The Alhambra, which literally means “The Red One” in Arabic, is a palace and fortress complex located in the city of Granada, in the Spanish southern region of Andalusia.
It was originally constructed as a small fortress in AD 889 on the remains of Roman fortifications, and then largely ignored until its ruins were renovated and rebuilt in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada, who built its current Alhambra palace and walls.
Afterwards, the Alhambra was transformed into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.
After the conclusion of the Spanish Christian Reconquista in 1492, the site became the Royal Court of the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand (who provided to Christopher Columbus the royal endorsement for his expedition to America), and the palace were partially altered with the Renaissance style.
In 1526, Charles I & V commissioned a new Renaissance palace better befitting the Holy Roman Emperor in the revolutionary Mannerist style, influenced by humanist philosophy in direct juxtaposition with the Nasrid Andalusian architecture. Nevertheless, it was ultimately never completed due to Morisco rebellions in Granada.
The Alhambra is now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions, exhibiting the country’s most significant and well-known Islamic architecture, together with 16th-century and later Christian building and garden interventions. In fact, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the inspiration for many songs and stories.
Moorish poets described the Alhambra as “a pearl set in emeralds”, an allusion to the colour of its buildings and the woods around them. The palace complex was designed with the mountainous site in mind, in addition to the consideration of the use of many forms of technology. The park (“Alameda de la Alhambra”), which is overgrown with wildflowers and grass in the spring, was planted by the Moors with roses, oranges, and myrtles; its most characteristic feature, however, is the dense wood of English elms brought by the Duke of Wellington in 1812. The park has a multitude of nightingales and is usually filled with the sound of running water from several fountains and cascades. These are supplied through a conduit 8 km (5.0 mi) long, which is connected with the Darro at the monastery of Jesus del Valle above the city of Granada.
The Alhambra endures as an atypical example of Muslim art in its final European stages, relatively uninfluenced by the direct Byzantine influences found in the Mosque of Cordoba (Mezquita de Córdoba).
The majority of the palace buildings are quadrangular in plan, with all the rooms opening on to a central court. The whole reached its present size simply by the gradual addition of new quadrangles, designed on the same principle, though varying in dimensions, and connected with each other by smaller rooms and passages.
The Alhambra was increased by the different Muslim rulers who lived in the complex. However, each new section that was added followed the consistent theme of “Paradise on Earth”. Column arcades, fountains with running water, and reflecting pools were used to add to the aesthetic and functional complexity. In every case, the exterior was left plain and austere. Sun and wind were freely admitted. Blue, red, and a golden yellow are the colors chiefly employed, all somewhat faded through lapse of time and exposure.
The decoration consists for the upper part of the walls, as a rule, of Arabic inscriptions (mostly poems by Ibn Zamrak and others praising the palace) that are manipulated into geometrical patterns with vegetal background set onto an arabesque setting (“Ataurique”). Much of this ornament is carved stucco (plaster) rather than stone.
Tile mosaics (“alicatado”), with complicated mathematical patterns (“tracería”, most precisely called “lacería”), are largely used as panelling for the lower part. Similar designs are displayed on wooden ceilings (Alfarje). Muqarnas are the main elements for vaulting with stucco, and some of the most accomplished dome examples of this kind are in the Court of the Lions halls.
The palace complex of the Alhambra is designed in the Nasrid style, the last blooming of Islamic Art in the Iberian Peninsula. It had a great influence on the Maghreb to the present day, as well as on contemporary Mudejar Art, which is characteristic of western elements reinterpreted into Islamic forms and widely popular during the Reconquista in Spain.
The Royal Complex (Plaza de Nazaríes) consists of three main parts: Mexuar, Serallo and the Harem.
The Mexuar is modest in decor and housed the functional areas for conducting business and administration. Strapwork is used to decorate the surfaces in Mexuar. The ceilings and trim are made of dark wood and are in sharp contrast to white, plaster walls.
The Serallo, built during the reign of Yusuf I in the 14th century, contains the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). Brightly colored interiors featured dado panels, yesería, tiles, cedar, and artesonado. “Artesonado” are highly decorative ceilings and other woodwork.
Lastly, the Harem of the Alhambra is also elaborately decorated and contained the living quarters for the wives and mistresses of the Arab monarchs. This area contains a bathroom with running water (cold and hot), baths and pressurized water for showering. The bathrooms were open to the elements in order to allow in light and fresh air.
Courtyard of Myrtles
The Court of Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes) is located east of the Gilded Room (Cuarto Dorado) and west of the Courtyard of the Lions and the Baths. Its current name is due to the myrtle bushes that surround the central pond and the bright green colour that contrasts with the white marble of the patio.
It was also called the Courtyard of the Pond or the Reservoir (Patio del Estanque or Patio de la Alberca) because of the central pond, which is 34 metres long and 7.10 meters wide.
This patio of the Alhambra is divided in two sides by the pond, which receives its water from two fountains. The space has chambers and porticoes around it. These porticoes rest on columns with cubic capitals, which have seven semicircular arches decorated with fretwork rhombuses and inscriptions praising God. The central arch is greater than the other six and has solid scallops decorated with stylized vegetal forms and capitals of mocarabes.
