Located at the top of al-Sabika Hill, in a strategic position overlooking the city of Granada. The Alhambra gets its name from the red walls that surround the structure. Its’ name comes from the Arabic qa'lat al-Hamra' which means Red Castle.
Although a fortress existed on the site before the Muslims arrived in Granada in the 8th century, and documents exist confirming that Sawwar ben Hamdun sought shelter there during the conflict that occurred within the Caliphate of Cordoba, to which Granada then belonged, and it is believed that it was at that time that the castle was constructed turning it into a military fortress. The present fortress dates back to the 9th century, but it wasn’t until the arrival of Mohammed ben Al-Hamar (Mohammed I, 1238-1273), the first king of the Nasrid dynasty, in the 13th century that it became a royal residence.
Once under the control of the Nasrid’s a number of developments to the Alcazaba (the Old Citadel) resulted, with the reinforcement of the fortress by the construction of the Watch Tower and the Keep and additional fortifications: Also at this time, the construction of warehouses and storerooms occurred. The ramparts for the palace were started and a canal was built to take water from the River Darro. Work was carried out by Mohammed II (1273-1302) and Mohammed III (1302-1309), who was also responsible for the building of the public baths and the Mosque. The mosque was subsequently replaced by the construction of the Church of Saint Mary which now stands on the site of the mosque.
The majority of the Alhambra that we can still see today was carried out by Yusuf I (1333-1353) and Mohammed V (1353-1391). Their work replaced much of the buildings that was carried out by the Nasrid Kings and included improvements of the Alcazaba and the palaces. The main gateway, which is still used today if approaching the fortress from the city, was the original entrance and is known as the Tower of Justice. This was built by Yusuf I and was completed in June 1348.
Other work included the Courtyard/Patio of the Lions. This is the courtyard which contains twelve marble lions with water coming from their mouths and is the focal point of the sultan’s private dwelling and where the harem was located, it also included the extension of the area within the ramparts. It was at this time that the building of the Baths took place, these follow the design of Roman baths with their cool, warm and hot rooms and were seen as an informal place to conduct business. In addition, the Comares was constructed, this was the official residence of the sultan and comprises of several rooms which surround the Court of the Myrtles which was the focal point of diplomatic and political activity. It was also the place where visitors waited prior to being seen by the sultan. The Hall of the Boat is an anteroom to the Throne Room, a room which is also known as the Hall of Ambassadors. This room is renowned for its symmetry and precision and also for its stucco walls and for containing the Nasrid motto of “Only God is Victor”. It is also known for its ceiling symbolizing the seven heavens of Islamic Paradise and is decorated with stars. The floor would have contained brightly coloured rugs and cushions and curtains of silk; silk being used extensively throughout the palace.
The Alhambra became a Christian court in 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel conquered the city of Granada; something which resulted in the construction of a number of structures for prominent civilians and also for a military garrison; a church and a Franciscan monastery were also constructed.
In 1516 Charles V ordered the building of the palace which bears his name and notable for its round courtyard within a square building. Its construction resulted in the demolition of a part of the Nasrid complex. Charles V also built the Emperor's Chambers. These consist of six chambers which were completed in 1537 and were intended for the residence of the King, although he never lived in them. At the same time the Queen's Dressing Room was also constructed at the top of the Abu l-Hayyay's Tower being named due to Empress Isabel, Charles V's wife, living there.
In the 18th century, the Alhambra was abandoned and started to fall into disrepair and during the French occupation of Granada from 1808 until 1812, the palaces were used as barracks. During a retreat, the soldiers mined the towers and blew up part of them. Resulting in the Seven Floors Tower and the Water Tower being left in ruins. In 1870 the Alhambra was declared a national monument and the process of repairing, restoring, and preserving the complex started, something that is still going on today.
At one time the Alhambra contained many gardens, today only the Generalife remains which was a summer palace and country estate and retreat area for the sultan. Built originally during the reign of Muhammad II (1302-1309), although most of what can be seen today are reconstructed. It was once joined to the Alhambra by a covered walkway running across the ravine which is located between them. It consisted of pavilions, courtyards, pools, fountains walkways, and gardens. In 1952 an open-air concert area was constructed where today live concerts are held.
In 1984 the Alhambra and Generalife became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.