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!

Mediaeval Kingship and European Identity: The Historical Myth of Charlemagne’s fatherhood of Europe (1/3)

This series of posts will be dedicated to a discussion on power relations and how they affect the formation of a historical myth in popular culture. Given that various politicians often refer to Mediaeval rulers as means to push their agendas, rather than referring to historical facts, we decided to do some historical ‘myth-busting’ and chose Charlemagne as our case study to separate the myth from the historical fact.

Think like a Historian:

What do you think the phrase “historical myth” means?

Charles or Karl I, Carolus Magnus, “father of Europe”, King of the Franks, King of the Lombards, first Emperor of the Romans, lighthouse of Europe, Charlemagne—these are only some of the names this king had received during his lifetime.

Here is Charlemagne, depicted in a Mediaeval manuscript.

Charlemagne’s achievements in the eyes of his contemporaries were numerous. He considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s domain, whilst simultaneously spreading Christianity, throughout the majority of barbarian Europe.  The most fruitful campaigns occurred in the first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign, expanding the Frankish kingdom from the Spanish Pyrenees in the West to the Rhine river in the East. This territory later became known as the Holy Roman Empire, a geo-political body that would be a political centre of European political power until 19th century. He conducted the cultural revival which is known as the Carolingian Renaissance—that is all in addition to being the first man to be crowned ‘Emperor’ since the fall of the Roman Empire. Perceived by his contemporaries as a great king, he acquired the title of “the king, father of Europe” in his lifetime via his political and economic policies which aimed at uniting his empire. It is widely accepted by historians that the chronicler, Notker the Stammerer, was the first to use the epithet “Rex, pater Europae” during Charlemagne’s lifetime. This imagery was perpetuated further by such literary works like the Song of Roland and such other romances that idealised Charlemagne and his empire during the times of trouble.

In case anyone reading these posts is interested in linguistics and languages in general, here is a video that has some bits of The Song of Roland in Mediaeval French. This video is also helpful to see how the poetic meter functions in the original language, rather than in the English translation.

The actual figure of Charlemagne was influential on the way modern Europe came to be perceived. His impact is recognised in the fact that every year since 1950, the ‘Charlemagne prize’ has been presented in the German city of Aachen, the capital of the Carolingian Empire. The prize is given to an individual considered to have made an outstanding contribution to European unity. The late German chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted that the Charlemagne Prize is “the most important honour Europe can bestow”. Winston Churchill, Tony Blair, Pope Francis and Emmanuel Macron were one of the prise recipients. Nevertheless, Charlemagne’s impact on unification of Europe was extremely limited, given how long ago he had lived. Yet European citizens and politicians seem to be obsessed with the idea of a European unity that had never existed as a pan-European entity. Consequently, Charlemagne- as- a -unifier- of- Europe, is a mere myth that had been utilised by various rulers after his death.

Think like a Historian:

Why do you think people would chose to name a prize after a historical figure? Does it serve a wider, political purpose?

That said, this myth had been nourished by Charlemagne’s contemporaries insomuch as the future rulers. Chronicler Einhard had composed a very popular biography of the king and Notker the Stammerer in his Gesta Karoli Magni depicted Charlemagne as a caring father figure for the entire state. Such descriptions were unsurprising as Charlemagne was one of the founders of the Carolingian Renaissance, a cultural movement that manifested itself in various educatory reforms, including the preservation of the Classical texts. This in turn allowed for Charlemagne to create an ideological image of himself as the “father of Europe”, and through this image it was possible to create an “imaginary community”. Consequently, it was this specific image of Charlemagne that had survived through the ages and it was this specific image that was perpetuated further by subsequent generations of rulers in the medieval and modern periods. For instance, such rulers included Napoleon, and Adolf Hitler. Whilst the future rulers had twisted the original implication the accolade had, such as in the case of Hitler’s revival of the accolade, it nevertheless clear that the actual figure of Charlemagne has very little to do with actual unification and thus the “fatherhood” of modern day Europe given that his empire did not survive long enough to have so much geo-political impact on the continent.

Think like a Historian:

Who is more responsible for creation of any historical myths– the people or the ruler? Why do you think this?

Who was historical Charlemagne?

It is necessary to lay out who was the man who stood behind these illustrious titles. Born in about 742 Charlemagne was an illegitimate son of Pepin the Short, and Bertrada of Laon. Charlemagne’s childhood years are covered by darkness, although it is known except that he was tutored at the palace school by Fulrad, the abbot of St. Denis. At twenty-six Charlemagne became the King of the Franks, following his brother’s death. Given that Charlemagne lived for an impressive seventy two years, during his lifetime, he considerably expanded Pepin the Short’s realms and attempted to unify his empire through implementation of Christianity both by peaceful and forceful means.

Here is a short overview of Charlemagne’s reign.

What on earth does the “father of Europe” mean?

In order to discuss why Charlemagne was given the “fatherhood” of Europe, we need to look at what the terms “Europe” and “father” meant to his contemporaries.

