Red Castle: A Photographer’s View of the Iconic Alhambra in Spain

The Alhambra dazzles from its station overlooking Granada. The Sierra Nevada mountains appear in the background, brooding sentries, keeping a stern eye on the treasure they are tasked to guard.

Transcendental. Whether seen on its perch on Granada’s Sabika hill against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada or from the inside, where 13th- and 14th-century Muslim artisans, using the most advanced techniques of their time, fashioned an interior so surreal, it leaves the mind disoriented.

There is no other way to describe Spain’s al-qala’a al-hamra (red castle), commonly known as ‘the Alhambra’.

‘wa la-ghalib-illa-lah / And there is no victor but Allah’ proclaims the repeating motif.
Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions)

In the 12th century, with Muslim power in al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) in decline, a minor but ambitious local strongman by the name of Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr ibn al-Ahmar founded an emirate in Granada that became the last Muslim bastion in Spain and set off a golden age that lasted for three centuries. It was his descendants – the Nasrid sultans – who took it upon themselves to build a fortified palace complex that was then, and now, one of the finest buildings in all of Europe.

Patio de la Acequia (Patio of the Water Channel)

The elegant and graceful ‘Generalife’ garden complex – part of the sultan’s summer estate – was meant to evoke heaven on Earth. ‘Generalife’ is from the Arabic jannat al- ‘arif meaning ‘the Master’s paradise’.

Walkway to the emir’s summer palace
Palacio Nazaríes (Nasrid Palace) as seen from gardens of Generalife

Forbidden by Islam to depict the human form, Muslim architects and craftsmen perfected the art of doing more with less, relying instead on geometry, symmetry, and play of light and shadow to signal the presence of Divine Order in their creations. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Alhambra.

Ceramic tiles replicating geometric patterns that occur in nature alongside Arabic verses, all bathed in light filtered through elaborately carved wooden screens.
Patio de los Leones. The 124 columns holding up the pavilions are symmetrical on numerous axes. Note the complexity and intricacy of the vegetal patterns as well as the decorative stalactites that are unique to Moorish architecture.
In Granada, the Alhambra is an inescapable sight. The Alhambra returns the favor.
Facade of the Patio of the Gilded Room. Bottom-center features the 8-pointed star, an Islamic square pattern from overlaying two squares at a 45-degree angle. A legacy of Spanish colonial rule, this pattern is seen frequently in traditional architecture in Southern California.

The Alhambra was not just a summer estate – it served an important function as a fort, as evidenced by the presence of the Alcazaba (Arabic ‘al-qasaba’ or ‘fortification’) on its western tip.

Torre del la Vela (Watchtower)
Granada’s rootops as seen from Alcazaba.
The Cathedral of Granada, built on top of Granada’s former mosque, is visible in the distance.

Granada’s Muslim era ended in 1492, decline set in, and the Alhambra was forgotten. It wasn’t until the 19th century that it returned to the public imagination, mostly through the efforts of American writer Washington Irving.

(The Sabika was) the crown on the forehead of Granada, and the Alhambra (May God safeguard it!), the ruby at the peak of the crown. –14th century poet, Ibn Zarmak

Patio de los Leones.

About the author: Talha Najeeb is a self-taught landscape, travel, and street photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Najeeb’s work on his website, Flickr, and Twitter. This article was also published here.