A Brief History of the Alhambra: From Muslim Stronghold to UNESCO World Heritage Site

Discover the history The Alhambra

The Alhambra is one of Spain’s most iconic and beloved landmarks, attracting millions of visitors each year from around the world with its stunning architecture and rich history. This fortress and palace complex, perched on the hill above the beautiful city of Granada, has a story that spans over 1,000 years and reflects the region’s diverse cultural and political landscape.

From its origins as a Muslim stronghold during the Middle Ages to its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in modern times, the Alhambra has played a significant role in shaping Spain’s fascinating history.

Here we take a whistle-stop tour through the fascinating tale of the Alhambra, tracing its evolution from a military fortress to a royal palace and cultural treasure.

889 - Earliest records

The Alhambra hill is first mentioned in historical records during the reign of the Zirid dynasty.

1238 - The Nasrid Dynasty

The Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain, takes control of the Alhambra hill and begins construction of the fortress and palace complex.

1273-1302 - Construction of the Alcazaba

The Alhambra’s first ruler, Mohammed I, oversees the construction of the Alcazaba, the fortress that forms the oldest part of the complex.

1333-1391 - Construction of the Palace Complex

Yusuf I and his son Mohammed V oversee the construction of much of the palace complex, including the Court of Lions, the Hall of the Ambassadors, and the Comares Tower.

1492 - The Catholic Monarchs

The Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, conquer the city of Granada and the Alhambra becomes the royal court of the Christian Kingdom of Granada.

1526-1561 - Construction of the Palace of Charles V

Charles V orders the construction of the Palace of Charles V within the Alhambra complex.

1812-1870 - A period of neglect

The Alhambra falls into disrepair and is largely abandoned until the Romantic Era, when it is rediscovered by European travellers and restored by Spanish architects.

1828 - Tales of the Alhambra

Washington Irving, an American writer, publishes his book Tales of the Alhambra.

The book was a collection of stories and legends set in and around the Alhambra, and it helped to create a romanticised image of the site in the popular imagination.

1870-1890 - Major restoration works

A major restoration effort is undertaken by Spanish architects, including Rafael Contreras and Leopoldo Torres Balbás, who carry out repairs to the buildings and gardens of the Alhambra.

1923-1936 - José Contreras leads further restoration

Spanish architect and archaeologist, José Contreras, leads a major restoration effort that involves the reconstruction of several sections of the Alhambra, including the Mexuar Palace and the Alhambra’s main entrance.

1984 - World Heritage Status

The Alhambra is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2007 - Restoration of the Nasrid Palaces

A major restoration project is launched to repair and conserve the famous Nasrid Palaces, including the Court of the Lions and the Hall of the Abencerrajes.

2011 - A new visitor centre

A new visitor centre is opened to provide visitors with information about the history and architecture of the site.

2019 - Clean energy at the Alhambra

The Alhambra installs a solar energy system to generate clean energy and reduce its carbon footprint. The system consists of more than 2,500 solar panels and is expected to provide 30% of the site’s energy needs.

2020 - Covid measures

As the world shuts down, the Alhambra is closed to visitors for several months as part of Spain’s efforts to contain the spread of Covid-19.

When the site reopens to the public, new safety measures are put in place, including mandatory mask-wearing, reduced capacity, and increased sanitation procedures.

2021 - A cautious return to normality

The Alhambra continues to implement safety measures to protect visitors and staff during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

The site also begins to explore new ways to enhance the visitor experience, including the use of virtual reality and other digital technologies.

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Today, the Alhambra is considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world and is recognised as one of Spain’s most important and best-loved historical and cultural landmarks.

A symbol of Spain’s rich cultural heritage and a testament to the architectural and artistic achievements of the Muslim rulers who once controlled the region, it continues to be one of Spain’s most visited tourist destinations and a source of pride for the people of Granada and Spain.

Take a look at our Guide to the Alhambra for more information and tips on how to make the most of your visit.

Main image: The Palace of the Generalife

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