History Weekend Walks: Alhambra, Granada, Spain

As we’d promised at the end of our earlier post in the series, we’ll be “walking” around the Islamic part of Alhambra’s palatial complex, which is located in Granda, Spain.

Having started as a small fortress that dates back to the times when southern Spain was part of the Roman Empire, Alhambra (arabic for “red one”) flourished predominantly during the late Nasrid dynasty and during the Reconquista. Even though some parts of the original Islamic palace have been either altered by the Spanish monarchs or destroyed during the Napoleonic wars and by the 1821 earthquake, it is still possible to witness some of the interchange between Islamic and European cultures in the architecture of the palace.

Here is a quick introductory video about Alhambra, filmed by the BBC.

Although the modern entrance to the palace doesn’t correspond with its historical counterpart, the overall touristy routes inside allow one to wonder around the complex in chronological order and witness for themselves how the fortress developed. Once one enters the surrounding areas inside the complex, it is possible to see various parts of the palace. For example, one can see the very early foundations of the fortress by the entrance.

These are the Roman and early Mediaeval foundations of the fortress. This is the location from which Isabella of Castille and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon signalled to the outside world that the Reconquista has finished in 1492, following their conquest of Granada Caliphate. One has to climb up to the Torre de Vela (the Watch Tower) to take panoramic photos like this one.

When inside the main palace, it is possible to wander around it as there is no specifically designated route. We decided to start our route from the inside and then walk outside. Given that the modern tourist route attempts to tell the story of the palace in chronological order, the visitors are recommended to begin with the Nasarid section.

This is the ‘official’ entrance into the Nazarinid section of the palace.

Through Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Boat), we went straight to the Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores), which is coincidentally one of the largest rooms in the palace. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, just as the Hall of the Ambassadors in Seville.


The Hall of the Ambassadors had been fully developed in the Nasrid period, in the 14th century, and remained largely untouched by the Castilian and SPanish monarchs. The room is decorated in a typical Islamic style, with the ceiling decorations acting as a representation of the Seven Heavens of the Islamic Paradise.

To give you more context about the Islamic architecture and the concepts it attempts to convey or to depict, here is a playlist compiled by University of Nottingham about Islamic theology.

As the visitors walk deeper into the palace, they are able to witness more and more delicate carvings, which unify the complex stylistically. As an example, let us take a look at two most famous spaces of the palace- Sala de Dos Hermanas and Patio de Los Leones.

The Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), is a large room paved with white marble and is most famous for the intricate stalactite work on its dome. The origins of the room’s name is unclear. Some say that it’s named like this because of the two large marble slabs on the floor. Others point to a small city, which bears the same name as the room, and theorise that this room was either named after the city or re-named as means to commemorate the events of the Reconquista in 13th century. Sources remain silent on which interpretation is true.

The Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), is considered by specialists as a separate section of the overall Nasrid palatial complex. The section derives its name from a fountain, which is supported by several lion statues made from marble. The section and the fountain were commissioned by Muhammad V in the 14th century, when the Caliphate of Granada was at the height of its political power.

SOURCE TIME: Here is an architectural plan of the Palace of Lions, a video of the court near the Palace of Lions and a poem about the Lion Fountain. Look carefully at the plan (the labels, if read clockwise say: the watch tower; the Hall of the Kings; the Hall of the Abencerrajes; the Hall of Macarabes; the Hall of Two Sisters), then at the video and then read the poem. What does the architectural structure of the palace can tell you about the role of a ruler and their relationship to those below in Islamic Granada? Why do you think so? Focus your thinking on the positions of the rooms and the way they are placed in relation to the Hall of the Kings and use the poem to back your conclusions up.
The author of this poem is anonymous, but the historians theorise that it was either Ibn al-Jatib (1313-1375) or Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393). It was written at the time when the Fountain was constructed. (cc:https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/epigraphicpoems.asp)

Obviously, we cannot leave the readers without an honorary photo- dump of the garden that surrounds Alhambra!

If you’re interested in exploring the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • If you’re interested in a more literary side of the Alhambra, may we recommend some authors who wrote about Alhambra and Granada.
  • If you would like to read some Arabic authors and poets, then Ibn al-Jatib and Ibn Zamrak are your go to writers(unfortunately, we were unable to dig out many sources in English, but there are plenty of more in Spanish- a link you could see below)
  • If you would like to read some sources in English, Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra is a good place to start. The book is quite short and contains engaging details about Alhambra. Please note that Irving did not have any training as a historians and was writing this collection of essays for general readers as a hobby, so take his stories with a pinch of salt!
  • If you’re interested in finding out more about Alhambra on its own, take a look at this documentary produced by National Geographic.
  • And as usual, we leave you with some music!
Have a lovely Saturday!

Historical Weekend Walks: Alcázar of Seville (al-Qasr al-Muriq), Seville, Spain

Lockdowns are frustrating. Especially in the autumn/winter season because festive spirit isn’t quite there yet and the weather is, quite frankly, bad. In fact, Lockdowns are a constantly ongoing greyish mess. To dilute your Lockdown blues, we’re introducing a series of posts that will be produced on weekly basis, ‘Historical Weekend Walks’. In these posts we’ll be choosing one historical location and we’ll be giving you a mini-tour of the place by using our very own photos(which were not made in 2020)!

