When I told people back in the States that during this trip to Spain, I would be visiting The Alhambra, most people had no idea what was the significance of this palace. But when I let them know that this was where Christopher Columbus met with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella about funding for his famous trip, it made more sense.
So here comes a bit of a history lesson!
Spain was part of the Roman Empire in 220 B.C. and was ruled by the Romans for about 500 years. The Visigoths took control in the year 409 and much of the positive influence of the Roman Empire was destroyed. The Moors, who were from Northern Africa, took control of most of the Iberian peninsula in 711 and began to rebuild from the ground up.
During the time of Moorish rule, which lasted for almost 800 years, much of what we consider uniquely “Spanish” developed. When you think of Spanish words, many of them are actually derived from Arabic. When you think of Spanish cuisine staples like rice and saffron, the Moors are to thank for that. The dry lands of Spain were irrigated with similar techniques used in Syria and Arabia, and many new crops were introduced, including pomegranates, oranges, lemons, eggplants, bananas, peaches, grapes, figs, apricots, sugar-cane, and cotton.
The Moors were, in general, tolerant people, and the Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived harmoniously, sharing various parts of their culture, music, dance, and art. There was a big focus on learning and huge libraries were created. Art, mathematics, and architecture were very important during the Moorish rule as well.
We can see so much of this in the palace of the Alhambra. The name Alhambra actually means “Red Fortress,” and from where it sits way up on a hill in Granada, you can see the reddish cast of the stone walls. I imagine that seeing it from afar during sunrise and sunset would just accentuate that. I read somewhere that the Alhambra is considered the “greatest book ever built” because the interior is decorated with walls and walls of writing in beautiful and intricate script. Before my trip, I had researched a lot about the Alhambra, but nothing could prepare me for the beauty of actually being there. I hope you get a smidgeon of that beauty from the photos I took on our day there.
We were lucky because the day was slightly overcast, and the line for waiting to enter the Nasrid Palace was under some shade trees, so it was not too hot. I was also happy because the people in line were civilized and patiently waited their turn… (unlike crazy people who practically shoved my teeny children off the ferry boat dock on the way into Disney World years ago, as if there was only one ferry to cross over to see Mickey and Minnie, and they were going to get on it, and no 6 year old was going to get in their way, by golly!!)… anyhow, I digress… The point being: everyone was quite polite and we all entered civilly and were able to enjoy the sights.
The Nasrid Palace is divided into three areas. The first is the Mexuar, which was a more public area. This is where the council met and where the sultan would administer justice. There is a large room which was the council meeting room, and off to the side is an oratory which was used for prayer. This is a room with many arched windows and the interesting thing about it is that it is set at an angle from all the other rooms, so that it slants southeast toward Mecca.
The next area is the Comares Palace, which was the building that separated the public and private spaces of the Nazrid palaces.
You can see the walls are just covered with carvings! The walls are made of stucco, which made the decorating much easier, I’m sure. The main components of the oldest parts of the Alhambra are made of plaster, stone, and wood. The Moors felt that things on Earth are temporary, and that things would change as time went by… nothing man-made would last forever, and there are many parts of the Alhambra that had been torn down and rebuilt from the first building of the Alcazaba in 839 to the time when the Moors were driven from Spain. It wasn’t until the Moors were driven out and the Palace of Charles V was built on the grounds of the Alhambra that we see marble and more “permanent” building materials. Another consideration for what the original structures were made of had to do with using materials that would breathe and allow airflow in such a hot climate.
Then we came to the Hall of Ambassadors, or the Throne Room. This is a large square room surrounded by arched alcoves. This is where the sultan would lie on his throne, huge stained glass windows behind him, the light casting a mysterious glow around him… I just imagine how it must have felt to enter the room and see that. The stained glass was destroyed in an explosion of a gunpowder factory in 1590, so the room is probably a lot brighter today than it was when the sultan was in power. The wooden ceiling is made of 8,017 individual pieces of wood put together like a puzzle. The design depicts the seven heavens of Islamic belief.
This is the room, that in 1492, Columbus pitched to the King and Queen of Spain his idea to travel west to reach the east and all of its riches. Little did he know that there was a significantly large land mass in between Europe and Asia… and the rest, as they say, is history!
Much of the decorations within the Nasrid Palace are either tile, inlaid wood of various geometric designs, or script. There are no realistic representations of living things in the old palaces because the Muslims believed that man was not the creator of things in nature. You will find stylized representations of plants, especially the pineapple, which they felt represented hospitality, and many stylized shell motifs which are a universal symbol of life, water, and fertility.
I read that there are over 10,000 inscriptions throughout the Alhambra and experts have finally deciphered them all. Only about ten percent are actually religious, but the rest are verses of poetry or often just words of advice, such as “Enter and ask. Do not be afraid to seek justice for here you will find it.” or “Be brief and leave in peace.”
There was some renovation going on while we were there. The fountain in the Courtyard of the Lions was being restored, as was the Mirador of Lindajara.
Across this courtyard, are the apartments of King Charles V, who was a grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. The apartments were built for his state visit, but hardly used because his new wife was scared of the frequent earthquakes and instead they stayed in the city below. It is obvious that the design and architecture is very different from the other parts of the Nasrid Palace. This is where Washington Irving stayed in 1829 (He’s the American author who wrote “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and while he stayed at the Alhambra, he took lots and lots of notes, and later wrote Tales of the Alhambra.
In addition to the Nasrid Palaces, we saw beautiful gardens, a church, and another tower and oratory. After our long, long, hike up and down the Rock of Gibraltar yesterday, we were happy that the Alhambra, while huge, was a place we could stroll through and not have to battle too many flights of stairs. My feet were getting less swollen, but weirdly enough, they were still a bit puffy.
We then went to see the Palace Charles V. This is said to be one of the most impressive examples of Renaissance architecture in Spain, but honestly after seeing the Nasrid Palaces and all the beautiful architecture and carvings, the Palace of Charles V paled in comparison. It’s huge, made of marble, and had many columns surrounding a circular courtyard, but to me, it didn’t hold a candle to the Nasrid Palaces!
It looks complete when you go through and visit it, but Charles V never completed it because he was also nervous about the more and more frequent earthquakes in the area. Now it houses the Alhambra museum, which we visited, and also a temporary art exhibit, which was also interesting.
It was starting to get warm — no longer so overcast — but we still wanted to see the Alcazaba. An alcazaba is a fortress, used for military purposes. It is the oldest part of the Alhambra. The views of Granada from the watchtower were amazing!
The last part of the Alhambra that we wanted to see was the Generalife which is a gorgeous garden that had been created by the Moorish kings. The problem was that we were really wiped out from the plane ride, the car ride, the trek around Gibraltar, another car ride, and the walk around the Alhambra. We only saw a little bit of the Generalife because we were so tired. The little bit we saw of the gardens were very pretty.
We will need to visit the Alhambra again. It is tough to see it all or to truly absorb all of the information and history that goes along with each part of it. This was an amazing place and I am so happy that I was able to see it, to be in a place that holds so much history, to stand within the same walls as have sultans, kings, queens, and explorers…