The Alhambra

Chapter 1: The Archaeological and Historical Setting

by Oleg Grabar

excerpt, without figures, footnotes. Copyright 1992, Solipsist Press

(back to: Palm Tree Books Home Page)

(back to: description of The Alhambra)

The Alhambra, whose name is an abbreviation of Qal`at al-Hamra, "the Red Fort," probably because of the red clay of the surrounding terrain, is a fortified enclosure of irregular shape located on a hill known in mediaeval sources as the Sabikah (Figs. 1 and 2). The latter is one of several spurs overlooking from the east the Vega, the fertile upper part of the valley of the Genil and its tributaries, such as the Darro to the northwest of the Alhambra hill. These spurs are all extensions of the Sierra Nevada, the highest mountain chain of the Iberian peninsula, whose snow-capped summits dominate Granada from the east and the southeast. The Sabikah differs from other such spurs in two ways. One is an advantage. It is the highest of the spurs in the immediate vicinity of Granada, and access to it from the north or the west is quite forbidding (Fig. 3). From the southwest and the south it is somewhat easier to reach; it is separated from the mountain to the southeast by a ravine, which is narrow and not very deep, but nevertheless sufficient to transform the Sabikah into a superb natural position of defense. The second peculiarity of this spur is a corollary of the first but a disadvantage. It is that, precisely because of the gully that separates it from the sierra, it could not easily be supplied with water. In order for it to be used for permanent living, cisterns or aqueducts were necessary, and both were vulnerable.

Although neither archaeological nor literary sources are very clear on the exact chronology of the early use of the Sabikah, it seems likely that two conditions were, jointly or separately, necessary for its growth into something more than a convenient but temporary refuge in times of danger. One is some major development beyond the hill itself - in the valley or on less isolated neighboring hills - since the Sabikah alone does not lend itself to easy habitation. The second condition is that sufficient security and wealth must prevail in the region as a whole to allow for the monumental and technical transformation of this waterless spur in a forbidding mountain chain.

The Alhambra from the west

It is easy enough to observe by walking around the walls that the Alhambra is connected to a large number of extraneous features. To the northwest a wall follows down the steep contours of the terrain; in ways which have now disappeared, it joined somewhere the outer wall of the city in the plain. Nearby, over the Darro, stand the ruins of a bridge probably erroneously identified as the Qantarat al-Qadi known in texts but somehow involved with movements to and from the Alhambra. To the west a largely preserved wall leads from the Sabikah to the impressive complex known as the Torres Bermejas, the Vermilion Towers. What happened beyond this ensemble has been largely obliterated, but it seems that the handsome park that now occupies the gently sloping southern edge of the Sabikah and the large Carmen de los Martires to the southeast originally formed part of the Alhambra complex, even if it remained outside its walled enclosure. Finally, to the east traces remain of the aqueducts that brought water to the Sabikah, and beyond the ravine is a succession of superb mediaeval gardens and palaces of the Dar al-`Arusah (the House of the Bride) and of the Alixares. In other words, the Alhambra hill itself, which has been well described by Torres Balbás as an "enormous boat anchored between the mountain and the plain," was not developed alone but in relationship to its surroundings, both the city below and the chronology of these developments. Did the life and needs of the Alhambra spread beyond the Sabikah? Or did developments elsewhere in the area make the Alhambra possible, or even perhaps necessary?

The Alhambra from the Generalife

A partial answer is provided by the history of mediaeval Granada, which is itself inseparable from the history of Islamic Spain. Although the first Arab incursions into Spain occurred as early as July 710, it was in the spring of 711 that the first substantial body of Muslims crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and began an infiltration of the Iberian peninsula and of southern France that led them all the way to Poitiers by 732. The battle that took place at that time may not have been as significant to the overextended Muslim empire as it was made out to be by Western historians, but it does mark the beginning of a Muslim retreat from the north and the consolidation of Arab power in most of Spain. This consolidation was strengthened by the arrival in 756 of the only remaining member of the Umayyad dynasty, recently replaced by the Abbasids in the central lands of the Muslim world.

Plan of the Alhambra

`Abd al-Rahman I, the Umayyad prince, and his successors until 976 were the true creators of Muslim Spain. Directly or indirectly they were in control of most of the peninsula except for the extreme northwest; and the old Visigothic capital of Toledo as well as Saragossa, on the way to Barcelona, became Muslim towns. But their center was in Andalusia, in Seville, and especially in Cordova, which, together with the new royal city of Madinah al-Zahra, became in the tenth century one of the world's greatest centers of art and culture. It was an Islamic civilization whose models and memories frequently came from the heart of the Muslim world - from Syria, Arabia, and Iraq. But, especially in the arts and in social structure, it acquired a uniquely Andalusian flavor. Its artistic forms - the arches of Cordova, the ornamental sculptures from Madinah al-Zahra, or carved ivory caskets and other objects - are easily recognizable as different from comparable forms elsewhere in the Muslim world. And socially it was a culture that succeeded in creating a unique symbiosis between Arab aristocrats, Muslim Arab or Berber soldiers and settlers, a Christian majority in most areas outside the main cities, and a sizeable and constantly growing Jewish minority.

After the death of al-Hakam II in 976, the political history of Muslim Spain is not a happy one. The Christian Reconquista became the dominant force in the peninsula. Slowly, with many vicissitudes and turns of fortune, but inexorably, Spain became Christian. Toledo fell in 1085, Cordova in 1246, Seville in 1248. Muslim reaction took the form of several incursions, initially successful but ultimately failing, of fanatical and puritanical dynasties from Morocco, the Almoravids and the Almohads. There are many reasons for their failure, but one was certainly that Islamic Spain had transformed itself from a reasonably unified entity under the aegis of the Umayyad caliphs in Cordova into a disunited collection of princelings governing individual cities, the so-called Reyes de Taifas, the "Party Kings," who fought more among themselves than against the enemy from the north. It is true, of course, that some of their courts were quite brilliant and that some of the greatest poets, writers, and philosophers of western Islam flourished during this time of political decadence. Ibn Hazm and the great Ibn Rushd (Averroes), not to speak of Maimonides, belong to these centuries. And, while for the arts these centuries are not particularly brilliant - or rather not well known, despite the Giralda in Seville or the Aljaferia in Saragossa - they witnessed the first major examples of one of the most characteristic phenomena of Spanish art, the adoption of Muslim themes by Christian and Jewish patrons.

