Travelers for centuries have been mesmerized by the Alhambra -- a Moorish fantasy palace of domes and pointed arches, shady patios and gleaming tiles. Everywhere is the sound of water, a rare treasure in arid Spain. Splashing into fountains, meandering through graceful channels, water was made an art form here -- the equal of the woodwork, ornate plaster, and ceramic tile of the palace itself.
To supply the Alhambra with water for fountains and pools, the Nasrid king Ibn
al-Ahmar diverted the River Darro to the palace hill. The style of the Alhambra
reflects the Moors, who occupied Granada. See more pictures of famous landmarks.
The best preserved medieval Muslim palace in the world, the Alhambra was built in the 13th and 14th centuries by the Nasrid kings. Of the early Alcazaba, or fortress, little remains but hulking red ramparts and a bell tower overlooking the fabled city of Granada.
What hypnotizes travelers is the exquisitely refined royal palace. Its stucco walls are carved with graceful Arabic calligraphy or sheathed in rich tile mosaics. The 50-foot-high domed ceiling of one royal salon is intricately inlaid with more than 8,000 pieces of cedarwood and designed to represent the firmament.
Visitors first pass through public rooms where the sultans received visitors. Farther inside lie private quarters that were open only to the sultan, his family, harem, and servants (most of them eunuchs, to reduce their interest in the harem). The women enjoyed the Court of the Lions, whose 12 stone beasts spurt water that fills a pool and flows into channels branching off to nearby rooms.
In the Hall of the Abencerrajes, plaster stalactites hanging from the ceiling and a star-shaped cupola are reflected in a pool. Elsewhere the sultan's favorites would pamper themselves in the colorfully tiled royal baths -- as the sultan observed from the balcony and chose his companion for the evening.
Adjacent to the palace is the Generalife, where one of Spain's finest gardens spellbinds viewers with sprays of water, terraces of roses, lily ponds, bowers, shrubs trimmed like crenellated castle walls, and shady cypress trees. Like the Alhambra palace itself, the garden floats you far away from the 21st century.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.