The exact history of the Alhambra is uncertain, and hardly any archaelogical or literary documents exist to determine when construction on the Alhambra hill began. The most common belief is that in the eleventh century, Yusuf ibn Naghrallah, the Jewish vizier of the Zirids, ordered the construction of a fortress-palace on the hill, which was the first major regal structure to be built on the hill. The eleventh century also marks the period when Granada first began to come into it’s own as a city, growing in population during the Berber dynasty of the Zirids, under the rule of Habus, Badis, and Abdallah. It is this growth in the city that also stimulated and made available literary documentation of the buildings of the city.
Between the eleventh century and 1238, there may have been other military structures built on the site of the Alhambra during the wars of the Almoravids and the Almohads. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Christian kings controlled the entire Iberian peninsula, except for Granada, which was the capitol of the last Moorish kingdom in Spain. Yusuf ibn Nasr (Ibn al-Ahmar) began the construction of a new citadel on top of the Alhambra hill, which marked the beginning of the structure that exists today. He is thought never to have lived there, but the palace city was finished by his descendants, some twenty sultans who all lived in the palace.
In 1492, the Alhambra was eventually occupied by Ferdinand and Isabella, when the Christians took over all of the Iberian peninsula.
There is no single artist with which to credit the creation of the Alhambra. It is even unclear when certain parts of the Alhambra were built, or who commissioned them. What we do know is that ibn Nasr began the first stages of construction of the existing Alhambra today, and many structures inside were added or remodeled by later inhabitants, including Ferdinand and Isabella, Mohammed V, and Charles V. Charles V commissioned a young architect named Pedro Machuca to build him a new palace inside the Alhambra in 1527.
Among inscriptions from the Kuran and verses from poetry, one famous poet’s work (that of Ibn Zamrak) decorates the inside of the Alhambra.
Ironically, much of the ornamentation of the Alhambra – a symbol of magnificence and longevity – was built with rather cheap and easily destructible materials such as wood, plaster, and tiles, rather than expensive, rich materials that seem to fit the intricate ornamental style.
The name “Alhambra” evolved from the Arabic word “Qalat al-Hamra,” “red fortress.” This name was most likely given to describe the red clay soil in the surrounding land, and the red dust that stained the stone of the citadel.
The Gate of Justice is the largest of the four main gates of the Alhambra. The inscription on it says it was built in 1348 by Yusuf. Both the first tall arch and the second smaller one are horseshoe arches, in the typical Islamic fashion. The hand carved in the keystone of the arch is thought to represent the five pillars of Islam.
The Wine Gate was bears an inscription by Muhammad V, yet dates back to Muhammad II, making it one of the oldest surviving parts of the palace. Muhammad V is thought to have remodeled it to celebrate his triumphal victory at Algeciras in 1367. The square groundplan and large windows lead to the assertion that this gate was not meant for defensive purposes.
The Alcazaba – the Citadel – is the fortress along the western wall of the Alhambra. It has one grand watch tower – the Vela Tower – on the west wall, and three smaller towers on the east wall. The Vela Tower has at it’s core superimposed cross-vaulted chambers, with barrel-vaulted passageways. It is thought that this tower was built before the arrival of the Nasrids. The Alcazaba housed the quarters of elite military men, the military depot, and perhaps the Alhambra jail.
The columns in the Alhambra are of an independent type, developed during the period of Nasrid architecture in Granada.
The capital is divided into two pieces, the lower piece almost the same width as the shaft, usually decorated with flat band relief. Below the capital, a series of annulets connects it to the long narrow shaft. Above the capitol, there is an Abacus, on top of which sits an impost intended to heighten the column and expand the width of the capitol.
Islam forbade images and figures to be used as decoration in the Alhambra. As a result, the ornamentation of the Alhambra consists solely of floral patterns, geometric shapes, and intricate designs. Symmetry played a large role in most of the patterns seen in the Alhambra. Another common decorative element is the heavy use of azulejos decorations.
Azulejos are colored, ceramic, glazed tiles, which the Nasrids brought to Spain in the middle of the thirteenth century.
The Mudejar style describes architectural and decorative elements used by Moorish artists and craftsmen, popular between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Sebka is diamond-shaped decoration in a grid-like surface pattern that is often seen in Mudéjar art.
Arabesque ornamentation consists of leaves and vines woven together, and is seen all over the walls of the Alhambra. An almost identical arabesque ornamentation is pictured from Medina az-Zahara in Cordoba.
This courtyard, named for the myrtle bushes that flank the large pool, sits in the center of the Palace of Comares. The Court of the Myrtles was built during Yusuf I’s time. The walls and arcades are decorated with latticed sebka forms, azulejos, and inscriptions. The inscriptions throughout the Alhambra are often documentary of the dates of construction, the commissioner, or the architect. In some cases, they are phrases from the Kuran, or poetic verses, meant to inspire and remind Islamic believers of the one God.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is a reception room inside the largest tower of the Alhambra. Azulejos border the floor, and the walls are covered with a latticework of arabesque design, sebka patterns, and inscriptions.
The domed ceiling is actually made of 8,017 panels of cedar wood, in different colors and shades. The inlaid pieces are cut to fit together in a seven-level pattern, with eight and sixteen-point stars. The ceiling is thought to represent the seven heavens of Islam, and the crossing the four trees of life.
The Court of the Lions gets its name from the ring of twelve lions circling the fountain’s basin in the center of the courtyard. Surrounding the court is the palace complex of Mohammad V, which is split into living quarters that housed the royal family. The lions are thought to represent the twelve sons of the zodiac and the twelve months. The courtyard used to be a large walled-in garden, representing the heavenly garden of Islam. The courtyard is split into four sections by four streams that meet at the center fountain; these are meant to symbolize the four rivers of paradise. The large canopies supported by columns on the eastern and western sides have honeycombed arches, an ornamental element that can be found in almost every room in the Alhambra.
This style of masonry that left no space undecorated was sometimes known as “Nasrid baroque.”
The Hall of Justice is a perfect example of the intense combination of different designs and styles of ornamentation characteristic of the Alhambra. It has honeycombed arches, with azulejos, and crenulated friezes along the top of them, intricate floral designs, half-columns with capitals, and inscriptions running up and down the walls.
The ceiling of the Hall of Kings actually contains three separate illustrations containing human figures. This offers proof that the depiction of human figures was not entirely prohibited in Islam.
This hall was probably used as a feasting hall, before it became a chapel under Catholic monarchs, and then a hall of justice.
The Alhambra is said to have no clear façade, yet that is most closely what the Golden Room is supposed to be, although it’s on the inside of the Alhambra. It was built during Muhammad V’s reign, and is a grand example of Nasridian architecture. Among the patterns in gold filigree on the wall, there are floral patterns, geometric forms, friezes, borders, and panels. The two doors seen in the picture lead different directions. The left door leads to a long hallway, while the right door leads to the forecourt. The inscriptions on the wall suggest that this is meant to be the entrance to the actual palace… This represents one of the mysteries of the Alhambra, a place shrouded in secrets. The Alhambra has no clear connective-ness or unity between its buildings, a fact that is confusing to Westerners.
The Alhambra has been compared to the Madinat al-Zahra palace, built during the Umayyad dynasty in the tenth century near Cordoba. One major difference is that the Madinat al-Zahra was a single enclosed palace, while the Alhambra was a huge complex of at least five different palaces, including a zoo, an aviary, a mosque, a barracks, and workshops. Another difference is that the Madinat al-Zahra was a palace of riches and extravagant decoration, with marble, gold, silver, and bronze ornamentation; in contrast, the materials used to build the Alhambra were relatively cheap.