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The Alhambra Revealed

The Remarkable Story of the Kingdom of Granada
Michael B. Barry
Andalus Press


The Alhambra is one of the jewels of world heritage. Described as the finest example of a medieval Muslim palace, this is located, not in the Islamic Middle East, but in southern Europe. Its setting is dramatic – located high on the Sabika Hill, above the bustling city of Granada. The walls of this compound, interspersed with many towers, line the edge of a steep gorge on the northern side. Looking at the crenellations and the towers, it presents a formidable and imposing defensive façade. It is hard to imagine the wealth of wonders within: the palaces of delicate architecture and elaborate decoration. When you enter the Alhambra for the first time be prepared for a shock, it is almost a sensory overload. Rest assured, you have never seen anything like this. Within the walls and towers, there is a sprawling complex of graceful Islamic palaces, a Christian palace of stern symmetry, archaeological works in progress, hotels, shops, and now, the heaving mass of iPhone-toting, selfie-taking, modern tourists.

There is some vagueness as to what was in the locality of Granada before Roman times. Certain Roman and Visigothic remains have been found. There are references to a small castle here, the Qalat al-Hamra (or red castle) on the Sabika plateau from the end of the ninth century. This is an obvious strategic point, a great location to dominate the Vega to the west while nestling in the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada which provide a defensive backdrop.

The Zirids developed the fortification here. It provided defence in conjunction with the principal fortress (referred to as the Alcazaba Qadima) down in their new city of Granada. These rulers of the taifa built the protective walls which linked the walls around the medina and the Alcazaba Qadima via the Puente del Qadí over the river Darro, with the line of walls reaching to a castle on top of the Sabika Hill. This fortification was rebuilt and enlarged by the Jewish vizier to the Zirid Amirs, Samuel Ibn Naghrela.

In 1238 when the founder of the Nasrids, Ibn al-Ahmar, arrived in Granada, he chose this outstanding location on the Sabika Hill for his seat of power. He immediately began to develop his military fortress over the previous constructions on the Sabika Hill. In time the Alhambra expanded and became the royal palace-city. At its heart were the royal palaces. It was also the seat of government, with administrative offices, barracks, a mint and accommodation for the palace functionaries. In addition there were the basic facilities necessary for palatine city life: a mosque, baths, workshops and shops.

What you see in the Alhambra today is a mix of the old and the new. There has been much modification over the years. From the Catholic Monarchs onwards, those in power did not refrain from alteration when they felt like it. Examples include the demolition of a Nasrid palace to make way for the Convento de San Francisco and the addition of the Carlos V Palace. However, we are exceedingly lucky that the Catholic Monarchs essentially enjoyed and appreciated the Alhambra and its wonders; and that they did not destroy the complex. In the centuries that followed the Alhambra suffered benignly from being ignored – apart from the brief interlude when it was used as a barracks for French troops. Towers were destroyed as French troops retreated in 1812, but luckily a corporal neutralized some of the charges and the extent of destruction was reduced. The Alhambra was abandoned during the nineteenth century. One might say that being left to the gypsies and sheep to wander within probably saved it.

Some of the restoration work in the last century has suffered from the curse of archaeological rehabilitation: it represents the vision of the particular archaeologist – which may or may not be correct. (Archaeologists have an essential advantage in their professional work – there is nobody around who can contradict them as to what existed centuries or millennia ago.) There had been some heavy-handed rehabilitation over several decades. However, despite many vicissitudes, the Alhambra has survived to today with a good deal of it intact, in a form that we can walk though and experience the unique world of the Nasrid rulers and their court.

One wonders how the Amirs of the Kingdom of Granada could have conceived of constructing something with the magnificence of the Alhambra, surrounded as they were by such a doleful legacy of assassination. At that time, the medieval world, both Christian and Muslim, was a place of intrigue and dispute. However, particularly uneasy sat the Nasrid crown. The Nasrids outrivalled all others for violent change, with only a few Amirs dying peacefully in their beds. Over the 250-year course of the Kingdom of Granada the rulers were routinely overthrown and assassinated. As one wanders through this, the finest example of Islamic architecture in the world, one wonders how these rulers could have had the disposition amongst this mayhem to finance, to select architects and master craftsmen and to create this brilliance. It is also a wonder that the Alhambra palaces are the airy open buildings that they are, rather than being defensive bunkers for the rulers, always fearful of assassins.

The preceding chapters of this book tell the story of the Kingdom of Granada; its origins, the evolution after the fall of the Almohads; its period of (sometimes savage) splendour, and its rapid fall. Key to all of this and at the heart of the story is the Alhambra palace complex. This is a unique time-capsule of a long-lost world. Here, as you walk through the Nasrid palaces and other buildings of the Alhambra complex, you can discover the complex tale of the rise to prominence of the Nasrids. It is possible within the Alhambra to understand how the Islamic presence in Europe was preserved for 250 fraught years, as illustrated by one of most sublime examples of architectural expression in the world.