That red marvel plonked down in Andalusia

Alhambra—art and architecture

Contribution by Mediha Boran

The Alhambra today stands as one of the most well-known and most-visited cultural attractions at the heart of the Andalusia region of Spain. As a dedicated World Cultural Heritage site, it is still one of the most spectacular reminders of 800 years of Islamic settlement in Spain and home of the best surviving examples of Moorish art and architecture.

The conquest of Spain by the Moors dates back to the 8th Century and came to a conclusion by the first part of the 15th century. The Alhambra was ordered to be built as a walled city by the Nasrids of the Kingdom of Granada (1238-1492). Although it was not used by the Granadine Muslim Royalty until the 13th century, its story, its glory days and its near destruction are also the story of the Moors in Spain.

The name Alhambra originates from Arabic words “qalat-al-hamra’ meaning ‘red castle’, said to reflect the gleam of the torches creating a flaming red effect throughout the night on the otherwise whitewashed walls of the Alhambra on the Sabika Hill of Granada.

The first sections of the of Alhambra, still visible today, are the Alcazabas (fortresses), constructed from the remains of the old palace already on Sabika Hill. By the time it was finished it enclosed a 104,000 square metre area. The Alhambra, like an acropolis, was isolated from the city of Granada and included all the characteristics of a Muslim city, including religious buildings – mosques, hermitages and cemeteries; civil buildings – private homes, universities, market places and hospitals; and Military Constructions – fortresses, access gates and bridges to surrounding cities. It also had seven purpose-built palaces, residences designed for different social classes, the royal mint, busy marketplaces with various shopping facilities, as well as barracks for the army and prisons, all protected by thirty or more towers on the perimeter. This made the city one of the largest walled cities of its time.

Unfortunately today, apart from the three important palaces, most of these buildings have gone. Since the last Nasrid King, Boabdil, handed over the city to the Catholic Monarchs in January 1492, the Alhambra has seen many different occupants, including Castilian Monarchs, Catholics and Moriscos, Bourbons, Napoleon’s troops, who turned the place into barracks and caused such damage that it was almost destroyed, contrabandistas (smugglers of the time), and in the late 19th century it turned into a place for the homeless and desolate. In 1830, an American diplomat and traveller Washington Irving, following his epic journey in southern Spain, argued the case of the Alhambra to an international audience with his provocative writings about this forgotten unique heritage and the Spanish government finally declared the site to be a national monument in 1870. In 1984 Unesco declared the site to be the “Cultural heritage of Mankind”. Thanks to an on-going restoration and protection programme, the Alhambra and the Generalife gardens now generate over 2 million visitors per year and they have become Granada’s major source of income today. Visitors are strongly recommended to book in advance as 8,000 tickets each day sell out very quickly.

Main Attractions


Seen as a more secure site than the old Alcazaba Cadima of Albaycin Hill, the Alcazaba was built on bare rocks and the originally treeless Sabika Hill with the remains of a castle which stood there. It is built 200 metres above the city of Granada and is perfectly located for defence. Its location was so well designed that, despite the collapse of the remaining Islamic places to the Christians, the Alhambra was never taken and the Catholics entered the Alhambra only after its surrender.

The Alcazaba contained double ramparts, a military quarter which located the garrison’s houses, and towers, the most famous being the 27 metre high Torre de la Vela (watchtower). With a fitted bell in the Christian era, the tower was used for warning of earthquakes and fires, as well as regulating the irritation of the Vega. Other important Towers are Torre de las Armas, Puerta de las Armas and Torre del Homenaje. Below the Towers are dungeons, stables and parapet gardens.

The Nasrid Palaces

Although it is thought that there were originally 7 palaces, today only 3 are still visible inside the complex. Each palace was built independently and is thought to have had separate functions. These are the Mexuar, the Comares and the Palace of Lions. For visitors, other attractions in the area are the royal baths and numerous Christian sections inside the Nasrid Palaces such as the Emperor’s room, Courtyard of the Railings, Lindajara Courtyard, the Queen’s Boudoir and most visibly the Palace of Charles V, which holds the Alhambra Museum, a Fine Art Museum, a Courtyard and a Chapel.

Among the remainder of this architectural maze, the Mexuar Palace was the first to be built and it was the monarchy’s official residence, as well as being used as a place for the monarch’s domestic residential home. Begun under the reign of Isma’il I, it contains the Jardin de Machua (Machua Garden), Sala del Mexuar (Mexuar Hall) and Patio del Mexuar (Mexuar Courtyard). The Mexuar Hall is an interesting architectural heritage as it was most drastically converted from Islamic to Christian Architecture. Apart from the Oratory and the Golden room, the façade of the Comares room is worth noting for its extremely rich calligraphic and ornamental decoration and shadowed by wooden eaves made out of plants and leaves. Two wooden doors adorning the walls are bordered with ceramic tiles and create a grand entrance to the sultan’s official residence.

The next palace, built by the Nasrid Monarch Yusuf I, is known as the Diwan – Comares Palace and was used as the king’s official residence, where the monarch’s official life took place. The most significant rooms of this palace are the Patio de los Arrayanes (Courtyard of the Myrtles). This is one of the best examples of Arabic architecture with a perfect alignment of water and buildings creating a precise mirror effect including two rows of myrtles and two circular fountains representing life and birth. The Sala de la Barca (The Boat room), named after the boat shape ceiling, was used as the Sultan’s throne room and has excellent examples of the Islamic marquetry style of decoration. Finally, the Salon de Embajadores (Hall of Ambassadors) is the largest room in the entire palace with 9 alcoves and windows and an extraordinary example of stucco tapestry and Islamic plant ornamentation with starts and plants. The Palace of Ambassadors is also adorned with Kufi and cursive style calligraphy, which is still clearly legible on the lower part of the hall next to the azulejo tiles. It is worth noting that the original floor, which was glazed with white and blue ceramics, was replaced in 1815 with the current floor. In Arabic architecture, light coming from above is usually for air, the light needed for a room is often given at a low level, allowing people to sit or recline under natural light. The Hall of Ambassadors is the best example of these living arrangements.

The last palace to be built was the Palace of Lions with its emblematic fountain. It is often identified as a Harem but was also used as the family residence of the time. Built in the time of Muhammed V, this palace has no windows looking outside the palace and it contained the ‘hortus conclusus’ (enclosed garden). The courtyard of the lions, with seven symmetrical axes has an extremely complicated and Roman-influenced structure. There are four streams joining in the centre under the fountain, which contains the well-known twelve lions. It is often speculated that they represent the months of the year, but there is also a theory that the lions could be a present from the Jewish vizier and poet Samual Ibn Nigrella, representing the peaceful co-existence of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in medieval Spain. After the surrender of Granada, all three palaces were joined together and used as a single palace by the Catholic Monarchs. The first Mass was said to have taken place in the Hall of the Kings by the Catholic Monarchs.

Other Parts of the Alhambra Complex

After leaving the Palace of the Nasrids, there are a number of atmospheric patios, gardens and towers. The most prominent ones are the Patio di Linjara, gardens planted with cypresses and oranges after the conquest of the Christian Monarchs, Jardines del partal (Gardens of the Partal) with labyrinthine paths and ponds, the Palace of Charles V, an example of high renaissance architecture funded by a special tax levied on the Moors that remained in Granada and the Generalife.

Generalife is a Arabic term derived from Jaanat al Arif – Garden of the Architect . These gardens were built on the opposite slopes of the Cerro del Sol for the sole purpose of a summer residence for the Moorish Kings. It is thought that building work started in 1314 in the reign of Ismail I. Compared to the lavish architecture of the palaces, Generalife is less ostentatious in architectural form but today is claimed to be one of the most beautiful gardens in the world. Starting with a cypress-lined avenue, it leads visitors to spectacular views of the Alhambra and the Darro Valley. The area contains not only rows of fountains and ‘humble’ palaces for royal residence, but also cascades of waterways, individually landscaped Moorish gardens, grottos and an observation point. Managed as a private property until 1925, the gardens are now part of the Alhambra and Generalife trust.

Islamic Art, Architecture and Alhambra

One of the most recurring themes of Islamic architecture and decoration is to find many buildings looking extremely minimalistic and simple from outside but intensely decorated and elaborate inside. True to this tradition, the Alhambra contains excellent examples of such a degree of rich ornamentation and is often referred to as the swansong of the Muslims in Spain. The best examples of efforts to leave a lasting heritage in Granada are still very visible in the interiors of the Halls of Ambassadors and in the Comares Palace.

In terms of techniques and decorative methods, Alhambra Stucco was probably the most applied decorative technique. This was a mixture of gypsum plaster and marble or alabaster dust, prepared with water and applied on the walls to be decorated. Once the surface was plastered with stucco and hardened to the required consistency, decorations were applied directly with the aid of a coal dust line drawing. Once the master template was laid, a slow manual process of chiselling out the drawn areas would start. Finally, the resulting tapestry was often painted different colours or polished with lime milk or a similar shining agent. It is also noted that in the Alhambra the stucco was not only applied to the walls and ceilings, but also used to support the delicate mesh of carved stucco.

Muqarna is another traditional Islamic decoration made with wood or stucco pieces in the shape of prisms or polyhedrons. In the Alhambra, wooden moulds were used to make 7 distinctive stucco shapes which were later grouped into interesting mathematical formations, creating an octagonal star shape. Muqarna was also used to support the wooden ceilings in the ‘Boat Room’ and the ‘Hall of the Kings’.

The application of wood and ceramics are also an essential part of Islamic interior design and in the Alhambra the master craftsmanship in carpentry is thoroughly apparent. The main material for the wood is cedar, as it is resilient to woodworm, and decoration is formed either by carving geometrical patterns, as in the ceiling of the Mexuar Courtyard, or by applying marquetry inlay techniques using ebony, sycamore or lemon tree pieces. The best example of wood inlay is still visible in the Hall of Ambassadors.

The Arabic terms ‘Az-zulayan’ (glazed brick) and “al-qata’a’ (cut tile) are still applied as azujelos and alicatados to ceramics and as a rare speciality date back to the early 11th century. It involves an extensive production process and highly skilled craftsmanship. In the Alhambra ceramic works are mostly at a visible height on the lower part of the walls. The best examples of azulejo surrounds can be seen in the Courtyard of the Myrtles or on the walls of the Hall of Ambassadors in the form of complicated geometrical patterns intertwining with cut pieces.

Use of Calligraphy and Motifs

Calligraphy and geometry are some of the most essential parts of Islamic art and are used throughout the Islamic world, not only for decorative function, but also to fulfil the role of the iconographic depiction of the word of God. In the Alhambra most of the inscriptions are written in the cursive style calligraphy which is a connected and organic administrative type, but there are also examples of the more rectilinear and angular Kufic style in the Hall of Ambassadors . Although most of the content is taken from the Koran and some sentences are repeated ad infinitum, poetry, which is very rare in Islamic culture at this stage, can also be seen on the walls of the Nasrid Palaces.

In Islamic decorative art, there is also a place for plant ornamentation, encouraged by the constant references to heaven as the Garden of Happiness. Examples of plants forming large adorning elements on walls can be seen all around the walls of the Sala de la Barca (Boat Room) – in the form of engraved tree trunks with numerous leaves and fruits. Shells as a metaphor for water are also an adorning feature, in particular in the Mexuar and Partal, as a blessing. The best examples of Arabesque repetitive and geometric use of denaturalized plant forms can also be seen in the mesmerizing surfaces of the Courtyard of the Lions and on the Mihrab in the Partal Oratory, whose aim is to guide the viewer – as in pantheist thought – to see God through his own creation.

Geometric decorations are also part of Islamic interior decoration and in the Alhambra they have been applied with great style and craftsmanship on to bricks, stucco and ceramic tiles. Based on the puzzling effect of repeating motifs, the geometry in the ornamentation is often taken to represent a universe in harmony and order. Although it required high technical skills to find the infinitely correct positioning of geometric shapes, the resulting view is a representation of the universality and power of the holy being. One of the most prominent forms in the Alhambra which can be seen in the Patio de los Arrayanes (courtyard of the Myrtles) is the Bow Tie pattern. This is based on a triangular pattern juxtaposed with a six-pointed star and a hexagon, creating an overflowing and infinite stretch of space on the given wall. In the Alhambra, a star shape made of rotating squares is also heavily used and the final impression of a never-ending maze leading the eye to numerous geometrical perspectives can be seen on most of the palace walls.

Visitor information

Opening Hours:

Daytime visit:
15 MARCH – 14 OCTOBER: 8:30–20:00 daily. Ticket office hours: 8:00–19:00
15 OCTOBER – 14 MARCH: 8:30–18:00 daily. Ticket office hours: 8:00–17:00

Evening Visit to Nasrid Palaces:
15 MARCH – 14 OCTOBER: Tuesday–Saturday: 22:00–23:30. Ticket office hours: 21:30–22:30
15 OCTOBER – 14 MARCH: Friday & Saturday: 20:00–21:30. Ticket office hours: 19:30–20:30

Evening Visit to Gardens and Palace of the Generalife:
15 MARCH – 31 MAY: Tuesday–Saturday: 22:00–23:30. Ticket office hours: 21:30–22:30
1 SEPTEMBER – 14 OCTOBER: Tuesday–Saturday: 22:00–23:30. Ticket office hours: 21:30–22:30
15 OCTOBER – 14 NOVEMBER: Friday & Saturday: 20:00–21:30. Ticket office hours: 19:30–20:30

– EU students under 26 (upon presentation of Youth Card, U26 Card or similar)
– EU seniors over 65 and pensioners
– Children under 12 and visitors with disabilities: Free Admission
– ICOMOS and ICOM Members: Free Admission

Please note due to extreme demand, ticket sales are limited daily and advance purchase is advised.
Tickets are valid only for the day and relevant times indicated. Visitors are advised to arrive prior to their booked time. For advance tickets and detailed opening hours please visit:

Visitor Services at (+34) 902 441 221
Store: · Store: 958 22 58 50 (Palace of Charles V)
Store: 958 22 78 46 (Reyes Católicos street)


By car:
Cars and buses access by the Ronda Sur. There is a car park for buses and caravans in addition to three dedicated areas for cars.

By Bus:
Albaicín, Sacromonte, Realejo and Barranco del Abogado.
Bus number 30: Plaza Isabel la Católica/ Callle Pavaneras/ Barrio del Realejo/ Alhambra.
Bus number 32: Gran Vía/ Calle Pavaneras/ Barrio del Realejo/ Alhambra/ Albaicín.

On foot:
Cuesta Gómez (From  Plaza Nueva)
Cuesta del Realejo  (from plaza del Realejo)
Cuesta de los Chinos ( from Paseo de los Tristes)