If you have a lot of curiosity and a sense of discovery, you will find something wonderful wherever you are. And sometimes, this discovery is so memorable, you won’t ever forget it. One of those incredible discoveries is The Alhambra in Granada, Spain. You cannot be there without being awed at its beauty and uniqueness. Built on a hill, it is part palace, part fort and part lesson in medieval architecture as practiced by well-known Islamic architects in the 13th and 14th centuries. The UN has declared it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
First built in 889 as a small fortress, the Alhambra was rebuilt in the mid 13th century by Moorish Emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar and converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Emir Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. (You will recall from your history class that this was the period when the Moors had conquered the south of Spain and reigned supreme there for over 700 years.) When the Moors were defeated in the 15th century, the Alhambra was not destroyed and Queen Isabelle and King Ferdinand moved into it. It was here where they received Columbus requesting sponsorship of his famous trip to you-know-where.
The Alhambra is described by Moorish poets as “a pearl set in emeralds.” This is primarily because the buildings were whitewashed and their surrounding woods green. Today, the buildings have a reddish hue, like the rich clay soil from which they were made. Alhambra means “the red.”
The Alhambra is 2,430 feet in length and 670 feet at its greatest width. Each occupant has extended the site so that today, with all of its buildings and gardens, it covers 35 acres. As Lonely Planet describes it, “it is a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle and ancient spirits seem to linger.” The rooms of the majority of the buildings open into a central court, all connected to one another by smaller rooms and passages. While the exterior is plain, the interiors are more complicated.
You will be amazed at the stilted arches, honeycomb vaulting, and the stalactite ceiling decorations as well as the Arabesques and calligraphy of Muslim poets. The Courtyard of the Lions features a centerpiece fountain that channeled water through the mouths of 12 marble lions and dates from the 11th century. Lions were symbols of strength and courage. This courtyard demonstrates the complexity of Islamic design and the stucco work here has an almost lacelike detail.
The paint in the Hall of La Barca resembled flocked wallpaper at one point. Yusuf’s visitors would have passed this annex room to meet him in the Hall of the Ambassadors. Its domed marquetry ceiling uses more than 8000 cedar pieces to create an intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is the largest room in the complex. This is where the Sultan met his guests. His throne was set up opposite the entrance. The dome in this room is 75 feet high. Tiles around the walls are nearly four feet high. Above them is a series of oval medallions with inscriptions woven with flowers and leaves. The ceiling is decorated with white, blue and gold inlays in shapes of circles, crowns and stars.
The Hall of the Abencerrages, according to legend, is where the father of Boabdil, the last Sultan of Granada, invited the chiefs of that line to a banquet and massacred them. (Shades of “Game of Thrones”!)
There are many other rooms of interest in the Alhambra and one of the most popular is the Palace of Generalife. This villa dates from the 14th century and is surrounded by pathways, patios, pools, fountains, tall trees and seasonal flowers with breathtaking scenery. It is a definite not-to-be- missed.
The Alhambra has changed organically over the centuries, depending on who was in residence and power at the time. You will need at least three hours to cover all rooms and buildings and come away with a great respect for the Moorish culture and its artistic impact on history.
All books are available at amazon.com. Click on title to lean more.
The Alhambra and Generalife in Focus. 2000.
by Aurelio Cid Acedo
Landfalls: On the Edge of Islam from Zanzibar to the Alhambra.
by Tim Mackintosh-Smith
Fodor’s Spain. 2016.
Fodor’s Travel Guides. 2016.
The Gardens on the Alhambra Hill: A Meditated Vision.
by Jose Tito Rojo.
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