The Alhambra

So, as promised, the magnificent Alhambra [thanks Wikipedia for this photo – a view I didn’t get but taken, I think, from the Albayzín] …….

It takes its name from the Arabic “al-quala’a al-hamra” – the red castle and I will start with a potted history, gleaned mainly from our Lonely Planet guide, which really helped us to understand what we were looking at as we wandered around.

The first palace on the site was built in C11 by a Jewish grand vizier for his Zirid sultan. In C13/14 the Nasrid emirs turned the area into a fortress palace, adjoined by a village of which only its ruins remain, and the Generalife was built as a summer palace. After the Christian re-conquest, the mosque was replaced with a church and a convent, now a Parador (hotel), was built. Emperor Carlos V had a wing of the palaces destroyed to make space for his huge Renaissance structure. During the Napoleonic occupation the Alhambra was used as a barracks and nearly blown up, so some of what we see today is very careful restoration work.

Our tour started half way up the winding street “Cuesta de Gomérez when we passed through the gate of “Las Granadas”, adorned with three pomegranates, the symbol of Granada.

It was not the original main gate – that being accessed through the Alcazaba – but became the principal entrance after the transformation of the rugged terrain, formerly its natural defences in the Sabika ravine, and the formation of a poplar grove with walkways, created in 1730 for a visit by King Philip V.

It is a very pleasant way to approach the Alhambra and turning round at various points means you get lovely views of the city.

We had pre-booked our tickets – including the Palacios Nazaríes, which is probably a good thing because we heard several people being told there were no more tickets available that day so they had to be content with walking around some of the gardens and parts that don’t require a ticket. But the Palacios Nazaríes is what everyone really comes for. We had left in good time for our allocated 2pm slot and were able to meander through some of the gardens, past what seemed to be new digs – perhaps more of the original village?

Entrance into the Palaces is through the Mexuar….

….initially an antechamber whilst awaiting audience, but later converted to a chapel. Right from the start you get an idea of what is to come – colourful mosaic tiles……

….. stunning carved and stuccoed arches and walls……

…… and amazing ceilings.

The antechamber/chapel also contains this tile plaque…

PLVS VLTRE [or Plus Ultra] meaning “Further Beyond”. In Greek mythology these words were carved on the Pillars of Hercules marking off the west entrance to the Mediterranean and the edge of the known world. The words have inspired many travellers to seek out the unknown and in C16 were adopted, by the future King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor Carlos V, as a personal motto.

From the Mexuar you pass into the Patio del Cuarto Dorado – a forecourt to the main palace with two symmetrical doors.

Those visitors hoping to see the emir who were ushered through the right hand door were disappointed. It leads back outside! The left hand one passes through a dog-leg passage….

……into another patio.

There are numerous passages and corridors throughout the palaces which were designed to keep the interior rooms private and/or to provide views to the outside and allow light to get in.

Obviously we must have passed muster as we made it through the dog-leg and into the Patio de los Arrayanes.

This “Court of the Myrtles” was the centre of a C14 palace built for Emir Yusuf I and there are several doorways….

…..leading to rooms….

……which look out onto the rectangular pool.

Traces of cobalt paint cling to the “muqarnas” [honeycomb vaulting].

Yusuf’s visitors would have been presented to him in the elaborate Salón de los Embasajores….

…..crowned by its marvellously domed parquetry ceiling which is made up of more than 8,000 cedar pieces creating a star pattern – an intricate representation of the seven heavens.

Next is Patio de los Leones…

….the restored mid C14 courtyard built by Mohammed V. However, the centrepiece which channeled water through the mouths of 12 marble lions has been in the palaces since C11. Incredible.

The proportions, symmetry and exterior stucco work in this patio are examples of the artistic heights to which Granada’s emirate’s architects and craftsmen reached.

The rooms surrounding the patio are equally amazing.

The eye catching tiles on the walls of the Sala de los Abencerrajes….

…are outdone by one of the most spectacular ceilings I have seen and this photo does not do it justice.

Even more jaw dropping muquanas covered the corniches, walls and ceiling in the Sala de Dos Hermanas…..

The photograph of the underside of the arch doesn’t adequately show their breadth but above were corridors which were used mainly by women to peer down from above, without being seen, through the elaborately carved wood screens.

It is suggested that perhaps others, involved in palace intrigue, also found these screens useful!

If that wasn’t enough, there is also some spectacular carved calligraphy running around the room at eye level …

….  a poem praising Mohammad V for his victory in Algeciras in 1368…..

