The Origins of the Alhambra as a Jewish Fortress

Although the Alhambra, the famous fortress-palace complex that sits magnificently on the Sabika hill overlooking Granada, is very much the product of the Nasrid dynasty (1238-1492) and has become the most recognizable symbol of al-Andalus, there is evidence to suggest that it was originally a palatial residence of the Jewish viziers of the Zirid dynasty (1013-1090). It is quite possible that before Granada rose to prominence as an Andalusi Muslim capital during the Taifa period, most of its population was Jewish, a fact that earned it the name “Gharnatah al-Yahud” (Granada of the Jews) by contemporary Muslims. Although there may have been a small fortification on the Sabika hill as early as 889, it was not until the early eleventh century that a Jewish vizier named Samuel ibn Naghrillah, or Samuel HaNagid (d. 1056), constructed a fortress on the hill and made it his residence. During the vizierate of Samuel’s son, Joseph, we have even clearer evidence of the construction of a fortification. The last Zirid emir of Granada, Abd Allah ibn Buluggin (d. 1095) records this fact in his memoirs, known as the Tibyan:

“Out of fear of the [increasingly-hostile] populace, Yusuf [ibn Naghrillah] moved from his house to the citadel (qasaba)…moreover, it is suspected that he had built for himself the Alhambra fortress (al-Hamra’) with a view to taking refuge there with his family…” This sentence, mentioned in passing, provides important evidence about the origins of the fortress-palace complex of the Alhambra. It seems, then, that the magnificent structure of the Alhambra owes its origins, at least in part, to a Jewish vizier. Moreover, as Abd Allah ibn Buluggin emphasizes, it became prominent because of its strategic location as a place of refuge for the elite from a potentially-hostile populace. Quite significant is the identification of the fortress by name as al-Hamra (Alhambra) which shows that it was known by this name almost two centuries before the advent of the Nasrids. The name (meaning “The Red Fortress”) probably stems from the red-colored brick which was used to construct it.


There is definitely a lot more that can be said about the role of Samuel HaNagid and his son Joseph in establishing the Alhambra as a fortified palatial residence in Granada, which was transformed from a village into an illustrious capital under the patronage and rule of the Zirids and these two Jewish viziers. Indeed, it is not without tragic irony that the infamous Edict of Expulsion, which ended the legal existence of Judaism in Spain, was signed by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 in the very same Alhambra.

Alhambra_DecreeSome additional reading about Granada and its Jewish population in the Middle Ages:

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