I shall return later to a few aspects of this phenomenon. Its importance at this stage is that it illustrates the impossibility of seeing the Reconquista simply in terms of a Christian takeover of formerly Muslim provinces. In fact a new and immensely complex symbiosis took place, in which political and cultural changes did not entirely coincide. Even political relationships were not clear-cut. Just as in Cordovan times many a Christian prince was the vassal of the Muslim caliphs, so after the strong Christian push of the mid-thirteenth century, the last Muslim kingdom, the one in Granada, survived by being under theoretical Christian suzerainty. It is one of the paradoxes of the Alhambra that this presumably most Islamic monument was built at a time when Islamic Spain seemed to be hardly Islamic at all. The answer lies partly in the unique development of Granada and of the hills above it.

During the first centuries of Islamic rule, Granada was overshadowed by the town of al-Birah (Elvira), situated a half day's journey to the west, and Roman and Visigothic remains found in Granada itself attest to some early settlement there. These pre-Islamic remains, as well as most Islamic ones, are concentrated on the spur known today as the Alcazaba Cadima (al-Qasbah al-Qadimah, "the Old City"), on the opposite side of the Darro from the Alhambra. Little is known about any constructions from these early centuries, but a mosque, whose traces may have remained in a later building, and an official administrative center or dar al-`imarah typical of all early Muslim settlements were certainly there. The rather small Muslim community does not seem to have spread initially into the flat plain, where Christians and Jews predominated. Whether or not the Alhambra hill was occupied at all is a moot question. A few Roman and Visigothic remains have been found there, but their archaeological context is unclear. Then in the ninth century a governor took refuge during a revolt in a fortress called al-Hamra. Even if this is correctly located at the westernmost point of the Sabikah, it cannot have been much more than a very simple refuge of convenience, for there is no other mention of its existence. In fact hardly any archaeological evidence has been found that can be dated to early Islamic times with any certainty.

The first major change that transformed Granada from a minor provinical town to a city of some importance occurred in the early eleventh century, when the Berber dynasty of the Zirids formed a semi-independent principality typical of this confused century in Spanish Islamic history. Under the three rulers Habus, Badis, and `Abdallah (1025--90) the city increased in population; and, what is far more important to us, we begin to know something about its buildings. They were concentrated on the Alcazaba hill and its immediate surroundings. The city walls of this time have been partially preserved; a small bath, probably of the eleventh century, survives; and on the Albaicín hill (named after the Rabad al-Bayyazin, "Suburb of the Falconers") to the northwest, a palace was built, with a tower topped by an elaborate bronze sculpture of a cock apparently carrying a rider with a shield and a lance. This rather peculiar creation, usually interpreted as a weathervane, was certainly an imitation of the celebrated armed rider on top of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur's eighth-century palace in Baghdad; the interesting point is that, quite consciously, a theme from the remote imperial capital of early Islamic times was there taken over by a minor Berber dynasty. It is, of course, unfortunate that the building itself has not survived, not even in a later representation, but the connection with Baghdad is important in identifying one of the sources of princely mythology in mediaeval Andalusia.

For the formation of the Alhambra the most important event is the construction by the Jewish vizier of the Zirids, Yusuf ibn Naghrallah, of a fortress-palace (called hisn in the sources) on the Alhambra hill. It is not clear whether this was finished before Yusuf was murdered in 1066, but one account definitely accuses the vizier of building, or wanting to build, a more impressive palace than the king's. In his spirited study of the Alhambra, Bargebuhr has argued that surviving fragments of eleventh-century masonry walls in the Alhambra - of which there are several - can be interpreted as belonging to this palace, and that the celebrated Fountain of the Lions (Figs. 66 and 67) belonged originally to Yusuf's palace; Bargebuhr points out that an almost direct description of the fountain as it appears now is found in an eleventh-century poem by Ibn Gabirol. The lions appear to be closer in style to eleventh-and twelfth-century than to fourteenth-century sculpture, and the present basin was certainly not made originally for them. The lions may, therefore, have belonged to an eleventh-century fountain. And Ibn Gabirol's poem, to which we shall return in detail in the next chapter, would seem to imply that these lions and the fountain to which they belonged were originally in the palace of the Jewish vizier. However, there is not enough archaeological information to draw any wider or further parallel between this eleventh-century palace and the one known today as the Alhambra. And indeed any such parallel would be very unlikely, because several centuries separate them. But, while the Jewish palace of the eleventh century may not have been of major importance for the physical character of the existing Alhambra, its ideological themes, as reflected in poetry, are of extraordinary significance for an explanation of the later Muslim monument, and it is almost certain that it was the first major princely construction attempted on the hill.

There may have been other, purely military constructions on the Sabikah in the Zirid period, but they are difficult to distinguish with precision; altogether, the eleventh century is important for us mainly as the time when the town of Granada came into is own as a significant Muslim city and for the first time a major building was erected on the highest hill overlooking it.

The following century and a half are eventful enough, as Granada was heavily involved in the wars and politics of the Almoravids and Almohads, the two Berber dynasties which sought to stop the reconquest of Andalusia by Christians. It is likely, although the evidence is contradictory, that some of the non-Muslim population left or was evicted and that as a result the proportion of Muslims increased. But these do not seem to have been major centuries for architectural or other artistic achievements, and one can only presume that walls and other fortifications, in part possibly on the Sabikah, were built and repaired.