For centuries “Europe” had been a mere “geographic notion”, whose origins laid in Greek myth and used as in reference to mainland Greece[1]. Yet, by fifth century this view was advanced by Herodotus and the world was supposedly divided solidly into three parts—Europe, Asia and Libya.[2]

Here is a map that is based on the view of the world described by an ancient Greek philosopher, Herodotus.

However, during Charlemagne’s reign the term “Europe” grew to signify his own empire, supposedly united under the banner of Christianity and a strong feudal based economy[3].

A map which shows how Charlemagne’s empire developed throughout his reign.

Evidently, Charlemagne’s “Europe” encompassed a geographical area in Western Europe, rather than how modern individuals understand it as. Charlemagne’s “Europe” does not encompass neither the Iberian peninsula, nor the British isles, nor the Nordic states like Sweden or Denmark. As a result, one ought to focus on Charlemagne’s contemporary definition for “Europe”, rather than its modern one.

Furthermore, one must examine what Charlemagne’s contemporaries understood by “father”. The term “father” for Charlemagne’s contemporaries, as suggested by Janet Nelson, was similar to the contemporary role of father in a household, which was to be responsible for the protection of his people, only with the household being an entire nation under king’s rule.[4]. Just as this legendary King Arthur, any early medieval monarch should “not only set in motion the formal processes of the law, but also be motivated by an inward feeling for natural justice”[5]. As a result, following the contemporary implications the term “father” had, the term within this and the consequent posts will be understood as synonymous to “unifier”. This will be done to merge contemporary and modern definitions to achieve a fluid discussion. Subsequently, a “unifier” king would aim protect his people by unification of his realm to such an extent that this unity would exist even after his death. Overall, the term “father of Europe” within the context of this and future posts will suggest that the extent of unification and consequent long-lasting success of Charlemagne’s political and economic policies.

[1]Mia Rodriguez-Salgado, ‘In Search of Europe’, History Today 42 (1992), pp. 50-60

[2] Ibid, p. 50

[3] Ibid., p. 53

[4] Rosamund McKitterick, ed., ‘Kingship and Empire’, in Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 52-87

[5] Bernard Srone, ‘Models of Kingship: Arthur in Medieval Romance’,  History Today 37 (1987), pp. 62-73, p.63

To explore the topic further…
  • If you’re interested in reading more about the historical figure of Charlemagne, a good starting point would be Rosamond McKitterick’s Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity, which is a very interesting read because it tries to unpick the historical image of Charlemagne as much as possible.
  • If you’re interested in a more cultural angle of Mediaeval history, and are interested in literature a good starting point would be The Song of Roland and Other Poems of Charlemagne, which had been translated by Simon Gaunt and Karen Pratt. This book has a very readable introduction and notes to help you understand the text better.
  • If you’re interested in finding out how different communities and identities form, a good starting point would be Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. It’s a must read for any students who are considering of studying History at a university level.
  • If you would like to have a chill, here is a very funky playlist with Mediaeval music

Elizabethan Foreign Policy

What were the threats to Elizabethan England and were they overcome successfully?

The country: Spain

What threat did the country present:

1) Spain was potentially able to use a lot of her ships to attack England on the sea and on land if Spain did not like England’s behaviour on the European political scene.

2) Spain, because of her massive fleet, could damage England’s weak trade links, therefore damaging England’s economy at home. England’s most important export market, Antwerp, was controlled by the Spanish and thus Spain could prevent England trading there whenever tensions between the two states arose.

Map of main trading centres in Western Europe in late 1500s and early 1600s

Was this threat overcome successfully:

1) yes

2) yes


1) The main factors that contributed to the success were extraordinary lucky circumstances. During the first Armada, in 1588, the South Eastern wind caused the Spanish ships to be blown to the wrong direction, towards the French coast. This in turn benefitted the English as the wind direction conveniently allowed them to shoot at the Spanish ships.

During the three more consequent Spanish Armadas Spain was unable to invade England for similar reasons although the conflict with Spain continued after Elizabeth’s death.

This a 30 minute documentary about the Spanish Armada. The narrative is a bit slow, but hopefully you will find it interesting!
SOURCE TIME: This is one of the most famous paintings of Elizabeth I. It is known as the “Armada Portrait” and it was painted by an unknown artist in 1588 after the English success during the Spanish Armada. Do you think the source can tell us about Elizabeth and her character or more about the Spanish Armada?

2) Trading routes were predominantly preserved by Elizabeth legalising privateering and investing much resources into the improvement of English ships so they could increase the damage to the Spanish galleons that carried valuable silver from the New World. Her actions proved to be a success because John Hawkins managed to capture 40,000 florins form the Spanish galleons that travelled to the Netherlands. Apart from preservation of the pre-established trading routes Elizabeth also attempted to expand them. For instance, Elizabeth sent Drake and Hawkins to the Caribbean to break up the Spanish trading power there in 1595. This allowed Elizabeth to demonstrate that England was powerful enough to affect the Spanish trade.

