You’ve probably visited the Alhambra and enjoyed its pools, fountains and gardens, but where does all this water come from?
Let’s get to know the Acequia Real de la Alhambra, the medieval canal that supplied the Alhambra with water. This article is not only about history, we are also going to get to know a highly valuable natural area and we are going to propose a hiking route along the Alhambra’s irrigation channels. It is one of the essential places to see near the Alhambra.
What you will find here
THE ACEQUIA REAL OF THE ORIGINAL ALHAMBRA
The Royal Canal of the Alhambra or Sultan’s Canal (al-sāqilla al-Sultān) is the canal that supplied water to the Alhambra for almost 3 centuries. The canal starts 6 kilometres upstream from the Darro River. It is important not to confuse it with the Acequia Gorda, which starts from the river Genil and is also called Real.
NOTE: The Acequia Real cannot be explored in its entirety for various reasons. Part of its route has been lost, some sections were built in galleries and some areas are difficult to access. We describe the Acequia Real, but the path we propose is that of the 16th century irrigation channel. Both irrigation channels run parallel to each other at different heights.
THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE ALHAMBRA
Building an irrigation channel to carry water to the Alhambra was not only necessary to cover vital, spiritual or hygiene needs; it was especially necessary for the construction of the Alhambra itself, as a large quantity of water was needed for the construction of the walls. So much so that we could consider the Acequia Real as the germ or origin of the Alhambra.
Muhammad I, the first sultan and founder of the Nasrid dynasty of Granada, was well aware of the urgency of bringing water to the hill of the Sabika (the hill on which the Alhambra stands). He ordered the construction of the al-sāqilla al-Sultān, the Sultan’s Ditch or Royal Ditch. With the water from the ditch Muhammad I built much of the original walled enclosure.
The Alhambra is the result of more than 200 years of building activity.
From the mid-13th century until the conquest in 1492, Granada continued to grow. This was mainly due to the advance of the Castilian armies and the deterioration of relations between the different religions. But we could devote another post to this subject.
THE WATER FROM THE DARRO
Under the name of Parque Natural la Sierra de Huétor several mountain ranges are grouped together. One of them, the Sierra de la Alfaguara, gives rise to the river Darro. Its source is at the Fuente de la Teja. The tile is one of the objects used to make the water flow. The ceramic tile is driven deep into the ground and through its convex surface the water is extracted from the earth.
The Teja spring is supplied with water through the limestone karst system of the sierra (very close to the spring is the Cueva de los Mármoles). Other minor tributaries such as the Colmenar and Belén streams and the river Beas also join the Darro.
The waters of the Darro in its upper reaches are of extraordinary quality and purity. They sheltered trout and crabs until the 1990s. Further downstream, the riverbed is affected by untreated water discharges from neighbouring villages. Do you want to know more about water quality in Granada?
THE DAM OF THE ACEQUIA REAL
We do not know whether it was by means of a dam or a weir that the water was diverted to the left bank of the Darro. The present dam dates from the 16th century with later alterations and diverts the water to the right bank (later the irrigation channel will cross the river). It is a 10-minute walk upriver from Jesús del Valle. Remember that at the end of the post we leave you a map to locate all the places.
JESÚS DEL VALLE
It is not directly related to the Acequia Real, but forms part of our route. The cortijo or hacienda of Jesús del Valle is a Jesuit farm from the late 16th century. Although not in the hands of this religious order, it was in operation until well into the 20th century.
The complex had a large courtyard, residential buildings, chapel, vaulted spaces, confessionals, crypt, wine press, corrals, storerooms, oil mill, flour mill, etc. Although remnants of the machinery of the mills remain, it has been ransacked on several occasions and is in a state of ruin.
THE ACEQUIA DE LOS DOS TERCIOS AND THE LADERA DEL CERRO DEL SOL
The Acequia Real (Royal Canal) maintains its height and separates from the river as it advances along the left bank of the Darro riverbed. After crossing the large ravine of Las Tinajas, it heads towards the Alhambra, crossing smaller ravines. It was built in two ways: excavated in the ground itself or in a gallery, i.e. underground.
If we are on the north face of the Cerro del Sol, from a certain point the irrigation channel is known as the acequia de los Dos Tercios. This is due to the fact that years after its construction a branch at a greater height was taken out (see below).
The galleries were used to bridge areas with a steep slope on the slope of the Cerro del Sol. There are areas that are almost vertical, especially in the ravines. The type of rock of this mountain, the conglomerates, allow digging with some ease.
The Acequia Real continues until it enters the Generalife itself. From there it would irrigate the famous orchards of the Generalife.
