Of major significance in the time of Charles V

The setting of Granada is superb; there are few views in Spain or elsewhere finer than that of the Alhambra with the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background (Photo 1). The Alhambra itself, overlooking the city, is not to be missed and there are plenty of other historic sites to visit.

Granada was of major significance in the time of Charles V – his Spanish grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, his parents, Philip and Juana, and initially his wife, Isabella, were laid to rest in the Capilla Real.

However, the city that now contains one of the most visited sites in Spain (best to book ahead) has at times been largely ignored, and the 1898 Baedecker guide book still referred to it as ‘a living ruin’. It now has a population of 240,000 people (double that in the greater urban area) with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants to tempt the visitor. There is more on offer than just the Alhambra, though that remains its outstanding attraction.

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Places to visit in Granada

On a steep hill overlooking the city is the Alhambra, or ‘Al Qal’a al-Hamra’ meaning ‘red fortress’. It has deservedly occupied many pages in a vast number of guidebooks as the outstanding example of late Moorish building in Europe. There are three main areas to visit once on the hill: the Alcazaba (citadel), the Palacios Nazaries (palaces) and the Generalife (gardens). In addition there is the Palacio de Carlos V and the Convento de San Fransisco.

Alcazaba. On his arrival in Granada, Ibn al-Ahmar restored and extended the walls of the existing fortress to create an easily defended stronghold. He was also responsible for diverting the waters of the River Darro, to develop the irrigation system in the area. Little now remains of the buildings inside the Alcazaba, except the foundations, but the walls and towers are virtually intact (Photo 2). At the summit on the western end is the Torre de la Vela (Tower of the Bell) which used to hold the bell that was rung each day to signal the opening and the closing of the water gates of the irrigation system. Today it provides wonderful views, to the west over the modern city, to the north over the Albaicin, and most impressive of all to the east over the Palacios Nazaries with the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a back drop.

The modern entrance to the Alhambra is at the far end of the site from the Alcazaba, but the original main entrance was through the Tower of Justice, built in 1348 by Yusuf I (passed if walking up to the modern entrance from the Plaza Nueva). On the exterior of the tower above the massive archway is carved an outstretched hand, the five fingers representing the five pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage and the oneness of God), as well as a key (a symbol of authority). Outside the walls near the Tower is the enormous fountain of Charles V added in the 1550s. The old entrance route leads up to the Plaza de los Aljibes, between the Alcazaba and the entrance to the Palacios Nazaries. Here underground cisterns were constructed after the re-conquest. Also there is a plaque to Jose Garcia, a soldier who prevented Napoleon’s troops (who used the Alhambra as a barracks) from blowing up the whole complex as they retreated from Granada in 1812 by defusing the explosives.

Palacios Nazaríes. The vast majority of the palace complex was built in the 14th century under Yusuf I (1334-1354) and Muhammad V (1354-1391). It tells us much about the wealth of the Moorish state and the skills of its craftsmen. Initially it is surprising that the materials used are not the vast stone blocks of medieval European castles and cathedrals, but much lighter materials – wood, brick and plaster – that seem to be designed to be replaced and reworked by each successive monarch. Perhaps it can be explained by the wish to be modest about their achievements in the eyes of their God and not to offend Allah by permanent, grandiose, structures.

This is in line with the Muslim objection to pictorial representation, and the plaster provides a vehicle for the superb geometric decoration, foliage and calligraphy that are major features throughout the palaces. Craftsmen brought together a combination of earlier Muslim styles and developed them into something unique. Look for the coloured tiles, columns, domes, wooden ceilings and floors, and the use of water in the patios (Photos 3 and 4). The Arab inscriptions are mainly from the Quran, in particular ‘There is no Conqueror but God’, but there is also poetry.

To help understand the buildings it is worth knowing that the palace complex consists of three main areas: the Mexuar, in which everyday business was attended to, the Serallo, the state rooms where formal occasions took place, and the Harem, which were the private apartments of the ruler, his wives and attendants. Each section is arranged around a courtyard with rooms accessed from the courtyard, though there are links between the different areas.

