The history of the Alhambra shows that its survival is a miracle. It has suffered fires, been vandalised and parts of it blown up. It’s been a prison, a military hospital, barracks; it has housed squatters, vagrants and tourists, and now puts up with thousands of visitors a year.
This would be a strain for any structure but in the case of the Alhambra –particularly its most famous parts, the Nasrid Palace complex– we are dealing with buildings built of the flimsiest of materials: wood, stucco, tiles. They seem no more durable than a Hollywood movie set (indeed, they have been used as a setting for films) and only the powerful fortress walls convey the impression of solidity and permanence.
Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). In addition,
numerous cinemas and theatres have been named
The Alhambra, some even dressed up with garish
horseshoe arches and honeycombed ceilings!
To enter the Alhambra nowadays, you have to find your way to the Generalife entrance by bus, taxi or car (Google “How to get to the Alhambra”). However, we still prefer the former route of walking from the Plaza Nueva, up the Cuesta de Gomérez and through the Puerta de las Granadas.
Follow the shady path to your left; it’s fairly steep but the sound of water running down from the palace complex compensates and you are not faced with hordes of people jostling to get to the entrance. Near the top you come to the Fountain of Charles (Carlos) I/V to your left, before entering the Alhambra through the imposing Gate of Justice with its double horseshoe entrance (you’ll likely miss this if you go by bus or taxi).
On the keystone of the outer arch an open hand has been carved out, and just inside –above the inner arch—a key. An inscription above the key tells us that the tower was built by Yusuf I in 1348. The hand and key have been the subject of much speculation and guides can wax eloquent on the possibilities: e.g. the hand symbolises the five basic precepts of Islam, the key denotes the power given to Muhammad to open or close the gates to heaven, or the legend that Granada would not fall until the key had been grasped by the hand. The point is: we don’t really know what they mean.
It’s doubtful if any attacking forces would have paused to wonder about the meaning of the hand and key. They would be too busy defending themselves from all kinds of missiles pitched down on them while passing through the uncovered space between the two arches. Then they were faced with trying to negotiate a long double elbow passage, and finally a ramp as they emerged into the open … where they would again be exposed to attack from all sides!
Nowadays, you don’t have to worry about any attacks as you ease your way up the ramp and come out near the attractive Puerta del Vino, a gate dating back to about 1300.
A glass of wine might go well after the testing climb from downtown, but you’ll have to do with admiring the decoration over this doorway, especially on the side facing the Royal or Nasrid Palace. The Puerta del Vino served as a gateway in an inner wall that once separated the Royal Palace from the medina (town). It probably got its present name in the 16th century when it served as storage space for wine.
By now, you can’t miss the massive, Renaissance Palace of Charles V, and off to its left the Nasrid Palace. Although the Nasrid Palace is the magnet for visitors nowadays, it would be unfortunate not to go first to the heavily-fortified Alcazaba (citadel) precipitously overlooking the modern city, and climb the Torre de la Vela (watchtower) for a spectacular all-round view. Here, especially at dusk, it is easy to imagine the scene on January 2, 1492, when Christians raised the cross and hoisted their flag in triumph. The present bell tower –a later addition– is still rung every year to commemorate the taking of the Alhambra.
The Alcazaba housed the military elite. Careful excavations show a miniature town, with paved streets, public baths, a mosque, a sophisticated plumbing and drainage system, and a cistern. What is not so readily evident is the subterranean network of dungeons where Christian slaves spent their nights after helping their Muslim masters with the construction of their dream palaces.
By now, you’ll be ready to visit the Nasrid Palace.
As you head for the Palace, pause again to look at the sheer volume of Charles V’s Renaissance Palace compared to the low-slung Nasrid complex abutting it. Although condemned by many as an aberration, Charles’s palace serves a very useful purpose: it allows us to see something of the mentality of Christian and Muslim cultures face to face. The contrast reminds us of a similar distinction –but on a religious level— between the church inside the Mosque of Cordoba, or the vast Cathedral of Seville alongside its bell tower, a former minaret. From the outside, Charles’s granite monument is majestic, befitting the imperial title that he carried: Holy Roman Emperor; the exterior of the Nasrid Palace in contrast is modest, if not humble, and scarcely hints at what lies inside.
An excellent bird’s eye view of the Muslim and Christian palaces, offers another perspective of the differences.
Charles’s palace is severely symmetrical: a square building with a circular, colonnaded courtyard inside. The Nasrid palace is structured around two rectangular patios –one plain, one colonnaded— set at 90 degrees to each other, with smaller patios and units adjoining them.
Their seeming lack of plan and logical progression is puzzling and disorienting for those accustomed to the proportionality and balance of European palaces. Inside, that feeling of disorientation is enhanced by not quite knowing which direction to take, which door to proceed through. But if these are the royal residences, then there may be a logical purpose to the labyrinthine layout: something to do with control or power, perhaps. But, let’s go inside.
Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992
Danby, Miles The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Irwin, Robert The Alhambra Cambridge 2004
Jacobs, Michael Alhambra London 2000 (paperback 2005)
Kuhnel, Ernst Islamic Art and Architecture Ithaca 1966
Meri, Josef W & Bacharach, Jere Medieval Islamic Civilization Vol I New York 2006
The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra.
Image of the Puerta de Vino: http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/Arts.CasselmanImage
Image of Charles V’s palace: http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/spain/granada/charlesfive/palace.html
Excellent aerial view of the Alhambra by Mike Lehmann: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/59/Alhambra01.jpg/640px-Alhambra01.jpg
General guide in English: http://www.alhambra.org/eng/index.asp?secc=/alhambra/educational_centres/educational_tour
A very useful plan of the Alhambra can be found in: http://www.planetware.com/map/alhambra-and-generalife-map-e-agg.htm