The Alhambra in Granada is one of the most acclaimed palace complexes in the European subcontinent. The UNESCO World Heritage Site in Spain dates its origins back to the eighth century. It rests as the only surviving Palatine city from the Islamic Golden age. The medieval fortress is distinguished for its state-of-the-art planning and ornamental aesthetic

The Moorish style remains prominent throughout the city as intimate-built spaces invite the human scale with their captivating gardens and fountains. 

Alhambra, Spain: Islamic architecture of Spain - Sheet1
Alhambra _ ©World Monuments Fund, 2011

History of the Alhambra Complex | Alhambra Spain

The Nasrid dynasty flourished from 1232 to 1492 AD forming the last Islamic kingdom in Spain. Although they fortified the site and used it as a military base, the oldest parts of the Alhambra precede the arrival of Muslims into Granada. Evidence suggested remains from the ancient Roman fortifications. However, the site lay in ruins for a long time. 

Eventually, the Nasrid dynasty saved the historic site from running into oblivion. They built the citadel as Qal’at al-Hamra or the Red Fort. The name came from the red walls and towers that surrounded the palaces. It later got abbreviated to Alhambra, as it is known famously after centuries today. 

The construction at the complex is a result of the succession of the dynasty. Hence, the cultural significance, architectural styles, and traditional techniques form through amalgamating various events from over two centuries. The several stages commenced with the fortification. They were followed by building the watchtowers. Eventually, canalizing water from the adjoining Darro River made the complex fit for establishing the royal residence. Thus began the vast history of Alhambra. Warehouses, halls, palaces, and ramparts occupied the majority of the site. 

As the civilization prospered, the later rulers added several structures of public significance, such as the Great Mosque of Alhambra, the public baths, the Patio of the Lions, the Justice Gate, and so on.

Alhambra, Spain: Islamic architecture of Spain - Sheet2
The Evolution of the Complex through Decades _ © Neftali / Fotolia

Layout and Architectural Features

Located on Sabika Hill, west of Granada, the complex of Alhambra occupies a strategic position. It provided a vantage point for the whole city which made it a befitting location for the fortification. Thirty-five acres of the irregularly shaped site included more than a mile of walls! Furthermore, over 30 towers and various other structures added to its grandeur. 

During its prime period, the site essentially had three zones. The military base housed the arms of the settlement with their families, while the palatial zone and the Medina accommodated the Sultans and the court officials, respectively. The palaces within the complex occupied a grand stature. Their sophisticated planning reflected the hierarchy of the dynasty in a manner unfamiliar to that time. The semi-public part of the palace was reserved for justice administration and state affairs. 

Comares Palace was the official residence of the Sultans. Several rooms surrounded the open courtyard, also known as the Court of the Myrtles. Finally, the Palace of the Lions forms the innermost zone in the line of hierarchy. The area is exclusive to the king, his family, and mistresses. 

Alhambra, Spain: Islamic architecture of Spain - Sheet3
Court of the Myrtles _ ©Sillycoke /

The most instrumental feature of the site, however, lies in its complex planning. Every part of the city was linked to another through paths, gardens, and gates. But the zones could be easily disconnected in case of a threat. Furthermore, the rigid plain walls of the fortress define the purpose of safety and security. On the other hand, the residents enjoyed the highly ornate interior spaces and patios within. 

The entire complex, to date, contains large exhibits of decorative architectural arts. The palaces display intricate stucco carvings, double-arched windows, raised platforms, and ornate tiles in geometric patterns.

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Fountain of the Lions _ ©Rafael Ramirez / Fotolia

References in Western Literature and the Impact of Tourism

Centuries later, the palatial city became popular through several references in western literature. For instance, the American author Washington Irving took up residence at Alhambra in 1829. His stay in the city led to the Tales of the Alhambra, a vast collection of essays and stories. It marked the introduction of the ancient town to the contemporary audience. From this point on, there was no going back. The heritage site started gaining importance in the tourism sector. 

Today, Alhambra forms the most monumental hotspot for tourists in Spain. The spectacular site has impacted tourism in surrounding areas to a large extent. Its beauty makes it an unmissable view from many vantage points across the valley of the Darro river. Thus, thousands of tourists from all over the world visit the complex year after year.

Statue of Washington Irving in Granada _ ©Tom Fassbender / Findery

Recognition as a World Heritage Site | Alhambra Spain

In 1984, Alhambra made it to the World Heritage List. Its significance lies in being the sole surviving remnant of Islamic rule in the peninsula. The site displayed universal beauty along with the exemplary expression of Moorish and Andalusian culture

Moreover, it is responsible for forming the narrative of changes within the region through architectural and ornamental styles. Regional governments and a trust exclusive for the heritage city carried out the conservation through several stages. The following works feature structural, constructive, and painting restoration. The campaign was successful in restoring Alhambra to its authentic character.


An architecture student who finds architecture to be a continuous process of pushing boundaries, to make the world grow around and about it. She strives to read and understand the dialogue that occurs between architecture and the lives of people connected to it.