Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Alhambra - our tour notes

The Alhambra is the only Muslim palace from the Middle Ages to have survived. In 711 Berber and Arab armies from North Africa arrived in Iberia. In 758 Abn al-Rahmad, of the Umayyad clan, escaped imprisonment in Baghdad and fled to Spain, where he established leadership. The Umayyad dynasty ruled Granada until the mid-C13th. The Umayyad Caliphate in Spain started to fall apart in the early C11, and the reconquest of Muslim Spain by the Catholic Kings started around this time, a little earlier than the Crusades to the Holy Land. The Nasrids took power in Granada in 1238. One by one the small, fragmented principalities which resulted fell to the Reconquista, which ended in 1492 with the fall of Granada. The last Sultan, Abn Abdullah Muhammad XII, usually known as Boabdil in Spain, surrendered the keys of the Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, who had united the Kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and completed the Reconquista. Christopher Columbus witnessed the surrender, and later that year was sent on his journey West, sponsored by Ferdinand and Isabel, who then ordered the conversion and then expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Plate from The Grammar of Ornament, Owen Jones
The most substantial and interesting parts of the Alhambra Palace were built in the mid to late C14, when the Nasrids established it as the royal residence and seat of government, but it was a time when the muslim empire in Spain was already in serious decline. The materials are cheap, and the style mostly conservative and backward-looking. The Partal Palace is from the early C14, Cuarto Dorado, Patio de los Arrayanes, Patio de los Leones from the mid-14th century. The Mexuar started then but developed over many centuries.

The hill on which the Alhambra is situated was the site of not only the Alhambra palace, but a fortress, numerous palaces and gardens, a large mosque, and a town with as many as 40,000 people, rivalling the city of Granada below. The Sierra Nevada was a royal hunting ground. It is likely that much of the time spent in the palace by the Muslim princes would have been at night. The palace would have been lit by giant candles, and many of the rooms may have been designed to look at their best in candlelight and moonlight. The design would also have been aligned to bring in winter light, and to protect inhabitants from summer sun.

The palace would have been full of carpets, drapes and cushions, with people sitting on the floor. The movement and rearrangement of textiles could have quickly and frequently changed the use and purpose of rooms. The palace is on an intimate scale, "to give pleasure to the inhabitants rather than to overawe the ruler's subjects" [Robert Irwin, The Alhambra]

"The Alhambra studiously manipulates contrasts of light and dark, with bent entrances, shafts of sunlight angled into shadowy interiors, dim passageways suddenly opening into a courtyard open to the blazing sun, and light reflected from placid ponds or walls clad in glistening tiles."
[Robert Hillenbrand, quoted in Irwin]

The architecture and decoration would have been intended to allow and accentuate contemplation and reflection, " a machine for thinking" [Irwin]. The following explores some of the key rooms.


Once a Muslim council chamber, then later a Catholic chapel, adorned with the emblem of Charles V - the Pillars of Hercules and the motto 'plus ultra'.

Cuarto Dorado

This was probably where the throne was and the King gave audience. When the Alhambra fell on hard times in the nineteenth century, this room was used as an animal pen.

Patio de los Arrayanes (Myrtle Court)

Built first half C14;  originally had sunken myrtle bushes and orange trees (the bitter Seville orange was introduced from the Far East by the Portuguese, and was used to add acidity in cooking).

Sala de la Barca

Restored after a fire in 1890. It may have been a Dining Room. The restoration mistook a mihrab for a doorway and knocked through to the Hall of the Ambassadors. The niches were for jars - some ten have survived, one in the museum here.

Cuarto de los Embajadores (Ambassadors' Room)

A throne room and audience chamber, with the throne in the alcove opposite the entrance. The marquetry ceiling is of cedarwood, with repeated inscriptions from the Koran. The ceiling would have been polychromatic, and there would have been stained glass in the windows. This was destroyed in an explosion in 1590, when gunpowder was being stored in the palace.

Sala de los Mocárabes

The ornate stalactite ceiling was destroyed in a fire centuries ago. Despite what some  guides say, it is not possible that this was a harem!

Patio de los Leones (Lion Court)

The recently restored lion statues now take pride of place again around the fountain, on a new marble floor. The Court of the Lions was probably a madrasa, or Koranic school,  according to Irwin

Cuarto de los Abencerrages

This would probably have been a prayer room, since there is no secular poetry among the complex wall decorations and inscriptions, although there is no mihrab


This belvedere with the twin window representing the eye of the ruler, originally with a view of the Albaicín, now blocked by Charles V apartments built around the now-diminshed Lindaraxa gardens and cemetary. The palace of the Conde de Tendilla with a pavilion aorund a central patio, was destroyed in 1717.

Cuarto de los dos Hermanas (Room of the Two Sisters)

The modern name refers to the two slabs of marble in the floor. The ornate door is now in the museum. The great domed muqarna ceiling contains 5000 peices, in seven basic prism shapes. This may also have had an acoustic function, for recitals and concerts here.

Palacio del Partal &Torre de la Dama

Built 1302-9 and partially surviving, with numerous changes and restorations. The tower was sold and converted to a house in the late C19, with the ceiling sold to a Berlin museum.

The Alhambra after 1492

Until 1868, it was a royal palace, the residence of the Spanish kings in Granada. Ferdinand and Isabel built apartments here and employed Muslim craftsmen to do restorations, and again after the earthquake of 1522. One palace was allocated to the Franciscans for a convent, and the buildings and mosque were destroyed to make place for a new convent and church in the 1560s.
Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabel, became King of Spain in 1516 and Emperor in 1519,   ruling the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily and Sardinia, as well as the German (Holy Roman) Empire. Charles came to Granada in 1526 on his honeymoon, and ordered the Inquisition to hunt down crypto-Muslims. Presumably he did some romantic stuff as well. Despite admiring Moorish architecture and decoration, he felt it was cold in winter and lacked a great banquet hall, so he commisioned Pedro Machuca to build a modern palace. Many architects continued the work after Machuco's death in 1550, for more than a hundred years, until it was abandoned unfinished. The roof was never completed, and was used for storing gunpowder. The French troops, billeted in the convent, burned the wood they found in the palace. Work was finally completed in the twentieth century.
The basic design was a round peristyled courtyard, probably intended to contain a garden, in a square building. The rusticated masonry facade echoes the palazzios of Rome and Venice. It is a "fine building in the wrong place" [Irwin]
While the Renaissance palace is decorated and designed to look impressive on the outside, and inward-looking on the inside, the Muslim palace is undecorated and austere outside, with an interior which is ornate and outward-looking.
From the seventeenth century onwards, the Alhambra fell on hard times, with fires, earthquakes, and the palaces used as a prison, a gypsy camp and an animal pen. The French blew up eight of the ten towers in the wall, and further damage was done in the Carlist War in 1812. Visitors carved their names and stole decorations.

More Horrible Histories

"[The Alhambra] is a monument to murder, slavery, poverty and fear." [Irwin]
Christian captives were used as slave labour in its construction, probably billeted in the dungeon of the Alcazaba fortress. The Nasrid rulers were poor, peripheral, and their civilization in decline. The designs were magnificent, but the materials modest - stucco, wood and tiles, with no marble and little stone. The designs also looked to former and distant glories, feeble compared to Madinat al-Zahara near Cordoba and the palaces of Seville, let alone Baghdad and Samarra. Madinat boasted 140 marble columns from Byzantium (a gift from the Christian Emperor), and a pool of mercury.
"The Alhambra was an attempt to replicate the glories of previous palaces of vanished dynasties but with only limited resources." [Irwin]
Seven of the first nine sultans were assasinated, what the Muslims called "Red Death". The Black Death struck from 1348.
Despite the ongoing reconquest, there was a close alliance between Catholic Seville and Muslim Granada in the fourteenth century, and Pedro the Cruel, King of Castile, imported Muslim workman from Granada to build the Alcazar of Seville.
The decline of Muslim Granada ended when Muhammad XII ("Boabdil") surrendered the keys of the Alhambra in the Hall of the Ambassadors on the 2nd February 1492.
Not everyone loved the Alhambra. Ruskin detested it, along with all things Muslim, preferring to celebrate the Gothic. However, it was hugely influential on his contemporary Owen Jones, whose Grammar of Ornament (1856) influenced in turn British and international commercial and industrial design.