From a bandits' haven to Spain's top tourist site: the story of the Alhambra

From a bandits' haven to Spain's top tourist site: the story of the Alhambra

From a bandits' haven to Spain's top tourist site: the story of the Alhambra
Photo: Alhambra palace. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

It was during this month in 1870 that the Alhambra, the palace complex in Granada, Spain, officially became a national monument. Today, it is the country’s premiere tourist site, attracting thousands of visitors daily and topping lists for Spain on both TripAdvisor and the country’s official tourism board.

It is also the number one attraction for Muslim travellers to Spain. “Almost every single Muslim and non-Muslim who visits Granada comes to see the Alhambra. It is definitely the most popular site for Muslim travellers,” Yasin Maymir, founder of Granada-based ilimtour Muslim Travels, told My Salaam. “They come because the Alhambra represents that glorious period of Muslim Spain known as Al-Andalus.”

Spain_Tourists at the AlhambraPhoto: Tourists at the Alhambra palace. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

But this wasn’t always the case.  Virtually lost to the world for over a hundred years, the Alhambra fell into disrepair and was almost completely forgotten.

The Alhambra’s name comes from the Arabic al-qala’at al-hamra (“red castle”) because of the red rockface atop which it sits. The first palace built on the current site was by a Jewish grand vizier named Samuel Ha-Nagid in the 11th century. At the time, Granada’s royal palace, home to the Zirid sultans, was in the residential Albayzin quarter.

It wasn’t until 1231, when an Arab from Medina named Muhammad Ibn Yusuf Ibn Nasr captured the city, that the Alhambra became the abode of rulers. By then, there were no other Muslim rulers left in Iberia, so for the next two-and-a-half centuries, the flag of Muslim Spain was flown solely from the famous fort.

Spain_The Alhambra palacePhoto: The Alhambra palace. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

Granada and the Alhambra reached their cultural zenith between 1344 and 1396, when the most sumptuous parts of the palace were built. However, Granada was not actually a part of the “Golden Age” of classical Al-Andalus, an era that Jewish historian Gustav Karpeles describes as

“…a very dreamland of culture. Under enlightened caliphs, the Arabs in Spain developed a civilization which, during the whole of the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance, exercised pregnant influence upon every department of human knowledge…”

Spain_garden in the AlhambraPhoto: Garden in the Alhambra palace compounds. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

From the early 8th century, under the Umayyad dynasty, Al-Andalus at its height was the most enlightened culture in Europe. It was so powerful that in 929 Abdu’r Rahman III declared himself Caliph of all the Muslim world. But it didn’t last, and the unity of Muslim Spain under the Umayyads began to unravel in 1009. Taifas (“parties”) emerged across Al-Andalus, with local governors setting up mini-emirates and fighting each other for power and territory.

Over the next four centuries, Muslim Spain became extremely fractured, and one by one, the taifa kingdoms were picked off by successive Christian rulers. By 1264, the Nasrid Emirs of Granada stood alone in their red fortress as the only Muslim dynasty in a Christian country.

Spain_Islamic calligraphy carved on the wall at AlhambraPhoto: Islamic calligraphy carved on the wall at the Alhambra. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

The stunning royal palace passed through the hands of several Nasrid rulers until finally, in January 1492, it was conquered by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand II and Isabella I. When the last Nasrid ruler, Abu Abd Allah (known as Boabdil in the West) handed the keys of his ancestral palace over to the Catholic monarchs, it ended 781 years of Muslim rule in Spain.

Spain_Court of Lions fountain in AlhambraPhoto: Fountain at the Court of Lions (Patio de los Leones) at the heart of the Alhambra. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

Up until the early part of the 18th century, various Spanish Christian monarchs used the Alhambra as an occasional residency. But when the American writer Washington Irving came upon the neglected royal palace in the spring of 1829, he found it the dwelling place of “a loose and lawless population: contrabandistas … thieves and rogues of all sorts...”

Despite its state of dire disrepair, Irving was dazzled by its beauty. Recognising its cultural and historic significance, he wrote the book Tales of the Alhambra, which was published in 1832. It captured the imagination of the West and reminded Spain of its neglected gem.

Spain_The Alhambra palacePhoto: Wall carvings at the Alhambra palace. Courtesy of Tharik Hussain.

In 1870, the Spanish authorities declared the Alhambra a national monument, and in 1984, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list as the “only preserved palatine city of the Islamic period” of Spain. Finally, the Alhambra had regained some of its former glory.

(This article is written by Tharik Hussain. Tharik is a freelance British Muslim travel writer, journalist, broadcaster and photographer specialising in the Muslim stories of Europe. Hussain’s first ever radio documentary, America’s Mosques; A Story of Integration, has been declared one of the world’s best radio documentaries for 2016. All his work can be viewed at

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