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Alhambra - Spain's Top Historic-Tourist Attraction

posted on: Jan 30, 2019

Alhambra Palace in Spain

By: Habeeb Salloum/ Arab America Contributing Writer

All day long we explored Albaicín, the exotic quarter of Granada filled with relics from the Moorish era. From the early morning hours, we had toured still-standing ancient Arab homes and palaces, churches that had been former mosques and a well-preserved Moorish bath. As well, we explored a newly built mosque – the first to be built in Granada since the re-conquest of the city by the Christian forces more than 520 years ago.

Now as the sun was setting over the Alhambra, a splendid complex of gardens and palaces, towering on the opposite hill across the Darro River, we stood by the Church of Saint Nicholas gazing at the greatest innovation of the Moors in Spain.

Before us we could see, in all their majesty, its slim towers soaring skyward and dominating the city of Granada. Travelers have written that this creation out of the Arabian Nights can best be seen in all its splendor from the spot on which we were standing. I remembered their words as I studied its fairy-tale-like outline in the engulfing dusk. It was easy to see why this most popular tourist attraction in all of Spain has become a legend. From our vantage point, it was a picture postcard of beauty that literally ensnared us in its spell.

The foundation of this most famous of the world’s renowned castles was laid atop the Sabika Hill in 1238 A.D. by the first of its Nasrid Moorish kings, Ibn al-Ahmar. The Alhambra is a corruption of the Arabic word al-ahmar (the red), the color of the earth from which it was built, or the name of its builder – in Arabic meaning ‘the son of the red one’. The last stronghold of the Arabs in Spain, it was constructed by the Nasrid kings both as a citadel and as a fantasy wonderland for their leisure and pleasure.


Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

This most outstanding representative of Arabic architecture is a fascinating structure of filigreed walls and arches, exquisite tiles, calligraphic design, and delicate marble pillars. Plaster and stone were turned to lace and enhanced with fountains, trees, and flowers, creating a vision of paradise on earth. Here, amidst man’s magnificent handiwork where Moorish genius reached its peak, emirs and kings enjoyed the good-life and held court.

In 1492, the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand and Isabella, conquered Granada and ended the 800-year-long Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula. For a time after the conquest, the Alhambra was the home of the Spanish kings. One of these, the emperor Charles V, demolished some of its buildings and in their place constructed a monumental Renaissance palace that today seems out of place in the midst of this charming creation of the Moors.

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Alhambra Palace in Spain

Subsequently, the Alhambra was totally neglected and time eroded its breath-taking splendor until 1870 when it was declared a national monument. Thereafter, artisans restored some of its ancient grandeur and it became the top tourist mecca in Spain.

It was a cool morning when we entered this world-renowned abode of kings.   Our first stop was the Alcazaba fortress – the oldest part of the Alhambra complex. In a few minutes, we had climbed its Torre de la Vela, the highest tower in the citadel. The view was fantastic.

Straight down, the land fell steeply on three sides to the valley below. Beyond, the white city of Granada that sparkled like a jewel in the early morning sun and, in the distance, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains appeared to be sentinels looking down on Moorish Spain’s last bastion. To the east, the gardens, palaces, and towers of the Alhambra itself were exposed in all their glory.

Enthralled with the transcendent vista as I surveyed the panoramic scene, I remembered the Mexican poet Icaza whose words I had seen inscribed on the walls of the citadel:

“Spare him a penny woman,

For I cannot call to mind,

A sadder fate for a human,

Than to be in Granada blind.”

From the Alcazaba we left for the royal palaces, now in a large part under renovation, that I had explored a number of times during previous visits. I remembered vividly their rooms grouped around courtyards and embellished with gardens, pools, and fountains. However, what had captivated me even more, were the walls and handsome arches, colorfully tiled in many places but dominated by fine plaster-work inscribed with graceful Arabic verses and phrases – many from the Qur’an. Overshadowing all others was the motto of the Nasrid kings, wa la ghalib illa Allah -there is no conqueror but God.