The most important chambers that surround the Patio are the ones in the north side, which are part of the Comares Palace, the residence of the King.
Hall of the Ambassadors
The Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores) is the largest room in the Alhambra and occupies all the Torre de Comares. It is a square room, the sides being 12 m (37 ft) in length, while the center of the dome is 23 m (75 ft) high.
This was the grand reception room, and the throne of the sultan was placed opposite to the entrance. The grand hall projects from the walls of the palace, providing views in three directions. In this sense, it was a lookout from which the palace’s inhabitants could gaze outward to the surrounding landscape.
The tiles are nearly 4 ft (1.2 m) high all round, and the colors vary at intervals. Over them there is a series of oval medallions with inscriptions, interwoven with flowers and leaves. There are nine windows, three on each facade, and the ceiling is decorated with white, blue and gold inlays in the shape of circles, crowns and stars. The walls are covered with varied stucco works, surrounding many ancient escutcheons.
Courtyard of the Lions
The Courtyard of the Lions is an oblong courtyard of the Alhambra, 35 m in length and 20 m in width, surrounded by a low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns. A pavilion projects into the courtyard at each extremity, with filigree walls and light domed roof, elaborately ornamented. The square is paved with coloured tiles, and the colonnade with white marble; while the walls are covered 1.5 m up from the ground with blue and yellow tiles, with a border above and below enamelled blue and gold. The columns supporting the roof and gallery are irregularly placed, with a view to artistic effect, while the general form of the piers, arches and pillars is most graceful and are adorned by varieties of foliage. Above each arch there is a large square of arabesques, and over the pillars there is another square of filigree work. In the center of the courtyard is the well-known Fountain of Lions, a magnificent alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble.
The courtyard is divided in four parts, each of them symbolizing one of the four parts of the world. Each part is irrigated by a water channel that symbolize the four rivers of Paradise. This courtyard is, therefore, an architectural materialization of Paradise, where the gardens, the water, and the columns form a conceptual and physical unity. The slender column forest have been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert, deeply related with Paradise in the Nasrid imagination.
Nowadays the flower garden has been substituted by a dry garden of pebbles, in order not to affect the foundation of the palace with the watering. In Nasrid times, the floor of the quartered planting beds was slightly lower than the general level, and the visual effect was like a tapestry of flowers, as the top of the plants were cut to the same level of the courtyard, and these were carefully chosen to cover a host of color nuances.
Fountain of the Lions
In the centre of the Alhambra’s Court of the Lions, you can find the Fountain of the Lions, an alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble as symbols of strength, power and sovereignty.
Each hour one lion would pour water from its mouth.
At the edge of the great fountain there is a poem written by Ibn Zamrak. This praises the beauty of the fountain and the power of the lions, but it also describes their ingenious hydraulic systems and how they actually worked, which baffled all those who saw them.
Hall of the Abencerrajes
The Hall of the Abencerrajes (Sala de los Abencerrajes) derives its name from a legend according to which the father of Boabdil, the last sultan of Granada, massacred all his guests (chiefs of a line of succession) after he invited them to a banquet.
This room of the Alhambra consists of a perfect square, with a lofty dome and trellised windows at its base. The roof is decorated in blue, brown, red and gold, and the columns supporting it spring out into the arch form in a remarkably beautiful manner.
Opposite to this hall is the Hall of the two Sisters (Sala de las dos Hermanas), so-called from two white marble slabs laid as part of the pavement. These slabs measure 500 by 220 cm (15 by 7½ ft). There is a fountain in the middle of this hall, and the ceiling (a dome honeycombed with tiny cells, all different, and said to number 5000) is an example of the “stalactite vaulting” of the Moors.
The Palace of “Generalife” (which literally means “Architect’s Garden” in Arabic) was the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid rulers of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus.
The complex consists of the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel or Water-Garden Courtyard), which has a long pool framed by flowerbeds, fountains, colonnades and pavilions, and the Jardín de la Sultana (Sultana’s Garden or Courtyard of the Cypress). The former is thought to best preserve the style of the medieval Persian garden in Al-Andalus.
Originally the palace was linked to the Alhambra by a covered walkway across the ravine that now divides them.
The Generalife is one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens.
Other parts of the Alhambra
Among the other features of the Alhambra are the Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice), the Patio del Mexuar (Court of the Council Chamber), the Patio de Daraxa (Court of the Vestibule), and the Peinador de la Reina (Queen’s Robing Room), in which there is similar architecture and decoration. The palace and the Alta Alhambra (Upper Alhambra) also contain baths, rows of bedrooms and summer-rooms, a whispering gallery and labyrinth, and vaulted sepulchres.
The original furniture of the palace is represented by one of the famous Alhambra vases: very large Hispano-Moresque ware vases made in the Sultanate to stand in niches around the palace.
These famous examples of Hispano-Moresque ware date from the 14th and 15th centuries. The one remaining in the palace, from about 1400, is 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in) high; the background is white and the decoration is blue, white and gold.