most outstanding part of its complex if we appreciate it from any viewpoint in the city, among which the Mirador de San Nicolás stands out. It comprises the western end of the monumental enclosure and hides the great wealth of the Nasrid Palaces. And it was the area dedicated to the surveillance and control of the city, hence the residence of the elite army was established in this part. It is a large defensive wall with towers, such as the Quebrada, the Homenaje and the Vela towers on the far right. Later an additional one was added, that of the Gunpowder.
Nasrid architecture in the Alhambra
If there is any representative of Nasrid architecture in the world, it is the city of Granada. Nasrid art developed during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, referring to the last stage of Hispano-Muslim art.
This type of architecture has a sober exterior and a highly ornate interior. The horseshoe arch was no longer used in many buildings and the semi-circular arch was more important.
The interior ornamentation was of great importance in the construction of the Alhambra, as the architects of the Alhambra were very concerned about decorating every space and place they could. Because of this, we find several arches in the Alhambra that do not really serve any purpose beyond the decorative element, as the architects considered that they looked good and it was beautiful.
We can follow the same line with the interior walls, which are covered with ceramics or plasterwork with different engravings, motifs and colors. In addition, an interesting element is that cursive writing was used as calligraphic decoration.
It should be noted that the most frequently used element in the decoration of Nasrid architecture is the ataurique, which is any type of vegetal form, usually sculpted or engraved.
The Alhambra also had its own type of column, which is still preserved today and does not appear in any other building. These are slender cylindrical columns with a cylindrical shaft with collars at the top and a concave base.
The Nasrid architecture of the Alhambra is of unparalleled beauty and it is for this and many other reasons that this monument is one of the most visited in Spain.
Curiosities about the Alhambra
It is curious how the palaces of the Alhambra present a common characteristic among them, and that is that their rich colored decoration on walls, ceilings and floors, are composed of plant, geometric and epigraphic motifs. In the latter, poetry occupies the most prominent place and serves as a documentary source of undeniable value, for some, it is the most beautiful book of poems in the world.
The Generalife, at the time of its construction did not have direct communication with the Alhambra. It was a place of second residence and recreation. Today we can get from one place to another in a few minutes all over the enclosure, but then it was not a matter of minutes but of hours. Its main access was the path of the Aikabia Ravine, the current Cuesta de los Chinos, which went up from the Darro River. The forbidden love affairs between the sultana and a knight of the Abencerrajes tribe are also known from this area and the sign of this is the worn out dry cypress tree that is over six hundred years old. They say that if you pass your hand over the trunk, passionate love will come into your life.
The hand and key located in the magnificent Gate of Justice hides one of the most famous legends of the enclosure. The builders of the walls, towers and defence gates of the complex were very convinced that the robustness of their materials would make the gate and the enclosure survive for a long time, but to perpetuate its durability over time they invented the possible consequences that it would have for the world, the day the hand and the key touch each other will end the world. A legend that some believe and other historians have given us a more realistic version. The hand in memory of the hand of Fatima as a symbol of the different origins of the monument, although it is also a clear allusion to the hand of God that protects and blesses everyone who enters the enclosure. although the 5 fingers of the hand are also related to the 5 pillars of Islam. The key, which we find in many doors of the Alhambra, indicates according to several historians the possibility of opening and closing the doors of heaven, granted to Mohammed.
Schedule to visit the Alhambra
The Alhambra is one of the places you have to visit at least once in your life, but the truth is that its extensive perimeter and its undefined beauty will make you want to repeat your visit. The Alhambra complex has equal access to the palaces, gardens and Generalife. Its opening hours are from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. in winter (from 15th October to 31st March) and to 8 p.m. in summer (from 1st April to 14th October). Open every day, I leave on 25 December and 1 January.
Prices to visit the Alhambra
There are several options we can pay for our visit to the Alhambra. Please note that tickets must be purchased in advance of our visit, either at the box office days before or online. There are many visitors who frequent the facilities, so sometimes it is difficult to find them available weeks and months in advance. There are also two options for visits, daytime and nighttime.
The full day tour, including entry to the Nasrid Palaces, Alcazaba, Gardens and Generalife is 14.85 for adults, and children under 12 are free, although they will have to purchase a ticket for access. The price for the visit to the Alcazaba, Gardens and Generalife is 7.42 euros for adults.
The overnight visit to the Nasrid Palaces is 8.48 euros, while the overnight visit to the Gardens and Generalife is 5.30 euros.