The Alhambra

The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex on al-Sabika hill, on the banks of the River Darro located in Granada, Andalusia, in the south of Spain.

It has a chequered history – starting out as a small fortress in 889. The Moorish King of Grenada renovated it in the 11th century and then Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada converted it into a royal palace in the 1333, in a Moorish style.

After the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabel) conquered Andalucía in 1492, parts of the Alhambra were used by the Christian rulers, and eventually the mosque was replaced by a church. In 1527 Charles V built a palace based on Renaissance architecture within the complex as a permanent residence.

The complex fell into disrepair, inhabited by vagrants, and even being used as soldiers’ barracks during Napoleonic times, until Alhambra was rediscovered in the nineteenth century by European scholars and travellers.

On my first overseas trip in 1973 to visit my grandparents in Holland, my aunt invited me to join her on a wonderful 10-day holiday to the Costa del Sol – a highlight was exploring this fascinating Moorish citadel.

In September 2014 I was thrilled to visit it again as part of a tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Anne and I met during this tour – the beginnings of a fast friendship and little did we know, now writing posts together!

Anne and I on tour 2014 (Credit: Anne Newman)

To share the highlights of the Alhambra with you, I have used details from the following sources: zegrahm.com; thoughtco.com; justfunfacts.com and letstakethekidstravel.com. Images are my own, unless otherwise stated.

The Moorish architecture of Spain is known for its intricate plaster and stucco works — some originally in marble. The honeycomb and stalactite patterns, the non-Classical columns, and the open grandeur leave a lasting impression on any visitor. American author Washington Irving, who lived in the Alhambra for a time, famously wrote about his visit in the 1832 book Tales of The Alhambra:

The architecture, like that of all the other parts of the palace, is characterized by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste and a disposition to indolent enjoyment.

When one looks upon the fairy tracery of the peristyles and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller: it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition, that the whole is protected by a magic charm.

He goes on to say:

It is well-known that poems and stories ornament the Alhambra walls. The calligraphy of Persian poets and the transcriptions from the Koran make many of the Alhambra surfaces what Irving called "the abode of beauty...as if it had been inhabited but yesterday....

The tiles within the Alhambra contain all of the 17 mathematically possible wallpaper groups 1, which inspired artist M.C. Escher and his work on tessellation. Below is an example of intricate tile work at the Alhambra with a comparison to a work by Escher.Last year Anne and I attended an exhibition in Melbourne of Escher's fabulous works.

As you can see from the map below, the moors held a significant part of Spain from 1292-1462. As with all cities that have a long history, the Alhambra grew organically over time.

Map of Southern Spain during Moorish occupation (credit: wikipedia)

The 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.

Rick Steves gives us a short video to view the extent and beauty of the Alhambra:

The Nasrid 2 Palaces showcase most of the extraordinary art in the Alhambra. Lets take a closer look.

Court of the Myrtles

The Court of the Myrtles features a reflective pool at the center of the patio which helped cool the palace. It was also a symbol of power as only the sovereign could afford the complicated technology to deliver water, in short supply at the time, to the patio.

Water is considered one of the most profound elements in Islam - seen as life-giving, sustaining, and purifying and therfore an important component of traditional Islamic gardens and courtyards.

Courtyard of the Lions

The Alhambra is known for its water features, which include fountains, reflecting pools, water tanks, and acequia (ie aqueducts). The sounds of water can be heard from almost anywhere within the fortress. The most iconic water feature is the fountain in the Courtyard of the Lions, which represents the four heavenly gardens of Islam.

The dish-like alabaster fountain is supported 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.

The fountain (as well as many other water features) is fed by the Acequia Real. This network of water channels 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.

Ambassadors Hall (credit: commons-wikipedia)

The big tower hosts the Ambassadors Hall the largest hall in the Alhambra. In this very room Christopher Columbus received help from the Queen Isabella and King Ferdinando to jumpstart his new world adventure.

Hall of the Abencerrages (Credit: wikipedia)

In the Harem section is the Hall of the Abencerrages. This room is 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.

Hall of the Two Sisters (Credit: commons-wikipedia)

Opposite to the Hall of the Abencerrages is the Hall of The two Sisters. The room features an incredible dome honeycombed ceiling, one of the highest examples of Moorish stalactite vaulting.

The Generalife: Court of the Water Channel (Credit: Architecture.desktopnexus)

Water continues to be a prominent theme in the extensive gardens. The most remarkable features are the Court of the Water Channel, and the Sultana’s Garden or Courtyard of the Cypress, the oldest surviving Moorish garden.

Its delightful multi-level garden (below) features pebble mosaic floors, shady grottos and lush flora: bamboo, palm, cypress and pine trees; rose, honeysuckle and wisteria; and granada (pomegranate).

This villa dates back to the beginning of fourteenth century. The structure is separated from the main Alhambra complex and is known as the Generalife.

The Generalife: Multi-level garden (credit: socwall.com)

Before exploring the gardens further, lets take a look at the Palace of Charles V, which as mentioned in the video was built in the centre of the complex, as you can see on the map below.

Map of the Alhambra (Credit: alhambra.org)

It is a masonry building with a facade 63 meters wide and 17.40 meters tall, built with blocks of rusticated stone on the lower level and ashlar stone on the upper in a Renaissance-inspired style like the Medici Palace Florence. The work was done by architect Pedro Machuca.

The concept of the project is apparently original, due to the addition of the round porticoed courtyard in the external square block and the harmonious distribution of the columns.

Moorish poets described the Alhambra as a pearl set in emeralds, an allusion to the color of its buildings and the woods around them, as most of the buildings were whitewashed, but today, after years of being baked in the sun, appear reddish.

The red hue of Alhambra (Credit: Anne Newman)

With our guide, Anne and I spent a few hours exploring the gardens: more water features, pomegranate trees, cypress and flowers galore.

It was a hot afternoon and after 5 hours of exploring the wonders of the Alhambra and the gardens, we were content to enjoy a well earned gin and tonic and contemplate all that we had seen.

Next week, we head across the Atlantic to the west coast of the USA for a very different mansion.

1 Wallpaper patterns can by classified by the transformation groups that leave them invariant, their symmetry groups. A mathematical analysis of these groups shows that there are exactly 17 different plane symmetry groups. For further details click here.

2 The Nasrid dynasty was the last Muslim dynasty in the Iberian Peninsula, ruling the Emirate of Granada from 1230 until 1492. Twenty-three emirs ruled Granada from the founding of the dynasty in 1230 by Muhammad I until 2 January 1492, when Muhammad XII surrendered all lands to Queen Isabella I of Castile. Today, the most visible evidence of the Nasrid dynasty is part of the Alhambra palace complex built under their rule. (Credit: wikipedia)