The History and Architecture of Granada’s Mighty Alhambra

As one of Spain’s grandest and most historic landmarks, the iconic Alhambra has captured the hearts and minds of visitors from around the world since it was first constructed in the 9th century. Today, it is one of the country’s most visited tourist destinations, as well as having been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The Alhambra’s function and identity has been multifaceted across its lengthy history; as a result, the fortress and palace complex displays considerable influence from both Christian and Islamic architecture. However, it’s the distinctly Islamic architectural features that truly make the Alhambra stand out in a European context – especially given how well-preserved the palace and its surrounds remain to this day. 

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This article will delve into the history of the Alhambra and the mighty rulers behind its erection, as well as the many features and facets that make it such a uniquely significant work of architecture to this day. 

The Islamic Rulers of Granada and the Construction of the Alhambra 

Construction on the Alhambra commenced back in 1238; it was initially built on Sabika hill as a fortress by the Zirids, who ruled Granada at the time. Originally hailing from the Maghreb, the Zirids were a Berber clan who ruled as part of the wider Fatimid Caliphate. 

The impressive Alhambra lit up showing all its glory.

Some evidence suggests that the site of the Alhambra may have seen previous use under the Romans, but the debate surrounding this is still unsettled. With that being said, it is believed that, prior to the construction of the Alhambra, there was an extant Visigoth fortress on the hill of Sabika. 

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By the early 1000s, civil war had broken out in what was then the Caliphate of Cordóba. The leader of the Zirids, Zawi ben Ziri, struck out and founded his own, independent kingdom, which was known as the Taifa of Granada. Following on from its establishment came the construction of other defensive structures and palaces on the nearby hill where the Albaicín neighbourhood now stands. 

The Old Palace

These buildings, which collectively made up a citadel complex referred to as the ‘Old Palace,’ were connected to other Zirid fortresses found on hills directly to the south. Most of these structures are now in ruins; indeed, it wasn’t until some time later, during the Nasrid period, that the Alhambra as we know it today would truly begin to take shape. 

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The Nasrid period began during a time of great upheaval. While Christian kings attempted to ‘reclaim’ the Spanish territories that had been overtaken by the military might of the Islamic world, the Nasrids founded the Emirate of Granada. It would stand the test of time, too, going on to become an exceptionally long-running dynasty. 


It was during the reign of the Nasrids that the old citadel created centuries earlier by the Zirids would be expanded and transformed into the fortress complex now known around the world as the Alhambra. Not only was further work undertaken in building additional fortifications and places of residence, but the Alhambra’s infrastructure was improved upon, with the addition of irrigation and aqueducts providing major improvements to the quality of life of its residents. 

A Nasrid column showing some of its original striking blue paint.

Indeed, the Alhambra was far more than a simple citadel. It contained gardens, cemeteries, communal baths, and more; at its zenith, it functioned more like a small city than it did a military installation. 

The Generalife 

The gorgeous compound known as the Generalife was effectively built as a type of summer palace for the Alhambra’s Nasrid rulers. Of course, the Generalife wasn’t used exclusively in the warmer months; rather, it was a type of pleasure palace for the kings of Granada, being somewhere that they could go to get away from it all. 

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Despite its close proximity to the Alhambra itself, the Generalife was considered to be a separate space, rather than part of the Alhambra complex. In fact, an uprising against Mohammed V famously broke out in the Alhambra while the king was in the Generalife! 

The Generalife has, throughout history, been the subject of extensive alteration work by Christian rulers, so ascertaining the building’s appearance when it was first finished is something of a challenge. Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear that the palace was designed to be fairly plain, bordering on spartan; after all, it was a place for the rulers of the Alhambra to relax and retreat from the stimulating splendour of the fortress citadel. 

Architectural Highlights of the Alhambra 

As mentioned previously, a major part of what makes the Alhambra such a significant monument in the context of both Christian and Islamic architecture. 