The Mexaur is the first area that visitor encounter. Completed in 1365, the main hall or Council Chamber would have been where the sultan would hold public audiences, hear petitions, announce rulings and meet his ministers (Photo 5). The room has a small prayer niche. This section also contains the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room) and the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, which has a fine facade. The entrance to the next part of the palace is deliberately unobtrusive, so as not to take away from the beauty of the facade.

At the centre of the Serallo is the Patio de los Arrayanes (Myrtles). This has a long rectangular pool with fountains, surrounded by a myrtle hedge, with arcades lining the sides of the patio. The reflections in the pool are impressive (Photo 6).

To the north of the patio is the Sala de la Barca (the Hall of Blessings – al-baraka) with its hull-shaped wooden ceiling. This is in effect an anti-chamber for the most impressive Sala de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors), built between 1334 and 1354, taking two floors of the Torre de Comares. It was in this square room that the rulers would hold diplomatic negotiations, for instance with the representatives of the Christian monarchs of Castile, to secure the future and the prosperity of the kingdom. The 23m. cedarwood dome ceiling has over 5000 pieces, and the complex symbolism of the geometric pattern represents the seven heavens of Islamic paradise. The walls have tile and stucco decoration with beautiful calligraphy. It is said that it was here that Ferdinand and Isabella finally agreed to finance Christopher Columbus’ voyage which led to the discovery of the New World. Added to the ceiling are the motifs of the ‘Christian Monarchs’, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon. The southern end of the Patio de los Arrayanes was demolished in the reign of Charles V in order to make way for his Renaissance palace.

Entrance to the Harem section is by another discrete opening leading to the Patio de los Leones, with its central fountain supported by 12 lion figures (Photo 9), dating from the reign of Muhammad V (1354-1391). This was an interior garden, with 124 slender columns supporting the arcades that lead to three of the finest rooms in the palace (Photo 10). The Sala de los Abencerrajes has an eight point star shaped stalactite ceiling, lit by 16 windows, supported by impressive arches and columns. It is so called because according to legend it was here that the penultimate Muslim ruler of Granada, Abu al-Hasan (Mulay Hassan in the ‘Tales of the Alhambra’ by Washington Irving), having invited them to a banquet, had 16 members of the Abencerraj family murdered because of the head of the family’s affair with his favourite wife (or that they were supporting his opponents in a power struggle).

To the east of the Patio de los Leones is the Sala de los Reyes, which was a banqueting hall with unusual ceiling paintings on leather. These are unique in that they are more typical of a medieval Christian palace, representations of chivalry, hunting, and of individual figures, (perhaps the Nasrid rulers?) not the expected geometric designs. They were almost certainly painted by visiting Christian artists, possibly from Genoa, and permitted to remain by liberal Muslim rulers.

The Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters) is again beautifully decorated, including a domed roof with over 5000 honeycomb cells. The room is named after the twin marble slabs on the floor. It leads into an inner apartment, The Sala los Ajimeces which has a look out area, the Mirador de Daraxa, from which a fine view could be enjoyed in reclining position through the low windows (Photo 11).

Nearby are the Banos Reales (Royal baths) built in the early 14th century, with three rooms, star shaped skylights and fine tile mosaics. Charles V is believed to have used the baths and have added an immersion bath in the hot room. Nearby was the area that was inhabited by Charles who had some rooms redecorated, with fireplaces added. The Patio de la Lindaraja was added in the 16th century, after the re-conquest. Visitors will exit through the Portico del Partal, the remains of an earlier 14th century palace, and then past the Jardines del Partal.

The Palacio de Carlos V was started in 1526, but the great cost and the other commitments of Charles V (he never returned to Granada) meant that most of it was not built until the 17th century and it was never fully completed.

There can be little doubt that it is out of place next to the Palacios Nazaries, a contrast in style that does the later building little credit. One cannot help asking why on earth it was built and can only assume that it was either a statement of power or a genuine belief that it would add to the glory of the Alhambra. However, in a different location it could be seen that the palace is of interest in its own right. Designed by the architect Pedro Machuca, from Toledo, who studied under Michelangelo in Italy, it is a major example of high Renaissance architecture in Spain. The square exterior (Photo 12) with a circular interior courtyard (Photo 13) is said to represent the unity of heaven and earth. The lower exterior has a rusticated stonework, while above that are classical pediments around the windows. The entrances have bas-relief battle scenes of Charles military campaigns and figures from mythology. Inside the two tiered circular courtyard was used mainly for bull-fights, showing the general lack of interest in completing it for its originally planned purpose.

