Construction of the Alhambra (Granada, Spain) was started in 1238 by order of the Nasrid King Mohammed I (Muhammad ben Yusuf ben Nasr), who came into power in 1236. The palace stands on top of the Cerro del Sol (hill of the sun), overlooking Granada. La Alhambra (Arabic for "red fortress") served both as a fortress and as a palace for the Arab rulers. It is strikingly beautiful in design and decoration. The palace has many reflecting pools, courtyards and patios and the walls are decorated with beautiful elaborate geometric designs.

Granada became the last Moorish stronghold, when the Iberian peninsula was slowly reconquered by Catholic kings. Boabdil would be the last Moorish ruler of Granada. The legend goes that when he surrendered the city he cried, not because he lost the city, but because he would have to abandon the Alhambra. His mother chastized him: "Don't cry like a woman for what you could not defend like a man."

The Alhambra lies majestically atop the hill of La Sabica on the outskirts of the Spanish city of Granada. Once a small town in the midst of a vast Moorish kingdom, Granada grew rapidly in both size and importance as the knights of Christendom overran the Muslim strongholds of Toledo and Cordoba during the late 11th and early 13th centuries. The Alhambra was originally built in the 9th century as a simple fortress overlooking the city, but when the Moorish rulers chose to reestablish themselves in Granada, it was used as the nucleus of what was to become one of the most elaborate and beautiful structures in architectural history.

The Alhambra's name derives from the Arabic "Madinat al-Hamra", meaning "red or crimson castle", a name given because of the reddish hue of the fortress' tower walls which stand, imposing atop the hillside. Legend has it that their unique coloration came from the torchlight by which the castle was built. The Alhambra's purpose is threefold: it was originally built as an alcazaba (fortress) and, when expanded, became both an alcazar (palace) and a medina (a small city unto itself). Its principal sections are the old fortress, the monastery, the palaces of the Moorish rulers, know as the Casa Vieja ("Old House" in Spanish) and the palace of Charles V.

The early Moorish leaders of Granada, the Zirites, lived in their palaces on the hill of the Albaicin, none of which have stood the test of time. The first kings too inhabit the Alhambra, the Nasrites, began their restoration of the alcazaba in during the 13th century. Muhammad Al-Ahmar, the founder of the dynasty, and his son, Muhammad II, completed the majority of the work during their reigns. The Casa Vieja was constructed during the 14th century by Yusuf I, who built the Cuarto de Comares, the Puerta de la Justicia and the baths. His son, Muhammad V, rounded out the construction of the palaces with the famous Cuarto de los Leones amongst other, lesser rooms and fortifications. These sections of the Alhambra are strikingly beautiful. The walls are decorated with intricate stucco designs, glazed tile dadoes and complex wooden vaults. Around most every room run poetic passages from the Qu'ran which blend harmoniously with the palace's ornate architecture. Myrtle-lined courtyards with crystal clear ponds running along their lengths connect the various rooms of the royal residences.

Toward the end of the 15th century, when the Moorish kingdom, the westernmost rampart of Islam, fell to the Catholic rulers of Spain, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, Granada was ruled by Muhammad XI. This corrupt king, known to the Spanish as Boabdil el Chico ("the boy" or "the small"), seized the throne from his father, throwing the kingdom into disarray and facilitating the task of the Catholic conquerors. He agreed to surrender Granada to the invaders in exchange for cities ruled by the rival faction, but would renege and, after almost a year under siege, was forced to beat a hasty retreat to Morocco in January of 1492. Ferdinand and Isabella came to love and admire the beauty of the Alhambra so, that they made it their official residence for a brief period and were later entombed beneath the chapel of the Franciscan Monastery that would later be built higher up on the mountain. At the time, military garrisons were also added to the palace's structure.

In the long tradition of Spanish rulers destroying archaeological wonders, Charles V elected to build a palace of his own adjacent to and partially in the Alhambra, which necessitated the destruction of some of the burial grounds and gardens and the palaces of the king's children. The Palace of Charles V was one of the first Renaissance style buildings built outside of Italy and was designed by Pedro Machuca, a student of Michelangelo. It is, by and large, overwrought and uninteresting. Its only feature of any architectural value, and that questionable, is the majestic circular courtyard. The palace, whose construction began in 1533, was never completed.

Proper care of the Alhambra waned during the 18th and 19th centuries and the palace saw use as a munitions dump, a debtor's asylum, a prison and a hospital. It was, at time, inhabited by thieves and beggars. Early photographs detail the destruction that was inflicted upon the gorgeous buildings and the sight is truly shocking. Napoleon Bonaparte's troops, never ones to be left out when there are architectural wonders to defile, were garrisoned in the palace while they held the city of Granada between 1808 and 1812. During their retreat, the Torre de Siete Suelos (Tower of Seven Floors) and the Torre de Agua (Tower of Water) were mined and blown up in their wake. In 1870, the Alhambra was declared a national monument and its restoration began when it captured the attention of artists and writers of the Romantic movement. One such author was Washington Irving, who, while on leave from his job at the American consulate, spent three months living in the palace of Charles V. While there, he listened to the stories of gypsies who camped in the palace and they became the basis for his best-selling book, Tales of the Alhambra. Later on, Ernest Hemingway would also live in the Alhambra for a spell during his travels.

Restoration of the Alhambra continues to this day and it grows only more beautiful with each passing year. I myself visited the Alhambra while traveling through Andalusia, the southernmost province in Spain. Though I was very young at the time, I still vividly recall walking up the tree-lined stone path, watching the flow of water by the side of the road carry red, gold and yellow leaves past us, away from our destination, the mysterious and exotic confines of the palace above. The memories of the lush gardens of the Patio de los Arrayanes and the splash of cool water from the mouths of the regal stone lions in the Patio de los Leones remain with me to this day. It is one of countless memories I treasure from my childhood, growing up in Spain, but it is still one of the most unique. It is an experience I hope will remain with me until my dying day.

Sources: - has some beautiful pictures

Al*ham"bra (#), n. [Ultimately fr. Ar. al the + hamra red; i. e., the red (sc. house).]

The palace of the Moorish kings at Granada.


© Webster 1913.

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