This morning looks like today is going to be a very hot day, which makes me doubly pleased I arranged to do a tour of Alhambra in the morning. I’m not sure you can tour it any other way in a group, but in either case, I’m claiming a victory. The company that does the tours picks you up in a bus and delivers you to the gates, which is fantastic seeing as Alhambra sits atop a nice big hill called La Sabika, and I was already tired from yesterdays walk.
The bus was open air, and dropped us outside the entrance, where we got broken up into language groups. Spanish, English, German, French and “the others”. Our guide was called Antonio. He had to go to the counter when we arrived, to pick up our tickets, and told us that we must be very punctual, as the Nasrid Palace, which is the crowning glory, has very strict timeframes to enter. Our tickets said 11.30am. I am not sure where the “Nasrid Palace” starts, but we didn’t enter the best bit of the Alhambra until 1pm.I was sure confused, but he knew what he was doing!
The Alhambra was built out of the stone from the mountains surrounding Granada, and its name translates to “the red one” or “the red castle”. At first it was thought that the castle got its name from this stone, but they now believe that originally it was white, like the walls of the Generalife. Historians now believed that it comes from the colour of the walls when the torches around the perimeter were lit up at night. It was built on a site where an old citadel was constructed around the 10th Century. All of the external faces of the Alhambra are plain looking, and this is meant to be consistent with the Islamic belief of not being ostentatious with ones wealth or beauty.
The Islamic belief we were told, is that external beauty is not valued unless the inner spirit is beautiful\perfect. “No one is without imperfection, except Allah”. So, to ensure that the followers in the town below knew that their rulers believed this, all the external facades were simple. We were told that this is why Islamic women cover themselves, so that only their husband and family can see their physical appearance, others should only see the spiritual appearance. I am not sure if this is true, but the theory makes sense.
It’s also important to remember, Alhambra was a royal city, in which the elite lived. They had the best craftsmen, scholars, soldiers stationed there. It was deemed a forbidden city for the rank and file of Granada, who saw it tower over them.
We started the tour by heading towards the “Palace of the Generalife”, which isn’t pronounced as “General Life” but “Gener - aleefay”, which we were told comes from an Arab term “Jennet al-arif” meaning the Gardens of the Architect. On our way to the palace we passed through an avenue of cypress trees and very well manicured hedges, as well as a big concert arena, which is a 21st Century addition to milk as much money out of the venue as possible. Apologies for the cynicism! We also walked past some vegetable and fruit orchards or Huertas as they were called. They supplied food to the Alhambra population. We could see pumpkins, oranges as well as the symbol of Granada – the pomegranate growing in them today. (The term Granada is actually Spanish for pomegranate).
The Arabic consider Allah as the Architect of all things, and it may be coincidence that these gardens and palace were for the “architect of the gardens”, as they were named after the architect Abd Allah III. He designed the gardens and location for the Palace of the Generalife which was eventually constructed in the early 1300s.
Inside the Generalife Palace we got our first taste of the spectacular fountains and water conduits we would see for the rest of the day. Antonio told us that as the Arabs had come from a place where water was rare, to have access to it was a sign of wealth and prosperity. It was also a sign of purity. So, it was with this belief, that the Moors who had control of the Iberian Peninsula, decided to build a fortress and palace that used water as one of the cores of its design. The design of the Alhambra has a theme of “paradise on earth”. Also crucial to this paradise was running water, as they deemed still water as unclean.
We went through a long courtyard which had fountains springing water from either side of a long narrow pool, and there were lots of roses and lavender trees. We entered from the area which was called the “House of friends”, which according to the archaeologists was an area to entertain friends outside of the living area of the palace. We then went into the South pavilion and walked towards the north. The only things we could hear was the water bouncing about the channel and the guide’s voice telling us about how this was a true palace used by the Nasrid Kings in summer. The south pavilion is believed to be the harem of the palace, and the northern pavilion was the King’s chambers. Inside we got to discover some of the fine stucco plasterwork.
We left by another courtyard with some fountains called the Courtyard of the Sultana (I didn’t see any dried fruits here), and along a staircase to a level just above the Generalife Palace. From here we had great view of the city. We took some pictures of the complex, and then headed back towards the cypress avenue towards the Alhambra city area, via the “Medina” or “Secano”. The Secano was considered the People’s quarter.
