History of Alhambra: Islamic palace with christian touches

History Tamalika Basu
History of Alhambra
Alhambra, Granada, Spain. The Nasrid Palaces Palacios Nazaríes in the Alhambra fortress. © Sorin Colac | Dreamstime.com

Did you know one of history’s most momentous ‘Christian’ expeditions originated in an Islamic palace? Namely the Alhambra palace. Indeed, the history of Alhambra says king Ferdinand and queen Isabella endorsed the expedition of Christopher Columbus to the ‘Indies’ from this palace. We all know this led to the ‘discovery’ of America, which changed world history forever.

While this is a significant event that makes Alhambra famous, the palace is also renowned as a stunning example of Islamic architectural achievements. It was built in the thirteenth century by rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. In Granada city of al-Andalus. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The name Alhambra, signifying in Arabic ‘the red,’ is probably derived from the reddish color of the Tapia (rammed earth) of which the outer walls were built”. While Muslim rulers built the palace, Christian emperors later renovated and extended it. Today it showcases a curious mix of medieval Islamic and Christian architecture. The palace today is a major tourist attraction of Spain, and has been marked by UNESCO as a ‘world heritage site’.

History of Alhambra

Historical documents reveal that a small fortress existed at the site of the Alhambra in the 9th century. It was then known as the Alcazaba. In 889 Sawwar Ben Hamdun took refuge in this fortress. He repaired it during civil war-days. Later this site was extended and populated for a few centuries. However, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty Muhammad Ben al-Hamar turned it into a royal residence for the first time in the late 1230s. Since then, several Nasrid dynasty rulers kept adding and beautifying the palace till 1358. Yusuf I ordered the splendid decorations of the interior.

Following the Christian Reconquista in 1492, the site became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabelle. And during this period explorer Columbus argued his case for an expedition to the ‘Indies’ in front of the royal highness. Convinced by his arguments, the king and the queen agreed to sponsor his daring adventure. They also partially altered portions of the Alhambra in the Renaissance style. Since then, many rulers added to the buildings. Renovations have been carried out till modern times.

The architecture

According to UNESCO, “The Alhambra, with its continuous occupation over time, is currently the only preserved palatine city of the Islamic period. It constitutes the best example of Nasrid art in its architecture and decorative aspects.” Examples of these can be seen in various parts of the palace. Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Mohammed V (1353-1391) built most of those parts of Alhambra which showcase the Nasrid art. And these include the Patio of the Lions. Its annexed rooms, the Justice Gate, the extension and decoration of the towers, the building of the Baths, the Comares Room, and the Hall of the Boat.

Besides the monuments, the Alhambra palace is also famous for its gardens. The Alhambra incorporates the best of the Moorish Islamic gardening tradition. It showcases the aesthetic use of water in several gardens of production and entertainment. The palace has one of the oldest areas of terraced patchwork known in Europe.

The Alhambra today recounts to the visitors’ fascinating stories of a long historical period spreading over more than a millennium.