The palace contains the Museo de Bellas Artes (largely Spanish religious paintings) on the upper floor and the Museo de la Alhambra on the lower floor. This contains artefacts from the stone-age through to 1492, with a fine collection of Moorish art – paintings, ceramics, wooden panels and screens and astrological instruments.

Outside the palace there are the remains of the town that existed within the walls of the Alhambra, and the road leads to the Convento de San Francisco, built on the site of an old Moorish palace by Ferdinand and Isabella immediately after the re-conquest. It was where their bodies were originally kept until the Capella Real was completed in the city. Now a hotel (Parador), it has a restaurant and bar open to non-residents.

The terrace provides a wonderful view back over the Generalife. Meaning the ‘garden of the architect’ (yannat al arif), located on a hill across from the Alhambra (Photo 14), this is certainly worth a visit. Started in about 1260 and adapted over the years, the patios, enclosed gardens, walkways, fountains, pools, hedges, ancient trees and flowers are laid out on terraces Photos 15 and 16). Particular features include: the Patio de la Acequia, with its long pools and water jets going through flower beds; the Patio de la Sultana (or Patio de los Cipreses), with its 700 year old cypress tree stump, where Zoraya the concubine of Abu al-Hasan is reputed to have meet her lover to the misfortune of his family (see Sala De los Abencerrajas); the Summer Palace at the lower end; the Upper Gardens with the the Escalera del Agua, a staircase with water flowing down the balustrades.

Other sites in Granada

The Capilla Real is where Charles V’s Spanish grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, and his parents, Philip and Juana, are interred, together with Miguel, the infant son of Juana’s elder sister, Isabella, who, had he survived, would have been the king of Castile and Aragon instead of Charles, as well as king of Portugal. Ferdinand and Isabella were originally placed in the Convento de San Francisco and then moved to the Capilla Real when it was completed in Isabelline Gothic style by Enrique de Egas in 1521. In the crypt are the plain lead coffins and above this, are the monuments in Carrara marble commissioned by Charles V. The lower one, to his grandparents (Photo 17), by Domenico Fancelli of Tuscany, has a split pomegranate (representing the defeat of Granada), a yoke and sheaf of arrows (the unifying emblem of Castile and Aragon) and the inscription ‘subjugators of Islam and extinguishers of obstinate heresies’. The slightly higher monument, for Charles’ parents (Photo 18), is by Bartholome Ordonez from Burgos. Worthy of notice are the grille which encloses the mausoleum and the retable showing the fall of Granada. Two massive wooden doors lead to the sacristy which holds a number of Flemish paintings by Hans Memling, Dirk Bouts (‘The Descent from the Cross’) and Roger van der Weyden, others by Botticelli (‘Prayer in the Garden of Olives’) and Perugino, as well as Ferdinand’s sword and the crown and sceptre of Isabella.

The Cathedral close to the Capilla Real, replaced the earlier Grand Mosque. Started in 1521, it is a generally disappointing building, a mixture of late Gothic and Renaissance design, a result of the clash of approaches of two architects (de Egas – Gothic; de Siloe – Renaissance) and the fact that it was not completed until the early 18th century. Notice the west front by Alonso Cano, and the carved wooden statues of Ferdinand and Isabella by Pedro de Mena.

Almost opposite the Capilla Real is La Madraza, part of the old Muslim university (now with a baroque facade) with an octagonal domed prayer room with a fine mihrab. Down a narrow alleyway off the Calle dos Reyes Catolicos is the Corral del Carbon with its Islamic facade and horseshoe arch. It was originally an inn for merchants with storerooms for their goods and has been preserved through various uses, such as a theatre and a coal warehouse.

The Plaza Nueva, located at the foot of the Alhambra, was the heart of the city after the re-conquest. It has the church of Santa Ana, which includes the minaret of a mosque in its bell tower, and the Real Chancilleria, built in 1530 used for many years as law courts.

