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Alhambra Granada Spain history
Photo by Erin L. McCoy
Among the most iconic images of Spain is that of the Alhambra: a seemingly impenetrable fortress with red-twinged fortifications, mounted on a hill at the heart of Granada. It's one of the places you simply must visit on a trip to Spain: it lives up to every expectation and even exceeds it.

But no visit to the Alhambra is complete without some background on the history of this fascinating structure.

The Muslim Conquest of Spain

In the year 711 CE, commander Tariq ibn Ziyad led a force that invaded the Iberian Peninsula from North Africa. So began nearly 800 years of Muslim rule throughout much of the peninsula. Only a few bastions of Christian or non-Muslim rule survived in the north. These groups would lead what came to be known as the "Reconquista," or Reconquering, of Spain. Over a period of several centuries, Christian forces would push back slowly southward, reclaiming territory as they went.

Meanwhile, the Umayyad Caliphate — for which Tariq ibn Ziyad had fought — established a kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next 800 years, power would shift between several different dynasties. The influence of Arabic-speaking Muslims can still be heard in Spanish today, and their style of art is widespread especially in the region of Andalusia — and quite visible in the Alhambra.

The Origins Of The Alhambra

Granada became home to the royal residence of the Nasrid Dynasty in the mid-13th century, and it was King Mohammed ibn Yusuf Ben Nasr, also known as Alhamar, who ordered the construction of the first palace on the site. Construction continued through the 15th century as defensive towers and high walls were built.

Granada Alhambra Spain

The Alhambra consists of two sections: one dedicated to military matters, including a barrack, and the royal palace. While it looks plain on the outside, the interior of the palace include elaborate decoration and tile work. Both plebeians and nobles lived within this area of the complex. 

Just a short walk away, one hill over, is the Generalife, a house built for the recreation of the caliphs who lived in the Alhambra. While its interior is more simply designed, the 13th-century palace is characterized by lush orchards and gardens. 

Generalife Alhambra Granada Spain
The Generalife, a palace that forms part of the Alhambra complex. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy

The Reconquista Reaches Granada

By the late 15th century, the Reconquista had retaken most territory on the Iberian Peninsula, and Granada — seat to a once–relatively unimportant caliphate — remained the last holdout of Muslim power. 

Beginning in 1482, the Catholic Monarchs — Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon — undertook a series of military campaigns against Granada. Meanwhile, infighting among the Granadan royals weakened their military strength. On January 2, 1492, King Boabdil surrendered the city — along with the Alhambra palace — to the Christian Monarchs, heralding the end of 800 years of Muslim rule in Spain. 

Charles V (1516–1556) undertook a project to rebuild parts of the Alhambra in Renaissance style, though much of his work would be left incomplete. Still, you can see his seal in some of the tilework during your visit.

Further modifications took place over the ensuing centuries, but eventually the elegant palace fell into disuse and disrepair. When American writer Washington Irving moved into the Alhambra in 1829, he would find a structure much reduced from its former glory. (Irving would author a fascinating book, Tales of the Alhambra, about his time there.)

Court of Lions Granada Alhambra Spain
The Court of the Lions is perhaps the most iconic part of the Alhambra. Surrounded by filagree walls and a marble collonade is an alabaster fountain with 12 lions. Each hour of the day, one lion would shoot water from its mouth to mark the time. | Photo by Erin L. McCoy
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The Alhambra Today & How to Visit

Restoration efforts at the Alhambra began with Rafael Contreras, who started work on the Nasrid palace in 1847. He also worked to revive historical techniques of working with plaster as he built an industry selling Nasrid-inspired art to tourists who were beginning to come visit the Alhambra. 

Reconstruction has continued and today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by as many as two million people a year. 

It is highly recommended that you book your tickets ahead of time — at least a month in advance during the summer months — since it is almost impossible to buy a same-day ticket. 

Tours also come highly recommended. I've done two tours at the Alhambra and would highly recommend this option, as it helps you steer around the crowds and gain a lot of historical context as you go. Check out the Viator tours linked below (I really recommend their guides — they're always incredibly knowledgeable) or book a ticket here

Tags : AlhambracaliphatefeaturedGeneralifeGranadaroyalSpanish history
Erin L. McCoy

The author Erin L. McCoy

Erin L. McCoy is an award-winning photojournalist who holds an MA in Hispanic studies from the University of Washington. She's traveled to 20+ countries, five continents, and 45 U.S. states, but she's starting to lose count of how many times she's visited Spain.

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