Granada: La Alhambra & Generalife Palace (E5 – Part 2)

July 11, 2010

The Alhambra was the center of the Arab kingdom of Granada from 711-1492. It was a rich and fertile area for agriculture and the citadel itself was home to about 1500 people, including royals and commoners. Many of the sultans, however, lived in a fortress (which is no longer there) in Albaycin. The Alhambra was very well fortified, not only because it was on a high hill, but also because it had a very effective and clever system of defense. There were four entrances to the Alhambra, although today only one is in use. Each entrance had a series of 4 doors, each of which was at a 90 degree angle to the last. The way to attack a fortress in those days was to use long heavy logs, known as battering rams, which would be carried by several men and used to forcibly open a door. With a series of 4 doors at 90 degree angles to each other, this would be nearly impossible. Anyway, the Alhambra was never attacked militarily.

Over each entrance is a carving of the Hand of Fatima, which is the Islamic faith´s reminder of the 5 pillars of Islam: 1. There is only one God, 2. You must pray five times a day, 3. You must give 10% of your earnings to the poor, 4. You must observe fasting from dawn until dusk during the month long celebration of Ramadan, and 5. You must make a pilgrimage to Mecca (at least) once in your life.

On the outside of the buildings, the walls and roofs are free of ornamentation and ostentation. This is because the Arab belief is that you never show your wealth and power to the outside, for two reasons: first, to be outwardly humble, and second, so that others will not know your actual wealth. You don´t want to make your neighbors jealous, our Dutch guide told us, so the outside of your palace does not show luxury.

In contrast, the first Christian king to build a new palace in Granada, Charles V (Charles I of Spain), built a structure that was intended to be very grand and beautiful. He destroyed some of the walls of the Alhambra palaces to build his, but it was never completed. In 1526, the son of Juana and Felipe (remember,

Inside the unfinished palace that Carlos V built – the rotunda is set up with chairs for a concert that evening.

Juana was Ferdinand and Isabella´s daughter), Charles V, emperor of the Hapsburg Empire and who lived in Belgium, visited Granada to pay homage to his grandparents and took up residence in the Alhambra. During the 6 months he lived there, he decided to make Granada the capital of Spain so he began building his palace. However, a short time later, Felipe II decided to move the capital to Madrid, at the time a small village, because it was the geographical center of Spain. As soon as this decision was taken, all work constructing the palace in Granada ceased, and it was never completed. It didn´t even have a roof! The palace of Charles V thus remained empty and unused for 4 centuries.

Charles V’s palace is now mostly an empty building, but inside there is a rotunda which is used for concerts and performances, such as those taking place this weekend, which unfortunately we were not able to attend.

More beautiful are the Nasrid Palaces, named after the Nasser family, who lived there. The first one you enter is the Administrative palace, to which the Christians made several changes, attaching a church and religious icons,

Entrance to one of the Nasrid palaces

and an enclosed roof. It is believed that formerly it was an open cupola allowing the entrance of light and air.

The stucco decoration is one of the main characteristics of all the Alhambra. As I mentioned before, the Arabs built their palaces quickly, so they made molds of wood with various designs – geometric, flowers, birds, and sayings from the Koran – into which they pressed the stucco bricks. This way they could repeat the patterns over and over very quickly. The walls now look off white, but at one time they were colorfully painted. Most of the colors have since faded, which is why no flash pictures are allowed inside. The effect of the stucco designs is to make the walls look delicate and lacelike, and there is a feeling of lightness and airiness.

Sala del Trono (Throne Hall) – partial view

The Throne Hall was the most important part of the palace, in which important meetings were held and important visitors were received. The king would sit on his throne, surrounded by his important advisors, nobles who would occupy other lesser thrones around the room. On the lower part of the walls are beautiful ceramic mosaics. Each mosaic is made up of smaller cut pieces, each one a solid color. In the middle of the wall are messages in Arabic, from the Koran. One of them says ¨”There is no other victor than Allah” which

“There is no other victor than Allah” in Arabic is repeated 5000 times on the walls of the palace.

is repeated over 5000 times in the Alhambra. This saying is also on the Nasser family coat of arms. The Throne Hall is the most original part of the palace, that is, it contains more of the original designs and architecture than anywhere else at the Alhambra. (The other rooms had been done over and many Christian elements added, most of which were removed to restore it to how it was supposed to have been, at the beginning of the 20th century).

The ceiling of the Throne Hall is totally original, and it dates from the latter part of the 14th century. It is all made of wood, with cut pieces in mosaics to resemble a heaven full of stars. This represents the Islamic concept of “seventh heaven” (from which the saying is derived). In Islam, when you die you go to first heaven, then to 2nd, then to 3rd, etc., until you get to 6th heaven. To get to seventh heaven, which is Paradise, you must break through the stars and enter Paradise. There is a cupola in the middle of the ceiling which represents this breaking through. It is an 8-cornered cupola, because it is believed that Allah (God) sits on an 8-pointed star in 7th heaven.