The Albaicin is the hill opposite the Alhambra, a long inhabited area of winding streets, with frequent Muslim remains and some large mansions. It gets its name from the Muslim incomers from Baeza in 1227 after the capture of that town by Christian troops. Along the Carrera del Darro from the Plaza Nueva are the 11th century Banos Arabes and then the Museo Arqueologico (Archaeological Museum), housed in the fine mansion (Casa Castril) of Bernando de Zafra, the secretary of Ferdinand and Isabella. Read More +

Further up, the Carrera del Darro broadens out into the Paseo de los Tristes, now full of restaurants and bars all overlooked by the towering walls of the Alhambra. Left from the top end along the Cuesta del Chapiz will bring you round to the church of San Salvador, typically built on the site of a mosque. (Other examples of such churches established in the 16th century are San Juan de los Reyes and San Jose, which have rather plain exteriors so as not to alienate the then recently converted population of the area.) The calle Panaderos takes you to the Plaza Larga, the centre of the Albaicin area. Through the Arco de las Pesas, an 11th century Islamic gateway in the old walls, is the Mirador San Nicholas, from which there is a marvellous view at sunset of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada behind.

North-east of the Albaicin, Sacromonte, named after the Benedictine monastery built in the 16th century, is the area where gypsies settled, originally living in the numerous caves. The area is associated with flamenco music and dancing. The Centro de Interpretacion del Sacromonte is a museum and art centre that explains the history and culture of the area.

The Monasterio de San Jeronimo is located half a kilometre west of the cathedral. The church combines Isabelline Gothic with Renaissance styles, has highly decorative painted sculptures, 18th century frescoes, and cloisters with two tiers of arches and orange trees. At the steps is the tombstone of El Gran Capitan, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, the commander of the Christian troops of the Catholic Monarchs that took Granada in 1492. It is said that the Empress Isabella stayed here in 1526 shortly after her marriage to Charles V.

The Monasterio de la Cartuja, 2 kms. north-west of the city centre, is a highly decorated example of Spanish baroque, with paintings, sculptures, coloured marble columns, ornate vaulted ceilings and a Sacricity in ‘wedding cake’ stucco with brown and white marble.

The poet Lorca, murdered in 1936 for his republican sympathies near the start of the Spanish Civil War, is now commemorated at the Huerta de San Vicente, a large park and museum in what was once the family’s summer residence and the Muse-Casa Natal Federico Garcia Lorca at the poet’s birthplace in the village of Fuente Vaqueros, west of Granada. This is a small but interesting and well laid out museum full of memorabilia. Lorca’s body has yet to be found and this is part of the controversy that is still very active in Spain, whether the hundreds of thousands murdered during the civil war should be left or whether the graves (often, but not always, mass graves) should be located and attempts made to identify the individuals buried there. Political views and personal feeling are intertwined in this difficult issue, one that is still very much alive in Spain today.


Early History

In the pre-Roman, Roman and Visigoth periods it was a small settlement (Elibyrge then Illiberis and Elvira) based on the fertility of the surrounding countryside. For much of the Moorish period between 710 and 1250, under the Umayyads, the Almoravids and the Almohads (see history sections on Cordoba and Seville) it remained a relatively minor backwater as first Cordoba and then Seville flourished as capital. It was only with the collapse of al-Andalus as an independent state and the capture of Cordoba (1236) and Seville (1248) by the Christian kingdom of Castile that Granada at last came into its own as a Moorish capital city.

The last Muslim state in Spain (1248 – 1492)

Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr (Ibn al-Ahmar), a Muslim prince originally from Zaragoza, established himself around the earlier castle (now the Alcazaba) in 1235 and reached an agreement with Fernando III of Castile. He assisted Fernando in the siege and capture of Muslim Seville and paid tribute to the Christian kingdom. Granada was always in a precarious position, balancing the power of Castile to the north against the influence of the Marinid emirs of Morocco to the south, able at times to play one off against the other. The capture of the rest of al-Ándalus by the Christians resulted in large numbers of Muslim refugees pouring into Granada, most settling in what is now the Albaicín quarter, bringing with them the skills and energy that were important in developing the commerce, industries and culture of the new state. It also meant that Granada had from the outset something of a siege mentality and an air of melancholy that many writers have commented on.

