The magnificent Alhambra fortress was the last stronghold of the Moorish kingdom in Europe, with a palace that highlighted the decorative splendor of that civilization. While the rest of Europe dragged through the Middle Ages, Granada blossomed from the 1200’s to nearly the 1500’s. What you see today is merely a glimpse of what the magnificence must have been. Time marched on, and in this case not for the better. The Christians built their own version of beauty on top of some of the Alhambra, it fell into ruin and was populated by the homeless, Napoleon stationed his troops there in the 1800’s contributing substantially to its ruin (he blew up several of the gates), and of course time itself dulls or eliminates the paint and gilding that was once a source of its beauty. Nevertheless, as you’ll see – it ain’t bad!
You need tickets to see the Alhambra, and they verge on scarce. Only (!) 300 visitors are allowed to enter the palace every 30 minutes, and with up to 8,000 visitors a day, that’s a problem. The good news is that some areas of the Alhambra are accessible and free, and we’ll visit those first. We’ll walk up the hill, which is pretty steep, as you can see in the picture to the left (and as you want in a fortress). Note that the walls of the Alhambra connected with the walls around Granada, the remnants of which you can see in the photo above. There’s a reason this place was the lone hold-out for 200 years.
Granada goes back in time a millennium or much more, so it is no surprise that there are walls on top of walls on top of repaired walls, and ruins here and there. When one encounters the fortress walls/towers, they are impressively vertical and remarkably well-preserved. At one point there were 30 of these towers.
Pictures below show the Justice gate into the fortress (there were only 4 gates). As you can see, it was built for defense! Big motha’. In addition to the gate’s four 90º turns for better defense, it has a metal door that looks pretty sturdy. And it’s not just a functional gate – there are remnants of decoration.
The Moors had a thing for water. To the Moors, coming from the desert, water was precious; they reveled in it and surrounded themselves with ponds, fountains and gardens. There is a river at the base of the Alhambra’s hill; the Moors diverted water from that river at a point upstream and uphill, running it down through the sultan’s summer home and garden, the Generalife, and then via aqueduct into the Alhambra city complex and palace (summer home and water path shown to the left; details later in the post). Much of that infrastructure still remains and some is still functional, as shown below.
Once through the Justice Gate, the Wine Gate greets you. One of the oldest constructions of the Alhambra, it separated the fortress (Alcazaba) from the town (medina) and palace within the Alhambra walls.
Nearby is Charles V’s palace; the conquerors should have their own palace, right? Not that old one, the Moors’ Palacios Nazaries that we’ll visit shortly. So in 1533 good ol’ Charles V (you remember him, right? He OK’d construction of the Catholic cathedral in the middle of Córdoba’s Mesquita [post of May 13, 2014; “Córdoba”]) started construction of a new palace, financed by a poke-in-the-eye tax on Granada’s Muslim population. However, a few years later Charlie lost interest and the project was abandoned without its planned roof. Like the cathedral within the Mesquita, the architectural style of the palace (Renaissance) looks VERY much out of place in the Alhambra, but it is interesting in its own right. On the exterior, the building is square, with pilasters framing the entrance. The blocks beneath the bases of the pilasters have some fine carved battle scenes showing who won and who lost and why this building sits here, just in case you forgot (below, left). Going into the building, a big
surprise is that most of it is an open, completely circular courtyard, a circle within a square. The large courtyard is surrounded by marble columns that create a covered balcony and a gallery (above, right).
With tickets in hand, we now pass through the Wine Gate and face the Alcazaba, which certainly looks imposing even from inside the walls. The courtyard in the front was originally a moat, which would have made it even more impressive! The fortress is old, from the 1200’s, but is mostly in ruins, much of the destruction caused by Napoleon’s troops. Pictures are shown below. Note that the entrance into the fort, shown from different levels, is a back-and-forth path protected by several gates, the approach incredibly exposed from above. I would NOT want to be part of the attacking party!
We’re now going to walk to the Generalife, the summer palace and gardens of the sultan. It’s at the other end of the Alhambra complex, past what used to be an urban town (medina) of 2,000 people who lived up here. The medina was also destroyed by the invading French, and ruins are only sporadically visible. It is, however, a pleasant walk (see below).
One of the interesting buildings we walk past is the Parador de Granada San Francisco. A Parador is an historical building that the Spanish government runs as a fancy hotel. Within the Alhambra the building was a Moorish palace but was subsequently converted to a Franciscan monastery. As you can see below it’s quite attractive. How cool would it be to sleep here within the Alhambra! But, alas, it’s far too expensive for our budget.
We continue to walk to the Generalife. Tall evergreens line a charming path to the extensive gardens, where more evergreens in many shapes form shady, secluded, hidden areas around fountains and pools. Everything seems to be in bloom. It’s hard to capture the beauty of such an expanse in the small area of a photo, but I do take some side shots of flower areas with a view of the Alhambra.
At the end of the gardens is the sultan’s summer home, a cool and quiet escape. You saw the overview of the summer home earlier (above) when we discussed the aqueduct. Now we’ll go inside this house. Even after all these centuries, it’s still pretty spectacular for a “get-away” place. Pictures below.
