“How many legends and traditions, true and fabulous; how many songs and ballads, Arabian and Spanish, of love and war and chivalry, are associated with this oriental pile!”?—WASHINGTON IRVING, 19TH-CENTURY AMERICAN WRITER.
The legendary site that inspired those words is the Alhambra, a unique palace that embellishes the Spanish city of Granada. The Alhambra is a sample of Arabia or Persia in the south of Europe. The citadel, or fortress, owes its singular beauty to the Muslim Moors, whose predominating influence in Spain lasted for several centuries.
The Arab emir Zawí ben Zirí founded the independent kingdom of Granada in the 11th century. It lasted for about 500 years, during which time it flourished artistically and culturally. Its demise came when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella put an end to Muslim rule in Spain in 1492.
Moorish Granada reached its zenith after Córdoba was conquered by the armies of Christendom in 1236. Granada became the capital of Muslim Spain and successive rulers built a palace complex?—the Alhambra—?the like of which Europe had never seen. One enthusiastic writer described it as “the most marvelous building that exists in the whole world.”
The setting of the Alhambra is as majestic as the complex itself. Towering behind it, like a monumental backdrop, the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada rise to over 11,000 feet [3,400 m]. The Alhambra itself stands on the Sabika, a long, wooded hill that rises 500 feet [150 m] above the city. In the eyes of the 14th-century poet Ibn Zamrak, the hill overlooks Granada like an admiring husband contemplating his wife.
A City Within a City
The name Alhambra, which signifies “the red” in Arabic, probably alludes to the color of the bricks that the Moors used to build the outer walls. Nevertheless, some prefer the explanation of Arabian historians who say that the construction of the Alhambra was carried on by “the light of torches.” This nighttime illumination, they say, gave the walls the reddish color to which the building’s name refers.
The Alhambra is much more than a palace. It could be described as a city within the city of Granada. Nestling behind its extensive ramparts lie gardens, pavilions, a palace complex, the Alcazaba (or, fortress), and even a small medina, or town. The Alhambra’s Moorish design and later additions have resulted in a unique display of delicate and intricate Arabic art alongside the more robust, balanced lines of the European Renaissance.
The Alhambra owes its beauty to an approach used by the Moors as well as by the ancient Greeks. First they fashioned the color and texture of stone with harmony, proportion, and simplicity. Then they adorned their elegant construction. As one expert puts it, “the Moors ever regarded what architects hold to be the first principle of architecture?—to decorate construction, never to construct decoration.”
Exploring the Alhambra
Entry to the Alhambra is through a huge horseshoe-shaped arch called the Gate of Justice. Its name recalls the court that during the times of the Muslim occupation gathered here for the prompt hearing of minor complaints. The rendering of justice at the city gate was a common custom throughout the Middle East and is even mentioned in the Bible.
The elaborate decoration, typical of Arabian palaces such as the Alhambra, is of stucco. The artisans carved this plaster into lacelike artistic patterns that are repeated over and over again. Some ornate arches look like stalactites organized into perfect symmetry. Another feature of the palace is the zillij?—glazed, cut tiles that are arranged in complex geometric patterns. These line the lower walls with vivid colors, which contrast perfectly with the subdued color of the stucco above.
Outstanding among the courtyards of the Alhambra is the Court of the Lions, described as “the most precious example of Arab art existing in Spain.” One local guidebook explains: “There is something about a genuine work of art which escapes all possible imitation and reproduction. . . . Such is the sensation we feel before this Grenadine court.” Its perfectly proportioned arcades and slim columns surround a fountain supported by 12 marble lions. It is one of the most photographed sites in Spain.
Gardens to Refresh the Spirit
The Alhambra also contains exquisite gardens, fountains, and pools. According to Enrique Sordo in his book Moorish Spain, “the Arabic garden is a foretaste of paradise.” The influence of Islam is evident everywhere. Spanish writer García Gómez noted: “The Muslim paradise is described in detail in the Koran as a luxuriant garden . . . watered by delightful streams.” In the Alhambra, water is used profusely?—a luxury for people accustomed to the rigors of the desert. The garden’s designers realized that water could cool the air and gratify the ear with the relaxing murmur of its movement. Rectangular pools of water that mirror the bright Spanish skies give an impression of spaciousness and luminosity.
Not far from the Alhambra lies the Generalife, a secluded Moorish villa and garden that stand on the Cerro del Sol, a hill next to the Sabika. The Generalife, a fine example of Arabic landscaping, has been called “
one of the loveliest gardens in the world.” It was formerly linked to the Alhambra palace by a bridge, and it apparently served as a villa where the rulers of Granada could relax. A courtyard leads to the Water Staircase. Here visitors can let their senses be captivated by light, color, and a myriad of aromas.
The Moor’s Sigh
When the last king of Granada, Boabdil (Mu?ammad XI), surrendered the city to Ferdinand and Isabella, he and his family had to go into exile. After leaving the city, they reportedly paused at a high point that is now called El Suspiro del Moro (The Moor’s Sigh). As they looked back to take a final glimpse of their glorious red palace, Boabdil’s mother reportedly said to her son: “Weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man!”
Nowadays, some of the Alhambra’s three million yearly visitors still go to this spot. Here, like Boabdil, they can survey the city of Granada spread out beneath its Arabian palace?—the jewel in the crown. If you visit Granada one day, you too may comprehend the sadness of its last Moorish king.