Alhambra. Historical Introduction.

The Alhambra: Historical Introduction

The Alhambra from the Plaza de San Nicolás in the Albaicín
According to a famous ballad, when the 15th-century Castilian king, John (Juan) II first saw Granada he so fell in love with it that he proposed marriage to it, offering the cities of Córdoba and Seville as dowry.
The ballad begins Abenámar, Abenámar,/ moro de la morería: “Abenámar, Abenámar,/ Moor from the Moorish area/…” Abenámar(Yusuf ibn-Alahmar) ruled briefly in Granada, and was supported  by the Christians. In the ballad, King John asks Abenámar to identify the buildings they can see on the hill ahead of them. It is after Abenámar’s reply that what they can see is the Alhambra that the king addresses Granada offering “her” his hand. “She” replies that she is already married.

The city John wooed was not just the urban centre that lay at the base of the hill on which the Alhambra stands, but more specifically the fortified palace complex itself. King John may not have succeeded in obtaining Granada’s “hand”, but his daughter, better known to us as Isabella the Catholic, Queen of Castile, together with her husband Ferdinand, King of Aragón, took it after a long siege in January of 1492 in what was the final act of the long and chequered Reconquista. And with that a new chapter in Spanish history was about to unfold.

Fortunately for us, the fall of Granada did not witness the kind of destruction that had occurred to the palace complex of Madinat al-Zahra when the caliphate of Córdoba collapsed in 1031.

Even so, much of the Alhambra –mosques, schools, barracks, administrative buildings, public baths, a royal cemetery, and a mint– has disappeared, leaving only the alcazaba (“fortress”), the palatial or royal residences and the gardens. Isabella and Ferdinand liked the palatial residences enough to move in for a period, as did their grandson, Charles (Carlos) I/V (who also added the enormous, square Renaissance palace that visitors unavoidably pass on their way to the entrance to the royal residences).

It was the same Charles who gave permission for the construction of a Gothic cathedral within the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

But then came years of neglect and near disaster when Napoleon’s troops –who were quartered in the buildings– attempted to blow up the complex in 1812 when withdrawing from the city during the Spanish War of Independence (better known outside Spain as the Peninsular War). Squatters, visitors who carved their names on the walls or hauled off tiles and pieces of stucco, fires –some deliberately set — added to the depredation. At various times, the Alhambra housed convicts and galley slaves, and served as a hospital and storage space for gunpowder.

Then came the Romantic Movement with its love for the exotic. Andalusia and its Moorish, oriental past were discovered, and writers and artists paid homage to the Alhambra: e.g. Richard Ford, Théophile Gautier, Prosper Merimée, George Borrow, David Roberts to name a few. 

But perhaps the best known is the American writer and diplomat, Washington Irving, of Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow fame, whose Tales from the Alhambra, written in residence in 1829, did much to popularise many of the legends surrounding the Moors of Granada.

By 1870 the authorities recognised that they had a treasure in their hands and declared the Alhambra a national monument. Since then a programme of restoration has brought back some of its former glory, although parts of the restoration are ill-conceived and of dubious quality, according to many scholars. Still, for most visitors the work has paid off; the Alhambra is now probably the most visited building in Spain, and widely recognised as one of the most beautiful in the world.

The history of the building of the Alhambra (from the Arabic al-qala al-hamra or “red castle” the red referring to the colour of its walls) dates from the 9th century with an insignificant fortress perched on an outcrop, known as Sabika, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

The fortress was then enlarged and strengthened considerably by the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, Muhammad ibn Nasr, and his descendants in the 13th century.  Still, the real transformation took place in the 14th century under Yusuf I (1333-1354) and Muhammad V (1354-1391) who were responsible for the labyrinthine Royal Palace most admired nowadays: the Comares Palace ( including the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Court of the Myrtles and the Sala de la Barca), and the Court of the Lions and its adjacent rooms. 

These royal residences were built at approximately the same time that King Peter (Pedro)  I “the Cruel” of Castile and Leon (born 1334-69, ruled 1350-69) was remodelling the Alcázar Palace (Reales Alcázares) of Seville, and employing masons from Granada among his builders. Not surprisingly, the Royal Palace of Seville is perhaps the Alhambra’s only rival in Spain in sumptuous decoration, but it cannot match the Alhambra’s location, with the Sierra Nevada mountains towering behind it and the fertile plain (vega) of Granada stretching out before it (so unfortunately do the unattractive high rise apartment blocks of the modern city now!).

Historically, what did the Alhambra complex signify? It stood as a declaration of pride and defiance at a time when the fortunes of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula were in decline, and when the southernmost border of the kingdom of Castile was only 90 kilometres away.

Following the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) had collapsed dramatically in the face of the rapid expansion of Christian forces: Córdoba had fallen in 1236; Valencia in 1238 (taken by James (Jaume) I, king of Aragón), and Seville in 1248. Granada was surely next in line. 

But Muhammad ibn Nasr was a wily ruler. He had already given the Christians a hand in the conquest of Córdoba and ensured his independence by assisting them later in their conquest Seville, and by paying tributary money (paria) to the Castilians. There was nothing new in paying tributes or in helping the enemy; it had long been a pattern by both Christians and Muslims, depending on who had the upper hand.

And so Granada survived for over 250 years as a Muslim enclave in Christian Spain, with the Alhambra its symbolic heart.

We should take care not to romanticise life in the Alhambra. Politically, life was precarious, with rulers deposed or assassinated with alarming regularity.

Seen from below, the muscular, austere outer walls of the Alhambra are imposing and seemingly impregnable. Only after a prolonged siege by the Catholic Monarchs and secret negotiations with the last Nasrid ruler, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII (better known in Spain as Boabdil), did the Alhambra finally surrender on January 1, 1492. 

When Ferdinand and Isabella entered the Alhambra, they were dressed in Moorish finery, a tacit recognition of respect for a culture that had been an integral part of their country’s history for centuries. They were evidently enchanted by what they saw, and stayed for a while in the Royal Palaces, changing only a little, and even restoring neglected parts, using skilled Morisco (converted Muslims) artisans. Undoubtedly, the Royal Palaces were meant to dazzle and impress; they were an architectural statement carrying a powerful message to the infidel that here was a culture that would not fade away with a whimper.

The Alhambra was a cultural “bang” that still resonates, long after the political players have passed. Ironically it is now claimed by many Spaniards as part of their heritage, although admittedly there are also many who are ambivalent and some even hostile.

This has all to do with a long standing argument involving national identity and the positive or negative contributions of al-Andalus to the national character.  Conservative Spanish thinkers have hailed the end of al-Andalus, attributing to its culture the same generalities that Western writers –attached to their Christian, European heritage– have ascribed to it: e.g. barbaric, lacking in civilising ability, effeminate, artless… Liberal writers, on the other hand, lament the loss of a civilising force, whose expulsion had profound economic as well as cultural consequences.

Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992

Carr, Matthew  Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Danby, Miles  The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Dodds, Jerrilynn    Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain Pennsylvania and London: 1990
Dodds, Jerrilynn (ed)    Al-Andalus: the Art of Islamic Spain New York  1992
Dodds, Jerriynn, Denocal, Rosa and Balbale, Abigail  The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture New Haven, London 2008
Harvey, L. P.   Islamic Spain: 1250 to 1500  Chicago 1990
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge 2004
Jacobs, Michael     Alhambra London 2000 (paperback 2005)
Kuhnel, Ernst    Islamic Art and Architecture Ithaca 1966
General guide in English:
A very useful general plan of the Alhambra can be found in: