The Alhambra is an ancient palace, fortress and citadel located in Granada, Spain. The eighth-century-old site was named for the reddish walls and towers that surrounded the citadel: al-qal’a al-hamra in Arabic means red fort or castle. It’s the only surviving palatine city (a royal territorial center) of the Islamic Golden Age and a remnant of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last Islamic kingdom in Western Europe.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1984, the Alhambra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with two other related sites: the Albaicín (or Albayzín) and the Generalife Garden.
The Alhambra is located west of the city of Granada on the Sabika hill—a strategic vantage point that provides views of the whole city of Granada and the plain (vega) of Granada.
The complex is irregular in shape and surrounded by defensive walls. In all, the Alhambra spans nearly 26 acres, with more than a mile of walls, 30 towers and numerous smaller structures.
The Sabika hill and its palatine city are further surrounded by mountains, and Arab writers once likened Granada and Alhambra to a crown and diadem, respectively.
At the base of the plateau is the Darro River, which runs through a deep ravine to the north. The river separates Sabika from the Albaicín, a Moorish residential district that, along with the Alhambra, form the medieval part of Granada.
The Generalife Garden, on the other hand, is situated nearby on the slopes of the Hill of the Sun. The Generalife contained residential buildings and land used for grazing and cultivation, and it was designed as a place of rest for the Muslim royalty living at the Alhambra.
The Alhambra Complex
During its prime, the Alhambra had three main sections: The Alcazaba, a military base that housed guards and their families; the palatial zone, which contained several palaces for the sultan and his kin; and the Medina, a quarter where court officials lived and worked.
The Nasrid palaces were divided into three independent areas. These areas included the Mexuar, a semipublic part of the palace (for justice administration and state affairs); the Comares Palace, the official residence of the sultan that was comprised of several rooms that surrounded the Court of the Myrtles (an outdoor area containing a large central pond lined with myrtle bushes); and the Palace of the Lions, a private area of the palace for the king and his family and mistresses.
The Alhambra complex contained numerous other structures, perhaps the most famous of which was the Patio of the Lions (or Courtyard of the Lions). This courtyard was so named for the central fountain, which is surrounded by twelve lions that spewed jets of water.
Other famous structures include the Hall of the Abencerrajes, which has a stalactite ceiling and is a legendary site where a noble family was said to have been murdered, and the Hall of the Ambassadors, a chamber where Islamic emirs (commanders) would negotiate with Christian emissaries.
Who Built the Alhambra?
The oldest part of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, a fortress with multiple towers. Though the Nasrid dynasty fortified the Alcazaba and used it as a military base for the royal guard of the sultan, experts believe the structure was built before Muslims arrived to Granada.
The first historical records of the Alcazaba (and the greater Alhambra) date to the 9th century. They refer to a man named Sawwar ben Hamdun who had sought refuge in the Alcazaba fortress due to civil fights between Muslims and Muladies (people of mixed Arab and European descent).
Arab texts suggest Sawwar ben Hamdun and other Muslims may have then initiated new constructions at the fortress.
The Alhambra, however, was largely ignored until at least the 11th century, when the Zirid Dynasty settled in the Alcazaba Cadima (Old Fortress) in Albaicín. To preserve an important Jewish settlement located in the area, Vizier Samuel ibn Nahgralla renovated and rebuilt the ruins on Sabika and built a palace there for emir Badis ben Habus.
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In 1238, Mohammed ben Al-Hamar (Mohammed I), the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, settled into the Alcazaba of Albaicín, but was attracted to the ruins on the Sabika hill. He subsequently established a new royal residence of Alhambra and began creating the palatine city known today.
Early Alhambra Development
The Alhambra wasn’t the construction project of a single ruler, but rather the work of successive rulers of the Nasrid dynasty.
Mohammed I laid the foundations for Alhambra by fortifying the royal site. He reinforced the Sabika Alcazaba by constructing three new towers: The Broken Tower, the Keep, and the Watch Tower.
He also canalized water from the Darro River, further allowing him to establish a royal residence at the Alcazaba. Mohammed I built warehouses or halls for soldiers and younger guards and began construction of the Alhambra palaces and ramparts.
Al-Hamar’s son and grandson, Mohammed II and Mohammed III, continued the work of their predecessor regarding the palace and ramparts. The latter ruler also constructed the Grand Mosque of the Alhambra and public baths.
Most of the well-known structures of the Alhambra complex known today were constructed by Yusuf I and Mohammed V.
These include the Patio of the Lions, the Justice Gate, the Baths, the Comares Room, and the Hall of the Boat.
End of Islamic Rule
In 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile conquered Granada, unifying Spain under a Catholic monarchy and ending centuries of Islamic rule (they exiled the last Nasrid ruler, Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to Spanish historians).
The Alhambra soon underwent many changes.
Charles V, who ruled Spain as Charles I, ordered the destruction of part of the complex to build a Renaissance-style palace for himself, called the Charles V Palace. He built other structures as well, including the Emperor’s Chambers, the Queen’s Dressing Room, and a church to replace Alhambra’s mosque.
The Alhambra was abandoned starting in the 18th century.
In 1812, some of the complex’s towers were blown up by the French during the Peninsular War.
The Alhambra underwent a series of repairing and restoration efforts in the 19th century, beginning in 1828 by architect José Contreras (under an endowment from then-King of Spain Ferdinand VII) and continued by his son and grandson.
In 1829, American author Washington Irving took up residence at the Alhambra. He wrote and published Tales of the Alhambra, a collection of essays and stories about the palatial city.
In 2009, on the 150th anniversary of Irving’s death, managers of the Alhambra erected a statue of the writer in a park outside of the palace to commemorate his role in introducing Western audiences to the historical site and Spain’s Islamic history.
The Alhambra remains one of the most beautiful historical sites in Spain and is visited each year by thousands of tourists from around the world.
Alhambra Historical introduction; AlhambraDeGranada.org.
The Alcazaba; AlhambraDeGranada.org.
Alhambra Brief History; Board of the Alhambra and Generalife.
The Alhambra; Khan Academy.
Alhambra, Generalife and Albayzín, Granada; UNESCO.
Tales of the Alhambra; The Atlantic.
The Art of the Nasrid Period (1232–1492); MET Museum.
Alhambra Setting; Board of the Alhambra and Generalife.