The Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, is a palace, fortress and citadel built in the 8th century. It’s one of the most notable pieces of Islamic architecture in Spain. ‘Alhambra’ is the Spanish adaptation of the Arabic term ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’ which roughly translates to “red castle”. The name comes from the sun-dried bricks that were used to build the fortress around the castle.

The Alhambra Palace is of great significance, as it is the only surviving palatine city (related to the imperial courts in Europe since Roman times) of the Islamic Golden Age. The popular fortress in Spain is a testament to Islamic architecture and serves as a nostalgic reminder of the glorious Islamic Golden Age in Spain (from the 8th to 14th centuries). Not only is the palace a breathtaking piece of architecture, but it is also surrounded by bountiful natural beauty, aptly described by Moorish poets as “a pearl set in emeralds”.

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From the moment it was built, Alhambra Palace accumulated many interesting stories. So, let’s dive deep into them and learn about its history and cultural significance. 

Who Built The Alhambra Palace?

Court of the Lions, Granada
Moorish arches in the Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada

The palace was originally built in 889 CE as a small fortress, but in the 13th century, it was rebuilt and renovated by the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada. The Emirate of Granada was a kingdom in southern Iberia and it was the last bit of the Iberian peninsula held by the Muslims.

The fortress was then converted into a royal palace by Yusuf I, the Sultan of Granada. The successors of the Nasrid dynasty kept making additions to the citadel, which has led to the awe-inspiring structure that it is today, even after years of neglect and decay. While the palace has been the collective effort of numerous rulers, who stuck to the theme of “paradise on earth” while adding new sections to the palace.

When the Islamic rule came to an end in 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile conquered Granada, making the palace their royal court. Under their rule, it was partially modified in the Renaissance style. Consequently, the palace underwent a lot of changes under the rule of Charles V from 1515 – 1556, who ordered the destruction of certain parts of the Alhambra complex to build a Renaissance-style palace for himself. He also built other structures and replaced some—for example, the mosque built by the Muslim rulers was replaced by a church.

So what does the Alhambra Palace represent? The efforts of multiple rulers over many centuries, with each age’s cultural influence making its mark, it now stands as an exemplar of Muslim art and architecture in Spain’s history.

Why Is Alhambra Palace Famous?

The Generalife of Alhambra de Granada
The Generalife of Alhambra de Granada

Situated on the Sabika hill, the Alhambra Palace provides a breathtaking view of the entire city of Granada. The complex itself is complemented by numerous gardens, one of them being the very famous Generalife Gardens created in a typical Persian style.

As you approach the palace, you realise it’s irregular in shape and consists of numerous towers and smaller structures. In keeping with the “paradise on earth” theme, it’s complemented with bubbling fountains, reflecting pools and column arcades. Moreover, for a more natural touch, the palace was designed in such a way that the sun and wind would filter through freely.

The walls of the palace are adorned with Arabic inscriptions consisting of poems written in praise of the palace, touching upon the religious, poetic and political world of the Nasrid dynasty. They are organised into geometrical patterns and ornate arabesque designs. As a whole, the Alhambra palace is a reflection of the culture of the last centuries of Islamic rule in the Al-Andalus or the Iberian peninsula. It has accumulated the skills of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish craftsmen, architects, and artisans over the years and it stands as a true testament to their multi-cultural appeal.

Other than its architectural and scenic beauty, the palace is host to many anecdotes and legends making it even more enigmatic. Although the name of the palace is commonly attributed to what the Alhambra palace is made of (its red brick walls), the origin is still under debate. An amusing theory attributes the name to the palace’s founder and his fiery red hair which earned him the nickname al-ahmar (the red).

Another famous legend surrounding the palace is related to the Gate of Justice which is one of the main entrances to the fortress. This gate features one of the most significant symbols of the Alhambra—a hand that has been carved in the keystone of the arch, and a key in the centre of the inner archway. The two are very dominant Islamic symbols, where the hand is usually a symbol used to ward off the evil eye. The legend says that the world will come to an end when the hand and key become one, implying the destruction of such an elaborate fortress would also mean the end of the world. It is contemplated that the Catholics installed a statue of the Virgin Mary in fear of this legend coming true. Aesthetically, the gothic statue of the Virgin Mary fits well with the Islamic icons and shows despite various cultures and religions laying claim to the expansive Alhambra Palace, they complement each other well.

Is The Alhambra Palace A Wonder Of The World?

Ornate decoration at Albambra Palace in Granada, Spain
The entrance to Patio de los Leones (Court Of The Lions), Alhambra

The palace came close to being granted the status of “new wonder of the world”. In 2007, the Alhambra was shortlisted as one of the seven new wonders of the modern world. Unfortunately, it was not selected. The contest, which was based on votes, was later criticised for being heavily rigged. 

However, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Alhambra Palace as a World Heritage Site as it contains all the known artistic techniques of the Hispano-Muslim world. Moreover, the Alhambra made use of materials like stucco (plaster), wood, and ceramic as decorative elements. As this is coupled with Arabic epigraphy, it serves to set it apart from the rest of the monuments and is uniquely attributed to Islamic architecture.

What Is This Palace Used For Today?

Alhambra columns around the Court of Lions
The Alhambra columns around the Court of the Lions

In the 19th century, American author Washington Irving took up residence at the Alhambra where he wrote the book ‘Tales of the Alhambra’, a collection of essays on stories about the beautiful palatial city. His book was responsible for shedding light on Spain’s Islamic history and introducing the historical site to Western audiences. To commemorate this, in 2009, on Irving’s 150th death anniversary, the managers of the Alhambra erected a statue of the writer in a park outside the palace.

The famous palace in Spain is of great significance even today. It remains one of the most famous historical sites in Spain and is visited by thousands every year.

El Partal in Alhambra Gardens, Granada
El Partal in the gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain.

Should You Visit The Alhambra Palace?

A beautiful reminder of the long lost Islamic history of Spain, whether you are a history buff or a nature enthusiast, the Alhambra Palace has something in store for you. It’s no wonder that the palace is one of the most famous spots in Spain, and its alluring architecture and the surrounding natural beauty truly make it a stunning place to visit and experience. 

However, as it is a very famous tourist spot, it is often very crowded, which sometimes makes it a bit difficult to take in its beauty. But, as every dark cloud has a silver lining, perhaps when the pandemic is over and we are able to travel again, the crowds will be regulated, making the experience even more enjoyable.

Until then, you can always opt for virtual tours on the official website, or better yet, pick up Irving’s book to experience the Alhambra vicariously.

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