Words can’t accurately describe my feelings as my small tour group departs the office and walks toward the wall. The morning is chilly, but clear here at the top of a hill in the middle of Granada in southern Spain. Our group, headsets on listening to our guide narrate, shows our tickets and enters. Some of the walls are more than a thousand years old, yet they still feel strong and capable. I can easily imagine defenders on the towers of the alcazaba, or main citadel. Massive, yet beautiful. Luxurious, yet sparse. This complex is one of the most iconic bucket-list-worthy destinations in the world, and I am about to enter! This is the Alhambra.
The tour begins in the alcazaba, the oldest and best fortified part of the Alhambra complex. Constructed beginning in 889, a bit less than 200 years after Muslims from North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 and conquered just about all all of what is now Spain and Portugal, before being defeated by Charles Martel and the Franks at Tours in 732. This began nearly 800 years of Muslim rule over some or all of the Iberian peninsula before the Caliphate of Granada (located here) was finally forced to surrender in 1492 to the combined armies of Castile and Aragon.
The strong fortress walls of the alcazaba
It is easy to see why this spot was chosen for a fortress that would ultimately become one of the finest palatial complexes in the world. Standing at the top of the tower in the triangular shaped alcazaba, I am offered a view over the entire city. The hill is steep, and with this sweeping vista, an approaching army would have a tough time. Indeed, the fortress was never conquered, as it was surrendered without a fight by Sultan Muhammad XII, the final ruler of the Nasrid Dynasty here in Granada.
This is the view from the tower. My Airbnb was right by that Ferris wheel!
But who were these Muslims who dominated this part of the world for centuries, and what can the Alhambra tell us about them?
Our tour winds its way from the fortress through a succession of palaces. The first thing anyone would notice is the stylized geometric patterns carved into the walls, in the wood of the ceilings, and in tiles both on the walls and floors. They are intricate, each more complex than the next, and stunningly beautiful. Each room seems designed to outshine the previous. Courtyards, gardens, and fountains emerge around corners; windows take in the beautiful views from the hilltop. This is not just the fortress of a warlike people. It is the culmination of a thousand years of Muslim culture, mathematics, astronomy, and diplomacy being the pinnacle of the world.
This is the entrance to the Hall of the Ambassadors.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is one of the most beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen, and is a terrific example of the sophistication of Moorish design. No words can totally do it justice, so I will rely on photos to convey my awe.
The ceiling. Just wow.
In 756, when North Africa (the Maghreb) fell into civil war, Abd al-Rahman I escaped to the Iberian Peninsula and founded the Umayyad Dynasty in Córdoba. His people, who would only know life in modern Spain and Portugal, came to be known as the Moors, although the term refers to Muslims mostly of Berber descent who lived not only on the Peninsula, but also in the Maghreb and Sicily. Once used mainly derogatorily, the term Moor now chiefly relates to the Umayyads and the subsequent dynasties in the region.
The Moorish civilizations were known for their tolerance – it was a golden age for Judaism, with many of the top Jewish scholars of the world living in Muslim Spain – their architectural skills which are on full display here in Granada, and sadly, a series of internal wars that ultimately doomed them to reconquest by Catholic Spanish kingdoms over several centuries. The Catholics would show their inferiority in all three of these areas, expelling or forcibly converting those of other faiths, relying on Moorish architects and engineers to construct their grand buildings (and the Moorish style is still popular to this day), and remaining unified rather than breaking down into their origin kingdoms after the reconquest.
This is a great shot demonstrating the intricacy of Moorish carvings, wood lattice, and tile. Nearly every room was this amazing!
It is incredible how many water features there are here in the Alhambra. Many of the fortifications protect aqueducts that bring water from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains to supply the complex and, with all that water, fountains can be found all over. The Court of the Lions has my personal favorite, a fountain with twelve lions, all different if one looks closely. (I wouldn’t have noticed if not for our guide. Things like this made paying for a guided tour worthwhile, plus being able to bypass the normal visitor lines – while the Alhambra closely controls the number of visitors being admitted each day (and it will almost always sell out) there are still lines at ticket checkpoints.) This courtyard also features 124 columns, and the Moors were sophisticated enough to design them to withstand earthquakes, as they have a bit of room to expand and contract.
Court of the Lions with the fountain in the center
The final stop of the tour is the sultan’s day palace of Generalife. Built on an adjacent hill and now connected by a bridge, this is where the court sometimes came to work during the daytime. As a result, it has no bedrooms, and no fortifications – gardens and fountains are plentiful, though.
Generalife Palace has a much different feel.
The Emirate of Granada began in 1230, and by 1250 was the last independent Muslim kingdom on the peninsula. However, even that independence was tempered as the emirate was a tributary state to Castile for much of its 250 year existence. With the surrender of Granada in 1492, Moorish Spain ceased to exist as a political entity, although some aspects of its culture were completely embraced by its conquerors, especially in architecture and engineering. The Alhambra was converted into a Spanish palace. Its mosques were turned to churches, and over time Spanish renaissance elements were added. But the buildings remained unmistakably Muslim and Moorish.
As tickets to the Alhambra sell out, make sure to book yours ahead of time, especially if you want to go on your own and not with a group. Group tour tickets are much more expensive, but easier to come by. And make sure to experience this wonder of Moorish design from outside, as well. There are plenty of wonderful cafes and restaurants around the Mirador San Nicolas for my favorite views of the complex, during the day or at night.
Afternoon view from the cafe we had sangria
Nighttime view from dinner
The Alhambra is undoubtedly one of the most impressive places I have visited, easily living up to its place as a finalist for the seven new wonders of the world. Just as impressive, though, are the people who built the complex and lived in it for centuries. I leave after a long day and miles walked, tired, but grateful to have seen this amazing place.
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