The Alhambra

In 2012 I went to Andalucia in search of the remnants of medieval Spain when it was under Moorish rule. This is an excerpt from my trip to Granada, and my very own “Tales of the Alhambra.” 

The Alhambra (The Red Castle) was built during the Nasrid Dynasty in 1243 and was the last Moorish stronghold to fall to the Spanish Reconquista in 1492. It was designed as a palace-city (like the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul). The complex contains the Nasrid Palaces, the oldest and most well preserved Islamic palaces in the world. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1984.

One of my favorite spots here was the Mexuar Oratory (pictured above), the private place of prayer for the sultan and his family. The Mexuar was the first of the Nasrid palaces to be built here. It is oriented towards Mecca and looks out over the Albazyin through arched openings set into walls of carved plasterwork. John Hoag, author of “Western Islamic Architecture” describes the work as “carved with incredible intricacy on a scale so minute it looks like embroidered cloth.” It’s an accurate description.

Courtyard Lions
PHOTOGRAPH BY “Western Islamic Architecture: a Concise Introduction” by John D. Hoag

I was also anxious to see the Courtyard of the Lions which dates to 1380. Originally a water clock, each lion spouted water to mark a specific hour. After the Reconquista, the new Christian inhabitants of the Alhambra dismantled it to see how it worked, but could not put it back together again. The black and white photo shows how it looked originally. The top tier of the fountain has been relocated to elsewhere in the gardens.

“…we passed through a Moorish archway into the renowned Court of Lions. There is no part of the edifice that gives us a more complete idea of its original beauty… In the center stands the fountain famous in song and story. The alabaster basins still shed their diamond drops, and the twelve lions which support them cast forth their crystal streams as in the days of Boabdil…” — Washington Irving

I arrive to find the Lion Fountain caged in 2x4s and the Fountain Court undergoing restoration.

Lion Fountain
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The Hall of the Abencerages is at the opposite end of the Courtyard of the Lions and is part of the Harem. This was also the site of an assassination, and the blood spots are still said to be visible on the marble floor inside. When Washington Irving lived here, he was told that this part of the palace was haunted, and that sounds of low voices and the clanking of chains could be heard late at night.

Hall of the abencerages
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

Facing the courtyard is the Hall of the Two Sisters, (shown at left) named after the pair of stone slabs that flank a fountain which is imbedded in the marble floor. These two buildings are the most photographed structures in the Alhambra Fortress.

Hall of the two sisters
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

“The lower part of the walls is encrusted with beautiful Moorish tiles… the upper part is faced with fine stucco-work invented at Damascus, consisting of large plates, cast in molds and artfully joined, so as to have the appearance of having been laboriously sculpted by hand…” — Washington Irving

Washington Irving, author of “Tales of the Alhambra” and “Sleepy Hollow” lived in the Royal Apartments in 1829 before becoming the ambassador to Spain. I poked my head inside and saw interiors that felt Italian in style, in what looked like mahogany paneling, a dark contrast to the carved plaster of the rest of the complex. I later read from Irving’s account:

“…I found on inquiry that it was an apartment fitted up by Italian artists in the early part of the last century, at the time when Philip V and the beautiful Elizabeth of Parma were expected at the Alhambra and was destined for the queen and the ladies of her train…”

The Palace of Charles V is a stark Florentine-looking box set in what feels like the center of the Alhambra. It houses the Alhambra Museum and its collection of Roman and Islamic artifacts. The palace is expansive but not furnished, so it’s hard to imagine what it looked like in period. It is ornamented on the exterior with lion head and eagle head rings like those I saw on the stone walls in Florence. The round courtyard was commissioned by Charles for his bride, Isabella of Portugal, but was abandoned during the next century, having never acquired its roof.

The round courtyard
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The oldest section of the Alhambra is the Alcazaba, a kasbah built on Sabika Hill, where a castle already stood, dating back to 860. It was renovated and became the primary point of defense for the entire Alhambra fortress. It is separated from the rest of the fortress by the Wine Gate (shown below) where tax free wine was sold during the medieval period. It was here that Boabdil relinquished the keys to the city to the Christian monarchs at the end of the Spanish Reconquista.

Keyhole view of Alcazaba
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I end my tour at the Monastery of San Francisco, built by Queen Isabella in the 15th century. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally interred here, but were later exhumed and moved to the Royal Chapel downtown. The walkway and courtyard are done in a style of stonework called Granada Mosaic work, similar to what I saw at the Topkapi Palace Courtyards in Istanbul.

The Monastery now houses the Parador Hotel. I did not stay there, but treated myself to dinner. The dining terrace affords a magnificent view.

There are several notable buildings that I did not cover here, in order to keep this article a reasonable length. For my full account, please visit Daveno Travels.

To plan your own trip to the Alhambra and the Generalife, please visit their website.

For further reading, I suggest the following two publications:

“Reading the Alhambra: a visual guide to the Alhambra through its inscriptions” by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez (published by the Alhambra and Generalife Trust and EDILUX s.l.,)

“The Alhambra and the Generalife: Official Guide,” a joint publication of the Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife and the TF Editores. It is available in the Tienda libreria de la Alhambra (the official on-site bookstore) at

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.