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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 ceilings.

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 in Spain.

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 plants.

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 Alhambra.

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 persons.

Alhambra Tickets

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 visit

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 available.

Alhambra - Granada Map&Location

Alhambra Palace Address: Plaza Arquitecto Garcia de Paredes, 1, 18009 Granada, Spain. Get help with directions using the map provided bellow:

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Alhambra Photos

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Alhambra panorama © Ramon Roura
Alhambra Complex night view
Alhambra complex © Med PhotoBlog
Alhambra Palace inside © Andreas Flohr
Alhambra garden © Nuno Castro
Alhambra seen from the Alcazaba © Erinc Salor
 Alhambra courtyard © Stewart Morris
Alhambra Palace inside © Stewart Morris
Alhambra Carvings © Vaughan Williams
Alhambra Palace inside - detail © Matteo
Alhambra Palace courtyard - detail © Baruck
Alhambra interior detail © Mark Guertin
Alhambra interior detail © Mark Guertin
Alhambra exterior detail © Stewart Morris
Alhambra interior stairs © Eduardo Millo