Located on top of the Sabika Hill and overlooking the picturesque city of Granada in southern Spain, the Alhambra is one of the most fascinating historical sites in the world. It is home to monuments belonging to two dominant, but distinct cultures of the world, i.e., Islamic culture from North Africa and Christian culture from Europe. Built side-by-side, these monuments are a testament to Spain’s strong multi-cultural roots. Along with the nearby Albaicín area and the Generalife, the Alhambra became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.
Derived from an Arabic word al-qal’a al-hamra, which means the red one, the name Alhambra most-likely referred to the red fortress that existed on the current Alcazaba site. As some Moorish poets put it, the Alhambra was a pearl set of emeralds. At its peak, with the lavish palaces and sprawling gardens, it was like a heaven on earth. The Alhambra now presents a glimpse of its past glory, showcasing the grandeur and beauty of its edifices.
The Alhambra is unique in various ways. To name a few, the usage of mathematics in architecture and decoration and showcasing of Islamic art in a strongly Christian country. The mesmerizing patterns on the walls and ceilings are a blend of mathematics and art. The Alhambra was the inspiration for the development of many modern mathematical concepts.
The Alhambra is a massive complex of fortresses, palaces, towers, and gardens covering an area of 26 acres. The River Darro flows in the north, and the Sabika Valley lies in the south. Because of its strategic location, many variations of fortifications existed in the Sabika Hills, starting from the Roman period. However, it was largely forgotten until Muhammed I, the founder of the Nasrid dynasty and the Emir of the Kingdom of Granada, realized its strategic importance and started building forts and palaces in the 13th century. Later, Yusuf I made it a royal palace, and it remained so until the Reconquista captured it.
Although the Nasrids were an Islamic dynasty with strong roots in North Africa, they often allied with the Christian kings during the Reconquista. During their rule, the relationship between Christians and Muslims was mostly amicable. Granada was the last Islamic bastion to fall the Reconquista, and it was bloodless. The Nasrids employed a lot of Christian artisans to build and decorate the edifices. As a result, a blend of Christian and Islamic art evolved in the Alhambra.
Pedestrian Path to the Alhambra
The Alhambra monuments are on the hilltop. If you are going there on foot, there is a well-paved pedestrian path starting at the Puerta de Las Granadas (Gate of the Pomegranates) located at the foot of the Sabika Hill. If you are walking from the city center, take the Cuesta de Gomérez Street from the Plaza Nueva to arrive at this gate. The distance from the Plaza Nueva to the Alhambra monuments via this gate is about 3/4 of a mile.
Note that there is another entry point via Cuesta del Rey Chico. However, the Gate of the Pomegranates is much more interesting because of the monuments along the way.
The image shows an area map of the Alhambra and Generalife placed near this gate. The pedestrian path from the gate to the main entrance is a paved road and goes uphill. As you walk up, you encounter the Alhambra forest on both sides. After walking a few hundred feet from the gate, the roads fork into two; The right path goes to the Crimson Towers, the Manuel de Falla Auditorium, and the left path leads to the Alhambra. As you walk further, you arrive at the Washington Irving Monument. A few feet from there, you climb a flight of steps to reach the Pillar of Carlos V. Then you go via the Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Justice) to arrive at the Alhambra.
For detailed information on the monuments along the pedestrian path, check this page: Alhambra – Outer Monuments.
Once you reach the top, you can view the monuments from both the Nasrid and Christian periods. The Nasrid-era monuments include the Puerta del Vino (Wine Gate), Alcazaba, Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid Palaces), and Gardens of the Partal. The Christian-era monuments include Palacio Carlos V (Charles V Palace), and Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra (Church of St. Mary of the Alhambra).
At the far end (i.e., west) is the Torre de la Vela, a tower with a bell and flags located at the west end of the Alcazaba. In front of it are the Torre del Homenaje and Torre Quebrada. The tower on the far right is the Tower of Mohammed.
Nasrid Era – The Golden Age of the Alhambra
During the Nasrid period, the Alhambra was a self-contained citadel with a defensive wall around it, and within this wall, there were three main areas.
- Royal Residences – Now known as the Nasrid Palaces, these were the residences of the sultan where he and his close relatives lived and conducted the state business. These are were built in the slopes on the northern part of the hill.