EL ALBERCÓN DE LAS DAMAS
This is a large pond where water was stored in the upper part of the Generalife. This infrastructure guaranteed the water supply in times of shortage. But it seems that it was also a place for recreation, as a platform was built in the upper part as a lookout for contemplation and rest for the Nasrid nobility (here you have an article with all the lookouts of Granada.
There was only one problem, and that is that the Acequia Real was at a lower level than the albercón de las Damas, so it was necessary to build an underground gallery and a waterwheel to bring the water up to there.
THE THIRD WATERSHED
In the middle of the 14th century, a partition was built in the Acequia Real. From there, a branch was started which kept the level better and allowed the water to be taken directly to the Damas reservoir. From this point onwards, the Acequia Real was divided in two.
- La acequia de los Dos Tercios. With two thirds of the flow.
- La acequia del Tercio. With a third of the flow and a greater height.
The abundance of water at a higher elevation allowed the cultivation of the market gardens of La Mercería and Fuente Peña, and even diverted part of the water towards the Mauror (the slope of Alhambra Palace and Torres Bermejas).
THE ROYAL DITCH WITHIN THE ALHAMBRA
We have already seen the route before arriving at the Alhambra, now let’s go inside the “red fortress”. The irrigation channel enters through an aqueduct next to the Water Tower. You can imagine the reason for its name. From there the Acequia Real would run through the highest part of the Alhambra, that is to say, through the Secano along Calle Real Alta. Another branch probably ran along Calle Real Baja.
In the “Secano” was the medina of the Alhambra and variousindustries such as potteries and tanneries. Along its route, the irrigation channel split into cauchiles (minor irrigation channels) which fed workshops, houses, gardens and baths. Several fragments of the irrigation channel are still preserved, but the most interesting can be seen in the Museum of the Alhambra itself, under the Palace of Charles V.
Presumably the Acequia Real reached the Alcazaba of the Alhambra, but archaeologically it has not been documented. In the Plaza de los Aljibes there was a moat in medieval times, which must have been saved with a siphon.
THE ACEQUIA OF THE 16th CENTURY
The one you can walk along today is the modern 16th century irrigation channel. It is part of the important alterations made by the Christians to supply water to Granada and the Alhambra.
Although it starts from the same place as the Acequia Real, it is laid out at a higher elevation. It was built almost entirely in a gallery making even better use of the land and increasing the water flow. This is the path that we suggest you take on the hiking route described below.
MORE NAZARI ACEQUIAS AND RUINS
We are not going to spend too much time on this section as it is not the aim of this post. But we do want to at least mention the following irrigation ditches and ruins for you to keep in mind.
The Arquillos irrigation channel is best known for running along the southern slope of the Cerro del Sol. However, on the north side there is a little-known diversion which supplied water to a large pool(the Alberca Rota) through a system of galleries and wells. It is situated above the modern 16th century irrigation channel.
THE RUINS OF THE NAZARIAN PALACES OF THE CERRO DEL SOL
The water from the Arquillos irrigation channel reached the well known as Alberca Rota. From there it must have irrigated part of the Dehesa del Generalife and was probably channelled to one of the palaces nearby.
Above the Alhambra are at least two well-known palaces. The Alixares (in the area of the present-day cemetery) and Dar al-Arusa, just above the Generalife. We talked about all this in “Around the Alhambra“.
The Romayla irrigation channelis older than the Acequia Real. It is thought to have been built in the 11th century to supply water to part of the present-day district of La Churra or Almanzora. It follows the same orientation as the Acequia Real, but at a much lower elevation.
On the hillside opposite and next to the Sacromonte road runs another irrigation channel that carried water to the lower part of the Albaicín, called Axares in the Middle Ages. It was also built in the 11th century. Along its route it crosses several ravines with bridges, some of which can still be seen.
After learning about its history you will probably feel like visiting it. As we mentioned at the beginning, it is difficult to walk the entire length of the Acequia Real. The path that accompanies it is very narrow and sometimes you get lost as the irrigation channel is dug into the rock. So we propose a mixed route between the Acequia Real and Acequia Moderna. Both run parallel with a few metres of height difference. Along the route we will cross the Acequia Real a couple of times and we will see it almost constantly from the road.
It is a circular route starting and finishing in Granada. We leave a Google map at the end.
- We start from the Paseo de los Tristes. We walk up the slope of El Chapiz to the Camino del Sacromonte. On the way we walk along the Romayla irrigation channel.
- We follow the path of Sacromonte which links up with the path of Beas.