In another, smaller, room we saw evidence of where Carlos V had added a lower ceiling….

… and finally we emerged into rooms built specifically for Carlos which were so dull in comparison that I forgot to take any photos except of this plaque…

…which commemorates a short stay in them by Washington Irving in 1829 which prompted his book “Tales of the Alhambra”.

That last passageway took us past the domed roofs of the baths which were accessed from the patio on the floor below. We weren’t allowed to enter, but you could get an impression of how the carved holes created muted light.

Here we exited the Palacios Nazaríes and emerged into an area of terraced gardens created in early C20.










Looking back across the reflecting pool the oldest surviving palace of the Alhambra can be seen, built by Mohammed III between 1302 and 1309.

From these gardens we looked up at the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Alhambra.

We had passed the opposite side of it when we first arrived….

…. and its prominent elevated position means it can be seen from much of the wider Alhambra grounds and buildings.

Late afternoon shadows over the church, seen from the Generalife

After some reviving refreshment in the gardens we walked down to the west end of the grounds, to the Alcazaba – the original village…..

……ramparts and towers. The Torre de la Vela [watchtower]….

…has a narrow staircase which leads to the top terrace from where you can better see the outline of the houses in the village.

You may remember that I included a similar view looking SE across to the Sierra Nevada in my previous post. This time, looking North and West you see the city with the Albayzín district at the right hand side.

Looking back at the Palaces it is hard to believe that such splendour is hidden behind these plain walls.

Clashing dramatically with the Muslim palaces, the large building on the right is the Palace of Carlos V. It is an imposing building…

with its lion and eagle embellishments…










….. in which neither Carlos, nor as far as I can make out anybody else, ever actually lived in. He commissioned it in 1526 and building commenced in 1533 overseen by the designer, Pedro Machuca, a Toledo architect who studied under Michaelangelo. Pedro died in 1550, then his son, Luis, took over and developed the circular courtyard.

Carlos died in 1558 before any roofs were added. Work continued until 1568 when the building was abandoned for 15 years following the Moors rebellion. In 1619 the construction of the high colonnade of the courtyard was completed….

……but it was definitively abandoned in 1637, leaving the roof still unfinished. It remained in that state until Leopoldo Torres Balbas, a renowned restoration architect from Madrid, devised a plan to recover it in 1923. It was Balbas who also did much of the work in the Patio de los Leones inside the Palacios Nazaríes.

Our final port of call was the Generalife, but on our way to it we passed the small museum of Angel Barrios.

For part of C19 the building was apparently the home of the guitarist Antonio Barrios, father of musician and composer, Angel, who donated it to the Alhambra as a museum. The building contains the baths built for the Mosque of the Alhambra which was on the nearby site now occupied by the above mentioned church of Santa Maria.

The steam bath [Hammam] is a most characteristic part of Islamic culture and this kind of building is often found near, or in, a mosque. As well as being for worshipers to undertake major purifying ablutions, they were also places to meet and socialise.

The Generalife comes from the Arabic “jinan al-‘arif” [the overseer’s gardens] and the area lived up to its name. The area was full of garden, patio, pool and fountain and views over the city and Alhambra….






















……and a lovely setting for the summer palace which sits at its north end.

In the second courtyard the trunk of a 700 year old Cyprus tree remains…

… with this plaque beneath.

“Legend has it that this Cypress of the Sultana witnessed the affair of an Abencerraje knight and the wife of Boabdil”. You might remember that one of the ornate rooms was the Sala de Abencerrajes, a family who supported the young Boabdil in a power struggle between him and his father. The story is that the lovers met under the tree’s shade in the moonlight and were denounced to the last Arab king of Granada. The rage of Boabdil was so great that in retaliation for this, he ordered the beheading of several knights of the noble Muslim Abencerrajes tribe. According to legend, even today the iron rust stains at the bottom of the fountain of the Sala de los Abencerrajes contain the blood that was shed in revenge. Alternatively this could have been made up by romantic C18 travellers, maybe even Washington Irving.

It seems Carlos V had to make his mark on these grounds too…..

Now partly hidden, the lion once guarded the steps down to the final garden and small “Casa de los Amigos” – a very fitting end to a brilliant day at the Alhambra.

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1 comment

    • Mohammed aZad on May 3, 2018 at 10:37 pm
    • Reply

    Very good and informative blog . I have been to the Alhambra and was nice to be able see and remember the beautiful sights . Many thanks

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