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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

The Marvelous Alhambra

Updated: Apr 11

External view of the Alhambra

Washington Irving in his “Tales from Alhambra” described it as an object of devotion: “it was the royal abode of the Moorish kings, where, surrounded with the splendors and refinements of Asiatic luxury, they held dominion over what they vaunted as a terrestrial paradise, and made their last stand for empire in Spain”.

The name Alhambra came from the Arabic word qalat-al-hamrà that means red, red castle, from the ferrous materials used for the construction, mainly adobe bricks (mudbrick) made with clay, sand and straw dried in the shade.

The Alhambra was built both as a fortress and as a royal residence for the sultans, after that the Christians had conquered Cordova, that was the official capital of the powerful West Islamic Empire, known as El Andalus.

A distinction must be made between the Muslims of Spain: among those from the east, the Arabs, who considered themselves the pure race descended from the Prophet, and those from West Africa, the Berber, warrior and powerful tribes originating in Mount Atlas and in the Sahara Desert, known as the Moors who subdued the tribes of the coast. They founded Morocco and for many years fought with the Arabs for control of Muslim Spain.

From the middle of 13th century, the Moors dynasty of Nasrid established the construction of the Alhambra over an existing Arab fortress of the 10th century, building a complex with a citadel and royal palaces unique in the world.

In its best era the Alhambra, as a palatine city, occupied an approximate extension of 104,000 square meters, fortified with walls composed of thirty towers and three entrance gates.

Inside there were royal palaces, private and public mosques, the Madraza (the university), noble and popular residences, all the bureaucratic offices, the royal mint, shops, craft shops, public and private baths, royal cemetery and a fortress with military quarters.

The first building that was raised was the Alcabaza, the fortress and the wall that make the entire Alhambra enclosure. When Al-Ahmar ascended the throne of Granada in 1238, he decided not to build the Alcabaza on the ancient hill of the Albaicin, but for safety, he preferred to build it in the adjacent hill, outside the city enclosure, free from buildings and with easier access to the sierra and the sea.

The fortress rises 200 meters above the city of Granada, with a triangular shape, with 20 meters high towers and a double line of walls that allowed it never to be conquered.

The Alcabaza
Torre de la Vela

In the centre of the Alcabaza, there are the ruins of the guard houses and thanks to their remains you can still see the layout of a typical Muslim house: with an entrance, small patio around which there could be two or four rooms, and then the bathroom. The biggest residence, between them, is the one of the head of the garrison that stands out for the triple of the size with a mirror of water in the centre.

Behind these ruins you can admire the Torre de la Vela, the highest tower with its 27 metres.

Its name comes from the word “monitor” from there you could control everything that happened in Granada.

In Christian times, bells were placed to warn the population in case of earthquake or fire.

The most fascinating part of the Alhambra is the complex of the Nasrid Palaces that constituted the Royal House or Alcazar where the official and family life of the Nasrid Kings was articulated, this area is not in the centre but rises laterally oriented towards the Albaicin.

The complex is characterised by three buildings built in different eras and with different functions.

The first was the Mexuar which was used as a room for audiences with the subjects and for the administration of justice, then the Comares Palace as the official residence of the King and finally the Palace of the Lions, identified as the harem, was the most intimate home of the royal family.

The exterior of the Islamic buildings is really simple almost modest without motifs or decorative elements, completely opposite is the deeply decorated interior, sometimes even from the floor to the ceiling without gaps, following the Muslim custom of living more the indoor than the outdoor of the house.

The hall of the Mexuar

The first Palace is the Mexuar that was composed by the Machuca garden, the Hall of the Mexuar and the Patio of Mexuar. The hall of the Mexuar originally had an open roof with a lantern in the central part to let in the light. An elevated closed intermediate floor was the place where the Sultan sat to listen to the requests of his citizens without being seen. In the Christian period the place had undergone considerable changes to be transformed into a chapel but the typical Arab decorative motifs remain and can be divided into three groups: epigraphs, plant and geometric decoration. The inscriptions not only fulfil the function of decorative theme but also have an iconographic value comparable to the function that images have in the Christian world.

The plant motifs that can cover even large areas are continuous religious references to the Koran and the Paradise as a "garden of happiness".

Recurring motifs are plants, trees, cones and even shells that are the symbol of water, blessing and the word of Allah. Another very recurring plant motif is the arabesque made up of leaves and vegetables that are arranged in a dynamic, rhythmic and geometric way over the entire surface.

The hall of the Mexuar - 16 Points star decorations
The hall of the Mexuar- star decorations

Among the geometric decorations the most recurring form is the star (of 8, 16 or more points) originated by the rotation of the square that joins other stars and squares forming a geometric maze as can be seen in the Hall of the Mexuar.

The Comares Palace

Continuing the visit, you can admire the splendid façade of the de Comares Palace with its decorative richness and its composition. The upper part has a cedar gutter decorated with cones and shells. Below the windows closed by the mashrabiyya, a narrow grid, it indicates the residence of the concubines who could see without being seen.

