History of the Alhambra
The history of the Nasrid dynasty of Iberia is deeply intertwined with the city of Granada. Twenty-three emirs ruled the Emirate of Granada (also known as the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada) from 1230 until 1492, when they surrendered to the Christian monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The most iconic symbol of the rule of the Nasrid dynasty in Granada is the Alhambra.
Described as “a pearl set in emeralds” by Moorish poets, the Alhambra was originally built in the 16th century as a walled citadel. It was constructed on al-Sabika hill which lies on the left bank of the river Darro.
Today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has become one of Spain’s most high profile tourist attractions. People from all over the world travel to the fort and palace complex, to behold its magnificent Islamic architecture with their own eyes.
But history has not always been kind to the Alhambra. From the 18th century, the Alhambra was largely abandoned and was occupied by squatters. It fell into disrepair and was subject to wanton vandalism. It was not until the 19th century, that repair and restoration efforts were undertaken to preserve this national treasure.
Admission, Tickets and Opening Hours
According to tourism data, more than 8,500 people visit the Alhambra everyday. The Alhambra is one of the top destinations in the world, due to which there is a cap on the number of people permitted to be inside the complex per day. Hence, I would recommend booking your tickets in advance.
Note: You will only be allowed to enter the Nasrid Palaces at the designated time slot on your ticket, owing to the complex’s limited capacity.
There are several types of tickets. I went with the regular Daytime Visit which costs 14.00 €. Free or reduced fare entry is allowed for:
- Children under the age of 12 (free)
- Children between 12 and 15 years of age (8.00 €)
- Senior citizens aged 65 years and over and pensioners from the European Union (9.00 €)
- People with disabilities (8.00 €)
Once you book your tickets online, you will receive an email confirmation. Print and bring this confirmation, along with the credit card used for the transaction. You will also need a form of ID, most likely a passport.
If you don’t want to wait to get your tickets from the Alhambra, you can also print out the tickets from any Caixa machine. Similar to an ATM, just insert your credit card into the machine and follow the instructions. This will save a lot of time, which would have otherwise been wasted standing in the long lines at the Alhambra entrance.
The Alhambra is open Monday to Sunday. The hours of operation are:
- 1st April to 14th October: 08:30 – 20:00
- 15th October to 31st March: 08:30 – 18:00
Entrance into the Alhambra
From Plaza Nueva, there is a scenic route along the Darro River which culminates at the crossroads between Paseo de los Tristes and Cuesta del Chapiz. This easy route runs for 750 meters and takes around 10 minutes to walk.
At the crossroads, you will have three choices to enter the Alhambra:
- Walk up the Cuesta de los Chinos. The length of this difficult route is 1,100 meters and can take more than 30 minutes to climb.
- Walk up to Sacromonte which is 200 meters long. This takes only 6 minutes, but is super hard.
- Walk up to the Mirador de san Nicolas. This route is 750 meters, extremely hard and takes up to 20 minutes to pass.
You can also walk directly from the Plaza Nueva to the Alhambra via the Cuesta Gomerez. It’s a difficult climb, and it takes nearly 30 minutes to complete the 830 meters. This is the path that I took.
As you walk up Cuesta Gomerez, you will be greeted by the Puerta de las Granadas or “Gate of Pomegranates”. This 15th century triumphal arch marks your entry into the Alhambra. The steep ascent from here takes you to the main entrance of the Alhambra where you will show your tickets.
While you can enter the Alhambra from other places, the main entrance is the only area where maps and audio guides are available.
Architecture of the Alhambra
Unlike the Mezquita de Córdoba, there are no traces of Byzantine influence on the Alhambra, which has endured largely as Muslim art. The palace complex is designed in the Nasrid style, one of the last forms of Islamic architecture in the Iberian Peninsula.
The Alhambra is derived from the Arabic words ‘qa’lat al-Hamra’, meaning “Red Castle”. The name was inspired from the red clay used to build the fort walls.
Walking inside the vast grounds of the Alhambra reveals the aesthetic complexity of the architecture. While the Alhambra was extended by consecutive Muslim rulers, the theme “Paradise on Earth” was preserved each time.
The exterior facade was always austere, with free movement for light and wind. The interior on the other hand was lavish, greatly accessorized with ornate detailing, costly raw materials and lush greenery.
Shaped in the form of a triangle, Alcazaba is the highest point of the Alhambra. It was used primarily for military purposes, and even now you can have beautiful views of Granada and the Sierra Nevada from the Vela watchtower. After all, there was a reason why the Alhambra was strategically built on a hill.
This is the oldest part of the Alhambra, and like the rest of the structure, the Alcazaba too was neglected for a long time. The dungeons are closed to the public, and only the ruins of the towers, baths, silos and ramparts remain.
Palacio de Charles V
After the Reconquista, Charles V had a part of the Alhambra demolished, in order to build a palace dedicated to him. Originally built to provide all the comforts for the Emperor and his family, the Palacio de Charles V eventually was never home to a monarch.
The square structure with its circular patio is considered one of the important examples of Renaissance architecture in Spain. However, the palace is not representative of pure Renaissance style. With its two floors and several open windows, the curved shape of the palace is surprising to visitors. It looks less Renaissance and more of a Roman amphitheatre.
Characterized by opulent courtyards and royal quarters, the Palacios Nazaríes or the Nasrid Palaces resemble every bit the home of a sultan. The walls are carved with Arabic inscriptions set in geometrical patterns and carved stucco. The wooden ceilings are framed with tile mosaics, the paneling resplendent with their vibrant colors.
The Nasrid Palaces consist of three components:
- Mexuar: The selamlik or “semi-public” area of the palace reserved for administrative affairs.
- Palacio de Comares: The official residence of the sultan, the palace has a distinctive Moorish artistic decor.
- Palacio de los Leones: The Palace of the Lions was a strictly private area, and was where the harem of the sultan was situated. There are Christian elements in the architecture here, possible because of the friendship between Mohammed V and Pedro I the Cruel.
Palacio de Generalife
Literally meaning the “Garden of the Architect”, Palacio de Generalife was the summer palace of the sultans of the Nasrid dynasty. The Patio de la Acequia has a long reflecting pool surrounded by flower beds, fountains and trees.
The beautifully landscaped gardens of the Alhambra are one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens. A mosaic of pebbles form the walking paths. The white pebbles are from the Darro River, and the black pebbles are from the River Genil. The paths are lined with well-sheared trees and shrubs blooming with flowers and fruits, such as roses, myrtle and oranges. Sometimes you can hear nightingales singing amid the cypress trees.