Our first ‘walk’ will take place in Alcázar of Seville, or as it’s known in Arabic, al-Qasr al-Muriq.

Although the location of this royal residence could be traced back to 8th century, the Alcazar we see now was largely build during 11-12th centuries during the Mutamid and Almohad periods. Coincidentally, these periods corresponded with a rise in socio-cultural developments and permitted the location to become one of the key non-Christian centres of arts and learning on the Iberian Peninsula.

In our day and age tourists enter Alcazar through the Lion’s Gate, which is one of the side entrances to the palace.

SOURCE TIME: (and you thought that we’ll miss out the opportunity to introduce you to some literary sources!) This is a poem by a famous Islamic poet Ibn Zaydun. Although written about another palace, what can you find out about Islamic attitudes towards either palaces or an elite culture within the palaces? Think about how the construction of the poem helps you to understand what the palace culture was like. (cc: https://www.islamicspain.tv/arts-and-literature/poems-from-al-andalus/)

After entering the palace and passing through an ancient arch you end up in mini-square, called the Patio de la Montería (or the Court of the Hunters), through which you can proceed in different paths to explore the palace. As you can see from the photos below, the overall architectural style of the Alcazar combines a lot of differing architectural influences. Indeed, the traditional ‘flat’ columns cohabitate with the Islamic-style carvings, thus uniting the aesthetic of the façade. Such a somewhat patchy style occurred probably due to King Peter I and his architects attempting to incorporate traditional European styles into Islamic building in 1360s.

The Patio de la Montería. View from the entrance to it.

After leaving the Patio, you can wonder off into different directions. We decided to follow the steps of various diplomats and slip into the Ambassador’s Room.

Architectural details of the entrance to the Ambassador’s Room

The Hall of the Ambassadors, was build by Seville craftsman Diego Ruiz in 1389, following the orders of Pedro I. The room mainly uses a Moorish style as the bottom half of the room is rich with Islamic geometric patterns. However, the top half is decorated by methods that are traditional to Western architecture. This could be seen most clearly in the predominant usage of golden decorations as well as portraits of various kings in a usual high Renaissance or Baroque style.

To give you a better idea about the size and layout of the room, here is a very short clip of the room.

When we left the Hall of the Ambassadors we popped into the Patio de las Muñecas (Patio of the Dolls). Decorated by delicate carvings and plaster works that seem typical to the Iberian Peninsula, the top section of the carvings in the balcony-like structure, were not part of the original ensemble as they were only added to the room in 19th century for Queen Isabel II. The lower half, however is the original work.

Think like a Historian:

Is it generally a useful idea for a figure in power to show off their lavish lifestyle if the country is going through a period of political and economic instability? Why do you think so? Can you come up with some historical examples?

Having cooled down within the walls of the palace we decided to face the blazes of the Spanish sun and we went on to explore the outside sections of the palace.

Located near the Patio of the Dolls, we found the Patio of the Maidens. This patio derives its name from an old local legend that mentions that this pond was originally filled with the tears of 100 Christian virgins as means to pay tribute to the Moors.

Think like a Historian:

Can local legends be used by historians to reconstruct a society that they’re studying? Why do you think so?

From this patio you can sneak into the Gothic Palace that was mostly developed by Charles V in 16th century and by Bourbon monarchs in 18th century. As you can see the architectural style is very different to the other parts of the palace.

Although not strictly related to the Alcazar, this video discusses the start of the Spanish Civil War. This video may be helpful for you to answer some of the questions which this post asks.

The key location to visit in this part of the palace are the Salones de Carlo V (Halls of Charles V) which consist of the Grand Hall and the Hall of the Tapestries. Whilst the Grand Hall, which was constructed in 1929 for the Ibero-American exposition in 1929 during the reign of Alfonso XIII, may not be as interesting for some, a location that may be more intriguing is the Hall of the Tapestries.

The Hall of the Tapestries was build during the 18th century. The construction was begun under Charles V, with an overall aim to celebrate his own military victories. However, by 18th century these tapestries began to wear down and needed to be fixed. As a result, the ‘updated’ tapestries now cohabitate with the ‘new’ 18th century tapestries that were made by the Royal Tapestry Factory in Spain following the commission of the Spanish Crown.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think different tapestries were chosen to be put into the same room to celebrate Charles V’s victories? Think about the way how some rulers chose to justify their reign throughout historical continuity.

