In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Alhambra

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Architecture
  • Ornament
  • Painting
  • Inscriptions and Poetry
  • Gardens and Landscape
  • Objects
  • Post-1492
  • Restorations

Architecture Planning and Preservation Alhambra
D. Fairchild Ruggles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0025


The Alhambra (from al-hamra, meaning “red”) is a complex of palaces and gardens that stands on the Sabika Hill overlooking the city of Granada, in southern Spain (the last remnant of the larger Muslim-ruled territory known as al-Andalus). The original palace was built to serve as the seat of the Zirid dynasty (r. 1012–1090), on even older Roman remains, but little remains of the ancient and Zirid phases. Most of the standing architecture dates to the 13th and 14th centuries and was built under the patronage of the Nasrid dynasty (1232–1492). The patrons who made the biggest impact on the palace-city were the Nasrid sultans Muhammad III (r. 1302–1309), Ismaʾil I (r. 1314–1325), Yusuf I (r. 1333–1354) and Muhammad V (r. 1354–1359 and 1362–1391). Built in phases by them, the Alhambra consists of not one but many palaces, including the so-called Comares Palace, the Palace of the Lions, the Partal, and others of which only archaeological traces remain, all enclosed by a great wall. The Alhambra’s various structures included massive gates, formal reception halls, less formal halls for entertainment, residential rooms and towers, a congregational mosque and smaller oratories, multiple bathhouses, courtyards with central fountains and pools, an aqueduct, gardens, service buildings, and a highly fortified area for the military. Across a ravine stands the Generalife (built between 1302 and 1319), a pleasure palace for the Nasrid sultan and his family. When Granada was conquered by the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Ferdinand in 1492, the Nasrids were sent into exile and the Alhambra and Generalife became property of the Crown. But, aside from brief visits, the Spanish rulers did not reside at the palace and made few changes to it, with the exception of the enormous palace added by Charles V in 1533. In the 19th century, as the complex attracted more visitors, the government began to restore the crumbling fabric. By 1870 the Alhambra was declared a Monumento Histórico Artístico Nacional and placed under the protection of the state. The complex became a UNESCO World Heritage monument in 1984.

General Overviews

The Alhambra has survived to the present as an apparently intact 14th-century Islamic palace. Because the Spanish kings chose to live elsewhere, the palace was neglected, with the oddly fortunate effect that it did not suffer modernization and extensive reconstruction. Much of the architectural fabric of the Islamic period remained, with its stucco ornament and tilework, and areas that had suffered deterioration were restored by the mid-19th-century curators so as to enhance the appearance of a fully intact historic monument. Hence, when architects and historians traveled from London, Paris, New York, and Madrid to visit the site, they accepted it as a rare example of well-preserved Nasrid architecture (of which very little remained elsewhere in southern Spain). Moreover—unlike Cordoba, for which descriptions exist in the early Arabic chronicles written for the rulers of Cordoba and their immediate successors—there was no contemporary description of what the Alhambra and Generalife looked like or how the palaces were used in the Nasrid period. What remained were the buildings and the ornament of stucco, glazed tile, and carved wood, which led architects and historians to approach the palaces from a largely formalist perspective. Early scholars were primarily interested in recording the Alhambra’s extensive ornamental program and wall inscriptions. But as the study of the Islamic architecture of Spain expanded in the 20th century, later studies—Torres Balbás 1949 (cited under Architecture), García Gómez and Bermúdez Pareja 1966, Grabar 1992, Cabanelas Rodríguez 1992, Bermúdez López 1992, Dickie 1992, Fernández-Puertas 1997, Jacobs 2000, Ruggles 2008—addressed the architectural typology and interpretation. An important event in Alhambra studies was the exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1992, with contributions by Bermúdez López, Cabanelas Rodríguez, Dickie, and Ruggles (cited under Gardens and Landscape). The most up-to-date information on archaeology and conservation is found at the website of the Board of Trustees of the Alhambra and Generalife (Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife), as well as the journal Cuadernos de la Alhambra. Those who cannot travel to the site can “visit” via the online virtual tour Gross and Gross 2006.

  • Bermúdez López, Jesús. “The City Plan of the Alhambra.” In Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1992.

    A good overview of the spatial planning and urban organization of the palace-city.

  • Cabanelas Rodríguez, D. “The Alhambra: An Introduction.” In Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1992.

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition, which later traveled to the Alhambra, was an important milestone in Alhambra studies because it featured many of the art works from the Alhambra and included four essays on the Alhambra’s architecture and gardens.

  • Cuadernos de la Alhambra.

    Scholarly studies on the Alhambra and Generalife regularly appear (usually in Spanish) in this annual published by the Patronato since 1965.

  • Dickie, James. “The Palaces of the Alhambra.” In Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. Edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1992.

    A good overview of the Alhambra, organized according to the multiple palaces.

  • Fernández-Puertas, Antonio. The Alhambra I: From the Ninth Century to Yusuf I (1354). London: Saqi, 1997.

    An important work because of its detail and because it was one of the earliest in-depth studies by a Spanish art historians to appear in English.

  • García Gómez, Emilio, and Jesús Bermúdez Pareja. The Alhambra: The Royal Palace. Granada, Spain: Albaicín, 1966.

    An early study in English by two eminent Spanish scholars.

  • Grabar, Oleg. The Alhambra. Sebastopol, CA: Solipsist Press, 1992.

    First published in 1978, this important study was the first to place the palace into a comparative context and offer an interpretation of its various meanings. The study was based on a light knowledge of the archaeology and relatively few primary or secondary sources, but it launched a thoughtful argument and thus stimulated later authors to grapple with symbolism in more specific terms.

  • Gross, Barry, and Michael Gross. A Virtual Walking Tour: The Alhambra. 2006.

    This is a narrated and highly informative virtual tour of the Alhambra’s various halls, made with the cooperation of the Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife.

  • Irwin, Robert. The Alhambra. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

    A short, entertaining study that focuses on the artistic and literary reception of the palace; its strength is that it includes materials from after the 1492 conquest.

  • Jacobs, Michael. The Alhambra. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

    A well-illustrated, solidly researched description of the Alhambra for popular audiences.

  • Orihuela Uzal, Antonio. Casas y Palacios Nazaries: Siglos XIII–XV. Barcelona: Lunwerg Editores, 1996.

    A comprehensive study of the Alhambra’s various palaces and residences, covering preservation history, historiography, architectural typology, and hydrology.

  • Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife.

    The website of the Patronato de la Alhambra y el Generalife is the best source for information (available in English and Spanish) on the Alhambra as a Nasrid architectural monument, a museum of Islamic art, and a site of ongoing restoration and conservation.

  • Al-Qantara.

    A scholarly journal published by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, available in print and online. Appeared under the name al-Andalus from 1933 to 1978.

  • Ruggles, D. Fairchild. “Alhambra.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam. 3d ed. Edited by Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

    An up-to-date description (2600 words) of the Alhambra in The Encyclopaedia of Islam which is an excellent scholarly source on all Islamic topics. Available online by subscription only.

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