Alhambra: The new monarchs maintained the medieval palaces to enjoy their magnificent decor “so that they may never be forgotten”

“…skill, knowledge and vision in the realm of architecture were once a hallmark of Islamic civilisations, and central to the identity of their peoples.”
His Highness the Aga Khan
October 9, 1998, Granada, Spain
AKDN Press Centre

Alhambra. Image: Alamy/The Telegraph
Alhambra. Image: Alamy/The Telegraph

The Alhambra Palace, whose name is derived from the Arabic dal’at al-hamra, ‘the red fort,’ perhaps because of the reddish clay of the surrounding terrain, was the palace complex of the Nasrid dynasty that ruled southern Spain from 1232 to 1492.

Although the Alhambra dates to the ninth century as a military post, nothing remains from this time. It was not until the arrival of the Nasrids, that it became a royal residence, marking the beginning of the glory of the Alhambra, considered a hallmark of Islamic architecture.

Granada, located on the hills at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and Alhambra were two autonomous but complimentary cities connected through the Puerta de las Armas (Arms Gate), situated between the Albaicin – the town district on the hill opposite the Alhambra – and the lower city. Subsequently, the population of Granada increased, eventually surrounded the Alhambra.

The palace area was first developed by Ismail I (r. 1314-1325), although the most famous architects of the Alhambra were essentially Yusuf I (r. 1333-1354) and his son and successor Muhammad V (r. 2354-1359 and 1362-1391).

Palace of Lions: Image: J.B. Lopez/Islam: Art and Architecture
Palace of Lions: Image: J.B. Lopez/Islam: Art and Architecture

Yusuf I negotiated various peace treaties to resolve conflict arising from political issues in order to devote himself to cultural activities and his passion for architecture. In 1348, he began the major works to extend the Alhambra complex in the form known today, including the Palacio de Comares (Comares Palace), the city gates of the Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Justice), and the Puerta de los Sieta Suelos (Gate of the Seven Stories), and among other structures, the Torre de la Cautiva (Tower of the Captives).

His son and successor Muhammad V, constructed the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), considered a masterpiece of Islamic culture.

Muhammad  VII (r. 1392-1408) commissioned the building of the Torre de las Infantas (Tower of the Infants).

Court of Lions: Image: J.B. Lopez/Islam: Art and Architecture
Court of Lions: Image: J.B. Lopez/Islam: Art and Architecture

The principal courts of the palace are the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles) and the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions), so named because in the centre is the Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of the Lions), an alabaster basin supported by the figures of twelve white marble lions, representing the signs of the zodiac. The courtyard is intersected by four water channels alluding to the points of a compass. A complex hydraulic system provided, in the fourteenth century, a constant level of water in the fountain.

The Alhambra complex once comprising residential quarters, court complexes, a bath, and a mosque, kept watch over the kingdom’s capital. The combination of the slender columns, fountains, and water basins in the courtyards, has captured the romantic imagination of visitors for centuries. According to the inscriptions, the combination of these elements represents a description of Paradise.

To the east on the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun) is the Generalife – from the Arabic jannat al-ʿarīf  (garden of the overseer) – constructed during the reign of Muhammad III (r. 1302-1309) as a summer palace and country estate. Today, the Alhambra is linked to the Generalife by a series of gardens created in the early twentieth century.

Palace of Generalife. Image: J.B. Lopez/Ilsam: Art and Architecture
Palace of Generalife. Image: J.B. Lopez/Ilsam: Art and Architecture

After Granada was conquered in 1492, the rulers renovated the residences and urban structures to meet their needs. Lopez states that “The Catholic monarchs retained the medieval Nasrid palaces as private residences to enjoy their magnificent decor and – as they stipulated in their will – “so that they may never be forgotten.” Although partly altered in shape, neglected, sacked, and left to the mercy of nature over the centuries, most of their structure and decoration have survived.”1

The Alhambra, the Generalife, and Albaicin district were collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. 

The awards of the seventh cycle of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture were presented at the Alhambra in 1998.

1 Jesus Bermudez Lopez, “The Alhmabra,” Islam: Art and Architecture, Edited by Markuss Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konemann, 2000
Alhambra, Granada, Spain, Archnet (accessed 2016)
The Generalife (accessed 2016)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

Author: ismailimail

Civil society media.   Find Ismailimail blog on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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