Spain Sunday: Alhambra History

We have found the unfortunate thing about visiting castles and palaces around the world is that you never really understand what you’re looking at. Both because of the lack of information or the inundation of information. Some castles have information but it has too many facts that outsiders couldn’t understand: “This is where King Guy the 7th beheaded his famous enemy King Dude the 8th after the Battle of Hill-you’ve-never-heard-of which lead to the great War Your Country Has Never Studied.” Only a local who had gone to school and learned their country’s extensive history would understand.

Alternatively people treat palaces and castles more as features of art rather than places of history. The guide books might mention an old legend about the place and would point out the artistic merit of the castle – but there would be no mention of the history or significance of all.

When you visit the Alhambra in Granada you are just looking at stuff. Beautiful stuff, but stuff that has no meaning to you. Yes, you can argue it is art and art has no meaning except to be enjoyed. But the Alhambra is a very historical building. It’s older than 1,100 years as 1,100 years ago was the first time it appeared in written text. So we have written records of most everything the Palace has gone through. The guide books, sadly, only talk about the art or have a one sentence mention of the history with no context.

For example, the Sala of the Albencerrajes. The Alhambra website says

“The Hall of the Abencerrajes (Sala de los Abencerrajes) … is so called because it is said that the Abencerrajes knights were there beheaded, although the experts can not decide who was the king who ordered it. In fact, there is a rust stain covering part of the marble fountain in the middle of the hall, which is said to be a bloodstain from the Abencerrajes knights.

Okay so some Albencerrajes knights might have been killed there. Interesting. Why? What is an Albencerrajes knight?

Lonely Planet’s Andalusia says

The Albencerraje family supported the young Boabdil in a palace power struggle between him and his own father, the reining sultan. Legend has it that the sultan had the traitors killed in this room, and the rusty stains in the fountain are the victim’s indelible blood.

Again, cool. Now we know the Albencerraje knights were the knights of that family. But now we have a lot more information that is new and confusing like – who is Boabdil and why was he against his father? This information is not important because Lonely Planet finishes the description with:

But the multicolored tiles on the walls and the great octagonal ceiling are far more eye catching

This is just annoying. If I’m reading the travel guide it’s because I’m already there and can obviously see how eye-catching they are.

I don’t think the Alhambra can be fully appreciated unless you understand it. If you knew the basics of the history you would understand how many times the palace was changed or added to. This explains the differences in architecture from room to room.

For instance, this room:

Versus this room:

Same palace. Completely different architecture. Why? Lonely Planet doesn’t care. The official website doesn’t care. It’s obviously a Christian vs Islamic architecture style and 1300’s vs 1700’s but again? How? Why?

It would also be nice to read a little more about the culture. Culturally the Moors couldn’t portray people in art so that’s why there are so many walls covered in geometric patterns.


Are castles and palaces art? Yes. But when Lonely Planet says “the courtyard layout, using the proportions of the golden ratio, demonstrates the complexity of Islamic geometric designs – the varied columns are placed in such a way that they are symmetrical on numerous axes.” They are only focusing on the art – not the rich history of the Alhambra.

Mmmmmhmmmm get some of that golden ratio

So Let’s Understand it:

It used to be Roman. Like how everyone does, you put your stuff on top of the Roman’s stuff because a) the Romans are gone now b) we don’t want their shit anymore and c) they probably put it in a strategically great place.

So it started up on a hill:

Looking over everyone’s business.

It was built in 889 on top of the Roman’s old crap. To put it in perspective the old castles in Martos were built about 200 years later. To put it more into perspective this was first built when Britain wasn’t even a united kingdom and was fighting off Vikings and the Anasazi were just starting to live in Chaco Canyon. The Alhambra was built as just a little thing which was then forgotten about. It was a little red-ish tower -the name Alhambra actually comes from the Arabic word for “red” (either the color or a group of people called the Reds).

It is still red-ish in color, actually.

Then it is forgotten. But now it’s the 1200s. Marco Polo is out and about, Mesa Verde is at its peak, Genghis Khan is crushing it – and suddenly people are interested in the little forgotten fortress. Portugal, Castile (Spain) and Aragon (also Spain) are expanding their territories which is infringing on Moorish land. So Moorish king-guy (sultan) Ibn al-Ahmar rebels against his friends and takes the region we live in(including our city of Jaen and probably Martos). He builds the Alhambra’s walls and palace up. He plans a 6-palace adventure-land of bathhouses, defense, gardens and beauty.

Ibn al-Ahmar (aka Muhammad I) dies falling off his horse. His son Muhammad II builds on it a little but mostly is busy fighting everyone then taking Tarifa then feeling cheated and giving it up again (it would never be in Muslim hands again). He dies. How? Maybe his son Muhammad III kills him but we can’t be sure.

