The Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Created | Updated Jun 7, 2011
In the silent and deserted halls of the Alhambra; surrounded with the insignia of regal sway, and the still vivid, though dilapidated traces of oriental voluptuousness, I was in the strong-hold of Moorish story, and every thing spoke and breathed of the glorious days of Granada, when under the dominion of the crescent.
- Tales of the Alhambra, by Washington Irving1.
Set on the point of a ridge overlooking the city of Granada and the plains beyond, the Alhambra is the most stunning building in Spain, and probably in the whole of Europe. This may sound subjective, but it is not. Nearly 800 years after its conception by the Moors2, much of the architecture remains pristine, somehow appearing delicate, grand and humble simultaneously. Its ramparts climb hundreds of vertiginous feet above the river below. Its halls echo with folklore; tales of passion, violence and piety were all played out within its walls. The Moors also set out to recreate paradise in their gardens, and it is difficult to argue that they did not succeed.
Gaudi's Sagrada Familia or St Paul's Cathedral may be more architecturally perfect. The Monastery of Montserrat is in a more awesome setting. Stonehenge may be more evocative. The Sistine Chapel may claim more delicacy and flourish of touch. The Alhambra runs every one of these close, though; in no other place in Europe do all these majesties come together quite so perfectly.
This Entry can only tell you so much about the Alhambra. Make sure you take a good guidebook with you and read up on it in advance, as there are plenty of details which are easily missed.
Nobody is quite sure when the first building took place on the Alhambra hill, which was known to the Moors as Sabika. They named the fort itself Al Qal'a al-Hamra – the red fort – and it was used by routed Moorish troops in around 900. Ironically, however, it was never considered important by the Moors until it was almost too late. In 1212, the Moors were massacred in the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, just north of Jaen; before, the Moors had possession of a wide strip of Mediterranean Spain, but this battle opened the door to the Christian Reconquest. Within a generation, the Moors had lost two-thirds of their land in Spain.
Mohammed I ibn Nasr bucked the trend. He took advantage of the disunity among the remaining Moorish rulers and built a power-base, taking control of city-states one at a time until he ruled most of modern-day Andalucía. The Christians were coming, however, and when Fernando III took Cordoba in 1236 ibn Nasr approached the king with a deal. In exchange for Granada's independence, ibn Nasr agreed to assist the Christians in attacking Muslim Seville and by paying an annual tribute. By 1245, his sultanate would be whittled down to the bare bones, but the dynasty he founded, the Nasrids, would rule Granada for a further 250 years; the last outpost of Muslim power in Europe.
In 1238, ibn Nasr laid the foundations of the Alhambra, starting work on a complex of towers, battlements, bathhouses and barracks known as the Alcazaba. He incorporated the old red fort into his design, rebuilding parts and encircling the defences with a huge, impenetrable outside wall. The River Darro was diverted five miles and pumped uphill to provide water – an incredible engineering feat for the age. It was an immense structure, built to resist foe and time alike, and its highest towers were placed at the top of the steepest drops. Even now, the ruins are awesome, and it is easy to believe that the Christians were in no hurry to attack it.
The Nazrids extended ibn Nasr's buildings over the centuries. Perhaps feeling secure that the gravest danger was over, their later structures, known as the Casa Real, were entirely different. The palace complex was expanded into a self-enclosed town with a population of 40,000, containing schools, granaries and palaces. Most of the Moors' most astounding work took place in the 14th Century, when the greatest palaces and the Generalife gardens were built.
All great things must come to an end, though. In 1492 los Reyes Católicos, Fernando and Isabel (Ferdinand and Isabella) – Spain's 'Catholic Monarchs' – attacked and took the city from the last Nazrad sultan, Boabdil. According to legend, the former sultan looked back at the Alhambra one final time and, seeing the Christian cross flying, began to weep. This moment is popularly known as 'The Moor's Last Sigh'3. His mother's admonition was particularly scathing:
Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!
Fernando and Isabel lived in the palace for a while, but made few changes beyond converting the mosque to a chapel. Their grandson, however, was less forgiving. Perhaps drugged with power as Holy Roman Emperor and the heir to several powerful European lines at a time when the Americas were beginning to generate great wealth for Spain, Carlos V (Charles V) developed a penchant for grand ideas that were soon forgotten. One of these was to build a palace on the site of the Alhambra and turn Granada into his seat of power; his idea stalled before the palace was completed, and he turned his attention to a war with France. For 21st-Century visitors, there is much to be grateful to the French for. Lord Byron wrote of Carlos:
...better had he neither known
A bigot's shrine, nor despot's throne.
Carlos's folly was the last significant building work on the hill. The Alhambra was largely forgotten by his successors, whose attentions were focussed further north and east. In 1812, Napoleon's troops captured the city, looted the Alhambra and used it for military training, before trying to blow up the whole complex when they left. According to legend it was only the swift action of a crippled soldier they left behind, who removed the fuses, which stopped the destruction. It took an American writer and traveller, Washington Irving, to 'rediscover' the Alhambra with the publication of his book, Tales of the Alhambra, in 1832. The neglected buildings were quickly declared a National Monument by the Spanish soon afterwards, and the stream of visitors has rarely ebbed since.