THE PALACIOS NAZARIES
Finally, it is our time to enter the Palacios Nazaries (miss that entry time by 30 minutes and you don’t get in). This is the jewel of the Alhambra, the reason most people come to Granada. The royal palace was built mostly in the 1300’s and is the best example of the elegant Moorish civilization of that time. Remember that gorgeous palace in Sevilla’s Alcazar (post of May 1, 2014, “Sevilla’s Alcazar”)? It was copying the real McCoy here. We are going to deluge you with photos! There is much to admire – rooms decorated with molded plaster from top to bottom, beautiful and intricate carved wood ceilings, stucco “stalactites”, intricate ceramic tiles, and beautiful filigree windows. Notice our repeating “beautiful” and “intricate” words. What you will see is a lot of repetition in a decoration. It just keeps going, yet it is not too much – well, maybe some of the tile patterns are optically active, but usually not. The overall effect is what I call a “visual mantra”. Something beautiful repeated and repeated and repeated, and you stare at it and your heart rate goes down, your blood pressure drops, and tranquility descends. And your mind says “Jeez, is this ever beautiful”! And you turn your head and see a new and different wonderful pattern and the feeling repeats along with the patterns. We’ll just be showing you picture snippets, but we think you’ll see. Enough talk! I’ll divide the tour by rooms. We’ll start by walking through a few “administrative” rooms, including an oratorio (a Mecca-oriented prayer room).
No words – just walk with us.
OK, mea culpa, we’re showing this room a bit out of order within the administrative rooms, but we just wanted to highlight it. Not only is this room beautiful, it has a beautiful view of Granada’s Albayzín.
The Court of Myrtles
It’s named for the two fragrant myrtle hedges. It’s pretty. Some chambers were demolished to make room for Charles V’s palace, but happily only a few. The lateral sections were living quarters for the women (harem).
The Boat Room
It’s so named due to a corrupted Spanish translation of the Arabic; it should read something more akin to “Room of divine blessing and luck”. It’s a waiting room before entry to the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors, the sultan’s throne room. My guess is that it was a bit more ornate back then.
The Grand Hall of the Ambassadors
This is the palace’s largest room, the Sultan’s throne room. It’s a perfect cube – would you expect anything less from these lovers of geometric design? That domed wooden ceiling is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, with over 8,000 inlaid pieces. The cornice consists of wooden “stalactites”; the stucco walls are still glorious even without their original paint and gilding. The filigree windows once held stained glass (and had heavy drapes to block out the heat). The calligraphic inscriptions are of poems, prayers or praises. An example:
“Oh, God, fighter of the devil, please help me. In name of God, who is merciful and has mercy. Oh, God, please be company and salvation for our Master Mohammed and his generation. And say: May the anger of God and of every devil that allows the disturbance of hell help me; and deliver me from the evil of the envious ones when they are going to be envious. And no deity but God is alive, whom we must praise eternally. Praise to the God of centuries“.
The floor was originally marble, but is now tiles from the 1500’s – not a bad update!
When in use, the room would have been in semi-darkness, with the lighting concentrated on a throne opposite the entrance. A visitor would have stepped from the glaring Court of Myrtles into this dim, cool, incense-filled, intensely decorated world to meet the silhouetted sultan. Of course you have to imagine the pillows and Persian carpets and throne and ivory-inlaid chairs and vases and hookah pipes and probably gorgeous ladies and scribes and bustling aides. We would have been impressed, and struggling to make eye-contact with the all-powerful sultan!
There are connecting passageways to private rooms of the royal family (and servants, of course). We’ll just show pictures.
The Courtyard of the Lions
This is the private quarters of the royal family, and probably the most famous area of the Alhambra. We’re just going to show you the pictures (a lot of pictures), and then we’ll talk.
The design of the courtyard refers to Persian gardens of old. It’s divided in quadrants symbolizing the four corners of the world, and irrigated by water channels (that went to the apartments of the royal family) symbolizing the four rivers of the Quran’s Paradise ; the theme is thus an architectural manifestation of Paradise. The slender column forest has been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert. Originally there was a below-level garden in each of the 4 quadrants, the top of the plants cut to be level with the courtyard. Today the courtyard floor is white marble, in the center of which is a white marble fountain from the 1000’s, a dodecagon-shaped basin resting on top of 12 lions – one of the more important examples of Moorish sculpture (which ordinarily prohibits images of animals or humans). There is a (long) poem in calligraphy on the basin rim, part of which is:
“…Such a translucent basin, sculpted pearl!
Argentic ripples are added on it by the quiet dew
And its liquid silver goes over the daisies, melted, and even purer.
Water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don’t you see how water overflows the borders
and the warned drains are here against it?
They are like the lover who in vain
tries to hide his tears from his beloved…”
Another poem decorating a wall goes:
“How beautiful is this garden
where the flowers of Earth rival the stars of Heaven.
What can compare with this fountain, gushing crystal-clear water?
Nothing except the fullest moon, pouring light from an unclouded sky.”
The Courtyard is beautiful indeed, then and now.
Hall of the Abencerrajes
This was the Sultan’s living room, with an exquisite ceiling in the shape of an eight-sided star. It has a history – a sultan took a new wife and wanted to disinherit the children of the first marriage, so he invited them (the Abencerrajes) to dinner and killed all 36 – nearly the entire family – but he missed the son who would ultimately assume the throne (some of the blame for the decline of the Muslim world had to do with such constant infighting. The Catholics weren’t your only enemy). Why am I not showing you pictures of this incredible room? It was closed. Bummer! Below is a picture of the outside of the building, and next to it an internet picture of the ceiling.
Hall of the Kings
This is just a connecting hall at the back of the Courtyard of the Lions. It is, of course, gorgeous.
Hall of Two Sisters
It’s named for the two slabs of white marble on the floor flanking the fountain carrying water to the Courtyard of the Lions. It is the center of a series of chambers where the sultana and her family lived. The ceiling is incredibly beautiful.
Well, that’s the shooting match. There is still some beauty to be seen on the way out of the Palace, such as the Patio of Lindaraja, but it’s not on the same scale.
That’s it! It is a beautiful palace, putting the monstrosity of Charles V’s palace to shame. He thought he could improve on the Palacios Nazaries??? We thought the art of the Moors was amazing. Hope you enjoyed it.
Our next stop in Spain is Madrid.