Muhammad III builds the Alhambra up. He even builds the Generalife gardens. Generalife sounds like an insurance agency but it’s the bastardization of “Jannat al-‘Arīf” Architect’s Garden. Pronounced hen-er-al-lee-fuh. The gardens are massive and he starts them:

This might have been a more impressive picture in the Summer.

When he’s not making the gardens he alternates between being allies with or fighting against the Christians. Or just standing back and lets them fight themselves. This made his neighbors unhappy (that he wasn’t doing more). In fact no one was happy, so the people of Granada sacked the Alhambra and exiled him.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 3

Muhammad III’s brother Nasr took over and built quite a bit onto the Alhambra. Inside of these bits, probably:

Nasr isn’t going to last long. Muhammad II’s grandson Ismail I had heard that everyone was pissed off at Muhammad III so he marched an army up. People liked him more so they opened the city gates for him. He sieges the Alhambra for a while then kicked Nasr out.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 4

Ismail I added to the Generalife gardens:

And built this up:

Ismail was a busy guy. He had 4 sons then went off to battle Castile (he won) then just started taking over every small fortification he could find including Martos. That’s right, the guy who started building that beautiful thing above messed with our city. He came home to Granada, got in an argument over a slave and was killed.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 5

Ismail’s 10 year old son Muhammad IV took over as sultan but 8 years later was also assassinated.

Yusuf I enters the game, he finishes building the Alhambra up more and turns it into the official royal palaces for all the subsequent sultans/leaders.  It morphs into a huge complex with housing, barracks, and an irrigated water system.

Yusuf built the Tower of Justice

He also beautified the interior of everything. His name is apparently on some of the walls.

He established peace with the Christians for a while but that ended (it always does). He lost Gibraltar and Algeciras. He also sat in a folding armchair you can actually still see in the Museum of the Alhambra. He was assassinated while praying in a mosque in Granada.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 7

His son (16 years old) Muhammad V showed up and built the Court of the Lions:

This is the part with the golden ratio.

He also built the Mexuar – the first part you walk into when you visit the Nasrid Palaces.

Detail of the Mexuar
More parts of the Mexuar (and me)

His half brother, Ismail II overthrew him. He’ll be back.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 8

Ismail II had a fun time for 10 months but then he and his brother were murdered (by his brother in law) in a dungeon in the Alhambra (not open for the public).

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 9

The brother in law was Muhammed VI he was technically royal – his great, great grandfather was Muhammad II indirectly. He messed around and irked the Christians. He took a bunch of cities back (Malaga was one) then was murdered near Seville.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 10

The Christian king Peter I helped restore Muhammad V (the guy who built the lion thing). Peter I didn’t only help he sent Muhammad VI’s head to Muhammad V. Damn.

Muhammad VI died with 4 sons.

Yusuf II (died 1392) was one son, he took over for a while. He might have been controlled and poisoned by a Rasputin-like figure. I can’t find much more information,  then Muhammad VII (1370–1408) took over for a while. He was pretty chill, he liked poetry and building. He might have built onto this:

Particularly the tower part.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 12

When Muhammad VII died, his brother Yusuf III took over. He built a huge palace which is gone now. When you walk around the Alhambra near this (above) palace there is a series of terraced gardens. This is where his palace had been.

He also wrote gay poetry. But that’s his deal.

When he died…

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 13

… his son Muhammed VIII was on the scene! He spells his name differently (ed not ad) and is 8 years old. This is the beginning of the end for peaceful transitions. It’s about to become a game of thrones up in here.

It’s power struggle time.

Muhammed VIII (8 years old) is overthrown by Muhammed IX (“the left handed”). I guess the Albencerrages family helps with this (remember that random family from the beginning who was killed in that room, yup. They’re on the scene now.)

Muhammed IX rules for 8 years then is then re-overthrown. We’re back to Muhammed VIII the little kid (who rules for 1 year). Just kidding Muhammed IX is back and the now-nine-year old is put in jail. No one likes Muhammed IX so there are a lot of internal problems including Almeria revolting. Everyone kept revolting so he had to flee.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 15

Catholic King John II put Yusuf IV on the throne as long as he was a good boy and did what the Christians said. Muhammed IX is still lurking around and that little kid is still in prison so 3 people have a claim for the throne. The Christian king took advantage of this by playing them against each other (more Christian kings will do this in the future and it will work very well). For now it sort of works. The little kid is killed, Yusuf IV is overthrown and Muhammed IX is back again to rule for 13 years.

Muhammed X takes over.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 17 although I might have missed Yusuf V because that got complicated. Let’s say 18.

There’s a skirmish. Yusuf V and such… I have no idea anymore. There’s no information about him. Congratulations if you are still here.

Guess what happened to Muhammed X? That’s right! Muhammed IX is freaking back! It’s his 4th (and final) time taking over.

He finally went away and Muhammed XI is here now. Except he’s not, he makes an expensive truce with the Christians and everyone hates it. His throat is slit and his kids are suffocated by the new guy – Sa’ad.

