While the Great Mosque of Cordoba, begun in 785, signals the advent of Muslim power on the Iberian Peninsula, the Alhambra Palace complex, built in Granada from 1354 to 1391, was the seat of the last great Moorish dynasty in Spain. Muslim traders had settled in southern Spain in the early 700s, after the Berber ruler Tarik conquered the Visigoths on the Iberian Peninsula. A few years later, in 750, the early Umayyad Dynasty, centered in Damascus, Syria, was overthrown by the Abbasids, and the last remaining members of the Umayyad royal family fled their capital and found refuge among Syrian expatriates living in southern Spain, which they had named Al-Andalus. While the Abbasid caliphs went on to establish their empire in Baghdad and Samarra and extended Islamic authority across the eastern world, the Umayyad family created a western empire, where Abd-al-Rahman I ruled as a local emir beginning in 756. This shift in dynastic power ultimately resulted in the dramatic expansion of Islam in western Europe, where the powerful Umayyad Dynasty of Cordoba ruled most of the Iberian Peninsula until 1031.
   Afterward, internal conflicts abetted Christian advances so that the Moors had to enlist the aid of the Almoravids from Marrakesh, who sailed across the Strait of Gibraltar and helped to stabilize Islamic rule for the next several hundred years. Despite this external aid, the Moors' economic power never fully recovered and was dealt a severe blow in 1063 when they lost control of the trade routes of the Mediterranean Sea to the Pisans of Italy. The definitive battle, incidentally, was celebrated in Pisa with the construction of the Pisa Cathedral Complex begun the following year. Nonetheless, the final Moorish Dynasty, the Nasrids, who governed from their capital in Granada from 1232 to 1492, carved out a rich culture that is seen today in the Alhambra, a palace complex built in Granada beginning in 1238 and adapted through the next several hundred years. The complex as it appears today is the result of a construction campaign that dates to the mid-1300s, and although subsequent Christian rulers either altered or destroyed several of the buildings, much of the complex was left intact, probably as a symbol of the vanquished Islamic rule.
   The Alhambra is a fortified complex of buildings surrounded by walls and towers. Located on a hilltop outside of Granada, it was largely self-sufficient. It included a fortified royal complex of six palaces, government buildings, mosques, barracks, servants' quarters, a mint, workshops, stables, bathhouses, and fountains, all set amid beautiful enclosed gardens that were meant to look like paradise on earth. The Palace of the Lions was the royal retreat of Muhammad V, who ruled from 1362 to 1391. It reveals a spectacular courtyard with a central fountain that has a basin elevated on the backs of a cluster of lions, all of whom face outward around the courtyard. The courtyard would originally have been used as a garden and planted with citrus trees and flowers. Above the courtyard, projecting balconies, called miradors, have open windows that overlook both the gardens and the valley below. Large rooms with pavilions that open onto the courtyard at the ground floor were used for entertainment, with music and selected poetry. One of the two-storied rooms, the Hall of the Abencerrajes, has a richly carved, star-shaped vaulted ceiling set on squinches rather than pendentives, which is Byzantine in origin. The entire dome is made up of a series of tiny niche arches called muqarnas that give the effect of a cave ceiling covered with stalactites, yet the ceiling appears to float up above the square room, weightless in appearance. The original Moorish walls reveal a complex surface decoration of richly colored stone intarsia and wood in arabesque patterns of densely interlinked geometric shapes and organic lines. The Palacio de Generalife has been altered, but its garden setting is thought to resemble its original Moorish format. The large pool in the Court of the Myrtles provided a sparkling reflective surface as well as a cool respite from the intense summer heat. The complex, with its sophisticated irrigation system that allowed for incredibly lush gardens, was repeatedly described with a mixture of admiration and wonder by visitors.
   The Moorish empire ended in 1492 when Isabella of Castile and Fernando II of Aragon unified much of the Iberian Peninsula with the Christian world. That same year, Christopher Columbus visited the king and queen in Granada and was received personally in the throne room at the Alhambra, where the queen agreed to fund his exploration. Subsequent Christian rulers continued to use the Alhambra, although some destroyed parts of the Moorish complex. Charles V in the 1500s tore down the winter palace to build his own Renaissance structure, while in the 1700s, Philip V updated many of the interiors and built his own palace in the complex. It was saved from Napoleon's attempted destruction in the early 1800s and has subsequently received the protection so long deserved as one of the most important travel destinations in all of Spain.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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