If you’re interested to explore the topic further…

  • If you’re interested in reading more about the Moorish Spain, may we recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. It contains a very readable style and introduces core concepts that are related to this period in Iberian history.
  • If you’re interested in finding out about the architectural style of Moorish Spain, may we suggest either Moorish Architecture by Marianne Barrucand or Felix Arnold’s Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History.
  • Unfortunately we were unable to find any historical documentaries that contextualise Alcazar in Seville. However, what we did find were some historical music from the region!
Enjoy the music and see you next week when we will travel to yet another Moorish palace this time in Granada! ☺️

LGBTQ+ Histories: Italy in the Renaissance

On the morning of 9th April, 1476 an anonymous note appeared on the square near the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. It read:

I notify you, Signori Officiali, concerning a true thing, namely that Jacopo Saltarelli… [who] dresses in black and is about 17 years old… has been a party to many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who exact certain evil pleasures from him. And in this way he has… served several dozen people about whom I know a good deal, and here will name a few: Bartolomeo di Pasquino, goldsmith who lives in Vacchereccia. Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, who lives with Andrea de Verrocchio. Baccino, a tailor, who lives by Or San Michele… Leonardo Tornabuoni, called il teri; dresses in black. These committed sodomy with said Jacopop, and this I testify before you.’

And as thus, this striking accusation that mentions Leonardo da Vinci can serve as a stepping point into the LGBTQ+ culture of Renaissance Italy; which will be discussed in this post.

Think like a Historian:

Do you think it is useful to base your understanding of a historical period on just one source?

Renaissance: A Brief Introduction

Traditional Historiography of the Italian Renaissance emphasises that this period emerged after the ‘Dark Ages’, when the majority of the knowledge of the ancients was lost or forgotten. It was a time of great cultural changes across Europe. One of the key features of the period which is highlighted by traditional Historiography is the re-discovery and consequently growing interest in ancient Greek and Roman thinkers, like Plato and Plutarch. Such changes are explained by some shifts from feudal-based to a more capitalist-based economies. The translated arguments, coupled with the gradual emergence of the printing press allowed the texts to be incorporated firstly into various cultures on the Italian peninsula and then spread to other European cultures European cultures via the trade routes. Consequently, traditional Historiography of the Renaissance implies to a large extent that Renaissance was a relatively new trend that came as a result of various socio-political and economic changes.

Yet, such an approach often side-steps the possibility that the Renaissance emerged from the Mediaeval monastic culture and its interaction with the scholars from the Islamic world. There is a possibility that the phenomena of the European Renaissance should be seen within the context of such events, like the Sack of Constantinople in 1453; whereby Byzantinian scholars brought over and translated the works of Aristotle. Such changes and arguments, thus, were added to the already existing knowledge of the classical authors, like Tacitus. Consequently, whilst traditional Historiography emphasises an idea that the Italian Renaissance resulted as a result of socio-economic changes within Europe, newer trends of Historiography emphasise that the Europe was constantly in a cultural dialogue with the Islamic world.

Here is a brief introductory video to what Renaissance was all about

Think like a Historian:

Should we pass judgement onto the society of the past for it being less progressive (or modern) than our own? Why do you think so?


Late 14th or early 15th century Italy, or Italian states, was a quite different place in terms of its approach to the treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals. Homosexuality, or as it was known then ‘sodomy’, was considered as a serious crime. The severity of punishments varied from region to region given the uneven distribution of power and influence of the Catholic Church, which was one of the key forces in dictating contemporary laws. For example, whilst sodomy was punishable by death in Bologna, in Tuscany the punishment was or castration and and Pisa it was paying fines. Certain cities, in order to fight homosexuality, even created special armed forces for that specific purpose, such as Venetian Signori di Notte (Lords of the Night). As a result, one can conclude that the Renaissance Italy was by no means a safe space for LGBTQ+ community, given relatively wide-spread prosecutions that took place.

This is a very good video about the development of the Roman Inquisition, the inexpectant Spanish Inquisition’s older sibling.

LGBTQ+ Cultures in Venice and Florence

However, despite this, two large homosexual communities became prominent in Venice and Florence. Such communities included men from all kinds of background, with the greatest fraction of evicted sodomites came from non-elite circles. The records tell of shoemakers, weavers, clothes dealers, butches and even clergy. The possible reasons for emergence of such communities remain unclear. Whilst the likeliest reason for the Venetian community emerging and growing was tied to relative passivity from the State in attempting to deal with what many religious figures saw as an issue and relative political stability, the Florentine reasons for the growth of homosexual community is a peculiar one.

As mentioned above, historians are not entirely clear why Florentine community grew. Florence, oppositely to Venice, was often politically unstable and was often shaken by class conflict. During the Medicean regency arrests involving sodomy went up at an rapidly increasing rate. There were so many convictions in 1432 that the fine of 100 florins was judged insufficient and in 1440 the tariff increased. This change proved to be counter- productive as the magistrates complained that the majority of the evicted “sodomites” were too poor to pay the new fine and thus the fine was lowered. However, the issue with the new fine was that it was so low that the income from it damaged the city’s economy. As the result of this, the fine was lowered once again to 10 florins in 1459. Yet, this trend was reversed with the rise of Girolamo Savonarola, who argued in his public sermons that the reign of the Antichrist had begun and to prevent people of Florence facing a Doomsday they should reject all of the socio-cultural developments of the Renaissance. Conclusively, the fines and prosecutions increased. Consequently, whilst it is not particularly clear why the Florentine homosexual community grew despite the constant shifts in prosecutions, it is possible to suggest that some wider socio-economic factors came into play; which yet remain to be uncovered.

Think like a Historian:

If you were researching a particular social group, where would you find the necessary primary sources?

Suggested further reading: