When the monarchs of medieval Europe still dwelt in dim, brooding castles, the Moors of Spain were building light and airy pleasure palaces the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Europe since Roman times. After most of the Moorish kingdoms fell to the Reconquista, the Alhambra survived well into the 1400s. For centuries the Alhambra was the greatest royal residence west of Istanbul, and was an important prototype for the palaces and villas that would begin to spring up in Italy during the early years of the Renaissance. Although the architecture and artistry of the Alhambra suffered ignominiously under the Spanish and Napoleanic regimes, it remains Europe’s finest example of Moorish and Islamic architecture. The Alhambra Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Following a whirlwind of military conquests that drove across Northern Africa in the 7th century, Islam arrived in Spain in the early 700s. After the Ummayads were driven from power in Syria, the survivors fled to to Spain where they established the Caliphate of Cordoba. Granada was incorporated into this new state, generally referred to as Andalusia, and which included territories in Spain, Portugal and Northern Africa. For many years Granada was overshadowed by the great cities of Cordoba, Toledo and Seville. In 1010, a civil war between a number of Islamic factions and powers in the region left Granada in ruins. However, three years later, it was refounded as the capital of an independent sultanate.
Granada was rebuilt throughout the 11th and 12th centuries, becoming one of the most prominent Islamic cities in Europe. However, it would not reach the height of its architectural glory until the arrival of the Reconquista in the 1230s. After five centuries in control of Spain, the Muslims were slowly and systematically driven out by the efforts of Christian crusaders from Western Europe. By 1238, most of the Muslim kingdoms on the peninsula had been vanquished. Granada, which survived the Reconquista more or less intact, became a client state of the Christian kingdom of Castille. The Sultanate of Granada persisted for another two and a half centuries, surviving until 1492.
Ironically, it was during these two hundred and fifty years of semi-occupation that Granada was transformed into a showcase of Islamic and Moorish architecture. Largely freed from the necessity of ruling, the Granadan sultans turned their time, energy and substantial riches towards the beautification of the city. The greatest of these architectural monuments is, without doubt, the Alhambra, built in the 13th and 14th centuries as a fortress and pleasure palace for the sultans. However, in 1492, the Spanish completed the Reconquista and annexed the city of Granada and the Alhambra Palace.
After becoming a possession of the Spanish monarchy, the Alhambra was looted and then, for a brief period, abandoned. Later, during the reigns of Charles V in the 16th century and Philip V in the 18th century, considerable work was done in expanding and restoring the place. Sadly, little effort was made to preserve the original Islamic décor. During the French occupation of Spain in the 1800s, Napolean nearly had the place destroyed, and did in fact do considerable damage. An earthquake in 1821 almost finished the job. Fortunately, by the 19th century the Spanish began to realize what a treasure they had, and the Alhambra underwent a massive restoration that continued for decades. It has since been well maintained and is now one of the greatest pieces of Islamic legacy architecture in Europe.
The Alhambra is one of the two most magnificent surviving Islamic palaces on the European continent, along with the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. Construction began in the 1200s as the city’s small citadel was expanded into use as a royal residence. The original layout involved a quadrangle-type building surrounding a courtyard, and many more quadrangles and courtyards were added later. Walls were constructed to enclose the citadel, the palace and the extensive grounds. A triumphal arch was added shortly after the Spanish Reconquista. This was the most obvious of the numerous changes and additions that the Europeans made. From the outside the palace appears somewhat plain, even utilitarian, little more than an overgrown military fortress.
The interior, however, is another matter. The seemingly endless labyrinth of halls and rooms was decorated with all of the accumulated wealth of centuries of Muslim rule. Further embellishments, often at great aesthetic odds with the Moorish architecture, were added by the Spanish in later years. Among the most important features of the Alhambra were its extensive gardens, a mainstay of Moorish architecture. Located close to the southernmost point of Europe, the magnificent gardens of Alhambra feature a vast array of plantlife from all over North Africa and Western Europe. Contributions to the garden span centuries, from the orange groves planted by the Moors in the 13th century to the elm trees introduced by the English in the 19th century. Fountains abound, providing a pleasing backdrop of falling water. A small menagerie of exotic animals also make Alhambra their home. This includes one of the world’s largest populations of nightingales.
The Alhambra Palace is located in Granada, approximately 120 miles east of Seville and 200 miles south of Madrid. From March to October it is open daily from 8:30am-8:00pm; and from November to February from 8:30pm-6:00pm. The cost of admission is E10.00. Web: www.alhambra.org (official website of the Alhambra Palace)
Little remains of the many great Islamic-era castles and palaces that once dotted Spain. The best example outside of Granada is arguably the Moorish Castle in nearby Gibraltar.