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Carleton College

Publication Date

Fall 2005

Program Name

Spain: Cultural Landscapes and the Arts


During the three years between my first visit to Spain and my arrival this past September, the one thing that stuck with me and continued to call my attention was the Alhambra. Upon experiencing this both historically and artistically important site, I felt completely enchanted, and a little mystified, by the grandeur of the architecture, the intricate decoration, and the extensive gardens. Since then I have enrolled in a university and have dedicated my studies there to Art History, therefore, there was no question that the Alhambra would be the perfect subject for my independent study. Although I knew before my arrival that I wanted to investigate the structure, decoration, and symbolism of this XIII century palace-city, it wasn’t until I had spent a significant amount of time in Granada talking with locals and observing the impact it has on the city that lies at its feet that my interest in the relationship between the Alhambra and the religion and society of its various inhabitants throughout history (including its present day usage as a historical tourist site) began to grow. In order to begin unravelling the answers to these questions, I started with what has already been discovered about the Alhambra and researched the history of its construction and its structural and decorative changes throughout history. With this core base of information, I then interviewed several art historians, specialists on Islamic architecture, as well as many residents of and visitors to Granada in order to obtain a wide perspective on the question of the Alhambra’s historical, as well as current, impact on the city of Granada. Taking all of this secondary information into consideration, I then visited the Alhambra on several occasions on my own in order to observe the site first-hand as well as note my personal reactions and opinions. The result of the aforementioned methodology is what follows. First, I have included a brief history of the Alhambra and its construction in order to give a general understanding of its evolution following the various sultans who resided there. Afterwards follows a room by room description and analysis of the decoration and its symbolism in the royal sector of the site. I also include in this portion any pertinent relationship the ornamentation may have to the Islamic religion and society, and the reactions, thoughts, and feelings extracted from my personal observations and various interviews as they pertain to each room. Upon completing this analysis, I found that I had not only learned an immense amount about the Alhambra, its history, and its decoration, but I also gained a true understanding of the importance of this city-palace within Granada. Through my various interviews with citizens, tourists, and historians of the Alhambra, as well as my own experience as a temporary citizen during these past three months, I was able to truly understand the Alhambra’s relation to the city, its citizens, and how it forms an inseparable part of their lives beginning in their childhood, and continuing to develop throughout their adulthood. Due to the depth in which I engaged myself in order to complete this project, my linguistic and cultural growth surpassed that which I had expected. The texts I read in order to gain a complete background of the architecture and composition of the palaces were very dense and full of new vocabulary which I quickly assimilated into my pre-existing knowledge in order to be able to fully understand the texts, and later use the information to extract as much as possible from the interviews. This experience, combined with my aforementioned discovery of the intense relationship between the Alhambra and the city of Granada which lies at its feet, helped me grow both culturally and linguistically in a very short period of time, yet it has impacted me so thoroughly that this project only marks the beginning of my research and investigation of the mysterious Alhambra and its numerous intricacies.


Architectural History and Criticism

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