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Alhambra - Granada, Spain
Considered by many to be the pinnacle (quite literally) of Islamic architecture, the great Alhambra complex is an ancient palace and fortress built for the Moorish monarchs of Granada. Its greatest claim to fame is not just in its beautiful representation of Middle Eastern architecture, but also in its unique location atop a 35-acre plateau overlooking the beautiful city of Granada in Southern Spain. Alhambra is truly a place that aspires to great heights of achievement, and its builders have proven especially skilled, as parts of the complex are completely original.
Alhambra is only the name of the entire complex, which is surrounded by a heavy fortress wall with thirteen towers. The plateau that it sits on is protected by the Darro River to the North, and the Alhambra Park to the West and South.
In Arabic, Alhambra means ’the red’, and historians point to the color of the bricks used on the outer wall as the probably reason for the name. The fortress walls were constructed out of bricks made of sun-dried gravel and clay that took on a lush reddish hue once dry. Though this is the most obvious claim, some historians believe that Alhambra is named in honor of the red-flamed torches that construction workers used when they worked at night for years to complete its construction. Still, others point to its founder, Mahomet Ibn Al Ahmar as the source for the name, while one theory claims that it’s named after the Arabic term Dar al Amra that means ’House of the Master’.
One thing historians do agree on is that Alhambra was built primarily between the years of 1248 and 1354 AD during the reign of Al Ahmar and his descendents. Unfortunately, the principal architects and designers have been forgotten to the sands of time.
The Alhambra complex is truly a site to behold from far away. It seems to rise out of the land and aim straight for the sky. One can easily imagine the grandeur that Alhambra could invoke when it was the seat of the King and his court. Unfortunately, Alhambra as we know it today is far different from its height in the 14th century. Successive generations of conquerors, from Charles V to Phillip V (spanning the 16th to 18th centuries), resulted in acts of vandalism and complete disregard for the original intent of the complex. As late as 1812, some towers were blow up by French occupiers under Count Sebastiani. Restoration efforts were undertaken in 1828 after a serious earthquake in 1821 left the complex in a state of disrepair. Over the past 150 years, efforts to restore and preserve the remaining structure have been met with success. Now, Alhambra is a major landmark in Southern Spain frequented by visitors across the globe.
Alhambra is one of the few large-scale and nearly perfect examples of Moorish art remaining in Europe despite centuries of neglect and vandalism. Buildings on the Alhambra grounds are based on the quadrangular arrangement with rooms facing a central court. The entire complex was built out of these sub-units of quadrangles as new buildings were added throughout its original construction. The architects did not emphasize exteriors. Instead, they established a rich contrast of simple exteriors with wonderfully ornate interior design. Touring the Alhambra buildings, you’ll find a kind of fine detail you just won’t see anymore in modern buildings. In architectural terms, the Alhambra buildings are ’space’ or ’cavity’ oriented rather than ’structure’ oriented. Windows and openings allow for wind and sun to enter each room freely. As you watch the light play with the intricate archways, marble pillars, fretting, and ornate stuccowork, you’ll never see the same room throughout your entire visit. The decorative motif revolves around incredible dense and complicated arabesques built out of foliage, Arabic inscriptions, and rich geometrical patterns.
The original Moorish potion of the Alhambra complex is primarily in ruins today. Known as the Alcazaba or citadel, it was built as a fortress on the isolated foreland at the end of the plateau. Nothing remains of the citadel besides its outer walls, watchtowers, and ramparts. Past the citadel lies the palace of the Moorish Kings, or what is known properly as Alhambra. Beyond the royal palace is the Upper Alhambra district designed for court officials and bureaucrats. A number of later additions stand out sorely from the original Moorish buildings. Most notably, the Palace of Charles V simply dwarfs all other buildings in the area despite being abandoned in 1650.
There are many other notable buildings in this massive 35-acre complex worth visiting. Visitors should be warned of the complex ticket system that only allows entrance during a specific time period (morning, afternoon, evening) but once inside you may remain until closing. Certain areas are time restricted to 30 minutes per visitor so be advised not to loiter unless you’ve received permission.
A variety of tours are available. You can go on the standard tour with a paid tour guide, or throw in some more money for a personal tour from a professional historian, and school trips are welcome though advanced notice is always a good idea.
If you’re ever detouring into Southern Spain while visiting other portions of the country, do stop by Granada to visit Alhambra in all its historic glory. You won’t find anything of its scope or grandeur anywhere else in the world.