The construction, slow rise, and quick fall of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain reflects grandiose illusions and delusions of its Moorish creators. What is left today, more than 700 years after its creation, is closer to the intended “paradise on Earth” than the last refuge of dying dynasty it became in its final days. I was recently invited by Turismo Ciudad de Granada to discover the Alhambra, which loosely means “red fortress” in Arabic.
The Alhambra in Granada isn’t simply one thing or site within Spain’s 17th largest city but rather a city all itself. Many travelers here make the mistake thinking you can drop by the Alhambra for an hour or two, look around, and have seen everything 3 times. A visit to the Alhambra is easily a 4 hour event, one that requires buying tickets in advance (online or arriving before 8am the same day) for either the morning or afternoon sessions.
The Alhambra was constructed in (mostly) unrelated segments over 400 years but its initial purpose was defensive. Sitting along one of the highest hills in Granada, its 10 meter thick walls proved a formidable obstacle for Spanish armies for over 800 years. Both due to the city’s location and fortification, Granada was the last city to be under Arab rule in Spain.
Much like god Zeus of Greek mythology fell from power due to his negligence of Earth from Mount Olympus, in the late 13th century Granada – and the Alhambra specifically – was all that remained of the empire that once spanned half of modern Spain. Though rather than fortifying it further, ruler Mohammad I ibn Nasir decided to build one of the most lavish palaces the world had ever seen.
Meanwhile Granada itself collapsed into civil war as Nasir’s political compromises to the Spanish (basically giving up Sevilla to hold Granada) angered various factions under his control. Although it was hell outside, the royals inside the Alhambra blissfully saw only heaven.
The Alhambra turned out to be the very last piece of Arab territory in Spain when Granada was easily reconquered by the Spanish in 1492. Widely seen as a Christian victory balancing the loss of Constantinople 39 years prior, the Alhambra was left to slowly decay and be forgotten until the 1940s.
Since recovered from neglect, the French, and earthquakes to follow, in 1984 the Alhambra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In a sense what caused the end of the narcissistic Nasir dynasty helped to preserve it in the modern day; for it was the work done in the last quarter of the Alhambra’s construction that makes it so popular now. Creating paradise on Earth while the walls of doom fell upon the last rulers of the Alhambra may have been a stroke of wisdom in the face of inevitable defeat or one last act of complacency. Yet in loosing what they had in the present, the Alhambra’s final rulers left their legacy to the future we’re in to enjoy today.