As we entered, Antonio point out to our left was a very small bridge, which was in fact an aqueduct, which brought water into the Alhambra from the reservoir above. As this aqueduct was so small and fragile, and so important to those who lived within the walls, a huge fortress tower was placed next to it, called The Water Tower.
On one side of the path we walked there were big, stone walls, and on the other an amazing garden, which had some ruins on the other side. These were areas which belonged to the people who kept the city moving. There were some signs of an old kiln, and you could see the ruins of some of the houses. Many tradespeople lived in these areas, as well as officials and servants. Whilst it is called the people’s quarter, it appeared to have taken up at least half of the surface area of Alhambra. One of the key things we saw in this area was a tower, called the Gate of Seven Floors.
The last Nasrid King to have control of Alhambra was named Boabdil. According to legend he handed over the city to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. As a mark of respect for him, when he walked through the Gate of Seven Floors, they ordered the gate be permanently closed, so no others could walk through the gates again. He had fought them off for a long period, but could not prevail. It is said that after he left the city, he rode into the Sierra Nevada and turned and cried at his last glimpse. When this happened, apparently his mother said to him “You cry like a woman for what thou could not defend as a man”. Tough lady.
After a further walk, we were shown an old bath house, which was open to all those in Alhambra. It became a crucial part of the town, as all Muslims were expected to bath regularly to purify themselves, so this bathhouse or hammam was open to all, although men and women accessed it at different times, naturally. After walking past the hammam (and the token gift shops), we came to an area which had 2 gates. The first was the “Gate of Justice”, which was absolutely huge, and above the outer gate was the hand of Fatima. Apparently this symbolises the five key pillars of Islam. : Unity of God, prayer, fasting, charity or giving of alms and the pilgrimage to Mecca (not sure if I put those in order!). Inside the main gate, was a smaller gate which had a symbol of a key. Some see this as the “key to the Medina”, others as the key to paradise, which awaited those inside. I think from memory this was the oldest gate in the city today. The second gate we saw was a more “modern” addition called the Gate of Wine, which was added by the Catholic monarchs.
After this, we moved to the Palace of Carlos V. It was a huge renaissance style building, which was built well after the Nasrid’s had been expelled from Granada. The palace was very pretty to look at from the outside, and when we went inside there was an arena with roman columns around. Parts of the palace hold museums now, and the arena was used to hold musical performances, as the acoustics were excellent. You only needed to whisper, to hear your own voice carry around. We were told that up until very recently, there was no roof above the palace, and this was financed and completed in the last few years by the Andalusian and Spanish governments.
We took a break to get some free wine and food, which turned out to be something you’d feed a sparrow, and less than a mouthful of wine. Oh well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. After this little break, we gathered again to go into the military section or the “Alcazaba”. We walked through a gateway between the keep and another tower. Once inside, we had entered the oldest part of the Alhambra. This is where the first part of the Alhambra we know today was built, and inside the courtyard was the military quarter.
We could see some ruins of the typically small houses for the garrison. These houses had only a few small rooms, and a toilet. One of the houses however was for someone important, assumed to be the leader of the garrison. That house had a pool in it. We also witnessed what could be the first ever “electric” blanket. We saw a shelf that was where the bed would have been, and underneath the stones was a small hole. It is believed that to keep warm in the winter, coals from the fireplace were put into this hole, to heat the stone so that they could be slept on “comfortably”. Opposite this house was another hammam.
We walked out of this area onto the weapons tower, which had spectacular views of Granada and the Albaycin area. The Sabika hill stands about 200m above the town of Granada, and the walls we were on added another 20-30m. From where we were, it was almost a straight drop down the edge, which gave me a bit of vertigo. The Catholic Cathedral was very obvious from this vantage point, as was the Mirador I had taken pictures on from last night. Antonio also pointed out a derelict building, which archaeologists have reason to believe was a hospital for the mentally ill. From here we could also see some ruins of the Cadi Bridge.
This bridge connected the Albaycin with the Alhambra. The bridge itself had a series of metal bars down to the water level of the river below. There was also a stair case and a door, so that soldiers could come down to the river and get water in secure circumstances. The metal bars in the gate in the river allowed water to continue to flow through, but without allowing any person through to the other side.
