Connected Histories

'Alhambra' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article on the Alhambra palace in Spain provides background for Rosa M. Menocal’s book Ornament of the World. The article by Walter B. Denny is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World.


The Alhambra is the name given to the Red Castle (al-Qasr al-Hamrāʿ) built by fourteenth-century rulers of the Nasrid dynasty atop the Sabikah hill overlooking Granada, in southern Spain. The architectural complex consists today of three parts: the ruins of a fortress (Alcazaba or al-Qasbah) on the west end of the hill; remnants of the Nasrid princely residence behind the palace to the east; and the Generalife gardens and pavilions, higher and further to the east. The builders of many of the surviving parts of the palace were Yūsuf I (r. 1333–54) and Muhammad V (r. 1354–1359 and 1362–1391). Following the Reconquista, the Habsburg Charles V (r. 1519–1556) built a huge Renaissance palace over part of the residence site, and a Franciscan monastery obliterated other parts of the complex.

The surviving Nasrid residence comprises four major parts: the Mashwar (Mexuar), an entrance complex of small courtyards; the Courtyard of the Myrtles and its adjoining royal audience hall; the Court of the Lions with its three surrounding structures to the north, east, and south; and the complex of the royal baths. The courtyards of the Alhambra and their surrounding vaulted halls were constructed primarily in masonry faced with elaborately carved stucco, which was formerly polychromed, and are decorated with geometric mosaic tiles, carved wood, a few painted leather ceilings, and delicate columns and capitals of marble, epitomizing the creativity of Nasrid Andalusia during the twilight of Muslim rule in Spain. Carved inscriptions in cursive script and delicate multifaceted muqarnas pendant vaults of dazzling geometric complexity are used on an almost intimate scale throughout the surviving palace buildings, prompting nineteenth-century Spanish critics to denigrate the Nasrid style as “decorative” and “effeminate.”

The paradisiacal connotations of the architecture, with flowering trees, reflecting pools, and, in the Court of the Lions, a four-part Islamic garden with watercourses reflecting the four rivers of Paradise, are emphasized in excerpts from the panegyric poems of Ibn Zamrak praising the palace as an earthly paradise that are carved into the stucco walls. The flowing water incorporated into the architecture, brought by aqueduct from the nearby Sierra Nevada, is an essential element of the Nasrid style.

Stylistically, the Alhambra is closely related to the contemporary Merinid architecture of Fez in the Maghrib. By the sixteenth century, Moroccan builders looked nostalgically back to the “Paradise Lost” of the Alhambra, quoting its architecture in the Saʿadian fountain pavilions of the Qarawīyīn Mosque in Fez, just as certain contemporary Ottoman prayer rugs depicted slender paired columns and triple arcades also evidently inspired by the Alhambra.

The American author Washington Irving 's Tales from the Alhambra (1832) contributed to the nineteenth-century popularity of Granada for tourists, and the Orientalist painters Regnault and Gérôme used the Alhambra as a setting for a brutal execution and a prince mourning over his deceased “Nubian” tiger. By the twentieth century, Alhambra-themed movie theaters weeping with muqarnas were popular in the United States, while the German Architect Hans Poelzig's1919 expressionist-influenced Grosses Schauspielhaus (Great Theater) in Berlin brought the inspiration of the Alhambra into the Modernist mainstream.


  • Grabar, Oleg. The Alhambra. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978. A short but highly readable and penetrating introduction to the more recent interpretations of the buildings.
  • Torres-Balbás, Leopoldo. La Alhambra y el Generalife de Granada. Madrid: Plusultra, 1953. A description of the palace by a preeminent early twentieth-century Spanish


Denny, Walter B. "Alhambra." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #229: 'Alhambra' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", July 20, 2024