The Alhambra Palace

Everyone has their personal story about the Alhambra; I do not know anyone who has not been affected by it in one way or another.

I visit this palace as part of my Andalus pilgrimage and my last visit was with a group of writers I organized a retreat for in May 2022. The retreat was a gentle reminder that we can approach everything as a writer and when we do, we see the world and people, buildings and history from a different angle. The morning started with an early breakfast and picking up our sandwiches for lunch from the cortijo (farmhouse). The taxis were ready, waiting for our excited crew to climb in as we snaked across the land of olive trees. What a joy it was to be driving amongst the olive trees! I turned into a chatterbox and talked for over an hour about the history of Andalus, Granada and the Alhambra. I was born a tour guide; my first grown up job was to take a busload of people across the Mediterranean in my gap year from university and I felt similar this time, too! We laughed and made jokes in the car approaching the city of hills through its industrial suburb as the two Rafaels (both of our drivers in two cars were called Rafael) took us to the nearest spot to enter the divine space of geometry.

The fresh morning air coupled with the gentle wafts of jasmine and orange was too good to be true. We entered the palace grounds with a childish anticipation and for our first timers, it was magic appearing right in front of them. Buildings have soul and the soul of the Alhambra lies in its story itself. Meditation on this beautiful palace is easy. I imagine the gentle music played here as I walk around the grounds, keeping my eyes on everything at the same time. Yet, nothing is overwhelming my senses; in fact, I get the opposite effect- a calming, joyful, peaceful walk that rejuvenates the heart and spirit. I must be in heaven, I think to myself, and I do not want to end the walks here for a long time to come, maybe never. Being surrounded by a peace you cannot feel anywhere else, this building is exhaling peace and reconciliation, tolerance and open arms for beauty, an openness that invites for going inside and marvel humanity and its capacity to bring such beauty to the world. It is a wonder; its conception, its idea of being born out of sheer survival, yet it bleeds the tears of many who suffered.

The Alhambra served as an example for many inventions after it. Today every tourist spot makes it a focal point, be it beer, printed scarves or tiny souvenir items dotted around the city, all the same look and cheap quality. Everyone, however, with a connection to the Alhambra has his own personal interpretation of it; if the connection is not preliminary, there will be bedazzlement and a personal take on its intricacies, colours, its views and history. The palace is enchanting, but it is also a building with a soul that will not leave you without something swirling in you.

It is the most visited monument in Spain with around 6,000 people entering through its doors each day. The Alhambra site is about 700–740 metres (2,300–2,430 ft) in length and about 200–205 metres (660–670 ft) at its greatest width. It extends from west-northwest to east-southeast and covers an area of about 142,000 square metres (1,530,000 sq ft) or 35 acres. Historic buildings are soulful, and the Alhambra has a special place in Muslim history made even more famous by the romantic travellers. Our personal connections to the origin of this building, its fate and its grandeur offers a point of reflection, like the many geometric patterns and the corners of its gardens. There is not much more rewarding in life than learning from a building.

The eighth-century-old site was named for the reddish walls and towers that surrounded the citadel: al-qal’a al-hamra in Arabic means red fort or castle. The building of the Alhambra is a typical process like many other buildings in medieval Andalus. It starts with a fort (the Alcazaba) to protect the area from the imminent dangers. Then it gradually stretches into various sections, growing with time and with the population as well as its needs. After the Alcazaba the Palace and the gardens (Generalife) was built, creating a sprawling beauty on top of the Sabika hills.

The first historical documents that mention the Alhambra palace are from the 9th century and refer to Sawwar ben Hamdun who sought refuge in the Alcazaba in 889. The fortress was in need of repair and he took on the job as due to the civil fights, the crumbling Cordoban empire was in need of repair. The castle was initially used solely as a military defence point and with its cast view overlooking the city and its valleys, it was strategically best used. The first reference to al-Ḥamrāʼ came in lines of poetry attached to an arrow shot over the ramparts, recorded by Ibn Hayyan (d. 1076):

“Deserted and roofless are the houses of our enemies;

Invaded by the autumnal rains, traversed by impetuous winds;

Let them within the red castle (Kalat al hamra) hold their mischievous councils;

Perdition and woe surround them on every side.”

Granada was a taifa kingdom established by the Zirids, who built the Old Citadel in Albayzin, hence beginning to establish a new city. The Almohads and Almoravids conquered Andalus by then and the taifa kingdom ceased to exist. Much later, in 1238, the Zirid king Mohammad I. (Mohammed Ibn Ahmar) arrived and decided to establish a royal residence. His first few jobs were significant in establishing this marvellous palace. He built the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vega) and the Keep (Torre de Homenaje). He also canalized the water from the river Daro.

His descendants, Mohammed II took care of the ramparts, and Mohammed III built the bathhouses and the mosque in the complex that had been spreading in size and functionality consistently. But the beauty we see today and so admire was brought about by Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Mohammed V (1353-1391) They improved the Alcazaba, the palaces and their name is attached to the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) and its annexed rooms, including the extension of the area within the ramparts, the Justice Gate (Puerta de la Justicia), the extension and decoration of the towers, the building of the Baths (Baños), the Comares Room (Cuarto de Comares) and the Hall of the Boat (Sala de la Barca). They were diligent in carrying out the decorative work while keeping in mind the functionality of the palace, too and there was not much worthy of mentioning built after them.

When the palace fell for the Christians in 1492 and its keys were handed over to Isabella and Ferdinand by Boabdil, it became a home for the Christian royals. They used the palace as their home, walking around in the Moorish robes and treating the palace as their main residency and as a symbol of power over the defeated Muslims. After their departure the palace started to disintegrate and fell into despair in all sense. In 1571 Philipp II rearranged things once more. He was heavily involved in making money from sugar cane in Seville and part of his income was now directed to the repairs of the palace, although less than twenty years later some parts of the palace burnt down. The rulers could not be bothered anymore and left the building literally rot; this remained the state of Alhambra until 1700s.

Then a formidable group of gypsies moved into the once royal barrio, and they made the best of their time by inhabiting it with their full heart and inquisitive minds. They created an atmospheric barrio to the amusement of the few visitors who dared to pay their visit to the once glorious building only to find donkeys and gypsies playing flamenco. In the mid-1700s the governor of Granada moved in thinking of using it as a military hospital. This was detrimental to the beauty of Alhambra, as the inhabitants used its wood and plasterwork for making fires, not a great gesture to a grand palace. The royal rooms of the palace became storerooms for salting fish. These were painful years for the Alhambra, as it fell disastrously close to complete damage.

Then came the travellers, whose taste for fantasy, exotic stories and salivating romance brought the palace back onto the map once again. Some of them write about Granada without ever setting foot near it, like the English poet, John Dryden wrote a play about the conquest of Granada. But he was not the only one dazzled by the romantic spot. Victor Hugo published his “Les Orientales” and Debussy composed two pieces of his moody music dedicated to the city and the gates of the palace. Such was the allure of the Alhambra that faraway writers and composers wrote odes and other remarkable pieces of work in its honour. The admiration was from far and wide, until travellers did make their journeys for real, hence bringing the reputation of the palace back to its glorious days. Some restoration started in 1828 by the architect José Contreras, endowed in 1830 by Ferdinand VII. After the death of Contreras in 1847, it was continued by his son Rafael and later his grandson Mariano Contreras. In 1868 a revolution deposed Isabella II and the government seized the properties of the Spanish monarchy, including the Alhambra. In 1870 the Alhambra was declared a National Monument of Spain and the state allocated a budget for its conservation.

The Alhambra palace was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984.


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