- From the asphalt we turn onto a dirt track until we reach a fence. At this point you have to cross the river. There is a bridge and an old mill in ruins.
- We now continue ascending the river, but this time along a path on the left bank of the river, next to an irrigation channel and dense vegetation.
- About 800 metres further on, you will come to a wide area with a bank made of logs and a small dam that diverts the water towards the irrigation channel that you have been following. Two paths start from here:
- One through a bridge that crosses the river, would be the way to continue to Jesús del Valle and the Presa Real. Lthe route will be a long one. It would be 1 hour more to get to the Presa Real and back. In the map we leave you the route.
- The other is a path that first flattens out and then starts to climb. The climb is quite steep and slippery in winter, but it is short. This second path climbs up through the shade and will take you to the old irrigation ditches. On the way up, remember to take the second path that crosses the path on the way up. The first is the Acequia Real, the second is the 16th century irrigation ditch.
- Once reached, this will be your path until you reach almost the very gates of the Generalife. You will enjoy a fantastic Mediterranean forestand views of the city that are hard to forget. You will have to cross an aqueduct and you will find the galleries that were built for the maintenance of the irrigation channel.
- In the last ravine, before reaching the Generalife you have to descend a little until you reach a section of the Tercio irrigation channel that currently carries water (we leave a photo to identify the place on the map). Once there you will walk along a magnificentwalk next to the irrigation channel and with lush vegetation.
- On reaching the Generalife itself, a winding path will lead you to the path of the Fountain of the Hazel Tree. And from there to the Paseo de los Tristes. Remember, everything is indicated on the map at the end of the post.
There are other ways to access and other possible routes. We like this one because you don’t need to use any vehicle and it starts from the city of Granada itself.
DATA ON THE PATH OF THE ROYAL ACEQUIA
Water sources. There are few water sources along the way, so we recommend that you carry a reusable water bottle for the trail. You should also bring some food to replenish your strength. On the map we also indicate the fountains.
Duration. Depends on the pace and the stops, but it would be between 3 and 4 hours.
Distance. Without going as far as the Presa Real it is approximately 9 km. If we wanted to get to the source of the irrigation channel it would be about 50 minutes and 4 km more.
Best time. We are very heavy on this subject, but autumn and spring are spectacular in the Darro Valley. Not only for the vegetation, but also for the temperature and the cloudy sunsets.
REDUCTION OF AN OLD FOREST IN THE VALLEY OF DARRO
Throughout the entire route we are visiting natural areas. But there is one area that is particularly interesting for the quantity and quality of its vegetation. As we ascend to connect with the irrigation channel we enter a Mediterranean forest of autochthonous vegetation. It is a leafy area of holm oaks, gall oaks and some oaks, willows and hackberry trees.
Granada is surrounded by Sierras with more or less natural forests. However, the proximity of this area to the capital and its location in the Darro valley make it an important lung of the city.
This autochthonous forest is a refuge for numerous plant and animal species. Some of its treasures are the 19 types of butterflies; the long-eared owl, the little owl and the eagle owl; mammals such as the hedgehog, the fox and 5 species of bats; and reptiles such as the ocellated lizard.
This is a route to get to know, among others, these historic irrigation channels. The best option if you are looking for a guided walking route themed around the water of Granada. Following the different watercourses we will find archaeological remains, nature and moving water.
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MAP OF THE ROYAL WATER WAYS TOUR
And here is the map so you can get your bearings through the Darro valley and the Acequia. We have added photos in some key places so you don’t end up in Almeria.
“ALL THE INFO ABOUT THE ALHAMBRA IN A GUIDE TO THE PALATINE CITY“
BOOK ABOUT THE ACEQUIA REAL
If you can’t come to Granada to see this marvel of Andalusian engineering, here is a recommended reading that is not to be missed: La Acequia Real de la Alhambra, by Juan Antonio Vilar.
To write these complete and diverse articles we are always helped by friends who know the land or the subject well. In this case we have been helped by José Manuel, a resident of Alfacar; Juanjo Cabrera, a great connoisseur of water in Granada who has provided us with fundamental documents; and Bruno Alcaraz, a heritage professional who has clarified some ideas for us.
For the historical documentation we have used some works by Manuel Pérez, also a friend and archaeologist by profession. Other authors consulted: Juan Antonio Vilar, Rafael Cortés Gimeno and Leopoldo Torres Balbás.
To continue to learn more about this subject you should continue reading Juan Antonio Vilar, Cristina Viñes Millet or María Angustias Moreno Olmedo among others. And to continue discovering Granada, you can come to know about our guided tours.