Around the Alhambra
The Alhambra is composed of four distinct areas; the original red fort of the Alcazaba, the palaces of the Casa Real, Carlos V's palace and the summer palace and gardens of the Generalife.
The Alcazaba is the oldest part of the Alhambra complex, and it was clearly built for defence. Ibn Nasr rebuilt and enhanced the defences of the Alcazaba, and the thickly-walled towers dominate the cliffs above the river Darro. From most of the town and the surrounding plains and mountains, they are the most obvious buildings in the whole complex, and the views are truly stupendous. Inside the walls, you can see the remains of barracks, bathhouses and underground cisterns, but the most impressive feature is the Torre de la Vela. It is named after the Vela, 'the sentinel', the enormous bell which tops its walls – this bell was rung until recently to announce the opening and closing times of sluice gates on the plains below. It was here at 3pm on 2 January, 1492 that Fernando and Isabel hung their standards and the flag of St James alongside the Christian cross, symbolically completing the Reconquest of Spain.
The Casa Real
[Sabika is]...the garland on Granada's brow...[and the Alhambra is]... the ruby set above that garland.
- Ibn Zamrak, Moorish poet.
The buildings of the Royal House, also known as the Palacios Nazaríes, are the most impressive on the Alhambra hill. Despite the fact that they have lasted over 500 years, they were not built for strength or durability. Made from more perishable materials, mainly wood, brick and adobe, they were intended to be renewed and replaced by succeeding sultans; yet they have survived earthquakes and the successive actions of Carlos and Napoleon fairly intact.
Water is a key part of the designs, in the courtyards and inside some of the halls. Almost every square inch of wall is covered in ornamental stucco and tilework, and the ceilings are delicately designed, with just enough light being allowed in to illuminate the intricacies. The buildings are not just incredibly decorated relics, though. Each decoration is a work of abstract art; rather than showing scenes from the Koran, it intends to illustrate a philosophy. A famous example of this from the Alhambra is the use of subtly different patterns radiating out from identical centres. This shows that, although beings may appear outwardly different, at the centre of each is God. The artist MC Escher visited the Alhambra in 1930 and was bewildered by its geometric tile designs; it proved to be a great inspiration for his future work. Modern mathematicians agree that the Islamic artists were centuries ahead of their time.
There are also plenty of Arabic inscriptions woven into the decorations. While some are Moorish poetry or the sayings of sultans, most are from the Koran. Repeated hundreds of times is the phrase Wa-la ghaliba illa-Llah, 'there is no conqueror but God'. It was customary for conquering sultans to be greeted with cries of Mansur 'Victor' on their return; ibn al-Ahmar, on his return from aiding the Christians against Muslim Seville, was cheered back into the city in this way, but with some irony. His reply to them, taken up as the Nazrid's war cry, now adorns the walls more than any other phrase.
There is no part of the Casa Real that is not worth exploring, and it is beyond the scope of this Entry to go into detail about every room. It is, however, worth mentioning a few areas which stand out.
Walking through the Palacios, you visit the rooms in a logical way, starting with the rooms in which the sultans would have met with their councils and emissaries and finishing up in the areas which would have been strictly for the sultan and his family alone. Perhaps the grandest room is the Salón de Embajadores, the Hall of the Ambassadors, where the delicate negotiations with the Christians that kept the Nazrids in power for so long took place. The entrance from the main council chamber which precedes it is at an angle to the chamber itself, as the sultan could never be approached directly. Boabdil's surrender to Fernando and Isabel was also negotiated here, and Columbus is said to have discussed his proposed trip to India – which led to the discovery of America – with Fernando in this room.
Further on is the area known as the Harem. This was the sultan and his family's private area, and is both atmospheric and exquisite. Although the lions themselves have been removed for analysis and renovation, the Patio de los Leones, the Patio of the Lions, provides perhaps the most iconic scene of all, and is replicated on hundreds of postcards and paintings. The stucco here is at its most delicate and the use of light in the half-open courtyard at its most perfect; Washington Irving wrote:
It is impossible to contemplate this scene so perfectly Oriental without feeling the early associations of Arabian romance, and almost expecting to see the white arm of some mysterious princess beckoning from the gallery, or some dark eye sparkling through the lattice. The abode of beauty is here, as if it had been inhabited but yesterday...
One of the most exceptional rooms is the Sala de los Abencerrajes. Its ceiling is incredible; 16-sided with myriad stalactites perfectly lit through windows in the dome. The final touch is a fountain in the centre of the room, which transforms the scene from merely wonderful to utterly breathtaking. The Sala was, however, the scene of the Alhambra's bloodiest tale. When Abu al-Hassan's favourite wife, Zoraya, was courted by Hamet, the chief of a local tribe, al-Hassan took bloody revenge. The 16 men of the Abencerraj family were invited into the palace and murdered in this room; their heads were thrown into the fountain, and their blood still stains it4.