Those who entered the Alhambra from Albaycin had to go through the weapons gate (under where we were standing). This was apparently an old fashioned cloak room, where men would need to check their weapons in, before they could enter the city. They’d get their weapons as they left the city through the same gate. Unfortunately, as we were pressed for time to get into the most impressive parts of the city, we could not spend time climbing the towers or walking the ramparts. Maybe next time I visit...
Antonio asked us several times to cooperate due to the time constraints, and he was always very happy to say “thank you very much” at the end of every sentence. To keep a track of people entering the areas at designated times, you are required to show your ticket about 5 times (provided you don’t revisit anywhere) around the complex. So, we all followed Antonio into the exciting part of the visit by leaving the parapet gardens. Again, there were some more fountains, although the water was not particularly clean, as there were signs saying not to fill up your water bottles.
From here we went back past the entrance to the Alcazaba and into an area called the Machuca Courtyard. Machuca was the architect for the Palace of Carlos V. We caught our breath for a few minutes whilst we waited for the rest of the group to enter, and then had to scan our tickets a second time to enter a building called the Mexuar.
The Mexuar was the first palace built in the Alhambra, and it acted as both the family residence and place of official business for the King. Unfortunately the hall in this palace has been modified extensively by the Catholic kings. It bears little resemblance to its original form; however you can see some of the tiles and stucco of the original builders. There was a raised chamber, where the sultan would sit and listen to the residents of Alhambra request things from him. He sat behind some lattice work, so he could not be seen by the citizens, only heard.
The Catholics changed this room a fair bit, they closed the open roof, they added an altar, and opened up the windows looking into the courtyard. The lattice work is now also gone. Antonio also pointed out one other little change –one of the tiles had a coat of arms changed. It used to show the coat of arms of the Nasrids, whereas now it shows the two headed eagle. Off the main room was an Oratory, which was used for prayers. On the top part of the room is the phrase “Only good is victorious” in Arabic, which the Catholic monarchs left there. The room has a small area which the Imam would lead prayers from, similar to our altar. The room, which looked at the Albaycin, looked to the east where Mecca could be found.
We left this room and went to another called the Golden Room. It had an Arabic wooden ceiling, which had gold leaf added to it afterwards. It was where meetings for the court of justice were held, and was an area that was used to greet dignitaries such as Ambassadors. The other side of the Golden Room was a courtyard, called the Mexuar courtyard which had a small water feature, and on the other side of the courtyard was the brilliant facade of the Comares Palace, which was the next oldest palace.
The Comares Palace was where the sultan lived. Above the doorways were some windows where his concubines would watch proceedings, but could not be seen because of the lattice works. He would be able to enter from one of the square doorways (different to all the others in shape). Apparently there were two doors here, so that the Sultan could enter from either, and he would not be approached in a straight line. This was supposed to disorient the visitors and make them feel at the mercy of their host.
After a few twists and turns, we entered into a new courtyard, which was called the Courtyard of the Myrtles (which apparently is what the restaurant “Arrayanes” we went to last night means – Myrtles!). This courtyard was a brilliant design. There was a huge pool of water in the middle, with a very small fountain at either end. The water rolled from one end to the other, and the pool acted like a giant sheet of glass. It made a reflection of the buildings at either end, making them seem more impressive in size, but also more beautiful to look at. The fountains are meant to represent the cycle of life. At one end is a jet, which represents birth. The water falls into a circle, which is meant to represent the continuity of life. The water then trickles through a narrow channel, which is meant to represent the last years of life, before falling into the pond representing eternity.
At either end of the courtyard there is a gallery. The northern end is called the boat room. It’s believed that this is because the roof looks like an inverted boat. Just behind the boat room is the Hall of Ambassadors, which is inside the Comares Tower. From the outside, the Comares Tower looks like a rectangular red blob. It is incredibly ordinary to look at, and looks no different to the defensive towers in the Alcazaba.
On the inside though, is a real treasure. The ceiling and walls of the room are masterpieces. The ceiling shows 7 rows of concentric stars, which are meant to represent the seven heavens that man must go through to reach paradise. The four diagonals in the roof are meant to represent the 4 rivers that run into this paradise.