The country: Netherlands

What threat did the country present: This was because the Netherlands were part of the Spanish Empire, and thus there was always a possibility of the Spanish utilising the Netherlands as a gateway into England. The level of potential invasion was increased when the key leader of the Protestant uprising, William of Orange, was assassinated in 1584. Without a powerful opposition the Spanish could have easily invade England from the Netherlands.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How: a mixture consisting of advantageous circumstances and Elizabeth’s readiness to exploit England’s political position as a Protestant state on contemporary European scene. For instance, during the Spanish Fury in 1576, she promised to pay the rebels £100,000 via the terms of the Pacification of Ghent to make them continue their resistance against the Spanish. Furthermore, in order to protect England’s borders after the death of William of Orange, Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch in 1585 and provided circa 7,000 troops for the rebels in the Netherlands. Although such expenditure did not directly influence the split of the Netherlands into the Spanish Netherlands and the independent Dutch Republic in 1581, the security of England’s borders remained intact given Dutch Republic’s Protestantism. Consequently, Elizabeth was successful because she was able to gain much needed allies and thus to overcome the threats posed to her country’s national security by the Netherlands.

The country: France

What threat did the country present: from the start of Elizabethan reign France presented a threat to England’s borders given its geographical proximity to England, which would have made an invasion from any Catholic based alliance much easier. The fear of invasion was reinforced when the Catholic de Guise family (French) and the Spanish Hapsburgs signed the secret Treaty of Joinville in 1584 in order to provide more support for the Catholic faction in France.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How:  At the beginning stages of the reign, Elizabethan government attempted to gain France as a possible ally against the Spanish by trying to arrange a marriage between Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou in late 1560s and early 1570s. This marital alliance would have been beneficial because the Duke was a direct Protestant heir to the French throne and thus would have been a helpful ally to counter the Spanish Catholic power. As a result of these marriage negotiations a successful Treaty of Bois was achieved in 1572 since France formed a defensive league against the Spanish.

However, the success of this treaty was short lived as by 1580s England became politically isolated, which caused Elizabeth to experience an enhanced level of threat.

Nevertheless, this was overcome by Elizabeth providing some aid to the Huguenots. Elizabeth offered troops to the official French monarch, a Huguenot Henry IV, to fight against the Spanish in 1589-95. This action was beneficial for England’s security as it allowed Elizabeth to remain in alliance with her fellow Protestants, whilst simultaneously defending England’s coastline. Although Henri IV converted to Catholicism in 1593, political relationships between France and England remained relatively warm and did not cause nearly as much trouble to England’s national security as it did in relation to earlier Tudors.

To understand what on earth were the French Wars of Religion please watch this video.

The country: Scotland

What threat did the country present: Since the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth felt threatened by Scotland given the country’s geographical proximity and its links with the French Catholics via the Auld Alliance. These factors thus allowed Scotland to become a potential gateway into England for France during the reign of earlier Tudors.

Was this threat overcome successfully: yes

How: Elizabeth sent her fleet to Flirth of Forth in 1559 to help the Calvinist Lords of Congregation, which was a faction that fought against the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. This was a success because the French troops withdrew from Scotland and the Scottish government allowed various religious groups to worship any faith without legal prosecution by the terms of the 1560 Treaty of Edinburgh. Consequently, the Auld Alliance, which caused a lot of issues for the earlier Tudor monarchs, permanently fell apart. This was evidenced by the fact that the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James, did not interfere after the execution of his mother 1587.

Think like a Historian:

How important are alliances between countries? What do you think is a purpose of an alliance?

Although the breakdown of the Aulde Alliance contributed to Elizabeth overcoming national threats, another important factor to the Scottish non-interference was due to the skill of Elizabethan ministers. For example, Robert Cecil, one of the key ministers of the Elizabethan Privy Council, communicated with James VI to ensure his smooth relationship with the English, thus laying ground for the latter’s smooth succession after the death of Elizabeth. As a result, given that the Scots did not invade any English territories despite having a good reason to do so, it is justifiable to argue that Elizabethan foreign policy was indeed characterised by threats which were overcome.

This is a documentary about James VI/I. if you would like to find out more about him.
Map of World Empires c.1600 (Key: yellow- Spanish Empire; Brown- French Empire; Purple- English Empire; Green- Scotland)

Think like a Historian

What is the difference between an Empire and a country owning an island? What makes an Empire an Empire?

Important Vocabulary

  • Antwerp: a port in Belgium which was used by English merchants to trade with the rest of Europe. It was owned by the Spanish.
  • First Armada: an attempted naval invasion of England by the Spanish.
  • Privateering (verb)/ privateer (noun): an armed ship owned by individuals who have a legal right to capture other countries’ merchant ships
  • Calvinism (a person who believes in religious teachings of John Calvin): a very strict branch of Protestantism that emphasises predestination of a soul. This means that Calvinists believe that the soul of an individual person can only go to heaven or hell and this person cannot change anything about where their soul will go to.
  • Huguenots: French Protestants
  • Auld Alliance: an long standing alliance between the French and the Scots
If you would like to research this topic further…
  • Read a biography of Elizabeth I’s by John Guy called Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years. In this book the author argues that the existence of the ‘Golden Age’ under Elizabeth I did not mean that everything in Elizabethan Government and foreign policy was in tip-top condition.
  • Read Tudor England by John Guy, which will give you a nice overview of various changes that had occurred throughout the Tudor reign, from Henry VII to Elizabeth I.