The Towers of the Peinador de la Reina

The year 1238, on the other hand, marks the second turning point in the history of Granada. Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr, known as Ibn al-Ahmar, a feudal prince claiming descent from a Companion of the Prophet in Arabia, took the city and, through judicious diplomacy and the acceptance of Castilian suzerainty, managed to maintain himself not merely in Granada but also as the sole ruler of what was left of Muslim Spain. His twenty-two descendants of the Nasrid dynasty ruled until the Christian conquest of 1492. Theirs was on the whole a sad political history, full of intrigues, battles, murder, and treachery. Even the two most successful reigns - those of Yusuf I (1333--54) and Muhammad V (1354--59 and 1362--91) - were far from peaceful, although they do not match in complexity and tragedy the last fifty years of the dynasty, so vividly described by Chateaubriand and Washington Irving.

But the paradox of Nasrid Andalusia lies in the fact that a decadent, indeed moribund political and military power coincided with a strikingly rich and original culture. Its components have recently been described at some length by R. Arié, and three of them deserve particular note here. One is that these were centuries of considerable economic prosperity and wealth; the superbly organized and justly celebrated agriculture of southern Spain was operating at its best, and the traditional Islamic urban bourgeoisie of Muslim and Christian merchants and artisans continued to serve a vast Mediterranean world. The second feature is that, since the area around Granada became a refuge for displaced Muslims from elsewhere, the process of Islamization begun in previous centuries was completed; in a curious way Granada was most Muslim just before the Christian conquest and at a time of partial Christian political suzerainty. Supported by an army composed largely of African mercenaries, a legalistically rigid Islam in uneasy alliance with a revived mysticism developed, as though the constricted and threatened Muslim community sought to define most emphatically its unique values. Finally, here, as elsewhere in the late Middle Ages, it was a time of erudite, if not always original, fascination with past literary traditions, generally Islamic, and most specifically the brilliant poetry of earlier Andalusia. Learned and elegant, courtly literature is best exemplified by the works of Ibn al-Khatib (1313--74), political leader and brilliant littérateur, and by his protégé Ibn Zamrak (1333--93), whose poetry decorates the Alhambra. And, although the point is of less importance for our purposes, these were centuries of major development for the more popular literature whose impact on romance literature has so often been discussed.

It was, therefore, in a world which was politically unstable, economically prosperous, intellectually constricted and self-centered, poetically rich if not always original, fascinated with the past, and immensely erudite that the Alhambra was created in the form in which we know it. The founder of the Nasrid dynasty may not have lived there himself, but it was he who began to transform the earlier fortress, itself probably embodying the ruins of a Jewish palace, into the huge complex that was eventually to be occupied by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.

Unfortunately it is impossible to provide a fully documented chronology of the Alhambra. Too much literary, epigraphic, or archaeological evidence is lacking. Nor is it likely that a complete and fully documented history will ever be written. The Alhambra was not, like Versailles, for instance, dominated by the character of its original patron and creator (even though altered occasionally to suit tastes and fulfill new functions). Nor was it, like the Kremlin or the Palatine Hill, a succession of formal buildings reflecting various aesthetic, symbolic, and practical needs over several centuries.

The Alhambra was in fact a town, a full-fledged city of 740 by 220 meters, surrounded by walls and by gardens to the east and probably to the south. It had all the necessities of a mediaeval Islamic urban order and probably enjoyed the whole range of a city's social and economic activities, although the fact that it also contained royal residences may have imposed some limits on the development of the former. It was as a city, or at any rate as a full quarter of a city, that it was occupied by the Spaniards, and, in consequence, its archaeology is as confused as that of any living organism. For over five hundred years generations of Muslims and Christians used most of it as a setting for whatever life they chose to live. Muslim princes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Christian aristocrats and monks in the sixteenth, gypsies and Romantics in the nineteenth, tourists and innkeepers in the twentieth have constantly altered whatever they found, not because they were squatters (as in the Roman Forum, for example), but because the Alhambra had been created for continuing living.

In short, from the middle of the thirteenth century onwards the Sabikah hill became a princely city overlooking another, bourgeois city in the plain below. A few and only a few chronological landmarks in its development can be found in texts and formal inscriptions, and even chronicles provide only minimal information about the life and the events which may have taken place in the buildings. It is, in fact, not very likely that any long and precise descriptions of the palatial establishments or of royal ceremonies were ever written; nor, probably, were systematic records ever kept of work done. Such sources are very rare in the Muslim tradition; when they do occur, as in Nasir-i Khusrau's description of the Fatimid palaces in Cairo, or Bayhaqi's account of the palace of Mas`ud in Afghanistan, they are the result of unusual circumstances, a special permission in the case of the immensely curious Persian traveller, and the personal involvement of Bayhaqi in court affairs. The only partial exception occurs with the palace of Baghdad, whose uniqueness within the Muslim tradition is thus once again emphasized. The questions thus raised for the Muslim palace in general and for the Alhambra in particular are whether the absence of accounts implies that a palace's forms and functions were almost always of a redundant and expected kind which did not warrant description, so that only the exceptional was recorded, or, alternatively, that the palace was outside the mainstream of the culture's awareness of itself and desire to commemorate itself.

I shall return to this fundamental question in conclusion. In the meantime a few reasonably certain chronological points about the Alhambra may be mentioned. In all likelihood the outer enclosure and the aqueduct were completed by the end of the thirteenth century. The gardens and pavilions of the Generalife, higher than the Alhambra, date apparently from the reign of Isma'il (1314--25), but the most important remains in the Alhambra itself - the complexes of the Courts of the Myrtles and of the Lions, the Bath that separates, them, several of the gates, and the mausoleum near the palace - belong to the times of Yusuf I (1333--54) and Muhammad V (1354--59 and 1362--91). Only one major construction, the interior of the Tower of the Infantas, is as late as the middle of the fifteenth century. But this rough scheme, even though it is now generally accepted, is on the whole based on limited evidence. Only one point is demonstrable on epigraphical as well as architectural grounds. This is that, by the second reign of Muhammad V in the latter part of the fourteenth century, most of what now remains was already there and for the most part in use. Inasmuch as this happens to be when the most brilliant parts of the Alhambra were created, the descriptions which follow attempt to identify what can be presumed to have existed around 1370--1400. Although in a few instances I shall interpret some of the features of the monument, these interpretations are limited to parts that will not be discussed later; my main purpose is to identify the main elements of the Alhambra so as to facilitate the discussion in the following chapters.