Ceiling in the Throne Hall

Another characteristic that is evident throughout the Alhambra is water. The original Muslims were nomadic people (which also explains why they don´t build things to last) who lived in the desert, and they appreciated the value of water. Water symbolizes power (if you have water in the desert, you have power) and it also had the function of something to drink and as a reflection or mirror. Long pools of water in courtyards reflect the palace, and these pools also served to cool the interiors. The interiors of the palace could be 10 degrees F cooler than outside, although this isn´t the case now, because one of the things the Christians did was to put windows in the walls so they could admire the view. This had the effect, however, of destroying the air conditioning effect of the water.

By the way, the reflection pool of the Alhambra was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Reflection pool that cooled the palace. This pool was the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Also, every room had niches at the entrance, in which were placed vessels of

At the entrance to many rooms was a niche like this one where vessels of water to drink and aromatic plants would be placed. Each room had its own aroma.

water (to drink) and aromatic plants (to perfume the area). Each room had its own aroma. In the large courtyards, aromatic spices and other plants lined the pools of water, adding a pleasant perfume to the air.

The Haram Palace is different than the rest of the palaces. We think of ¨”harem” as a place where a sultan’s women all lived, with a somewhat negative connotation, but it is actually the Arab word for the private living areas for the family, where strangers were not allowed. The Haram palace is simpler with less ornamentation, but it is also full of beautiful gardens and a system of irrigation channels. We couldn’t see most of this, including the Patio of the Lions, because it is under restoration!!  The central courtyard, we were told, contains 124 pillars representing 124 palm trees in the desert. Four channels of water, or rivers, meet at a central fountain. The area would be very green and cool, which is what Paradise looks like to desert people.

Around the central courtyard are rooms with stalactite stucco structures hanging over the entryways. The Muslims copied this idea from the Christian monasteries, to resemble a cloister. In one of these rooms, the Sala de Abencerrajes, a big massacre supposedly took place. Supposedly there is still evidence of the blood in the walls and the floor. To find out more about this massacre, I (and you if you wish) will have to read Tales of the Alhambra, written by the 19th century author Washington Irving, who lived at the

Some of the blue color is still visible in this ceiling.

Alhambra for more than a year and was responsible for arousing international attention and interest in the place. Copies of this book are translated into many languages and are available at most souvenir shops in Granada. Needless to say, I bought my own copy!

When Charles V came to live at the Alhambra, he spent his honeymoon there and did not like it because it was very cold in the winter. The same system for keeping the place cool in the summer did not heat it in the winter, but this was not a problem for the Arabs, who moved to smaller rooms upstairs with their own heating units in the winter. However, the upper rooms were too small and not grand enough for Charles V. That’s why he decided to build his own palace.

Windows with view of the city.

The beautiful gardens surrounding the Alhambra were not added until the 1960s, and during Moorish rule were terraced agricultural areas. The gardens and other buildings were constructed on top of the ruins of the town which was destroyed by Napoleon’s troops in 1808. One soldier was responsible for saving the rest of it, but I didn’t get the story on that!

La Alhambra gardens

Also on the site is the Generalife Palace, which is not the name of an insurance company! The name comes from some Arab words that mean Garden of the Creator. It was the summer palace of the Moorish rulers, and contains gardens made at the end of the 13th century. It was constructed on a hill that was higher and cooler than the Alhambra. A fortress was built to defend it with 6 doors and it contains many courtyards.

Generalife palace – system of canals & pools of water: the occupants’ air conditioning!


Generalife – pool with fountains, surrounded by aromatic plants & herbs

The path leading to the entrance of the Alhambra and to leave it is shaded with flowering magnolia trees, cypresses and many other trees and plants. The Alhambra is a place to use all your senses because appreciating it with your eyes is not enough to truly experience it. Your sense of smell and touch are also stimulated here.

Courtyard within the Alhambra

We left the Alhambra and got on the bus, exhausted, around 2 pm. Two hardy members of our group took a little time to go to the ruins of the Alcazaba fort, which required more walking and climbing, in 100 degree heat! The rest of us visited the gift shop, used the facilities and bought cold drinks. We proceeded back to the city to have lunch, then had the long bus trip back to Madrid.

Although we got back around 9 pm, this did not prevent us from having dinner and then going out walking!! Dale, Prof. A, and I walked to Plaza Santa Ana in Madrid, a haunt for intellectuals with cafes, jazz bars, and beautiful tile work on the facades.

At midnight we went to bed!!

I have been writing this for a long time and my bill for use of the computer is going up. I have to get ready for the big game tonight!!!

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