Many of the walls are faded now, with the passing of years and the elements causing damage, but they used to be filled with bright red, yellow and blue. Lapis Lazuli which was a highly valued gem at the time adorned many of the ornamental facades; however these have all been removed now. Many of the motifs in the stucco represented things from nature, shells, flowers, stars. This was a way of bringing nature into the home\palace. There are ceramic tiles all around the outside of the room, with one adjacent to where the throne would be showing an 8 point star. The star is called a Khatam, and it is meant as a patronage to Allah the creator, where all things surround him like they are in orbit. It is symbolic that this would be next to the Sultan.
The Ambassadors Hall was the newer throne room for the Sultan. He sat with his back to one of the (then) coloured glass windows called cumarias (had to look up that spelling!), which created a prism of different colours inside the room. Those glass windows are now gone, replaced by open ventilated windows, however they are forever linked by the name of the tower. It is believed, that visitors would be made to sit outside in the bright light and wait to be summoned. When they entered, the room was semi-dark, with only the filtered colours coming from behind the Sultan, making him harder to see, whilst the visitor had his back to full light, putting them at a disadvantage in the discussion.
We left the hall of the Ambassadors to head into the last palace, and perhaps the most beautiful, the Lions Palace. The Lions Palace was the private Harem for the Sultan. In the middle of the palace is a beautiful fountain which has twelve lions each sprouting water into a very narrow channel. Around the courtyard there are 124 marble pillars which are meant to symbolise palm trees. Inside these marble pillars is an expansion joint which was built into to allow the palace to resist earthquakes and tremors.
Around the courtyard were four rooms, the Hall of Two Sisters (named after 2 massive marble slabs in the floor), the Hall of the Abencerrajes, Muqarna Hall and the Hall of the Kings. From each of these rooms comes a small channel of water which goes underneath the fountain.
It is believed that the fountain represents the twelve lions or twelve tribes of Israel. Two of the lions have a triangle on their heads, which is meant to represent the chosen tribes. It was a gift to the sultan from Samuel Ibn Negrela, who was an advisor to the sing. This is a good reflection on the period in Spanish history where the three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam all existed side by side. I doubt Samuel would have much luck being an advisor to an Islamic sultan now.
We’d entered the courtyard from the Muqarna Hall, and headed to the nearest room on the right. This was the Hall of Abencerrajes, which is apparently the Kings Residence. Antonio explained that one of the Sultans executed thirty six nobles in this room, as his favourite wife had committed adultery with one of them. Above the fountain the roof looked like a cave full of stalagmites. There were no windows in the room that looked outside, so no one could spy on the sultan. There were two parts to the chamber, one which was the bedroom, and the other the living area.
The next hall we went into was the Hall of Kings. This was quite a long room, and part of it seemed to be going through some restoration. There were several arches and paintings along the walls, which show Christian and Muslims together.
The last hall was the Hall of the two sisters. This was the nicest room in the Lion Palace, as it was kept for the Sultan’s favourites. The women who were allowed here had a small degree of independence. The ceiling had a magnificent ornament in the middle, which was surrounded by windows giving extra light. It was meant to symbolise heaven. One small room off the back of the Hall of Two Sisters was the Mirador room. This was where the Sultan’s favourite could come to relax. It had immaculate detail in the wood and plasterwork around the room. It used to have a view to Granada and the river below, but this was removed when Carlos V built a pavilion next to the room. There was a garden built in between, which gave some relaxation and focus on nature back, but it did not stick with the original purpose of the room.
From here we walked outside, and across a balcony, taking some more pictures of the Granada skyline. Both Victor and I were very tired, as we’d walked for about 3hrs or so with very little break, and the heat was getting quite stifling. We went out with the rest of the group, and found one last little treasure, which was the Partal Palace. It was a magnificent looking terrace with 5 arches, and a big pool of water in front of it.
We took some pictures here, and then walked back to the Car Park which took a good 10-15mins. We then got on a bus which took us down the hill to Gran Via. Victor and myself both decided that the rest of the day would be one for relaxation, so we got a quick bite to eat, and did some souvenir shopping, before walking 15mins (grrr!) to the train station, where we waited an hour for the train.
A long ride ahead from that moment, as the train takes nearly 5hrs to get back to Madrid. We got in at nearly 11pm, so we caught a cab from Atocha railway station back to the hotel, where I collapsed into a heap.