Walls, Towers, Gates

The first impression of the Alhambra is of a fortified enclosure, some 2,200 meters in perimeter, whose peculiar shape is obviously determined by the contours and defensive possibilities of the terrain (Figs. 1--3 and endpapers). This enclosure was connected, in all likelihood, to the outer walls of the city at two points. At its westernmost end a wall which is still preserved led to the Vermilion Towers and in some unknown fashion connected with the wall surrounding the city from the south. Then at some distance to the northeast of the wall's westernmost edge traces remain of a wall that went down into the valley of the Darro and was probably part of the city's eastern and northern walls. A third connection with city walls, on the the eastern side, is proposed by some authors, but its archaeological or literary justification is not entirely clear. In any event the Alhambra was both a part of the city of Granada and independent of it, having its own direct contacts with the outside world.

The impressively thick walls are of hard rubble faced with stone and brick masonry and covered with plaster. There are twenty-two towers, rather irregularly spaced in plan but adapted to the needs and requirements of the terrain. The towers have several notable peculiarities. First, they are not all alike: some are fairly simple and massive square towers; others either project towards the outside, almost like independent units of varying shapes, or they form large or small square units, with many windows and other types of openings (Fig. 6), and, as will be seen later, contain major palatial establishments. The second peculiarity is that the latter group of towers is particularly characteristic of the northern side of the Alhambra, where nature itself provides the best defense. It seems that, whenever military considerations were secondary, towers tended to be transformed into constituent parts of nondefensive units within the enclosure. This immediately raises the question whether the walls and towers are correctly interpreted as defensive or whether they were not simply a formal means of separating the aristocratic and royal area from the other one; the point of these walls and towers may have been less one of protection than of separation. Alternatively, the difference between the northern and southwestern towers may be explained by the fact that the two groups correspond to entirely different sections of the interior, the northern being the zone of palaces, the southern being the city. It has been argued that there was a wall between the two zones inside the city itself, but the archaeological evidence, such as it is, does not seem absolutely convincing.

In any event, the walls and towers can be interpreted as simply defensive and protective, as means of separating different kinds of lives, as reflections of internal planning, or as any combination of these puposes. But, whatever compexities one can introduce into their interpretations, a contemporary awareness of their military potential is established by the fact that one could move freely along the northern wall through passageways under the main palaces, avoiding the main royal complexes. Whether or not these passages predate the fourteenth-century constructions above them remains a moot question.

The Gate of Law, plan

Four main gates (other than posterns or late openings) led into the great Alhambra enclosure. The first and most important one, on the southwestern side, is the Bab al-Shari`ah, the Gate of Justice, or more precisely, the Gate of Law, dated by an inscription of 1348 (Figs. 7 and 8). It is unusual in several ways. Its peculiar projection and the fact that the formal doorway with the official foundation inscription is perpendicular to the wall may be explained by the sloping terrain on which it was built, but other features are more difficult to interpret. One is the deep porch placed in front of the entry, as though some ceremony took place there. The ceremonial character of the monument is further emphasized by several architectural and decorative details. For instance the interior, with its two turns, contains three different kinds of vault: an elongated cross vault, a cupola, then three traditional cross vaults. It is almost as though the architect or the patron sought to show off his technical versatility.

The Gate of Law

On the front of the building a hand was carved on the keystone of the arch, while a key with a cord appears on the center of the inner archway, and the Muslim profession of faith was carved on the handsome capitals of the engaged columns framing the door. The first two of these symbols are not altogether clear, and became a subject of debate as early as in Théophile Gautier's description; and the occurrence of the formal "There is no God but God; Muhammad is His Prophet; there is no force or power except in God" is rare on gates to fortresses, especially when independent of the dedicatory inscription. Finally, if it is correct to assume that the outer walls of the Alhambra belong to the latter part of the thirteenth century, this gate, with its formal inscription, its unusual name and construction, and its decoration, must have been a fourteenth-century addition of Yusuf I with apparently very specific symbolic and functional purposes. Much has been made of its name, the Gate of Islamic Law, and some have argued that it was the place where justice was meted out. Since this interpretation is connected with the much broader problem of the ceremonial, symbolic, or practical meanings to be given to various parts of the Alhambra, discussion of it will be postponed to the next chapter.

The second door on the south side, now known as the Gate of the Seven Heavens, had originally the far more prosaic name Bab al-Ghudur, "Gate of the Cisterns." With its huge semicircular projecting bastion and its twenty-two-meter-high towers, it is the most impressive of the Alhambra gates, even though its forward bastions were blown up by Napoleon's retreating army. But, impressive as it is, it has only a single turn and is in plan quite unexceptional.

The Gate of Arms

The third gate, on the northeastern side, is the ancient Iron Gate (Bab al-Hadid), known today as the Arrabal Gate and connected with the primarily defensive complex of the Torre de los Picos. It was apparently the main way of reaching the Generalife and seems to have been primarily a private passageway rather than a formal entry into a palatial compound. As with so many other "Gates of Iron" found all over the Muslim world, it is possible that the original name was Bab al-Jadid, "the New Gate," and that the association with metallic solidity is but a scribal preference over mundane novelty, the letters for "J" and "H" being almost identical in Arabic.

The last of the Alhambra gates is the Gate of Arms, almost at the extreme west of the enclosure (Fig. 9) It was the only gate connecting the Alhambra directly with the city of Granada. Difficult to reach from the outside, it rose into the oldest fortified part of the Alhambra and is justly celebrated for its superb vaults.

The Citadel (Alcazaba)

The westernmost part of the Alhambra is a fortress still known as the Alcazaba (al-Qasbah). Like so many mediaeval castles, it is a striking monument with one tower - the celebrated Vela, on which the flags of Ferdinand and Isabella were set in 1492 - at one end, and three smaller towers at the other, surrounding an irregularly shaped open area, where excavations have brought to light small houses and other buildings difficult to interpret (Fig. 10).

