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Tales of the Alhambra: history & facts

18 December 2015 ( 09 January 2017 )

For American writer Washington Irving, his first glimpse of Granada and its crowning glory, the Alhambra, was akin to love at first sight.

A view of the Alhambra, Spain
A view of the Alhambra, Spain

He was so moved that he described it as “a most picturesque and beautiful city, situated in one of the loveliest landscapes that I have ever seen”.

Irving’s fame granted him access to the largely abandoned complex and it was here, whilst residing in the derelict Palacio Nazaríes in the 1820s, that he wrote The Alhambra; a series of sketches of the Moors and Spaniards, now known simply as the Tales of the Alhambra. 

His romantic scribblings revived Western interest in the Alhambra and provided the impetus for the Spanish restoration and preservation project which continues to this day.

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A symbol of Moorish Andalusia

The Alhambra sprawls across the top of Sabika Hill, overlooking the old Moorish quarter, Albaycín, and surrounding countryside, and is backed by the misty and often snow-clad Sierra Nevada Mountains. 

From a distance, its irregular silhouette of over 30 towers (of which no two are the same) and fortified walls belie the intricate Islamic design and craftsmanship that awaits discovery within. 

Often described as the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, the Alhambra has a long and complicated history. T

he easiest way to distil it is by dividing the complex into four distinct areas: the Alcazaba, Palacio Nazaríes, Palacio de Carlos V and the Generalife.

The old fortress

The 13th-century Moorish fortress incarnation of the Alcazaba that you see today is the oldest surviving part of the complex. 

Built partly on even older remains, it’s set strategically at the highest point of the hill and its southern edge is flanked by terraced gardens of elm and cypress trees. 

It was the first Nasrid Sultan of Granada, Mohammed I, who ordered its construction when he made Granada his capital. It served as the royal residence until the palaces were built in the 14th century, after which it continued as a military compound.

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The Nasrid palaces

The Palacio Nazaríes marks the Nasrid dynasty’s heyday and was the sultans’ head quarters and home. It’s a harmonious masterpiece of space, light and water built out of basic brick, wood and stucco. 

Not that you would know it as nearly every surface seems to be covered in intricate decorations and inscriptions. 

Highlights include the much-photographed Court of the Myrtles, whose arched porticoes either end are reflected in a large rectangular pool, and the heavenly domed ceiling of the Sala de las Abencerrajes, which comprises a mass of vaulted stalactites. 

The eighth Nasird ruler, Muhammed V added the finishing touches to the palace with the addition of a harem and the Court of Lions, an arcaded patio supported by 124 columns.

After the Spanish Reconquest

After the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ – Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon – expelled the last Nasrid ruler in 1492, the Spanish set about making their own mark on the complex. 

They began building the Palacio de Carlos V and although this early 16th-century addition was never finished, it is still an interesting example of Renaissance architecture.

The pleasure palace

The final attraction, which general consensus holds is best left to last, is the exquisite Generalife. 

The sultan’s pleasure palace and gardens flourish at the eastern end of the complex and are the perfect place to relax – perhaps with a copy of Tales of the Alhambra.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.