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!

Orientalism And the Middle Ages: Islamic Palaces In The Eyes Of The Crusaders

What do you imagine when someone mentions an “Islamic palace” to you? Do you think of a royal palace from Disney’s Aladdin or do you think about more realistic examples that you saw in a documentary about travelling? This post will try to assess how European Crusaders understood and perceived of Islamic palaces through the medium of contemporary popular poems, also known as romances.

Comparison between the Sultan’s palace in Disney’s Aladdin and an actual royal palace in Seville, Spain. The actual palace has some significant Islamic influences.

Think like a Historian:

Can a historian use popular culture (i.e. things that are popular within a culture) to derive any conclusions about a society that they are studying? Can you fine both pros and cons for such an approach?

What were the Crusades and who were the Crusaders?

The Crusades, broadly speaking, were a series of socio-political conflicts that spanned from 1096 and 1271. Historians argue that there were several crusades, with the first few focusing on reaching Jerusalem and the latter ones emphasising the need to break-up Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula. These conflicts were often framed by figures in power as having a religious angle, which focused on Christianity being “suppressed” by Islam and therefore the latter requiring protection. Consequently, the Crusades were a wide-ranging series of socio-political conflicts that took place in Europe and the Middle East.

The Crusaders were the individuals involved in the Crusades. These individuals often came from all parts of Europe. They were usually various figures in power, such as rulers, and their subordinates, knights. The motives of such individuals was often highly complex and usually linked to wider geo-political and geo-economic implications as well as some personal ones. However, to say that these groups only consisted of knights in shining armours and powerful kings is an extremely simplistic explanation of who the Crusaders were. Indeed, the Crusaders were not a monolith group of people. There were also individuals of lower social standing, who usually joined the crusading groups to earn some income or to gain social prominence. Consequently, the Crusaders were not a unanimously agreeing group of people and came from differing socio-cultural backgrounds.

Think like a Historian:

Can people from the same socio-cultural group have differing ideas what their culture is? Can you give any examples?
SOURCE TIME: Here are two Mediaeval songs, also known as romances, from approximately the same period. They were written at the time of the Crusades and probably were quite popular amongst the Crusaders. What can you understand from these songs about the Crusaders and their aims? Are these sources enough to fully understand their intentions?

Islamic Palaces as Described in Mediaeval Romances

When assessing how the Crusaders perceived and understood Islamic palaces a historian should look at the scope of possible evidence. In the case of this post we will only be looking at two romances that involve a narrative centred around royal Islamic palace. The sources that will be assessed are: The Song of Roland and Charlemagne’s Journey To Jerusalem and Constantinople.

Both texts seem to frame the Islamic palace as a place where some form of negotiation takes place. Such negotiations are often centred around the formation of political interactions. For example, In Charlemagne’s Journey the group of Franks is permitted to dine and live in King Hugo’s palace whilst residing in Constantinople as part of what seems to be an unexpectant diplomatic visit. This suggests that the Islamic palaces were seen in a positive light as long as the interactions involved the Europeans. Indeed, narratives that did not involve the presence of the Europeans were probably seen as potentially dangerous and subversive to political power. In The Song of Roland, for instance, the character of the Emir strikes a profitable alliance with the King of Marseille who gives him “all of [his] lands and Saragossa and all the land that appertains thereto”, therefore providing the latter with sufficient resources to fight against Charlemagne. Such narrative suggests that the palaces served as the means to frame the environment of the characters. As a result, palaces seem to be used as the means to frame some key sections of the overall narrative and thus was probably should be understood as a symbol of political importance for contemporaneous readers or listeners.

SOURCE TIME: This is a painting by a Saxonian painter, Julius Köckert. It was painted in the mid 1850s. Saxony is now part of Germany. This painting depicts a diplomatic meeting between Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne’s envoys in Baghdad. Harun al-Rashid was an Islamic ruler whose reign corresponded with what historians call an ‘Islamic Golden Age’. There is no historical evidence for such a meeting taking place. However, contemporary European chronicles associated with Charlemagne’s court do mention envoys from ‘the East’ visiting Charlemagne’s court. Why do you think a palace is absent from this painting? Think about how the painter chose to depict both Charlemagne and Harun al-Rashid.

Both texts appear to frame the Islamic palaces as highly exotic and rich places. There are numerous associations and mentions of “opulent” surroundings and “gold” and “silver” in both texts when the narrative is centred around the palace. This is most clear in Charlemagne’s Journey as the narrative predominantly describes what Charlemagne and his company saw within King Hugo’s palace, rather in the Song of Roland as the latter focuses on the military actions of both Muslims and the Franks. Charlemagne’s Journey continuously makes mention of “rich splendour” of King Hugo’s palace, which could be seen in such descriptions like “the tables and chairs and benches are of pure gold” and “with costly paintings of animals and of dragons”. This could suggest that for European Crusaders Islamic palaces, or even Islamic kings and kingdoms, connoted to the source of wealth. In order to make a more plausible interpretation of such a conclusion one may have to look at the actual examples that the Crusaders were likely to encounter on their routes to either the Middle East or the Islamic held regions. As a result, Islamic palaces seem to connote to a place of richness, which in turn is used as a rhetorical devise to strike awe into the contemporary readers or listeners.

As a consequence of the wealth described in the two poems, Islamic palaces seem to gain an aspect of ‘otherness’, or a high degree of difference from the European palaces. As has been mentioned above, contemporary bards often used highly superfluous language to describe the richness of the Islamic palaces. Yet, this is one of the very few features than makes an Islamic palace special in the eyes of the authors of the two sources. Although it could be argued that such a narrative is centred predominantly around the individuals rather than the palaces, such an argument does not account for the overall implications the palatial setting may have had. If compared to the narrative that surrounds European palaces little positive actions happen in the walls of Islamic palaces. The Song of Roland has the narrative of striking deals between Charlemagne’s enemies within the palace walls whilst Charlemagne’s palace is being associated with justice, specifically just punishments. Similarly, the walls of the Islamic palace in Charlemagne’s Journey are associated with deception as they contain special holes through which the cunning advisors can listen in to the drunken brawls of the Franks. As a result, there seems to be a tension between the authors envisioning Islamic palaces as a desirable, economically wealthy place and the potential deception that may have occurred in the setting. Consequently, there may be a hint of fear or at least uncertainty from the European perspective in relation to Islamic palaces in some of the Mediaeval romances.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think Mediaeval writers depicted Islamic palaces in such a way? Was it to make the text interesting or are there wider implications? Why do you think so?

To explore this topic further…

Enjoy 🙂