The Alcazaba, interior

A chemin de ronde goes round the Alcazaba; and its stables, near the Gate of Arms, are still preserved. For the history of fortifications and of vaulting as used in military architecture, the Alcazaba is of considerable interest, especially the Vela Tower, with its central core of superimposed cross-vaulted chambers surrounded by barrel-vaulted passageways. It has generally been agreed that much of the Alcazaba dates from before the Nasrids, and it is indeed likely that this is so, although only detailed masonry and stratigraphic studies would establish the exact chronology of the citadel's history. The Alcazaba served as the barracks, the military depot, and in all likelihood, the jail of the Alhambra in the fourteenth century, as it did until very recent times. The whole Alcazaba is strangely devoid of epigraphic information, which may mean either that comparatively few repairs and changes were carried out there during the fourteenth century or that later changes in use and restorations eradicated any inscriptions there may have been.

The Mexuar Complex

With what we may, for simplicity's sake, call the Mexuar complex, we penetrate into the most important and best known part of the Alhambra, the Casa Real Vieja, the Old Royal Residence, or Royal Palace.

View towards the Court and Gallery of Machuca

Instead of dealing with it as a single monument, as it appears on plans and as visitors usually see it, I have divided it into five parts. This division is arbitrary in some details, but it seems justified by the facts that the palace was built in sections with problematic relationships to each other and that the modifications carried out in them over the centuries are so varied as to preclude a comparable understanding of all the parts, or even a consistently systematic description of them.

The oratory near the Mexuar

The Mexuar complex is in reality a hodge-podge of ruined or restored features at the western end of the palace. A court, 14.6 meters square, which is encountered first, is surrounded by long halls, apparently commons; at the southeastern corner there is a small mosque, with an adjoining square building that could have been a minaret; there are traces of marble and tile decoration on some of the walls. Then there is a second and larger court (22.5 meters square) with a pool in the middle; nothing is clear about its southern side, but to the north there is a portico (Fig. 11) known as the Gallery of Machuca (the name of Charles V's architect, who lived in the Alhambra and carried out many repairs on it) and a small, much rebuilt tower, with a modern exterior passageway over the outer wall leading to a small oratory with a deeply set mihrab (Fig. 12). This second court is higher than the first, and the subsequent body of constructions is higher still. It is the one that is called the Mexuar, and it consists of a long covered room which, originally, must have been wide open towards the west, almost like a deep portico. A handsomely restored gate with stucco decoration and wooden eaves leads to it from the south and serves today as the entrance into the palace (Fig. 11, right); the interior is curiously divided into a front part with four marble columns supporting a heavy entablature faced with carved stucco under a flat wooden roof and then a gallery (Fig. 13). The latter is probably of the sixteenth century, when so much was redone in the room, but both the tile decoration of the lower walls and the partially preserved stucco decoration are of restored Muslim workmanship.

Two key questions are posed by this group of buildings: their date and their function. Since the name of Isma'il (d. 1325) appears in one of the inscriptions in the covered room alongside numerous inscriptions with the titles of Muhammad V, there is no doubt that this is an area that was used throughout the fourteenth century; it is furthermore possible that the lower courts belong to an earlier phase, because their plan is quite different from anything known elsewhere in the Alhambra and because communication between these courts and the rest of the palace is rather clumsy, as though discrete units had been arbitrarily connected. But, while we can be certain that most of these courts and rooms were in use in the fourteenth century, it is impossible to say how much earlier any of them was built.

The Mexuar, interior

It is difficult to understand their function, especially that of the Mexuar room itself. The accepted interpretation, developed by Torres Balbás and followed by many scholars, is that the latter was the place of the Mashwar, the royal tribunal, while the succession of courts to the west formed a sort of entrance complex with various service functions. It may or may not be true that in the fourteenth century access to the palace lay through these courts, but neither possibility can be proved.

As to the Mashwar, some evidence for a hall reserved for this essentially administrative function exists in a contemporary poem by Ibn Zamrak from around 1365. In addition, Marmol, the great Spanish traveller of the seventeenth century, who left a lengthy account of Granada and of Muslim Africa, described the practice of holding tribunals at the entrance of palaces. But this interpretation, while not impossible, is open to question. There is no proof that this was the formal entrance to the palace, and the fragmentary inscriptions that remain are either Quránic or poetic. The Quránic fragments (48:27 and 6:59) refer to a mosque and to victories, while the poems are glorifications of the prince (almost certainly Muhammad V) and his work. Moreover, while it is true that the fragment by Ibn Zamrak mentions a building with a specific administrative purpose, nothing indicates that this is the one referred to, and nothing in the room itself suggests that it must have been a royal tribunal. It would seem altogether preferable to accept that the functions of all these very different architectural fragments are simply unknown, except for the two small oratories.

The Cuarto Dorado

To the east of the Mexuar room there is a very small courtyard with a portico to the north leading to a small, long room overlooking the valley (Fig. 15).

The Cuarto Dorado, south facade

This court, including the room, is known today as the Cuarto Dorado or Golden Court, although in many older books it is called the Court of the Mosque. Very much and quite successfully restored, it is one of the most puzzling and most important parts of the Alhambra. This is so in part because in its northern end it has remains from many different periods, ranging from thirteenth-century capitals to sixteenth-century ceilings, and it is not possible to determine whether the earlier elements were reused in later construction or were leftovers from many successive buildings.

But it is important mainly because of its striking southern end (Fig. 14), a most extraordinary composition of a wall entirely covered with stucco decoration and pierced by two doors and five windows surmounted by a muqarnas frieze and wooden beams and eaves. Leaving aside the decoration of the wall, about which more will be said later (pp. 130--31), the problem is to identify its purpose. It is in fact a monumental gate into the palaces built or rebuilt under Muhammad V. That it was meant as a royal entrance is indicated by its inscription. This includes, first of all, the celebrated Throne Verse of the Qurán (2:256), which is one of the most majestic statements of divine power and ends with the following words: "His Throne comprises the heavens and earth; the preserving of them oppresses Him not; He is the All-high, the All-glorious." Above the Quránic passage, a poem identifies the wall as being "a gate where [roads] bifurcate and through [which] the East envies the West." The Quránic citation and the poem are clear on the official and formal meaning of the monument, and I shall return to the implications of this particular iconographic mode in the next chapter.

The Cuarto Dorado, looking north

The important point at this stage is that the two doors are of exactly the same size and the same type. But one of them leads directly back into the forecourts, while the other, through a right-angled passageway, suddenly penetrates into the great Court of the Myrtles. The unique feature of this internal entrance-facade is that its crucial bifurcation within the whole system of communications in the Alhambra is invisible to the eye. Even if in the fourteenth century some other architectural or decorative element existed in the courtyard to suggest the correct directions for movement, this facade appears curiously out of place, too large and too formal to be a mere passageway, compositionally unbalanced in relationship to the small court that precedes it, and lacking a visually clear function, even though the inscriptions emphasize its position as a crossroads within the palace's internal organization.

The Court of the Myrtles and its Dependencies

The Court of the Myrtles or Patio de Comares, as it was already called in the sixteenth century, forms the center of the first of the two most celebrated parts of the Alhambra.

The Court of the Myrtles, north facade

The Court of the Myrtles, south facade

It is a rectangular court (36.6 by 23.5 meters) with a long and narrow pool (34.7 by 7.15 meters) in the center. The southern end of the court contains a simple portico on six columns and a modern door, probably corresponding to some older passage (Fig. 17). Whatever may have been beyond this passage has been obliterated, but excavations carried out under the adjoining palace of Charles V did not bring to light any major remains, and the two floors that are visible on the south wall (one closed, with small windows, the second an open gallery) were probably mere passageways in the wall itself. The eastern and western sides of the court are curiously ill-composed. Each has five doors, which lead either into single, long, narrow, and windowless rooms or into other parts of the palace; no qualitative distinction or distinction of size is made between them.

The northern side of the court (Fig. 16) is, quite justifiably, the most celebrated. In elevation it consists of an open portico with a small central cupola, a long hall with corner towers, and finally the huge mass of the Comares Tower. Whether seen as a descending composition, from the defensive crenellations of the top of the tower to the frail columns below, or as an ascending one, from the carefully carved arches below to the raw masonry above, it is a highly thought-out architectonic ensemble. In plan it consists of three units. First there is a gallery (Figs. 18 and 19), with a magnificent ceiling of wooden marquetry and with highly decorated niches at either end (Figs. 20 and 21). Then comes the Sala de la Barca, reached through a handsomely decorated doorway (Fig. 22).

The Court of the Myrtles, north gallery

The Court of the Myrtles, wall decoration in the north gallery

It is most celebrated for its wooden ceiling, beautifully reconstructed after a fire in 1890 (Fig. 23). The Sala de la Barca communicated directly with various other parts of the palace complex to the east and the west, but the nature and purpose of these means of communication are not very clear.

Finally one penetrates into the so-called Hall of the Ambassadors, a square room (11.3 meters square by 18.2 meters high), occupying the upper part of the largest and highest (45 meters) external tower of the Alhambra (Fig. 24). In plan it is quite simple: an empty central space with three alcoves, or rather openings pierced through the walls, on all sides other than the entrance and overlooking directly, without apparent barriers, the valley below (Fig. 25). What makes the hall so striking are its decoration of tiles and stucco on the walls and its ceiling of 8,017 pieces of different-colored woods (Figs. 26 and 27).

The Court of the Myrtles, bay at the end of the north gallery

The Court of the Myrtles, vault of the same bay

I shall have much more to say about this celebrated hall when I discuss both its meaning and its forms, but two points are significant at this preliminary stage. The first is that the tile and stucco decoration of the central alcoves (Figs. 28 and 29) is richer and more complex than that of the side ones, thus introducing two main axes in an apparently central plan. The second point is that, while it is indeed obvious that this hall was a formal room of some sort, its identification as the reception hall of the palace, in which the royal throne would have been placed in the central northern alcove, has been based so far on a single sixteenth-century document, an account by the royal interpreter Alonso del Castillo. In itself the internal arrangement of the hall does not necessitate its interpretation as a reception hall, even if it does not preclude its occasional use as such. We will see that the inscriptions in the hall suggest a much more complex explanation.

The Court of the Myrtles, niche between the north gallery and the Sala de la Barca

The Sala de la Barca, showing the wooden ceiling

That the Court of the Myrtles with its appendages forms a single compositional unit is clear from plan and elevation alike. More complicated is its chronology. The exterior of the tower may be as early as the thirteenth century; the court itself and some of the smaller units seem to be of the time of Yusuf I; but most of the decoration, if not of the architecture, of the Sala de la Barca and the Hall of the Ambassadors belongs to the time of Muhammad V. It is therefore for this period only that we can draw any sort of conclusion about its use and function.

The Hall of the Ambassadors, section

The Hall of the Ambassadors, looking north

The Hall of the Ambassadors, interior

The Hall of the Ambassadors, ceiling

Hall of the Ambassadors, detail of central northern alcove

The Hall of the Ambassadors, central northern alcove

The Bath and the Daraxa

The most interesting feature about the heavily restored Bath is its location. Even though it communicates with the Courts of the Myrtles and of the Lions and, on a plan, appears to be a sort of link between them, it is in reality at a much lower level and should more properly be associated with the complex of gardens and buildings known as the Garden of the Daraxa, which leads to the Peinador de la Reina overlooking the valley of the Darro. These gardens and apartments were entirely reconstructed in the sixteenth century, and even though some of their features may have been influenced by earlier constructions, they cannot be used as evidence for the mediaeval buildings, except in the very general sense that they were probably the living quarters of the palace, possibly the celebrated Harem that has so titillated writers ever since the sixteenth century. Remains of a house were found beyond the present Garden of the Daraxa, and it seems likely that this area of living quarters extended much farther to the east.

The Bath, section and plan

The Bath, main hall, Sala de las Camas

The Bath itself (Fig. 30) is of a classical Islamic compact type with a two-storied main hall on four columns (Fig. 31) followed by a succession of cold and hot rooms. As in all baths, the vaults of the heated rooms are of interesting workmanship but, in the case of the Alhambra, not really unique. The Bath can be dated to the time of Yusuf I, with some later decoration. No information exists about the date of the earliest living quarters beyond the Bath.

