Built between 1238 and 1391, the most outstanding reminder of Granada’s glorious Moorish epoch is La Alhambra (the Red Castle), a complex of fortresses, palaces, and gardens for the Nasrid kings on a high plateau called the Cerro del Sol. Granada lies beneath it on the southeast, and beyond the city the fertile Andalusian plain stretches toward the mighty Sierra Nevada. It has been justifiably claimed that in La Alhambra “all the refinement, wealth and delicacy of Islamic art and architecture reached its last climax in the West.”
Following the Arab conquest of the Berbers in the seventh century a.d., intermarriage between the two peoples produced the ethnic group now known as the Moors. In 711 a Moorish army led by Tariq ibn-Ziyad swarmed across the Straits of Gibraltar, and within a little over two decades they had conquered much of Spain. They made Córdoba the center of al-Andalus (Andalusia), part of an Islamic empire extending from the borders of China and India to the Atlantic. Seville, Jaén, and Granada were soon established as seats of Islamic culture and commerce. The Visigoths were expelled from Granada in 711 by the Moors, who governed it from Córdoba until the fall of the caliphate in 1031, alter which it was ruled for two centuries by the successive Berber dynasties of the Almoravides and the Almohades. When Córdoba was taken by Christian armies in 1236, Moorish Granada grew in importance, reaching its apogee under the Nasrid kings, beginning with Ibn al-Ahmar, called Mohammed I, in 1241. Granada was the last Islamic outpost in Spain until the Treaty of Santa Fé consigned it to Ferdinand and Isabella 250 years later.
In 1238 Mohammed I repaired an irrigation channel from the Darro River to the top of the Red Hill and reinforced the ninth-century fortress known as La Alcazaba with 90-foot-high (27-meter) towers and five fortified gates. The stronghold became the kernel of La Alhambra. Mohammed II (1273–1302) extended the fortifications, and La Alcazaba was again modified as a luxurious residence for Mohammed III. In 1318 the architect Aben Walid Ismail was commissioned to design El Generalife, the Nasrids’ summer palace, among beautiful irrigated gardens on an adjoining hilltop. Although the majority of the buildings of La Alhambra cannot be as accurately dated as that, it is known that most were initiated by Yusuf I (1333–1354) and Mohammed V (1354–1391). After the surrender of Boabdil, successive Catholic kings refurbished the palace, carefully retaining the Moorish style, an approach that comments upon its sublime beauty. In the sixteenth century the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had some of the older buildings demolished to make way for his own, designed by the architect Pedro Machuca.
The confluence of cultures in Andalusia generated the unique Moorish architecture that continues to be influential in Spain and has made an impact elsewhere, especially upon garden design. Because La Alhambra is such an accumulation of sequential elements, many of them starkly contrasting (like massive towers and delicate arcades), the paradoxical fortress-palace is almost impossible to describe. Within the forbidding utilitarian curtain wall of the fortress there are the inviting and surprising delights of the palace, built around secluded, courtyards: sumptuous halls and chambers, arcaded internal patios with pools and fountains, wooded plazas, and peaceful gardens with streams of tinkling or chattering water. All is laid out with symmetrical geometry and careful proportion, the various buildings placed in a composition of studied informality. And, as would never be suspected from looking upon the austere outer defenses, all within is profusely decorated with restrained taste in the finest materials and finishes: glazed tile skirtings; walls, friezes, and arcades replete with stucco plant motifs; and ceilings ornamented with bows and mocarae (designs of several prisms on a concave base), sometimes picked out with gold or lapis lazuli, and sometimes bearing verses from the Koran, inscribed with exquisite calligraphy.
In The Alhambra (1832) the American writer Washington Irving wistfully remarked: “A few broken monuments are all that remain to bear witness to [Moorish] power and dominion. Such is the Alhambra—a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people, who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.” La Alhambra and the gardens of El Generalife (whose buildings are all but gone) were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1984.