Ten facts and legends about the Alhambra

1) The origin of its name is still debated

Even though the name of the Alhambra, (in Arabic “al-Qal’a Al-Hamrā” – the red fortress) seems sufficiently straightforward, there is nonetheless a real debate as to its origin.

According to some authors, the castle wall was formerly immaculate white due to its regular whitewashing, and not scarlet red. The name possibly originated from the dancing reddish glow cast on the palace walls by the torches that were used to provide illumination while work was carried out at night.

A more amusing theory is that it refers to the beard of the founder of the Alhambra, Emir Mohammed ben Nasr. His red hair, which gave rise to his nickname al-ahmar (the red), may have influenced the name of the city; The Alhambra could be a feminized (and Castilian) version of his famous nickname.

2) The Alhambra came very close to being awarded “a new wonder of the world” status

In 2007, a popular vote designated the seven new wonders of the modern world. The competition refers to the extraordinary ancient monuments listed by the Greek historian Herodotus in the fifth century BC.

The Alhambra made the short-list of finalists but was unfortunately not selected. This was possibly a blessing in disguise as the contest has been severely criticised with accusations of vote-rigging in some countries and the non-recognition of the results by UNESCO.

3) The Generalife, a piece paradise on earth

The Generalife, the summer palace of the Nasrid princes, is one of Granada‘s most beautiful buildings. Its magnificent gardens seem like an oasis in time, where the murmur of water is in harmony with the beauty of the architecture and the myriad scented plants found there.

The name, which comes from the Arabic Jannat-al-Arif, means the architect’s garden. A name perfectly suited to the spiritual thinking of the Nasrid aristocrats, based on the sweetness of life. The original idea was to recreate on Earth a place resembling paradise, the image of heaven being closely related to the concept of garden in the Muslim culture.

Discover the Generalife on the video below

4) The Alhambra and the end of the world

A legend surrounding the Alhambra relates to the Gate of Justice, one of the main entrances to the fortress. The outer arch is decorated with a hand, probably that of Fatma, a symbol representing the five pillars of Islam and used to ward off the evil eye.

On the other side of the door, an engraved key can be seen on the inner arch. The Nasrid considered that the end of the world would come when the hand and the key became one, that is to say on the destruction of this reputedly unassailable fortress. This may be the reason why the Catholics, shortly after the reconquest, erected a statue of the Virgin Mary there.

5) The crystal roof

The Alhambra has changed a lot since it was built. Parts of it have not resisted the passing of time, like the Alijares Palace and several other decorative elements. The magnificent multicoloured stained glass windows that decorated most of the windows of the palace complex in the 14th century would not survive either. According to Arabic writings from 1362, Mexuar also had a roof made entirely of crystal, refracting the mystical light of the Andalusian sun.

Only one of these windows has survived to this day. It can be found on the ceiling of the Lindaraja Balcony and allows you to appreciate the beauty of the Alhambra of yesteryear.

6) Gardens and Common Myrtle

Common Myrtle in the gardens

Common Myrtle in the gardens

If the gardens of the Alhambra contain a large number of different plants, the most emblematic remains the Common Myrtle, a small shrub that can live nearly 300 years. Also known as arrayan (from the Arabic al-rayhan meaning “aromatic”), this Mediterranean essence permeates the area with a soothing scent.

Its small white flowers and its great flexibility give this plant a certain aesthetic appeal very appreciated by the peoples of north Africa as well as southern Europe. An infusion of its leaves can help relieve an upset stomach while its small berries go very well certain meats. Even today, the small shrub occupies pride of place within the fortress.

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7) The Moor’s Sigh

The main point of passage between Granada and Motril on the Mediterranean coast, the Moorish Sigh is a mountain pass rising 860 meters above sea level. It was from this modest summit that the Muslim ruler of Granada, Boabdil, contemplated for the last time the city he cherished so much. In 1492, the kingdom of Granada was indeed reconquered by the Catholic kings, marking the end of the Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula.
While the vision of the city caused his eyes to tear, his mother Aïcha reportedly said to him: “Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man.” A painting by the Spanish artist Francisco Pradilla perfectly captures the distress and nostalgia of the suzerain, while casting his gaze for the last time on the jewels of Andalusia.

8) The terrible past of the Hall of Abencerrajes

Located across from the Hall of the Two Sisters, the Hall of Abencerrajes was the Sultan’s former room. An area richly decorated with azulejos, painted columns, arabesques and a fountain.

Legend has it that a family of local nobility, the Abencerrajes, found themselves at the heart of a conspiracy cooked up by their political rivals. The sovereign Boabdil, thinking that his wife had cheated on him with one of the Abencerrajes, gathered together thirty-seven of them before slaughtering them. The reddish colour of the fountain was reputedly caused by the blood of the victims, an eternal trace of the violence of the executions.

9) The Residence of Washington Irving

An inexhaustible source of inspiration for artists, the Alhambra features in many books, films and paintings. The most famous work is probably the essay “Tales of the Alhambra” written in the 1830s by the American author Washington Irving. Passionate about Spanish culture, the writer used his reputation to obtain access to the palace. An emblematic work, mixing legends, historical anecdotes and romantic narrative would be one of the fruits of his time in Granada.

A commemorative plaque in his memory has since been installed in the room where he was staying.

Tales of the Alhambra

Plaque Washington Irving

10) The palace of Charles V, symbol of the reconquest

On the hill of the Alhambra is an imposing palace in the Renaissance style. Built on the orders of Emperor Charles V after the capture of Granada, it symbolizes the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the victory of the Christians over the Muslims.

The monument, in a somewhat Mannerist style, is in stark contrast to the neighbouring buildings and marks a real break with the Gothic style, still very popular in the sixteenth century. And just like the Château de Chambord in France, the Palace has hardly ever been lived in. It is just an empty shell built to affirm the power of the kings of Spain and their newly unified country.

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