- Alcazaba – This was the fortress made of ramparts and watchtowers. It also provided housing for the troops stationed here to defend the royals. It occupies the western end of the Sabika Hill.
- Medina – This is the city that served the needs of the people in the palaces and the military. It was on the south side and covered the area on the upper part of the hill. Not much is left of the city now because many Christian era monuments were built in this area, and Napoleon’s retreating troops, who occupied the Alhambra from 1808 to 1812, blew up part of it in 1812 when they withdrew from Granada.
Located on the northern end of the Sabika Hill, the Nasrid Palaces is the most popular tourist attraction in the Alhambra. To visit the Nasrid Palaces, you need to buy tickets, and depending on the season, you may have to buy them well in advance. Besides the Nasrid Palaces, the Alhambra has many impressive attractions, including the Alcazaba, Partal Gardens, and Medina. Although the Generalife, which is located on a different hill on the other side of the valley, is not considered part of the Alhambra, most tourists visit it after the Alhambra tour because of the easy access from the Alhambra. The Nasrid Palaces visit lasts about two hours, and you can complete the entire Alhambra and Generalife tours in half a day.
The Nasrid Palaces consist of three main palaces, which are: Palacio del Mexuar, Palacio Comares (Comores Palace), and Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions). The visit starts at the entrance near the north facade of the Palacio Carlos V and ends at the Partal Gardens.
Gardens of the Partal
The Gardens of the Partal (Los Jardines del Partal) used to be part of the Nasrid Palaces and had buildings and houses occupied mainly by the nobility and the people related to the palace. Partal means portico in Arabic.
In the 1930s, beautiful gardens replaced the Partal ruins. As a result of excellent planning and landscaping, these gardens blends with its natural surroundings. The Gardens of the Partal consists of several restored buildings near the Nasrid Palaces and the gardens built on the slopes north of the upper Alhambra. The two main buildings in this area are: 1. Torre de las Damas (Tower of the Ladies) 2. Oratorio del Partal (Oratory of the Partal).
The images below show the views of the buildings and gardens.
Located strategically on the western end of the Sabika Hill, the Alcazaba is a fortress used by the Nasrid rulers to defend the Alhambra, the center of power of the Emirate of Granada. Because of its hilltop location, this site attracted many kingdoms in this region to build fortifications there. Experts believe that even a Roman fortification existed in this site.
Realizing the importance of the strategic location, Mohammed I (1238–1273), the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, decided to build a fortress over a structure that already existed since 889 CE. He oversaw its construction and made it his residence. The version of the fortress he built consisted of three towers, Torre Quebrada (Broken Tower), Torre del Homenaje (Tower of Tribute), and Torre de la Vela (Tower of Vigil), all of which are still standing.
After the fall of the Nasrids, the Christian kingdoms used it for defensive purposes. Later, like all other structures in the Alhambra, it fell into disrepair after long neglect. The major restoration work started in the 19th century and continued until the early 20th century.
Read More: Alcazaba – A Formidable Moorish Fortress
The Alhambra was a self-contained citadel in the Nasrid period. The city, known as the Medina, served the daily needs of the palace and the people working there. It was a bustling city with shops, industrial houses, public baths, mosques, and residential quarters. The residential quarters provided housing for the common people, including artisans and civil servants, and the nobility. The ruins of the original Medina are in the east end of the Alhambra.
The main street of the city, known as Calle Real (Royal Street), ran from the east end of the Alhambra to west side near the Puerta del Vino (Wine Gate). A part of that trail still exists and other Christian era structures were built.
Most of the original Nasrid structures in the Medina are now gone. The Christian kings who took over the Alhambra built structures over them. Napoleon, who occupied the Alhambra from 1808 to 1812, blasted many of them while retreating. What remains now are the foundations of some structures and some restored buildings.
Read More: Alhambra: Medina – The Bustling Nasrid City
– Palacios Nazaríes – Nasrid Palaces – A Shining Example of Moorish Art and Architecture
– Los Jardines del Partal – The Gardens of the Partal
– Alcazaba – Formidable Fortress of the Nasrids
– Medina – The Bustling Nasrid City
– Alhambra – Christian-Era Monuments
– Alhambra – Outer Monuments
– Generalife – Heavenly Gardens of the Nasrids
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