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra count: 20

Sa’ad is overthrown by Yusuf V (he’s back?) and then Sa’ad is back.

Sa’ad is done with the Albencerraje  family supporting other people and maybe this is when they’re killed in the room and the rust stains represent their blood. Maybe. People think this could just some fun story that has no real backing.

Sa’ad is overthrown by Abu l-Hasan Ali which means…

Things are going to get interesting (end)

Abu l-Hasan Ali rules for 13 years then gets bored with playing by the rules. He stops paying tribute to the Christians then straight up invades them. Ferdinand and Isabelle (the King and Queen who will unite Spain, end the reconquista and sanction Chris Columbus’s adventures) are not happy with this. It’s time for war.

Bombadil (or is that a dwarf from the Lord of the Rings), wait, Boabdil. Boabdil (Muhammad XIII) is the son of Abu l-Hasan Ali. When Abu l-Hasan Ali pisses everyone off by starting a war Boabdil gets to rule for a while.  Everyone was in a vaguely peaceful period but the Christians raided some Moorish land, so Boabdil straight up invaded Castile in retribution/to show off. He was taken prisoner by the Christians (Ferdinand and Isabelle). While he was prisoner his father (Abu l-Hasan Ali) was restored as the sultan. Then his father was replaced by his uncle? The Christians freed Boabdil and supported him getting his throne back. This was a clever ploy to politically divide the Moorish kingdom. There are two people who think they are the rightful leaders, why not make it three people – let Boabdil go and he can stir up trouble. So they used him as a pawn – “we’ll let you go and we’ll support you but you can’t attack us”. Incidentally the Christians had Malaga under siege but Boabdil wasn’t allowed to help. So he returned to the only Moorish city left – Granada. He and his supporters finally got the upperhand and he won.

Yay for Boabdil. But shortly after taking control, the Christians called on him to surrender. He didn’t, obviously, he had just won what they said he could have. So Granada was put under siege for 8 months. He finally surrendered before he could starve to death and that was the end of Moorish rule of Spain forever. This was the end of the Reconquista (sortof. Mostly).

Sultans who have lived in the Alhambra FINAL count: 22

Christopher Columbus might have even been there when Boabdil surrendered which is pretty cool.

It also looked like this, look at the pretty Alhambra in the background.

Guess what year it is? 1492. The year CC sails the ocean blue.

He goes to the Alhambra to ask Ferdinand and Isabelle for money/help sailing the ocean blue. They obviously say hell yeah, then get to work restoring the Alhambra. They live there until their deaths.

It changed hands amongst Christians for a while- who eventually tore the mosque down and replaced it with a church. Charles V built his own palace right in the middle of things:

Philip V destroyed older buildings and redid the rooms with Italian design:

In 1807 France and Spain were, like, totally over Portugal existing. So they invaded it. But curse France’s (Napoleon’s) sudden and inevitable betrayal as France turned on Spain and invaded it. Seven years later Austria, Germany (not called that), Prussia, Russia, the UK, Portugal, and what was left of Spain teamed up and defeated Napoleon. On Napoleon’s way out of Spain he tried to blow up the Alhambra. Some of it was ruined but legend says one of his soldiers refused to blow it up and stayed behind to defuse the bombs. Yay for that guy.

For whatever its worth (it’s worth nothing) the museum Chris and I went to after we got engaged had Napoleon’s hat.

Not in the Alhambra. In Germany

So the Alhambra is mostly destroyed and completely abandoned. People could visit the Alhambra with permission but they basically didn’t care about it at all until the author Washington Irving showed up and was allowed to live there. Washington Irving is seen as the “Father of American Literature.” Ever heard of Rip Van Winkle or Sleepy Hallow? Yup, that’s him. And no joke he lived in the Alhambra and wrote about it, here is his room:

He published “Tales of the Alhambra.” Suddenly everyone cared about the Alhambra and they haven’t stopped caring since.

It has had to go through a lot of restoration. Earthquakes, the ravages of time, and Napoleonic dickery have destroyed a lot. You can still see quite a bit of stuff they’re working on or just letting go:

But that’s about it. You can see how many people lived there and had their hand in things. You can see how this one building was witness to so many things – decisions, fights, murders, assassinations. Appreciate the art but don’t forget that it’s not just art. If the walls could speak and all that.


2 thoughts on “Spain Sunday: Alhambra History

  1. Very cool, you should rewrite history books for schools. “This is what happened in a nutshell”. Your pictures are great, I’m assuming from your phone? I love murder/forensic science shows and the first thing I thought of when you mentioned “rust stains” is DNA hello?! Haha They don’t care right!. 😘


    1. History IS funny, when you start reading between the lines at least haha.
      The pictures were half from Kaeti’s Iphone, and half from Chris’ LG. The LG takes the better pictures, by far.
      Neither of us actually saw these stains lol. But the myth is probably more interesting than reality.


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