The two rectangular doors edged by ceramic tales indicate the official entrance to the Sultan’s palace.

The branches are on the right or left never in a straight line so that the visitor remains disoriented and it is more difficult for him to enter and exit obliged to remain at the mercy of the host.

The patio de los Arrayanes (name that derives from the myrtles that are in its outer perimeter) designed in the purest Arabic lines with capitals of mocarabes (in Arabic muqarna) prisms or polyhedra, normally of wood or stucco, cut into concave shape at the bottom. At the centre there is a pool of water where everything is reflected with millimetre precision giving the feeling of eternity, while circular water sources represent the vital process.

The patio de los Arrayanes

In the north side of the patio, you can enter inside of the Sala de la Barca, this is the anteroom of the Hall of Ambassadors and takes its name from the shape of its roof that looks like a boat overturned or from the Arabic word "baraka" which means blessing and in this place the sultans were crowned.

The Sala de la Barca - @Fernando Acale Sanchez-

Behind the Sala de la Barca there is the largest and most elevated room of the entire building built in the form of a perfect cube inside the tower de la Comares, the Hall of Ambassadors.

The Hall of Ambassadors is decorated on the walls like a large carpet of stucco with shells, flowers and stars that gives us a naturalistic example of Arab architecture that tries to recreate nature in its interior.

The room was completely polychrome of gold colour on the parts in relief and on the cavities coloured with different colours. Other constant decorations on the walls are the inscriptions in kufic, cultured and straight writing that few people knew and cursive, writing that recurs in several places of the Alhambra.

The lower part of the walls is decorated with azulejos, ceramic tiles, the richest of all the rooms.

The Hall of Ambassadors - wall decorations

They are decorated with an eight-pointed star around which others turn in concentric circles creating nets. The colours alternate: the green is the colour of the Prophet, the yellow the colour of the sun, the blue the colour of the sky and Paradise and the red the colour of blood, of the warrior and heroic ardour. All Arabic art is closely related to spiritual perfection and mathematics, in which they were masters as can demonstrate their numerical system and countless algebra treatises.

The floor is no longer the original one that was a ceramic glaze floor white and blue.

The most extraordinary part of the whole hall is the ceiling, a masterpiece of Muslim carpentry.

The vault is 18 metres high made of cedar wood with lighter wood inserts for the decoration of the stars.

The Hall of Ambassadors - the vault

There are seven crowns of stars until you reach the central dome that represents the Islamic Paradise.

Each of these crowns are the seven heavens that one must cross to enter Paradise, and the four diagonals represent the four rivers of Paradise, which, like the Old Testament, is represented as an Eden or garden.

In the hall there are nine niches or alcoves, three on each side of the room, narrow and elongated (about 2.5 metres), the central alcove on the north side is that of the sultan, right in front of the front door.

To better understand the use of the Hall of Ambassadors, everything here has a mystical, mathematical or esoteric meaning.

The Hall of Ambassador - niche

The cubic-shaped hall represents the world while the vault is the sky meaning that everything is under God. Everything had to unfold from below in fact the king’s viziers sat in the alcoves while the sultan occupied the central alcove to dominate the interior and exterior space of the hall.

The ambassador or visitor in audience entered from the fully lit patio while the sultan and his viziers were in the half-light illuminated by the lights that entered through the coloured windows. This created an inferiority to the visitor who from the blinding light entered a room in half-light.

This play of light and shadow is very important in Arab homes. The upper windows of the Hall have only a ventilation function while the light enters from the lower ones. The windows are low because it was an Arabic customary to recline on the ground on cushions and sofas for this reason the whole Alhambra has been designed to be seen from the ground because it is the point where all the line of the space and lights joined.

In this Hall the last Sultan Boadbil granted the surrender of Granada to the Catholic Kings, Isabella and Ferdinand, and where King Charles V exclaimed: "Ill-fated the man who lost all this beauty".

The third royal palace was intended for the private life of the sultan and his family consisted in the centre of the famous Patio de los Leones around which are located the Sala de los Mocarabes, the Sala de Abencerrajes, Sala de los Reyes (Hall of Kings) and Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters).

All these halls were alcoves around the patio, which leave no doubt about the function of harem. No rooms have windows that open to the outside but have an internal garden, a hortus conclusus, that corresponds to the Arab idea of paradise and the reference it also in the harem word that means sanctuary.

Patio de los Leones

The disposition of the patio recalls the patio of the Roman houses and there are undoubtedly many Christian influences due to the friendship of Sultan Muhammad V, creator of the Palace of the Lions, and the Christian king Peter I "The Cruel". In the Patio de los Leones, everything is an allegory of Paradise, an oasis petrified and alive at the same time. It is surrounded by 124 white marble columns of Almeria, the symbol of the palms and in the centre according to some theories had to be a garden then later covered with marble slabs and the two temples on opposite sides of the garden echo the tents of the Bedouins and life nomad.

