The Alhambra is not only the most visited, but also the best-conserved site from the Moorish period in Spain. It has existed since at least the 9th century. It became the royal residence of the sovereigns of Granada, from 1236 until 1492. In November 2001, I visited and fell in love with this old relic of a bygone era, after researching the Nasrid Dynasty that ruled from the Alhambra.
There are two entrances to the Alhambra; in the north, the Puerta de las Armas (the Gate of Arms) and in the south, the Puerta de la Justicia (the Gate of Justice), which is the best-preserved of the two and the gate through which modern-day visitors enter the Alhambra. The 14th century King Yusuf I is thought to be responsible for its construction in 1348.
After you enter the Puerta de la Justicia, the stout walls of the Alhambra’s Alcazaba (Arabic al-Quasaba) rise in the west. This military fortification goes back to the 9th century, and contains the barracks of the kingdom’s soldiers, a kiln and cistern, and the Moorish prison. In the 13th century, King Muhammad III had his primary residence in the Alcazaba, from which he could hear the screams of countless prisoners whom he tortured during his murderous reign.
The northern façade of the Mexuar serves as a portico for the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room) courtyard. Sunlight filters in through the open roof and glints off the walls, illuminating decorative motifs and the shield and emblems of Ferdinand and Isabella. Lattice windows on the second floor overlook the space and there are two doors, only one of which is open to the public.
The Cuarto Dorado is part of the Torre de Comares (Comares Palace), built primarily under the 14th century King Muhammad V, who was son of Yusuf I and grandson of Ismail I. The Hall of the Ambassadors on the northern façade is the largest room in the Torre de Comares. This was the center of diplomatic life in the Moorish period.
The cedar ceiling of the Sala de Barca, just outside the Hall of the Ambassadors, represents the seven heavens of Islamic religion.
The entrance to the Hall of Ambassadors derives from the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles), where marble columns reflect in the recesses of a long central fountain set in the marble pavement. King Charles V destroyed whatever once stood to the south of the Patio de los Arrayanes.
The Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), considered the private residence of Muhammad V and his family, has it its center a stone basin supported by 12 marble lions. Since the Koran forbids the figurative representation of animals (as well as humans, no one knows whether the figures are from the Moorish period or the later, overlapping Mudejar period, which artisans blended Christian and Muslim styles.
The Sala de los Mocárabes (Hall of the Mocárabes), through which visitors enter the Patio de los Leones got its name from the Christian architects who worked on the Alhambra after the Reconquista, men influenced by the Moorish style. They changed the original cupola for a baroque ceiling.
The Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Abencerrajes) derives its name from an Arabian noble family, the Banu Sarraj. Legend (mainly from the fertile imagination of Washinton Irving) states that in 15th century, King Abu’l-Hasan Ali (Spanish Muley Hacen), the penultimate monarch massacred the Saraj family because their chieftain Ahmet was having a love affair with the King’s second wife, Zoraya (Spanish Isabel de Solis).
In the Sala de los Reyes (King's Hall) to the east, a painting adorns the central vault of the ceiling. It supposedly features the first ten Moorish Kings of Granada.
The Sala de las dos Hermanas, (Hall of the Two Sisters), which was built by 1362, is perhaps the most beautiful room adjoining the Patio de los Leones. The ceiling features gold and lapis lazuli. Legend states the name comes from two sisters held as captives during the Moorish period, or it could derive from the two slabs of marble at opposing corners of the room.
Beyond it is the Mirador de Daraxa (corrupted from the ‘Ayn dar Aisha), which is supposedly a reference to King Abu’l-Hasan Ali’s first wife, romantically thought of as Aisha (even though her name was Fatima). Legend says that the jealous first wife pined away for her husband, who had cast her off for his second wife, from this spot and plotted her revenge through her son, Muhammad XII (Spanish Boabdil). It overlooks a garden.
The baths of the Alhambra are between the Sala de las dos Hermanas and the Patio de los Arrayanes. When I last visited, they were not open due to restoration work.
The Partal dates from the 15th century. It was the primary residence of King Yusuf III, grandson of Muhammad V.
Further east of the complex is the Generalife (Arabic Janat al-Arif), built by Ismail I in the 14th century, as a summer palace of the Nasrids. Again, legend points to this site as the meeting place of Soraya and Ahmet of the unfortunate Sarraj clan.
On the now obliterated southern portico of the Patio de los Arrayanes is the palace of Charles V, an Italian renaissance structure. Its architect, Pedro Machuca, was a student of Michelangelo in Florence. It houses the National Museum of Spanish-Moorish Art, where you can see many relics from the Alhambra.
Lastly, the Church of Santa Maria now stands on the site of the mosque of the Alhambra, which Muhammad III built.
The Alhambra is a place of fragile beauty, frightful violence and tragic history. To learn more, visit Alhambra.org.
Lisa J. Yarde is a historical fiction author. Her novels ON FALCON'S WINGS, an epic medieval novel chronicling the starstruck romance between Norman and Saxon lovers, and SULTANA, set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain, are available now.