Flavours of Spain

The Alhambra - Part 1


History and general description


The Alhambra is a wonderful example of Moorish architecture with its tiles and decorative plaster work. It is a microcosm of Spanish history. The name comes from the Arabic and means ‘red castle’ from the colour of the sun dried bricks used to build the walls. It glows red in the setting sun.

Set above the city of Granada, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the country. Daily ticket numbers are limited and there is a strict timetable controlling entry to the Nasrid Palaces. Photography around the site is difficult with the stark contrast between light and shade. It is also very busy,especially of people taking pictures of each other and selfies.

There is so much to see and it is easy to spend a whole day and still not see everything. Visitors are given a short guide with a plan. More detailed guides are available from the shop near the Puerto del Vino.  I bought The Alhambra Architecture, History, Maps and Legends; Editiones Miguel Sánchez  which gave a clear account of the Palace and helped put it into context. I would have benefited from reading this before visiting.

This plan comes from the Islamic Arts website

Alhambra plan

It is necessary to understand some history to begin to understand the site. Built on the top of a hill commanding the surrounding area, it was designed as a walled fortress in the C13th by Muhammad I al-Ahmar, founder of the Nasrid dynasty. It served as both palace and seat of government, with a military area and the Medina, linked by two main streets, Real Alta and Real Baja, with gateways which could be shut to isolate parts of the town in event of siege.  The Real Alta is still one of the main access roads, now lined with carefully trimmed  conifers.

Alhambra Palace

The oldest part of the site is the Alcazaba, the formidable defensive fortress at the top of the site. This housed the barracks of the Royal Guard.

Alcazaba, Alhambra Palace

Entry was through large fortified gateways. Defensive walls with towers protected the Medina, the town area, where the general population lived and worked.
 
Alhambra Palace

Alhambra Palace

Alhambra Palace

It commanded good views of Granada and the surrounding countryside.

Granada

Granada

Granada

Ismail I was responsible for building the Mexuar, the first of the Nasrid palaces. In the C14th Yusuf I, the seventh Nasrid ruler, built the Comares Palace with the beautiful Court of the Myrtles, which must be one of the most photographed views in the Alhambra. 

Alhambra Palace

This was extended by Muhammad V with the Palace of the Lions, which is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Islamic architecture, with its plasterwork and magnificent ceilings.

Alhambra Palace

The Alhambra

Unfortunately there is little left of El Partal apart from the gardens. This was the last of the Palaces to be built by Yusuf III at the start of the C15th.

The  Generalife below the Alhambra walls, was designed as leisure palace for the Nasrid rulers for rest and retreat. It is a mix of palaces and gardens. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit.

This part of Spain was the last to fall to the Catholic Monarchs who eventually defeated the Moors and captured Granada in 1492. Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon as joint rulers of Spain, installed themselves in the Palace, which is the only medieval Arabic Palace to survive. The lived in rooms attached to the Palace of the Lions.

Their grandson Charles V, after his marriage to Isabella of Portugal, began the last of the Palaces to be built but it  was never completed.  This is completely different to the Nasrid Palaces and is a large Renaissance style building, which completely dominates the smaller Nasrid Palaces next to it.

Alhambra Palace

Alhambra Palace

The Medina became the seat of government and courtiers and  members of nobility lived here. Many of these have disappeared, but a few survive as up market hotels. The Church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra was built on the site of the Great Mosque from 1581-1618.

Alhambra Palace

When the Bourbons assumed the Spanish crown in at the start of the C18th, the Alhambra fell out of favour as a Royal Residence. It suffered severe damage during the Spanish War of Independence at the start of the C19th when Napoleon’s troops attempted to blow it up and destroyed much of the Medina area. It was inhabited by squatters and used to house convicts as well as serving as a hospital. It was ‘rediscovered’ in the C19th by the Romantic movement, including Washington Irving who raised public awareness with his “Tales from the Alhambra”. The Alhambra was declared a National Monument in 1870 and underwent restoration in the early C20th. It is now a World Heritage Site.

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