The Court of the Lions and its Dependencies

This most celebrated part of the Alhambra dates from Muhammad V's time. This was a closed composition of long and square or nearly square units around an open space surrounded by a portico (Fig. 32), and a complex hierarchy of parts was involved, not merely in a quasi-two-dimensional facade-like order (as with the northern end of the Court of the Myrtles) but in three-dimensional space as well.

The Court of the Lions, looking northeast

The Lion Fountain

The court itself is rather small (28.5 by 15.7 meters), and its surrounding portico with two projecting pavilions articulates the sides of the court in an unusually complicated manner (Figs. 33--36). I shall return to its details in Chapter 3; the immediate impression is of a court whose components primarily served an aesthetic purpose.

The Court of the Lions, sections

The Court of the Lions, looking west

On the western side of the court there is simply a long hall, the Sala de los Mocárabes, with a Renaissance ceiling. The eastern end, known as the Hall of the Kings (Sala de los Reyes) is more complex. It consists primarily of three square units, higher than the rest and covered with domes of stucco muqarnas (Fig. 37). These square units are framed and separated by five rectangular spaces with a heavy archway and a flat ceiling (Fig. 38). The total effect is of a rhythmic succession of lit and dark parts which seems to lengthen the hall. Three alcoves separated by small rooms open from the Hall of the Kings. They are most celebrated for their ceiling paintings (Fig. 39), whose exact iconography and origins have never been worked out but which are probably late fourteenth-century and reflect the impact on the Nasrids of northern, possibly even French taste.

The Hall of the Kings, ceiling of square unit

The Hall of the Kings

The Hall of the Kings, ceiling painting in alcove

On the north side of the court lies the most impressive part of the complex, the Hall of the Two Sisters (Fig. 40), so called in romantic memory of two captive sisters said to have perished from love at the sight of the amorous happenings they could witness in the gardens below but in which they could not participate.

The Hall of the Two Sisters, looking towards the Court of the Lions

The Hall of the Two Sisters, dome

The Mirador de la Daraxa

The hall is a square room with a muqarnas cupola set over an octagon (Fig. 41). On three sides it is framed by long rectangular halls. Two of these are merely unlit side rooms, but the northern one leads to a small square pavilion, the Mirador (or lookout) de la Daraxa, which is exquisitely decorated and overlooks the gardens and apartments below (Fig. 42). On the opposite side a much simpler arrangement of a square with two appended rectangular halls is called the Hall of the Abencerrajes (Fig. 43). Its cupola is also a muqarnas but in this instance set over an eight-pointed star (Fig. 44). The name derives from that of a family, immortalized by Chateaubriand, whose members were brutally murdered towards the end of Muslim rule in Spain.

The Hall of the Abencerrajes, interior

The Hall of the Abencerrajes, dome

There are several inaccessible or unclear features in the southeastern and southwestern parts of the complex and some uncertainty exists about the original means of access to it, although most of it appears to retain its original form. But its purposes and functions are not very clear. The names given to its parts are either descriptive (as with the Lions) or romantic, as with the Two Sisters or the Abencerrajes. We will see that inscriptions (particularly numerous and consisting for the most part of poems written for these buildings) and historical comparisons may provide an explanation, but our initial point must be that a carefully composed and heavily decorated ensemble with halls around a porticoed courtyard does not suggest any other concrete function than sensuous pleasure and excitement for the eyes.

The Partal

Other Features

Other aspects of the Alhambra may be treated more briefly, either because they have not been as well preserved or because they are less important to its interpretation.

The Partal gardens and the Torre de las Damas

The Tower of the Infantas, interior

Located on higher ground immediately to the east of the complex of the Lions and the presumed living quarters of the Daraxa, the Partal consists of a large garden, a pool, and a portico with a single tower ending with a mirador overlooking the valley of the Darro (Fig. 45). To its side a group of small habitations was discovered with a unique decoration of mural painting: several superimposed friezes of representations of various activities of daily and courtly life, unfortunately very badly preserved. These almost indecipherable paintings are of the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century and therefore predate the main buildings to the west. The Partal itself and the charming little oratory set on the walls to the east of it probably belong to the time of Yusuf I.

The Towers of the Captive and of the Infantas

Two towers on the northeastern side of the Alhambra were transformed into pavilions. One of them, the Tower of the Captive, dates from the time of Yusuf I, while the far more impressive internal transformation of the Tower of the Infantas (Fig. 46) into a series of long halls on several floors around a central shaft belongs to the reign of Sa`d (1445--61). The latter form the last of the major architectural and decorative efforts in the Muslim Alhambra.

The Raudah

Almost directly to the south of the complex of the Lions, but separated from it by a ditch, stand the poorly preserved ruins of an apparently square building, originally covered with a cupola. In it were found several royal tombstones, and, with the help of a number of texts, Torres Balbás was able to demonstrate that this building was part of the sepulchral raudah or garden, where at least some of the Nasrid monarchs were buried.

The Puerta del Vino and urban remains

The Wine Gate, west side

The so-called Wine Gate (Fig. 47) stands today outside any archaeological context as one climbs up from the Gate of Law towards the palaces. Its inscription clearly indicates that it was built under Muhammad V, although in its immediate neighborhood traces were found of earlier walls, and the gate itself looks almost like an addition to an existing wall. It is unique among the major gates of the Alhambra in that it is straight and not angled; hence it was probably not defensive at all, as is also suggested by the chamber with a large window above the entrance proper. Seco de Lucena proposed that it was the only remaining door in a wall that, according to his theory, separated the royal enclosure of the Alhambra to the north from the urban development on the southern half of the hill. And it is indeed true that a bath, a mosque, and private houses were identified in the southern part of the enclosure, although none of these is now visible. The hypothesis is possible, but the evidence for a dividing wall seems slim.