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Indeed, a feature that visitors to the Alhambra tend to notice is the Arabic inscriptions that decorate the fortress compound. One of the more noteworthy examples of these is the wall calligraphy that can be found in the Hall of Ambassadors. The Court of the Myrtles, one of the Alhambra’s central structures, also features extensive calligraphy in various styles of script. Utilising inscriptions as a decorative element in this way is very typical of Islamic art and architecture, especially during the time that the Alhambra was constructed. 

The interior of the Alcazaba showing the foundations of some of its former buildings.

As can probably be expected, given the contentious relationship between the Islamic and Christian factions that ruled Spain, many of the Alhambra’s original features have been replaced in some way, shape, or form with more recent European stylings. Indeed, Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire is said to have had part of what made up the Alhambra’s royal palaces destroyed to be replaced with larger residences built in a more Western style. 

Other typically Islamic features of the Alhambra include its heavy usage of geometry, reflective pools of water, painted tiles, classically Islamic arches and columns, and fountains. 

The Alcazaba 

The Alcazaba or citadel of the Alhambra is what makes up the complex’s core. It’s also the oldest part of the structure and stands on the western point of Sabika Hill. This orientation is practical from a defensive standpoint, making the Alcazaba fairly easily to reinforce. 

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Another feature that has historically made the Alcazaba easy to defend is the inclusion of multiple sets of walls along its exterior, particularly to the north. The inner wall is further reinforced with towers, making it especially difficult for attackers to siege the fortress without making themselves incredibly vulnerable to retaliation. 

The impressive painted ceiling in the Hall of Kings.

Curiously, the entrance to the inner part of the Alcazaba is actually concealed near the foot of the Torre del Homenaje, which is one of the towers found along the fortress’ inner wall. This feature was apparently deliberate, as it made it much harder for spies or scouts to observe the changing of the guard within the Alcazaba, or any other movements that may have been of interest to them. 

The Gate of Justice/Gate of Shari’a Law 

The Alhambra’s main entrance gate is known as the Gate of Justice in Spanish and the Gate of Shari’a Law in Arabic. It combines elegance with functionality, practical design and symbolic features. The gate, the design of which centres around the traditional Islamic horseshoe arch, is adorned with a carving of a hand, the five fingers of which represent Islam’s Five Pillars. 

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Immediately below this is a statue of the Virgin Mary with Christ, a later addition to the structure; this juxtaposition is yet another example of how Christianity and Islam were at odds with one another as the Alhambara changed religious fealty over the centuries. 

This pavilion in the Court of the Lions was actually removed. It was said it didn’t ‘fit in’.

One of the gate’s cleverest defensive features is its passageway, which includes a bent entrance. This works to channel anyone passing through 90 degrees to both the left and right, forcing them to pass under an opening in the roof while doing so. Said opening could be used by defending forces to attack would-be invaders through the use of projectiles or other forms of ranged offence. 

The Court of the Lions  

The Alhambra’s Court of the Lions is widely considered to be one of the most famous and important palaces in all of the Islamic world. Its design and layout are representative of a number of crucial trends and practices in Nasrid architecture, including the characteristic usage of muqarnas vaults (muqarnas are a type of sculpture intended to imitate the shape of stalactites). 

One of the Court of the Lion’s best-known features is its trademark courtyard, completed by the incredible fountain at its heart. The courtyard is laid out in a fashion said to be unique to Islamic architecture, with different quantities of columns being placed in such a way that they vary enough to create a dramatic visual contrast with one another. 

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As far as the fountain goes, its exact origins are unknown. Sculpted from marble, it’s thought that the fountain may have been created as early as the 11th century, but no definitive proof exists for this. 

Islamic script is everywhere within the castle walls.

In any case, what is clear is that the fountain underwent extensive modification during the 16th century, during a period of Spanish rule of the Alhambra. Additional basins were added to the fountain to transform it into a multi-level fountain and give it a greater sense of visual depth. 

Poetry in Motion

Ibn Zamrak, who was a poet and minister during the Nasrid period, wrote a poem inspired by the courtyard the fountain was to be erected in; his poem was subsequently carved into the marble of the main basin, where it remains to this day.

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This is yet another example of traditional inscription, so typical of Islamic art at the time, being found as a decorative feature within the Alhambra. 

Its legacy lives on for all to see.