Palacio de Carlos V
Charles V's palace is an odd juxtaposition with its surroundings. All around are Moorish relics, and plonked in the middle is a grand 16th-Century palace. It is a strikingly beautiful sight, however, and is in fact the only surviving work by a student of Michaelangelo, Pedro Machuca. Only the exterior was ever finished; the circular courtyard that dominates the interior was used as a bullring, and the roof atop the colonnade was only added in the 1960s. The Palace is now home to a museum featuring some wonderful paintings and artefacts from the Nazrid period.
The courtyard is renowned for its acoustics, and is one of the venues chosen for the annual International Festival of Music and Dance.
Behind the palace are the remains of the Nazrid town. People tend to use the remnants of the old streets and buildings as a thoroughfare to get from one part of the complex to another, but some buildings are intact enough for visitors to wander around and peer inside.
The Generalife, meaning 'garden of the architect', is the series of gardens and patios and a summer palace a short distance to the north-east of the main complex. It was sculpted to fit with the Koranic view of Paradise, with running water and plenty of shady, leafy areas. The plants are wonderful, not only to see but smell; jasmine, juniper and azahar dominate. If you can find a quiet time to visit, it is deeply evocative; views over the city and plains below abound, and it is easy to see why the gardens would be laid here. The Moors would entertain themselves here with shows of horsemanship, acrobatics and fireworks. Don't miss the quiet Patio de los Cipreses, with its 700-year-old cypress tree. This is where Zoraya met the ill-fated Hamet for their secret trysts, and it is easy to see why this place would be chosen for their affair.
Visiting the Alhambra
Tickets to the Alhambra are limited to 5,100 per day, and you must enter at specific times - 3,000 are issued for entry between 8.30am and 2pm, and 2,100 between 2pm and 6pm. Three-quarters of these are for advance bookings only, which can be made up to three months in advance, and demand far outstrips supply. You can book tickets in advance by telephone; call the La Caixa bank's ticketline on 902888001 from inside Spain or 0034 934923750 from abroad. Both lines have English-speaking operators. You can also reserve tickets online at the Alhambra Tickets website. You must have either a Caixa bank account or a credit card to book tickets in advance. If you're seriously good at planning ahead - tickets are often sold out anything up to a fortnight in advance - this is a great way to ensure you get in on your chosen day, although be sure you know exactly when you want to go as corrections and cancellations cannot be made. If you book this way, you still have to go to the ticket office to collect your tickets.
If you haven't managed to book tickets in advance, you ideally need to be keen on early starts. To avoid disappointment, you need to be outside the ticket office at around 7.30am, by which time a queue will already have formed. If you only have cash, you need to join the main queue leading to the manned ticket booths - if you have a credit card, you may be able to circumvent this. Automatic ticket machines are located behind glass screens to the right to the main entrance; there is little guidance, and people arriving tend to join the main queue without realising the machines are there! Find them quickly, and you'll have a much shorter wait.
On your ticket, you'll find a time stamped for entry into the Palacios Nazaries. You'll have a half-hour time slot to get in, although once inside you can look around for as long as you like. Check this part of your ticket carefully, though, as if you miss your time you won't be allowed in.
It is also possible to buy a ticket for just the Generalife and, if you're really lucky, on a nighttime tour. If you speak Spanish, you might also be able to join a guided tour given by Alhambra staff. Rather than tours for the masses, these are reputed to be excellent and get you into areas normally closed to the public. Tickets for the night visits and guided tours are notoriously difficult to obtain.
Granada has an international airport, train station and good bus services, so getting to the city is very easy. Once there, it's an easy 20-minute stroll uphill to the entrance from Plaza Nueva. Follow the signposts up Cuesta de Gomérez to the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of the Pomegranates; look for the fruits on the corners of the gateway). Beyond this, the Alhambra forest - planted with elms donated by the British Duke of Wellington - begins, and the ticket office is a short, steep climb beyond. There is an alternative route to and from the city along La Cuesta los Chinos; it makes sense to walk up directly from Plaza Nueva and return down the Cuesta, as the bars on Paseo de los Tristes are ideal for a post-visit drink or meal. If you can't manage the walk, look out for the excellent Alhambrabus service, which runs from various places in the city centre. If you need to make a dawn start or are in a particular hurry, a taxi from the centre will cost €8-12 depending on the time of day.
If you're staying in a resort on the Almeria or Costa del Sol coasts, you'll probably be given the opportunity to visit the Alhambra on a day tour. Although convenient, this is perhaps not the best way to see the Alhambra, as much of the atmosphere dissipates when you're surrounded by 50 of your camera-toting fellow-countrymen. Unless you really need every single detail explained to you, you might be best to arrange to leave your tour group and meet the coach at departure time.