Most people who visit the Alhambra in Granada have the opportunity to do so once and often for only a brief time dictated by the restrictions of a tour itinerary. This is a pity because to appreciate the Alhambra properly can take many hours spread over a number of visits. We on the Costa are fortunate that Granada is only a couple of hours away.
The Alhambra, on a hill known as Sabika, overlooking and dominating the city of Granada, is probably the best-preserved example of Moorish architecture to survive in Spain. Its condition stems from the terms under which the city of Granada was captured by the Christian Monarchs on the 2nd January 1492. Those conditions, Las Capitulaciones, guaranteed the Muslims freedom to practice their religion and preserve their language, justice system and traditions. They also prevented the traditional pillaging and demolition of fine buildings seen in other cities so Granada and in particular the Alhambra, survived in all its glory. The capitulation though was only one instance during the turbulent history of this fortress and palace.
In the 11th Century the Caliphate of Cordoba fell and the event sparked off a civil war, the whole 800 year history of the Moorish occupation was punctuated by disagreements between rival Taifas or kingdoms, during which the capital of Granada province, the Taifa of the Zirids, was moved from Elviria to Granada itself. The court was set up in an existing fortress in the Albayzin, a hill to the west and facing the present day Alhambra. It was the sultan's prime minister, Samuel B. Nagrella who rebuilt a ruin and constructed his palace on Sabika hill. It was two hundred years later, in the 13th Century, that Al Ahmar, the founder of the Nasrid dynasty noticed the attractions of the Sabika hill site and moved his court there. The Nasrid sultanate of Granada existed from 1232 to 1492 and was the last Islamic state in the Iberian peninsula originally encompassing the coast from Tarifa to Almeria and in a semi circle inland taking in the present day province of Jaen. The Alhambra that we see today was built mainly during that period, with one notable exception, the Charles V Palace, that was started in 1532 and is still not finished.
The Alhambra is a fortified, walled, palatine city designed and built purely to serve the needs of its officials and workforce who in turn looked after the needs of the sultan and his family. At the western end, and at the highest point, is a fortress, the Alcazaba. This itself was a self contained, and walled, town. It housed the elite guard and their supporting infrastructure including food and grain stores and water cisterns. Its walls connected with the walls of Granada city proper. The northern section of the Alhambra is taken up with the Nasrid palaces reserved for the use of the sultan, his closest family and his administrative officials. There are several palaces, each one more sumptuous and grander than the one before. Finally the southern and eastern sections of the Alhambra, easily the largest single area, was taken up by a complete town called the Medina the sole purpose of which was to serve the needs of the Court and the elite guard. The whole is surrounded by unbreachable walls studded with more than thirty towers. There were four principle gates into the complex, two through the north wall, The Arms Gate and del Arrabal and two through the south wall, The Justice Gate and The Gate of Seven Floors.
For once the English language fails the scribe in its ability to adequately describe a monument. Awesome is close but even that cannot project the personal insignificance and disorientation you feel as you wander around the Nasrid palaces. They were built to enhance the reputation of succeeding sultans, not particularly by building on a large scale but by employing fine craftsmen to produce intricate wood and plaster wall and ceiling decorations, the detail of which is best appreciated by minute examination at close range, the overall effect being just too much for the senses. How the sultans lived with it every day is just one unanswerable question. Perhaps they regularly took refuge in the very formal gardens where they could relax to the sound of water spouting from fountains and ponder the mystery of how the plumbers had managed to persuade water to flow uphill. (A system graphically explained in the Science Park, Granada).
Although there are regular buses from all parts of Granada that take you directly to the public entry gates at the eastern end of the Alhambra, if you are fit and able then walking from the city is recommended, if only to gently prepare you for the breath taking experience ahead. Start at the Puerta de las Granadas, one of the gates through the city walls connecting to the walls of the Alhambra. This road takes you steeply uphill through the gardens on the south slope of the Alhambra. To your left are the walls of the Alcazaba and then the walls of the Medina towering dizzyingly high above. Toiling up the hill in light summer clothes will give you an idea of what it must have been like to fight your way up the same hill wearing full armour. Remember these days you do not have to dodge arrows, boiling oil and stone cannon balls. About a third of the distance and half way up you will come to the Justice Gate, the first opportunity to gain access to the Alhambra for those overheating knights. I can imagine over polite knights standing there, 'After you Cedric', 'No, I insist, after you Sir Germain', 'No, no, I do insist Cedric'. You will understand when you see the impossible task they faced. Fortunately today, after more gentle uphill strolling, you will face nothing more threatening than a pay booth and turnstile.
From March to October the Alhambra is open from 8.30am to 8pm and 10pm to 11.30pm. To visit the Nasrid palaces you must accept a half hour time slot since only so many people are admitted in one group. Turning up on spec is not recommended, the queues can be miles long and there is no guarantee you will be able to visit the palaces. Advance booking by telephone (902 22 44 60) or on line, www.alhambratickets.com, allow you to jump the queues. Tickets are 10 Euros per person.
© Nicholas Craig Nutter 2004 - 2012. Nick Nutter asserts his rights as the author of this article and all associated images. This article and images may not be copied or reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.