Alhambra Complex Architecture
The Alhambra is a palace complex in
Granada, the last Muslim enclave of al-Andalus in southern Spain, which was
built by the Nasrid dynasty over several centuries. It sits on a large rocky outcropping, or
mountain spur, within the present-day city. Alhambra literally means "red castle".
The oldest part, the Alcazaba, is a fortress overlooking
the city, built by the Almohads in the 12th century. Several impressive gates and a wall remain
from this period, but the living quarters for the administrative workers and barracks for
soldiers are not visible. Most of the rest of the Muslim parts were built in the 14th and 15th
centuries, during the era when the Nasrids held out against the rest of Christian Spain and
were able to hire the best remaining artisans from Islamic Spain.
The whole complex consists of several palaces, reception halls, a
14th-century tower, mosques, and courts that were linked as they were added. They are connected
by a series of patios and arcaded courtyards usually graced with fountains and running water.
The rooms are usually richly decorated with inscriptions, colorful tiles, wooden ceilings, and
heavenly vaults formed of stucco supported by beautiful niches and bearing hanging stalactite
The most impressive and famous courtyards are those called the Court
of the Myrtles because of the myrtle bushes or shrubbery decorating them, and the
Court of the Lions, which encloses a fountain spouting from the backs of carved lions. The
divisions between internal and external space are not clearly defined, and light is
dramatically employed nearly everywhere.
Farther up the hill is a 14th-century summer palace called the Generalife
that is linked to the main complex by gardens re-created in the 20th century. The palace itself
is entered by an elongated patio formed around a canal, the water source.
Alhambra is especially important because it is one of
the few palaces to have survived from medieval Islamic times. It illustrates superbly a number
of architectural concerns occasionally documented in literary references. It demonstrates a
contrast between an unassuming exterior and a richly decorated interior to achieve an effect of
a secluded or private place of repose.
The architectural decoration of the Alhambra was
mostly of stucco. Some of it is flat. There, however, are extraordinarily complex cupolas
appearing as upside-down crowns. Heavy, elaborately decorated ceilings are supported by frail
columns. Walls are pierced with many windows with light spreading through almost every part of
its large, domed halls. The poems and calligraphic ornamentation adorning the Alhambra suggest
that its cupolas are the domes of heaven rotating around the prince sitting under them. The
whole complex is a stunning exception to the general austerity of Muslim architecture existing
Christian Renaissance: the palace of Charles V
Soon after Granada fell to the Christians in 1492, the emperor Charles V
built a palace in the Renaissance style that required some demolition and now looms among the
older palaces and fortress. The large Renaissance palace of Charles V adjoining the Patio de
Comares was designed by Pedro Machuca. He built the Puerta de las Granádas as a formal
Renaissance entrance to the Alhambra precinct. The construction of the palace began in 1533;
the design was revised by Juan de Herrera, and work continued for over a century, but the
palace was never completed. Perhaps the finest Renaissance palace in Spain, it has a square
plan and a circular courtyard, the lower storey of which has an arcade of Doric columns; the
upper level has Ionic pilasters between the windows. The octagonal chapel in the eastern corner
of the palace was intended to have a dome, but this was never built.
Gardens of the Alhambra
During the medieval period Granada was an agriculturally rich region with
two rivers providing abundant water for its famous farm estates, gardens and orchards, which
produced, among other crops, excellent figs. According to the historian Ibn al-Khatib, the
Alhambra palace complex, like Granada, was densely planted with so many verdant gardens that
the light-coloured stone of the towers and belvederes of the palace appeared like bright stars
in an evening sky of dark vegetation.
In the gardens of the Alhambra there is a constant
play between openness and closure. While enclosed spaces are defined and contained by
architecture, they are also juxtaposed with miradors offering multi-leveled views on to the
palace gardens situated on the lower slopes of the Alhambra, looking beyond to the Albaycín
Hill and surrounding countryside, and views from the Generalife across the ravine to the
Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Such cultivated vistas are often framed by
arched polylobed windows, as in the Salón de Comares or the elegant Cuarto Dorado.
From the latter the view is north to the hills and streams of the ‘natural’,
exterior landscape or in the opposite direction into an enclosed paved courtyard in which the
only reference to nature is a fluted water basin in the centre. The all-encompassing, sweeping
vistas of garden and landscape at the Alhambra and Generalife belie the traditional concept of
the Islamic garden as a self-contained, private space organized according to a simple, rigid
geometry; instead, they show that different kinds of landscape experience were incorporated
into garden design by manipulating the direction and distance of the gaze.
The belvederes and pavilions in the middle of each of the galleried sides
contain small water jets or rivulets that flow toward the Lion Fountain and create an axial
organization that suggests a miniature, ‘four-plot’ garden. A visitor in 1602 observed six
orange trees in each quadrant; thus the garden in the Patio de los Leones was probably planted
with orange trees, vegetation and flowers, the surface of the soil a half meter or more below
the level of the pavement.
Several gardens in the Alhambra were refashioned after the Christian
conquest of 1492. The Patio de Lindaraja in its original state was an open Islamic garden with
an overlook provided by the projecting Mirador de Lindaraja, which was subsequently enclosed
when converted into private apartments for Emperor Charles V. The Torre de las Damas in the
Palacio del Partal is also of the Nasrid period, functioning as a mirador with ground-floor
windows and a tower on the left side providing expansive views toward the Albaycín Hill; the
gardens of the Partal, however, are 20th-century restorations with modern designs and types of
When the Patio de la Acequia was excavated and
restored in 1959 following a fire, a 13th-century quadripartite, Islamic garden was discovered.
The original soil level was half a meter below the surrounding pavements, and the original
irrigation system was intact, although neither was retained in the restoration. Two tall
pavilions mark the ends of the garden, which is organized along a central axial watercourse,
the water for which is supplied from the mountains via the same aqueduct that supplies the
The water-channel is bordered by planted beds and intersected by a short,
narrow walkway. Although the garden is enclosed on four sides, the west wall is pierced by
arches and a projecting mirador, which looks over the lower gardens and across to the Alhambra.
Above and to the north-east are other water-channels, pools and gardens, redesigned in later
centuries after the Christian conquest.
The highest is reached via a stairway ascending through verdant vegetation;
the coping of the low walls of the stairs is hollowed to conduct refreshing and decorative
trickles of water while water jets adorn each landing. Elsewhere the 18th-century avenue of
cypress trees leads to the modern entrance of the Generalife.
Alhambra - Spain (Visitor info)
Today the Alhambra is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain.
Thus, it is advised to reserve the ticket beforehand as entrance is limited to a number of
It is best to get a day ticket to be able to see the whole complex and the
gardens. Night visits of the Nasrid palaces are also possible but they are limited to a maximum
of 400 persons, so make sure you reserve them in advance. For more information about tickets
Granada is easily reachable by any forms of transport. The Alhambra complex
is located up on a hill, and you can take a walk there, but buses or taxis are also
Plaza Arquitecto Garcia de Paredes, 1, 18009 Granada, Spain. Get
help with directions using the map provided bellow:
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