Across Andalucia: The Alhambra Fortress – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

My travels have taken me from Venice to Florence, Genoa, and Istanbul. In 2012 it brought me to Andalucia, in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule. I continue my exploration in Granada at the magnificent Alhambra Fortress.

The Alhambra (Al Qal’a al-Hamra,) or “The Red Castle”, was built during the Nasrid Dynasty in 1243 and was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. It was designed as a palace-city (like the Topkapi in Istanbul) and was expanded into a fortress during the 13th century. The complex contains several gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces, which are the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984.

I enter the Fortress through the Water Tower and veer right. The Palacio del Partal is among the oldest buildings in the Alhambra. The tower is known as The Observatory and the pond serves as a water tank. Its original roof was dismantled in the early 20th century and resides in the Islamic Art collection in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Next to the Partal Palace is the Mexuar Oratory, the private place of prayer for the sultan and his family. The Mexuar was the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. It is oriented towards Mecca and looks out over the Albazyin. It is unusual in that it’s windows are open rather than being glassed in. The walls are carved plasterwork that I would also see in the Nasrid Palace. John Hoag, author of “Western Islamic Architecture” describes the work as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s a very accurate description. The calligraphy is Kufic and Nasrid script, which I cite a source for at the end of this blog.

I was not prepared for the visual feast. There are so many viewpoints framed by the architecture that at times it becomes surreal, and feels like I’m standing in a painting instead a landscape. Like my experience at the Topkapi, after awhile I put my camera away and just tried to drink everything in with my eyes, confident that much of what I would see would be included in the stack of books I was adding to my Islamic arts library.

One of the features I was most interested in seeing was the Courtyard of the Lions which dates to 1380. It said to correspond to the Koranic definition of Paradise and is also called “The Garden of Happiness.” The channel at the feet of the Lion Fountain symbolizes the four “rivers” running off in the four cardinal directions. It is one of the most private places in the Royal Palace.

Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark a specific hour. After the Reconquista, the new Christian inhabitants of the Alhambra dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not reassemble it. It has never worked as a water clock since that time. The lions are thought to date back to the 10th century; two of them are on display in Palace of Charles V.

“…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty… for none has suffered so little from the ravages of time. In the center stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil…”

Washington Irving

Shown at left is a photo of the Fountain of the Twelve Lions before it was dismantled and the top section moved to another garden in the Generalife. (Photo credit: “Western Islamic Architecture: A Concise Introduction” by John D. Hoag.)

When I visited here in 2012, the Lion Fountain was caged in wood and undergoing restoration.

The Hall of the Abencerages (lower left) is at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions. This is the first apartment which constitutes the Harem, this section reserved for the Sultana. This was also the site of an assassination, and the blood spots are still said to be visible on the marble floor inside. When Washington Irving lived here, he was told that this part of the palace was haunted by the event, and that sounds of low voices and the clanking of chains could be heard late at night.

Facing the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters (lower right), and is the best preserved section of this palace. It is named after the pair of stone slabs that flank a low dish-shaped fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor. A channel leads the water from this fountain to the center Fountain of the Lions. There is a network of pipes below the surface which recirculates the water back to both fountains.

“The lower part of the walls is encrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles… the upper part is faced with fine stucco-work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates, cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculpted by hand…”

Washington Irving

Washington Irving, author of “Tales of the Alhambra” and “Sleepy Hollow” lived in the Royal Apartments in 1829 before becoming the ambassador to Spain. I poked my head inside and saw interiors that felt Italian in style, in what looked like mahogany paneling, a dark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex. I later read in Irving’s account of these rooms in his “Tales of the Alhambra:”

“…the door opened to a range of vacant chambers of European architecture…there were two lofty rooms, the ceilings of which were of deep panel-work of cedar, richly and skillfully carved with fruits and flowers…”

“…I found on inquiry that it was an apartment fitted up by Italian artists in the early part of the last century, at the time when Philip V and the beautiful Elizabeth of Parma were expected at the Alhambra and was destined for the queen and the ladies of her train…”

The fountain and the garden he later describes, are still there, although I am sad that I did not arrive home with a photo of it. My vacation was extended by reading his book, and retracing my steps through his eyes.

