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

  • Introduction

Islamic Studies Alhambra
Valerie Gonzalez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0213


The name of the Alhambra comes from the Arabic locution al-Qasr al-Hamraʿ, meaning “Red Castle.” The fortified palatine compound was built on top of the elevated Sabika Hill in Granada, al-Andalus (Islamic lands in present-day Spain), at the bottom of the Sierra Nevada. The Islamic constructions span from the 11th to the 15th centuries. It is objectively a unique monument for two main reasons. First, it is the best-preserved example of princely domestic architecture in the entire Islamicate world in the Middle Ages. Despite areas in ruins, the graft of Charles V’s unfinished Renaissance palace in its bosom, and the successive post-1492 interventions on the premises’ layout and design, a significant part of the original complex is still standing. Substantial wall and ceiling decorations from the Nasrid era (1232–1492) have also survived. Second, the Alhambra distinguishes itself for materializing in art its Muslim royal patrons’ conscious acts of transculturalism between Mediterranean Islam and Western Christianity. The Alhambra’s Nasrid interior design incorporates many elements drawing from the art of the neighboring Christian polities, such as figurative paintings and heraldic patterns. But what is understood as the history of the Alhambra is by no means limited to the Islamic period that saw its creation. It does include the refurbishments and uses in Christian context throughout three centuries, as well as the period of oblivion and neglect followed by the monument’s rediscovery and reinvention in the 19th century under the impulse of the cultural-artistic movements known as Romanticism and Orientalism. In this post-Islamic history, the Orientalist-Romantic reimagining of the monument has been a major step on the path toward the rational realization of its historical and aesthetic importance, beginning with a direct and meticulous documentation of the premises by the 19th-century architects and designers Owen Jones and Jules Goury and the photographer Charles Clifford. The Alhambra became known to the extent of constituting for some a reference cliché of Islamic architecture. Yet, from the scholarly viewpoint, it remains mysterious. Hypothetically answered, many questions about the use and function of its halls, pavilions, and gardens, as well as the workings and meanings of its complex designs, still welcome fresh interpretations. Finally, it ought to be noted that the aesthetic impact of the Alhambra did not fade away with the advent of the Modernist era. In the 20th-century, the Alhambra constituted an inspirational source for the Arab imaginary and artistic creation on the increasingly transnational art scene. However, the present bibliography does not cover this aspect of the Alhambra’s legacy related to the interconnected cultural-historical phenomena of the decolonization, the rise of pan-Arabism and the shifting evolution of art production on the global arena. This is a complex subject of research still in progress to be approached in a separate inquiry.

General Overviews

The Alhambra offers great material to delve in on a multifold front of research, including archaeology and history, the aesthetic-critical inquiry, and cultural and literary studies. On one hand, historians and archaeologists endeavor to decipher the multilayered period structures. On the other hand, the rich interior design combining geometric and floral decoration with calligraphy—and in some units, figurative representations—necessitates aesthetic and cultural studies relying on a plurality of views and methodological approaches that the present bibliography aims to reflect fairly. Upon these premises, the historiography on the Alhambra has followed a particular developmental curve. The key episode of the 19th-century rediscovery prepared the early-20th-century body of knowledge to which the scholarship of the 1970s and 1980s is indebted. This early era is marked by the pioneering works of the architect in charge of the Alhambra’s conservation, Leopoldo Torres Bálbas, who introduced the practice of scientific archaeology aiming to unearth the monument’s original Islamic layouts. Grabar’s landmark 1978 monograph (Grabar 1992, cited under Monographs), though criticized for its lack of historical ground, brought about a breakthrough by proposing a hermeneutics of the monument that comes close to what is today understood as the art-critical inquiry. Together with the seminal 1978 article by Jerrilynn Dodds in Art Bulletin (Dodds 1978, cited under Figurative Ceiling Paintings), this work set trends of interpretation from which the latest research still draws. The field of study took on another major turn in the early 1990s with José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, who, owing to his exceptional theoretical knowledge in semiotics and literary aesthetics, proceeded with a critical investigation of the compound’s designs methodologically clearly delineated. Puerta Vílchez 1990, cited under Patterned Ornament, Geometric Abstraction, and Calligraphy). Yet, due to little diffusion outside Spain, Puerta Vílchez’s precursor works emmerged on the international academic scene only about a decade after their publication. All along this historiographical unfolding, the editions “Patronato de la Alhambra y Generalife” and its quarterly Cuadernos de la Alhambra have been and remain authoritative research resources; they are available online from Recursos de Investigación de la Alhambra.

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