Four streams, as the four streams of Paradise, cut through the patio to join the centre in the fountain of the twelve Lions. The legends about this fountain are different: for some they are the twelve months of the year, for others they represent the zodiac signs, for others they are the tears of a princess who fell to the ground and brought out the twelve lions. It is actually a Jewish artwork representing the twelve tribes of Israel and it is a gift of the vizier and Jewish poet Samuel Ibn Nagrela to Sultan Muhammad V. The Patio of the Lions, with its Christian influences and Jewish work, is an example of the friendly coexistence between the three religions monotheistic: the Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

The Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Abencerrages) was the private room of the Sultan.

The walls are richly decorated: the stucco and the colours are original.

The tiles on the walls are from a Seville factory, of the sixteenth century and represent the zodiac.

The Hall of the Abencerrages- the star vault

The vault is a beautiful eight-pointed star made of plaster muqarnas that gives the feeling of the stalactites of a cave; in the centre of the floor a small fountain was used to reflect the decorations of the dome even on the ground. Depending on the time of day, the light that penetrated inside the room gave a different, enchanting and magical colour.

The Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings), occupies the entire eastern side of the courtyard, is named for the paintings that decorate the vault of the central apartment. It is the largest room of the Harem, divided into three equal and two smaller rooms that could serve as closets, due to their location and lack of lighting.

The Hall of the Kings - the vault

This place was probably meant for family celebrations. In the central vault, the paintings represent the first ten rulers of Granada, since the foundation of the sultanate, the one with the red beard is assumed to be Muhammad ibn Nasr, known as al-Hamar (the Red), the founder of the Nasrid dynasty.

On the side vaults, some decorations depict knights and ladies, made at the end of the fourteenth century: during his reign, Peter I of Castile asked the Sultan of Granada for help in restoring his castle (the Alcázar of Seville) this led to a real artistic interchange between the two kingdoms. The two paintings were made with a complex technique on leather.

The Hall of Two Sisters- the star vault

The Sala de las dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters) was the hall intended for the sultan’s favourites who lived with a certain independence. It had a viewpoint over the city and had a door that connected directly with the baths. The name probably derives from the white marble slabs resting on the ground on the sides of the central fountain equal in size, colour and weight or for one of the poems written on the wall that mention the constellation of Gemini. The stucco dome is beautiful star-shaped with holes that give lightness and movement.

the Mirador de Lindaraja

At the end there is the Mirador de Lindaraja, the House of the Sultan’s wife.

Its beauty and sophistication make it one of the most spectacular rooms in the Alhambra.

Incredible attention to detail: it has a wooden dome with inserts of coloured crystals, which were crossed by sunlight coloured the walls of the room. Originally the room overlooked Granada and the Darro valley and allowed a perfect rest but in Christian times a pavilion was built by Charles V that covered the view but after that a garden called, el Jardin de Lindaraja was created.

Follow some pertinences that were used by the Catholic kings who fell in love with the beauty of the Nasrid Palaces and made their home on visits to Granada. Nearby there are also the Royal Baths of the Palacio de Comares, which have always had an important function and meaning in Arab life. The bath is a religious obligation for an Arab, because the Koran obliges them to clean their bodies for spiritual cleansing.

The Royal Baths of the Palacio de Comares
The Royal Baths of the Palacio de Comares - the Dome

The Arab baths are generally a smaller copy of the Roman baths, normally have four rooms: a dressing room, a coldwater room for ablutions, the "tepidarium" room warm and steam and the "calidarium", bath for hot immersion. These baths were present in all the palaces but were forbidden in Christian times because they considered it a Muslim religious practice but only those of the Palacio de Comares were saved because they were used by Charles V.

The Palace of Charles V - internal court

Charles V also decided that he needed a New Royal Palace near the Nasrid Palaces that was built in Renaissance style by the architect Pedro Machuca, who had been a pupil in Italy of Michelangelo. The palace was entirely financed with the taxes that the Moors paid for the right to continue with their own religion and traditions. The façade is a reminiscent of the pediments of the sepulchres of the Medici in San Lorenzo, by Michelangelo, inside there is a huge circular patio with a double gallery in Roman style.

To complete the Alhambra was the Generalife, a palace and leisure garden used for isolation and rest that extended towards the mountain. It also had an agricultural and horticultural function, breeding and hunting reserve.

The Generalife- Palace and garden

Today it preserves the most beautiful gardens of the Alhambra with labyrinths, pergolas, rose gardens and water features.

From the top of the Generalife, you can admire the whole Alhambra and Granada.

Washington Irving described it is like living: “in the midst of an Arabian tale, and shut my eyes, as much as possible, to everything that called me back every-day life; and if there is any country in Europe where one can do so, it is in the poor, wild, legendary, proud-spirited, romantic Spain; where the old magnificent barbaric spirit still contends against the utilitarianism of modern civilisation”.

The Partal Palace

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