The Sultan’s Hamam (bathhouse) is near the Church of Santa Maria. Hamams in Turkey and Moorish Spain consisted of several separate rooms with varying functions, from bathing, to steaming, to cooling down and resting. The photo at lower left shows a ceiling that is typical of traditional hamams throughout Turkey and Moorish Spain. The hamam I experienced in Istanbul, with sunlight streaming through these openings and into the pool I was cooling down in, made me feel like I was bathing in shafts of light as much as water…

The Puerta de las Armas was one of the first structures built by the Nasrids towards the end of the 13th century. The gate was used by Granadians to enter the administrative court from the city center, and was the only gate connecting the city of Granada to the Alhambra until the 15th century.

The ribs of the dome covering the gate are covered with imitation brickwork, a characteristic of Almohad architectural ornamentation. The blue striping on the facade is glazed tile inset into the brickwork.

The Palace of Charles V, a stark Florentine-looking box set in what feels like the center of the Alhambra, houses the Alhambra Museum and its collection of Roman and Islamic artifacts. I did not spend much time here as I had already seen similar artifacts in Turkey. The building is expansive and sterile on the inside and is not furnished, so it’s hard to imagine what it looked like in period.

It is ornamented on the exterior with lion head rings along the sides and eagle head rings at the corners. They reminded me of the rings I saw on the exterior walls in Florence. The side view of this palace was the view from a window at the women’s WC (a room that was larger than my entire house).

The round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal. The architect was Pedro Manchuca, who was born in Toledo and studied in Italy under Michelangelo. The building was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.

I found its architecture jarring and out of place in this setting, as did Washington Irving when he wrote:

“…With all its grandeur… it appeared to us like an arrogant intrusion, and passing by it, we entered a simple unostentatious portal, opening into the interior of the Moorish Palace…”

The Palacio de Comares was commissioned by Sultan Muhammed V in 1350 to commemorate the conquest of the city of Algeciras. It became the spot where the sultan would preside over ceremonial events. It’s facade is considered one of the master works of Islamic art. The door at right led to the Sultan’s private apartments, the one at left led to the Treasury. It also marked the border between the public and private spaces in the Alhamba.

The oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, a kasbah built on Sabika Hill, where a castle already stood, dating back to 860. It was renovated and became the primary point of defense for the entire Alhambra fortress. It is separated from the rest of the fortress and the Nasrid Palaces by the Wine Gate (lower right), where tax free wine was sold during the medieval period. It was here that Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at the end of the Spanish Reconquista.

I end my tour at the Monastery of San Francisco, built by Queen Isabella in the 15th century to fulfill a promise she had made to her church, to build a monastery next to the Moorish palaces in the Alhambra. It stands on the site of a mosque, palace and gardens that were built in the previous century. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally interred here, but were later exhumed and moved to the Royal Chapel adjoining the Cathedral downtown.

The walkway and courtyard are a style of stonework called Granada Mosaic work. The black and white stones are set on edge to form little crevices. When water is poured onto the stonework, the water captured in the crevices evaporates slowly and acts as a natural coolant. I saw a similar style of stonework at the Topkapi Palace Courtyards in Istanbul. The door (upper right) leads to the chapel (lower right) where Ferdinand and Isabel were originally interred.

The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I could not afford to stay there, but did eat dinner there, where I ordered a salad but was served a plate of salted salmon instead. The dining terrace made up for the misfire by affording a magnificent view.

For additional information about the Alhambra, or to plan your own trip there, please visit their website.

For those of you who would like a deeper dive into these buildings, I suggest “Reading the Alhambra: a visual guide to the Alhambra through its inscriptions” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez (published by the Alhambra and Generalife Trust and EDILUX s.l.,) This book might also be helpful in translating the Kufic and Arabic script that you see in the tiles, carvings and other art pieces here.

One thought on “Across Andalucia: The Alhambra Fortress – The Director’s Cut

  1. Thank you for the visual treat and the always enjoyable vicarious travel we receive through your narrative!


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