The Alhambra

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.” Abu Abdallah’s mother Ouch! In 1492, besides Columbus sailing the ocean blue, the Moorish king Abu Abdallah surrendered the Alhambra to the Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella. As he cast a last backwards

by Steve
11 min read
The Alhambra

“Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”

Abu Abdallah’s mother


In 1492, besides Columbus sailing the ocean blue, the Moorish king Abu Abdallah surrendered the Alhambra to the Christian forces of Ferdinand and Isabella. As he cast a last backwards gaze at all he had lost, Abu Abdallah wept. Legend has it that his mother gave him the loving consolation quoted above.

A word about this post: scholars have devoted thousands of hours and pages to the Alhambra. I will toss in an interesting/amusing/cynical observation from time-to-time, but I’m not going to try to document the history or functions of the place. I’ve included a number of hyperlinks and encourage you to explore on your own. Better yet, book a ticket to Granada and see for yourself. I can recommend a good hotel.

So, what is the Alhambra exactly? Like a lot of things in this part of the world, it’s an accretion of structures built beside and over top of each other across a long span of time. We’re going to first take a look at the Alcazaba, the oldest and most ruined part of the complex. What stands today dates from the 13th century, but experts believe that a Roman fort preceded it. It’s poor condition is partially due to Napoleon who stationed his troops here.

Every now and then even a blind squirrel can find a nut. I’m patting myself on the back for taking this photo.
Tourists stand on the wall and admire the view of old Granada.
Here’s the view they are admiring. You can see the Grand Mosque of Granada across the way.
These remains, inside the defensive walls, were housing for the troops.
I don’t know whether the placing of colored stones between the brickwork was functional or decorative, but I like it.

Next up is the spectacular Palacios Nazaries or, if you will, the Nazrid Palaces. You are going to see a lot of tile and a lot of ceilings. Buckle up. I’ll provide links for more information as best I can.

We begin in the Mexuar rooms. This section is not entirely as it was because the Catholic kings did some remodeling. Doesn’t really matter because it’s not a very interesting area. Back in the day this room and a few others nearby served as the palace “office”. Scribes worked busily at whatever scribes in that era had to scribe about.

Now it starts to get interesting. Here’s a quick look into the Mexuar Oratory, which served as a private prayer room for the sultan. It is oriented differently than adjacent rooms because Muslims are obliged to face Mecca while praying. The mihrab is on the right under the arch.

The Cuarto Dorado may have served as a waiting room for visitors about to enter the Comares Palace, which is through the two doors in the second photo.

The Courtyard of the Myrtles. The apartments of the sultan’s women overlooked this courtyard: two apartments for wives and a dorm for concubines. There was a limit of four wives, but a man could have “as many concubines as he could maintain with dignity.”

The ceiling of the Sala de la Barca. The room was used to receive ambassadors whose next stop was through a door and into the presence of the sultan.

And here we go…

Notice the Arabic writing on the walls. There’s a line (read right-to-left) above the arched door, and more stretching across the wall at various levels. Much of what is known about the Alhambra was gleaned by reading the walls.

Let’s take a break from the room-by-room commentary and just look at some interesting bits and pieces. See how much Arabi writing you can spot.

A peek behind the curtain.

We are entering the Courtyard of the Lions, locally known as Patio de los Leones. You will see where the name comes from shortly.

The doors into the sultan’s bedroom.

We are in the sultan’s bedroom. Not sure I could sleep with all this going on over my head.

Most likely, the sultan slept in one of the small rooms beside the central area.

We are in the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings). What’s notable here are the paintings on the goat-leather ceiling depicting scenes of the sultan and his family.

As we made our way to the gardens, I spotted these unusual but familiar domes. Do you know what they are?

Below are the baths. Traditionally, each pool will be under a dome with small windows to let in light. Since we were unable to see the baths here, I’m imagining what they look like based on my 1990 visit to the Király baths in Budapest. Those 450 year old baths had huge hunks of crystal set into the domes to let in the light.

We are looking down into a pleasant garden in an interior courtyard called Patio de Lindaraja.

The cellars with their interesting brickwork and utter lack of commentary or furnishing.

Now this was a surprise! What was Washington Irving, the author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, doing here? Research.

In 1829, Irving moved into the Alhambra, “determined to linger here”, he said, “until I get some writings under way connected with the place”. Before he could get any significant writing underway, however, he was notified of his appointment as Secretary to the American Legation in London.

We take our leave of the Nazrid Palaces via the Patio de la Reja and the two-level balconies overlooking old Granada.

This is the neighboring Partal Palace and its adjoining oratory.

As we continue our tour, we passed by this church which I know nothing about.

We strolled through the Partal Gardens.

Next we come to the Palace of Charles V. I find Charles annoying. He was apparently a decent king, but he wandered about adding to and “improving” existing structures. In this case, he plunked this palace down right next to the Palacios Nazaries, then never finished it!

I express my displeasure by only taking a single photo of the interior courtyard. I will give Charles this, the fact that the exterior forms a huge square that surrounds a round courtyard is kind of interesting.

If you look at a map of the Alhambra you will see that just outside the fortress walls lies a large garden with a small palace at the far end. It consists of formal gardens, gardens to raise food, and some buildings. Collectively, the area is known as the Generalife. It is not pronounced like the name of a life insurance company, this is Spain remember? You will be taken for a native if you say “heh-neh-rah-LEE-fay”.

The Generalife was the summer palace of sultans and kings. I find this odd since it’s only a twenty minute walk from the Palacios Nazaries, but I guess the big guys had their reasons.

That the outer wall of the Alhambra beyond the garden.
The Patio de la Acequia, inside the summer palace.
The Patio de los Cipreses – there are a lot of cypress trees hereabouts.

Time to wrap up.

The Moors were masters of waterworks. While Europeans were shitting in their drinking water, the Moors had developed elaborate systems to move freshwater around for both drinking and agriculture. Likewise, their streets were built with gutters to control both rainwater and sewage.

Below is an interesting waterway that also serves as a handrail. It moves water from an uphill source into the Patio de los Cipreses. My jaw dropped when I saw a tourist uncap her water bottle and refill.

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