Too little is certain about the physical nature and extent of the urban development inside the Alhambra walls to allow for any sort of definite conclusion, although it seems self-evident that whatever there was must have been concentrated in the southern part of the walled area. From the evidence of the houses near the Partal it may be proposed that the earlier city occupied a larger area and that it was during the reigns of Yusuf I and especially of Muhammad V that the royal palaces became more prominent than the urban center. The mosque, which has now disappeared, appears to have been built or rebuilt around 1308, and baths as well as whatever is known of houses are also usually dated earlier than the beginning of Yusuf I's main building program. But all this is very speculative.

The Generalife

It is difficult to discuss the Alhambra without some mention of the Generalife and the various pavilions and gardens above it. The name itself, known already in the fourteenth century, is a corruption of Jinnah al-`Arif, for which two interpretations have been proposed: "the Garden of the Architect," or "the Noblest of Gardens."

The Generalife, pool and south pavilion

The Generalife, north pavilion

Most of the present layout of the gardens themselves is modern, and many of the buildings have been much restored and rebuilt. The importance of the Generalife for our purpose - to set the archaeological stage for an explanation of the Alhambra - lies in two of its features. The first, already mentioned, is that some of it is earlier than the main palaces of the Alhambra, already having been partly completed by 1319. It may, therefore, have played a role in the formation of the palaces, although it is difficult to know whether this role was accidental, in the sense that its water supplies preceded those of the Alhambra, or whether the Alhambra should be considered as the royal residence built next to already existing princely gardens. The other pertinent feature of the Generalife is that it is a monument typologically unique in combining public and private, with two independent entrances, one from the Alhambra below, the other from the south and the outside; it seems, therefore, to belong to a somewhat different order of use from the Alhambra proper, less secluded and less restricted. The main part of the Generalife consists of a long pool now surrounded by plants (Fig. 48), with two loggias on the long sides and two complexes of buildings at the narrow ends. One was complicated, containing several rooms and interior courts; the other (Fig. 49) consisted of a portico, a long hall, and a square mirador higher up. Above this main part were more gardens and waterways, including the celebrated one with water running in the handrail of a staircase ramp. These stairs led to an oratory and, even higher up, to several additional pavilions, now mostly gone, one of which was romantically named the House of the Bride, Dar al-`Arusah.

For an elaboration of the history, the aesthetic, and the symbolism of late mediaeval Granada and of the Alhambra, the importance of the Generalife is considerable. Recent investigations by Bermúdez Pareja and James Dickie have also shown its significance for the history of gardens; but too much has been restored and redone for it to be as important as the Alhambra, below, in the history of mediaeval palaces.

The first conclusion that emerges from this brief description of the elements that make up the Alhambra is that a very great deal about this extraordinary monument is unknown, or at least unpublished. This is particularly true of what may be called the anatomy of the monument: its masonry, its foundations, the joints between its walls, the accidental or controlled finds made during excavations. But it is also true of the whole southern half of the walled area, where a mosque, baths, and houses once stood. For a full understanding of the Alhambra, the character of this presumed urban area is essential, but we shall probably never know what it was. A precise archaeological description of the whole monument is urgently needed. When detailed information is available - as in the case of the construction of the wooden cupola of the Hall of the Ambassadors - its absence elsewhere only becomes the more regrettable. Identifications of functions and purposes have often been too hastily made by writers relying on passing references or preconceived ideas of a Muslim palace and "oriental" palace life. The only contemporary documents that exist, the inscriptions found almost throughout the Alhambra, have only rarely been utilized, and it is interesting to note that the most thoughtful pages written on the Alhambra, those of Georges Mar cais in his general book on western Islamic architecture, are full of uncertainties about the history and meaning of the building.

But a number of positive conclusions do emerge, and they lead to the questions I shall seek to investigate. One of these conclusions is that the Alhambra was a miniature city, dominated by a royal establishment. And, so far as we know, this establishment and especially its two main complexes were the last major monuments in the development of the hill. The intriguing question is whether this came about accidentally either because, quite simply, the decline of the Nasrid dynasty after the death of Muhammad V preserved so much of his work at the Alhambra, or because there had been from the very beginning some more or less coherent idea about the palatial establishment which took many decades to reach completion, assuming that it was in fact completed by Muhammad V. Or, to put it another way, the question is how to interpret a monument that was so clearly additive in time, even if its last major patron left traces of his activities almost everywhere in it.

The Alhambra is also a monument that is additive in space: except for certain problematical areas around the so-called Mexuar, each one of the units I have described is a separate entity that could be seen and examined independently. The problem becomes more complex when we recall that, except for a bath, the oratories, and the peculiar gate of the Cuarto Dorado, it is almost impossible to assign precise functions to individual parts of the ensemble. From the architectural and decorative forms alone, no clear image emerges of the activities they housed, and this is especially so in the more impressive units. Finally, it is easy to see that the compositional vocabulary and the constructional or decorative techniques of the Alhambra are relatively limited: towers, courts, galleries, long and square halls, columns, muqarnas domes, wooden ceilings, stucco and tile covering. The question is whether these elements are used throughout in the same fashion or whether there are qualitative or functional variations in them. At first glance there is a repetitive character to most of the Alhambra's elements; but is this impression justified? Is there not some more profound aesthetic and sensuous aspect to its more elaborate parts than that of qualitative superiority? And, if it is merely quality of execution and size that distinguish the Hall of the Two Sisters (Fig. 40) from the Hall of the Kings (Figs. 37 and 38), can one define this quality?

These are the questions to which I shall seek answers. Regardless of what those answers may be, one last conclusion is perhaps less debatable and does not lead to further queries. It was best expressed by the poet of the Alhambra, Ibn Zamrak, who wrote that "the Sabikah is a crown on Granada's forehead and the Alhambra (may God watch over it) is the ruby on top of that crown." And in another poem he said that "Granada is a bride whose crown is the Sabikah, whose jewels and clothes are flowers, whose throne is the Generalife, whose mirror is the surface of its pools, whose earrings are drops of frost." And it is indeed true that, for reasons as yet unknown, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the whole city of Granada was transformed by this extraordinary backdrop of gardens and palaces between the snow-covered and uninhabited mountains and the surrounding bustling and fertile valley.

(back to: Palm Tree Books Home Page)

(back to: description of The Alhambra)