Despite its problems, Granada (Qarnatah) was to survive as a semi-independent state under the Nasrid dynasty, controlling land stretching to the coast at Almeria and Malaga, for almost 250 years. At its height, in the mid and late 14th century, it was able to construct a palace and gardens that more than match any in Europe. Only one hundred years later the state collapsed. The ‘Christian Monarchs’ were determined to remove the last Muslin controlled area on the peninsula in the name of their religion. This was made easier by the open hostility in Granada between Abu al-Hassan (Muley Hassan), his brother (El Zagal) and his son Abu abd Allah (known as Boabdil). As the latter emerged victorious from this conflict, troops led by Gonzalo de Cordoba (El Gran Capitan), who had been gradually taking sections of Granada’s lands since 1484, moved to besiege the city, which Boabdil surrendered on 2nd January 1492. It is told that on leaving Granada Boabdil looked back with a tear in his eye, at which his mother, Aixa, commented ‘Thou dost weep like a woman for what thou couldn’t defend as a man.’ Ferdinand and Isabella enjoyed staying in the Alhambra palace for a significant time during the next 10 years.

It was agreed that the Muslims would be able to keep their religion, language, judicial system and dress and be able to live in the mountainous Alpujarras area to the south of the city (Photo 19).

These freedoms did not last long. The Alhambra Decree of 1492 had declared that Jews in Spain had to convert to Christianity, leave the country or be executed. With the arrival of the Archbishop of Toledo, Ximenez de Cisneros, dissatisfied as he was with the slow rate of conversion, the toleration of the non-Christian cultures was ended. Discrimination and persecution, including the burning of 80,000 books from the Muslim university in the Plaza Nueva, provoked the 1500 revolt first in the Alpujarras, and then in Granada itself. After its defeat Muslims also had to convert, leave or expect execution. The Spanish Inquisition, originally set up in 1478, was used against converted Jews (known as Conversos or Marranos) and converted Muslims (Moriscos) who were suspected of secretly adhering to their former religious practices.

Granada since 1492

The city’s Spanish name became Granada (from Qarantah), which is Spanish for pomegranate, which was not only the heraldic symbol used by Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, but has remained the symbol of the city to this day. Charles V visited Granada with his wife Isabella shortly after their marriage in 1526. They stayed in the Alhambra which was much admired by Charles. We know that he used the old Moorish hamman (baths) and had his emblem ‘Plus Ultra’ painted on the walls. More significantly he initiated the construction of a large Renaissance palace, which he believed would further enhance the complex (see details about the Palacio de Carlos V in the section on the Alhambra). Whether this was an indication that he planned to make this a more permanent base, one which he would use regularly while in Spain, is only conjecture. It did not happen – Charles never returned to Granada and the palace was not completed. The 16th century also saw the construction of the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), holding the tombs of Isabella and Ferdinand, and of Juana and Philip, grandparents and parents respectively of Charles V. The adjacent Cathedral had been started in 1521 but was not completed until the 18th century.

In the early 17th century the remaining population of Moorish descent, the Moriscos who had converted to Christianity, were expelled from Spain, the final stage in the attempt to achieve that purity of race and blood (limpieza) pursued by the Catholic Monarchs, Archbishop Cisneros, and successive monarchs, through the means of the Inquisition. For Granada this was to mean further economic decline with the loss of skills and commerce. This was not replaced by the wealth of the largely absentee landowners who controlled the large estates. They regarded economic activity and enterprise as below them, and with lack of investment in rural areas the irrigation systems fell into disrepair, and in the cities industry did not develop. Granada, like much of Andalucía, declined. There was large scale emigration to Spanish territories in Central and South America. Like others the city suffered much at the hands of Napoleonic troops at the start of the 19th century. Even though Washington Irving and Richard Ford wrote about the wonders of the Alhambra in the 1830s and 1840s, bringing early tourists in substantial numbers, and the Spanish government declared it a national monument in the 19th century, it took time for Granada to recover.

Granada in the early 20th century had the reputation of a conservative, rather backward looking city, dominated by the military and the church, with little in the way of industrial development. Early in the Spanish civil war it was taken by the forces of the rebel commander, General Franco, and there followed the slaughter of thousands of Republican supporters and sympathizers, including the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), whose body, along with thousands of others, has yet to be found.