The Alhambra: What’s inside this remarkable Islamic complex?

Alhambra. The tower to the right is the Torre de la Vela, in the Alcazaba. The Palace of Charles V is the square building in the middle. To its left, the Nasrid Palace complex, very small by comparison
When we look at the Alhambra nowadays (e.g. view it on Google Earth), we see a massive castle-like structure, inside which stands a medley of seemingly disparate buildings. Most are Islamic, with the main attraction being the Mexuar, the Royal or Nasrid palace, and the Alcazaba (fortress).
The summer palace of the Generalife
is outside the main walls, but is considered
part of the Alhambra

But within these same walls, we’ll also see buildings of Christian provenance: the massive 16th-century, granite Palace of Charles (Carlos) I/V, the baroque Church of Santa María la Blanca, and the former convent but now state-run hotel, the Parador Nacional de San Francisco.  Of course, these Christian structures appeared after the fall of Granada –the last remnant of Muslim al-Andalus— to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and involved the destruction of earlier Islamic buildings.

In its heyday, the Alhambra was a mini city, separate from the town beneath it.  It contained mosques, schools, shops, poor and wealthy quarters, public baths, prisons, barracks, administrative buildings, a royal cemetery, and a mint.

Example of a muqarna.

Central to the Alhambra complex is the Nasrid Palace, mostly built in the 14th century. It is a labyrinthine complex, and a sumptuous display of Muslim architecture, with marble floors, colourful azulejos (tiles), arabesque stuccowork, artesonado (elaborately patterned recessed wood) ceilings, muqarnas (hanging honeycomb forms, often compared to stalactites), and beautiful, cursive Arabic calligraphy.

There are also gardens, bushes and trees, and an abundance of water –in pools or flowing from fountains.[*** August 27, 2020: For a very interesting and delightful sidelight on the hidden occupants of the pools, see]

All these we can still appreciate, but there is a lot that is no longer available to us: e.g. there used to be much more polychromatic variety, there were bejewelled furnishings, splendid silk rugs and cushions to sit on, beautifully embroidered drapes, tapestries that echoed the stucco panels, and ornamental vases. We can only imagine, then, how much more opulent the Royal Palaces were in those days.

One of the first Europeans to record his impressions of the Alhambra after its conquest was the German humanist, Hieronymous Münzer.  On a trip through Spain and Portugal in 1494, he was entertained in the Alhambra. After taking refreshment, seated on “silk carpets,” he was taken on a tour and was dazzled by the “numerous palaces … stunning gardens bedecked with lemon trees and myrtle bushes … and pools … and numerous fountains gushing with water … I don’t think there is anything like it in all of Europe” (Münzer 93, 95)

Although the Alhambra also charmed Ferdinand and Isabella, and their grandson Charles V, its upkeep was expensive and it fell into neglect during the 17th century as the fortunes of Granada dwindled. 

It was only during the wave of romanticism that swept Europe during much of the 19th century that it was “rediscovered” by foreign travellers. Sketches by some of these early tourists (e.g. John Frederick Lewis, David Roberts) give an idea of the dilapidated condition of the Alhambra at the same time that they captured –in their details—something of the true appearance of the Alhambra’s architectural beauty (although sometimes with more than a bit of exaggeration).

Not surprisingly, given its chequered history, the Alhambra required extensive restoration to return it to anything like its former glory. Even so, the quality and accuracy of much of the restoration has been questioned and criticised by some scholars. Still, what remains attracts and dazzles and enchants the waves of tourists who have made the Alhambra one of the most visited historic buildings in the world.

Getting there:
Nowadays, the main entrance is near the Generalife gardens, and the easiest way to get there is by bus or taxi (Google “How to get to the Alhambra”).  But there is another option: from the Plaza Nueva, take the Cuesta de Gomérez. It’s up hill, but worth the effort.

You enter the Alhambra’s outer perimeter through the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of the Pomegranates) built by Charles V.  As you make your way up the wooded pathway to you left, the sound of running water compensates for the effort and you may just make out the main Alhambra walls rearing above you through the trees to the left.  Passing through the impressive Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Justice), built by Yusuf I in 1348, you find yourself momentarily disoriented.  Don’t worry, you are in a double-elbowed entrance, designed to make direct assault virtually impossible.

Once inside the walls, you might expect to see finally those magical buildings that you have read about, but no … the first building you’ll see is the massive, granite Renaissance Palace of Charles V (i.e. if you walk; if you enter near the Generalife gardens, you’ll miss this dramatic first impresssion). 

Charles’s palace is well worth a visit in its own right, but as much as anything else it serves as a wonderful contrast to the Nasrid Palace that lies just beyond it, and over which it towers. The contrast between the Nasrid and Renaissance Palaces is as illuminating as the contrast between the Gothic/Renaissance Church within the Grand Mosque of Córdoba, or the Giralda tower alongside the Gothic Cathedral of Seville. 

Charles’s palace strike us as epic in proportions where the Nasrid palaces evoke lyrical qualities (interestingly, lyric poetry is a particular strength of Arabic culture; the epic –in the Western tradition– was not cultivated.  Compare below: two courtyards, two visions).

Patio de los leones.
Stand still for a moment or walk around the outermost parts (which you can do without a ticket) to get your bearings.  However, to see the real treasures of the Alhambra you have to get your admission ticket, which means that you must make your way to the Generalife entrance. (To get there see the excellent map in  Number 7 is the Gate of Justice entrance, number 42 is the Generalife entrance) Stand still for a moment to get your bearings. Now you are ready for the visit…
Alhambra. Courtyard of Charles V’s palace.

A point of interest: it was Charles V who authorised the building of a church within the Grand Mosque of Cordoba.

Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in AndalusiaCologne 1992

Danby, Miles    The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge, Mass 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
Münzer, Jerónimo  Viaje por España y Portugal  Madrid 1991

The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra.
Image of the Puerta de la Justicia:
Image of Charles V’s Palace:
Image of the Patio de los Leones:
Image of muqarna:
General guide in English:
A very useful plan of the Alhambra can be found in: