In 711, Islamic forces crossed into southern Spain, spreading the word of Mohammad and establishing Caliphates and kingdoms of their own. Before they were through, they had conquered all of the southern Iberian Peninsula. The Moorish kingdoms were powerful and urbane, and would forever leave their mark on the peninsula.
In 1492, the last and greatest of the Moorish kingdoms, Granada, fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabela, ending centuries of reconquest. The Sultan Boabdil, last of twenty monarchs of the great Nasrid Dynasty, reportedly wept as he turned over the keys of his palace to the Spanish. That palace, one of the greatest expressions of Moorish art and architecture and a candidate for one of the seven wonders of the modern world, is the Alhambra.
Make no mistake: the Alhambra is the greatest visitor attraction in all of Spain. Thatâ€™s the good news and the bad news all in one: the bad news is that the palace is constantly mobbed with tourists, and the good news is that it is still worth it. The Alhambra is not one building, but rather a complex, which was once home to 2,000 people under Moorish rule.
Due to increased volume of visitors to the site, the decision has been made to limit visitors to certain areas of the Alhambra. If youâ€™re researching the Alhambra on the internet, there is some confusion as to what is and what is not included on any given tour or ticket. The following guide should clear things up.
Basically, there are four areas of the Alhambra complex, which sits at the top of a hill overlooking Granada. The place most people think of when they envision the Alhambra, with courtyards and finely worked walls and ceilings, is the Nasrid Palace, former home of the sultan and his family. Not far from the Palace is the AlcĂˇzar, the fortress-like walls and towers that once made up the primary defenses of the Alhambra. Between the two is the Palace of Charles V, which was built later, during the reign of Charles V and not completed until relatively recently. Finally, you have the gardens and buildings of the Generalife, which were once a summer palace for the Sultan and were private residences for a long time before they became part of the Alhambra historical site.
Moorish and Arabic art and architecture are significantly different from their Christian counterparts, and this is reflected in the palace. The northern Africans who made up the waves of invaders were fascinated by water, which was scarce in their homes, so there are many pools and fountains. Representations of humans and animals are forbidden in Islamic art, so instead of the paintings of saints and virgins so common in Christian art at the time, youâ€™ll see incredibly intricate designs and patterns interspersed with verses from the Koran scripted in Arabic. Originally, the finely molded walls were brightly painted: youâ€™ll occasionally see some with a little bit of paint left. The Alhambra is a refreshing change if youâ€™ve been touring in Spain for a while: seeing the same paintings and architecture over and over can become tiresome.
The Alhambra is not to be missed: it will whisk you back to a time of powerful sultans and crusading knights, a time when beauty was valued over function and extravagance was expected.