During Arab times and for decades after the conquest, blue, gold and red covered this plasterwork, but now these colors are barely discernible. Work has begun to restore the tints and shades of the Arab past where once could be seen only here and there, faint traces of what must have been. Yet, the miracle of the Alhambra is not what has faded away, but how much of the fragile plaster tracery on the arcades, courts, colonnades, and patios remain. The stucco carved in ingenious complexity has survived centuries of rain, man’s destructive hand, wind, and burning sunlight.

We began our tour at the Mexaur with its fine tiles framing the doorways. From this section where sultans once received their subjects, we moved on to explore some of the Alhambra’s courtyards and palaces.

At the Hall of Ambassadors, often called the jewel of the Alhambra and noted for its domed 8,017 pieces of cedar wood ceiling, we stopped for a while to admire, in wonder, the exquisite tiles which decorate the lower parts of the walls. The Court of the Myrtles with its reflecting pool framing a hedge of myrtle trees and beautifully carved arches was intriguing, but the Hall of Two Sisters topped by a vaulted stucco-work ceiling of dazzling stalactite artistry held us in awe.

We then walked up to the newly renovated Court of the Lions – the heart of the Alhambra and the Nasrid kings’ private apartments. This harem’s quarter is considered the opulence of Moorish imagination, design, and craftsmanship. It is famous for its courtyard that incorporates 124 slender marble columns and a central fountain upon whose sides rest 12 granite lions. These spurt from their mouths streams of water, still brought by Arab aqueducts from the snows of the Sierra Nevada.

We rested for a time in this oasis of celestial calm until hundreds of tourists, shepherded by their guides, began to gather around us. We listened for a few minutes to our guide’s entertaining tales, then left for the Partal- Gardens, and towers remain of former palaces that once surrounded the Alhambra.

A series of terraces marked off by stone steps and modest promontories, these gardens overflow with bougainvillea, carnations, lilies, and blood-red poinsettias surrounded by holly bushes; cedar, cypress, and fruit-laden orange and lime trees. The flowers are well-tended and to some extent, reflect the seasons. Throughout the gardens, there are many benches where visitors can relax amid flower dominated greenery edged by over a dozen impressive towers. There is no question that the encompassing seductive beauty gives one a feeling of aesthetic pleasure.

It was late in the afternoon when we entered the last part of the Alhambra complex, the Gardens of Generalife – from the Arabic janat al-‘arif (garden of the architect). The pleasure playground of the Moorish kings, they cling to a hillside, separated by the terraced Darro River ravine, a quarter mile from the palaces and towers.

Consisting of cropped cypress hedges, walkways lined with oleander and paved with inlaid pebbles, endless flowerbeds and sprouting fountains, they are edged by pavilions and observation balconies. Called by some ‘a foretaste of Paradise’, the gardens were built as a retreat by the Nasrid sultans to afford privacy and seclusion for the Moorish princes and princesses.

Today, the Generalife has the sweep of imagination to make it one of Europe’s great gardens. Centuries after the Moors have been erased from the land, visitors can still, from its pavilions, enjoy the breath-taking view of Granada and its surrounding countryside, or stroll by reconstructed well-shaped gardens, pools, and fountains, intoxicated by the color and perfume of the endless flowers.

We ended our visit at the northern tip of the garden where a long narrow pool stretches between two porticos. As I looked down from one of the pavilion’s horseshoe arches at the water spurting into the pool from numerous jets concealed in greenery, I could see a tunnel of arching water between the porticos.

The glimmering interaction of light and shadows on the spraying waters, the murmur of the wind carrying the fragrances of many-colored blossoms, and singing birds in the surrounding trees create an aura of mystery and romance. Like the three million tourists who annually visit this epitome of Moorish gardens, I was overwhelmed by the bewitching atmosphere.

It was a climax to a day of uncovering the splendor of the Alhambra – a Moorish castle which has been the basis of many legends and whose majesty has made its name resound around the globe.

Habeeb Salloum

Alhambra Palace in Spain