Perched atop a rocky hill along the banks of the River Darro, the high-walled Alhambra complex is a focal point of the city of Granada. It is located just west of the Andalusian city, on about 35 hilly acres in southern Spain.
The mere mention of the Alhambra has evoked history, beauty, and stunning art and architecture for centuries. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this medieval complex encompasses a palace, fortress, and gardens, all with a richly-layered history.
Iconic author Washington Irving, who lived in the Alhambra in 1829, wrote a book about his experiences. In it, he noted:
“To the traveller imbued with a feeling for the historical and poetical, so inseparably intertwined in the annals of romantic Spain, the Alhambra is as much an object of devotion […] How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous; how many songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this Oriental pile! […] Externally it is a rude congregation of towers and battlements, with no regularity of plan nor grace of architecture, and giving little promise of the grace and beauty which prevail within.”
Here we’ll take a look at some of the more fascinating facts about the Alhambra’s history, from the origins of its name to the art and architecture for which it is beloved by travelers around the world. We’ll also explore the background of its many buildings, which guests on Zegrahm’s Iberian Peninsula expedition cruise will have a chance to visit during a private tour.
EARLY ALHAMBRA HISTORY
1. The Alhambra was named after the color of the walls, which are distinctly reddish in tone. In Arabic, this color is called al-qal’a al-hamra.
2. Founded as a military base (which was built on top of ancient Roman ruins) in the 9th century, the Alhambra was turned into a royal residenceand seat of government in the mid-13th century.
3. King Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr (known as Alhamar) founded the Nasrid Kingdom in Granada. He started construction on the first palace and restoration of the old military fort. Alhamar's sons continued the work of ruling and restoration, as well as adding new buildings onto the Alhambra complex.
4. In 1492, Spain's Catholic monarchs (Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile) ended a 10-year war by conquering Granada and setting up a Catholic court in the Alhambra. This ended the period of Islamic rule in the region. Of course, additional structures were built afterward, including more housing, a church, and a monastery.
MAJOR BUILDINGS OF THE ALHAMBRA
5. The Alhambra’s buildings include royal palaces, royal apartments, gardens, pavilions, military barracks, mosques, churches, towers, and forts, most of which are enclosed within a high stone wall. As with all cities that have a long history, the Alhambra grew organically over time. There are four main sections.
6. The Alcazba was originally a military base. The buildings of Plaza de Armas, dating from the 13th century, are in ruins today. Still, visitors can see the foundations of the buildings, including houses, a cistern, bath, community kitchen, and– as befits a military fortress– a subterranean dungeon.
7. Also located in the Alcazba are Torre del Homenaje, Torre de las Armas, Torre de la Vela, and the Jardin de los Adarves (the Garden of the Ramparts, which offers some of the most beautiful views of the city). The entrances to the Torre de las Armas are horseshoe arches, some with benches for the guards.
8. The view from the Torre de la Vela is also incredible, with the city on one side and the Alhambra complex on the other. The bell of Torre de la Vela is of historical significance for both agricultural and military reasons.
9. The Nasrid Palaces are comprised of the Comares Palace, the Palace of the Lions, and the Partal Palace. These palaces showcase most of the extraordinary art in the Alhambra.
10. The Palacio de Carlos V includes Justice Tower (one of the main entrances to the Alhambra complex), the Square of the Cisterns, the Wine Gate, and the Charles V Palace (which boasts a circular patio). The Museum of the Alhambra, a must-see for visitors, is located on the ground floor of the Palacio de Carlos V.
OTHER ALHAMBRA FEATURES
11. The Medina was an annex created to cater to the palaces. Now in ruins, it historically featured public baths, workshops, cisterns, housing, and community kitchens.
12.Linked to the Alhambra by a series of gardens and surrounded by 220 hectares of meadows, the Generalife is filled with ornamental and vegetable gardens, beautiful buildings, and constant renovation and rebuilding. The Moorish gardening tradition can be seen throughout the Generalife.
13. The Alhambra is known for its water features, which include fountains, reflecting pools, water tanks, and acequia. The sounds of water can be heard from almost anywhere within the fortress.
14. The most iconic water feature is the fountain in the Courtyard of the Lions, which represents the four heavenly gardens of Islam. There you'll find a dish-like fountain held up by 12 unique, beautifully carved marble lions. The lions each spout water, which runs through four water streams across the marble courtyard and then into other rooms.
15. The fountain (as well as many other water features) is fed by the Acequia Real. This network of water channels (a.k.a. aqueducts) is a marvel of engineering and beauty. It was based on ancient Roman water channels, which diverted the River Darro (uphill!), and was expanded and used daily until the Catholic monarchs took over.
ALHAMBRA ART & ARCHITECTURE
16. Throughout the Alhambra, visitors will see endless art. UNESCO has designated this as a special interest for the Alhambra's use of plaster, wood, ceramics, and epigraphy into "talking architecture, whose contents are related to the religious, political, and poetic world of the Nasrid Dynasty, preserved and enriched by the best examples of the humanistic and innovative art of the Spanish Renaissance. The architectural ensemble is a living example of the mix of Easter and Western artistic traditions."
17. Did you know that the architects of the Alhambra planned for every bit of it to be decorated? This complex has art around every corner and on every surface, from vibrant tiles to latticed wooden window screens, from unique columns to walls filled with calligraphic decoration (including parts of the Koran, as well as epigraphic poems), and from decorated arches to fresco paintings.
18. Another feature seen throughout the Alhambra is a honeycomb-type arched, vaulted ceiling, called Muqarnas (also known as Mocárabes). Muqarnas ceilings can be seen in the Hall of the Kings, the Muqarnas Chamber, the Hall of the Two Sisters, and the Hall of the Ambassadors.
19. Of course, no mention of art in the Alhambra is complete without talking about math. The walls and columns of the complex are composed of (or decorated with) countless items that are geometric in nature, such as rhombuses, stars, and other symmetrical items.
20. The tiles within the Alhambra contain all of the 17 mathematically possible wallpaper groups, which inspired artist M.C. Escher and his work on tessellation.
BIO: Jessie Voigts has a Ph.D. in International Education, has lived and worked in Japan and London, and traveled all around the world. She’s published eight books about travel and intercultural learning, with more on the way. Jessie is constantly looking for ways to increase intercultural understanding and is passionate about sharing the world through her site, Wandering Educators.