The Amazing Architecture of the Alhambra in Spain

Detailed Ornamentation at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain
Detailed Ornamentation at the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)
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Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Alhambra Muslim Arch Carving at the Court of the Soultana, Generalife
Alhambra Muslim Arch Carving at the Court of the Soultana, Generalife. Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures Ltd./Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The decorative marble beauty of the Alhambra seems out of place perched on a hilly terrace on the edge of Granada in southern Spain. Perhaps this incongruity is the intrigue and attraction for the many tourists around the world who are drawn to this Moorish paradise. Unraveling its mysteries can be a curious adventure.

The Alhambra is not any one building but a complex of medieval and Renaissance residential palaces and courtyards wrapped within a fortress—an alcazaba or walled city within sight of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The Alhambra became a city, complete with communal baths, cemeteries, places for prayer, gardens, and reservoirs of running water. It was the home for royalty, both Muslim and Christian—but not at the same time. The Alhambra's iconic architecture is characterized by stunning frescoes, decorated columns and arches, and highly ornamented walls that poetically tell the stories of a turbulent era in Iberian history.

Born in Spain about 1194 AD, Mohammad I is considered the first occupant and initial builder of Alhambra. He was the founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, the last Muslim ruling family in Spain. The Nasrid period of art and architecture dominated southern Spain from about 1232 AD until 1492 AD. Mohammad I began work on Alhambra in 1238 AD.

The Alhambra today combines both Moorish Islamic and Christian aesthetics. It is this melding of styles, associated with centuries of Spain's multi-cultural and religious history, that has made the Alhambra fascinating, mysterious, and architecturally iconic.

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Alhambra, the Red Castle

The Alhambra at Dusk in Granada, Spain
The Alhambra at Dusk in Granada, Spain. Photo by Michael Reeve/Moment/Getty Images

The Alhambra site has been historically rehabilitated, preserved, and accurately reconstructed for the tourist trade. The Museum of the Alhambra is housed in the Palace of Charles V or Palacio de Carlos V, a very large, dominating rectangular building constructed in the Renaissance style within the walled city. To the east is Generalife, a hillside royal villa outside the Alhambra walls, but connected by various access points. The "satellite view" on Google Maps gives an excellent overview of the entire complex, including the circular open courtyard within the Palacio de Carlos V.

Lost in Translation? Arabic in English:

The name "Alhambra" is generally thought to be from the Arabic Qal'at al-Hamra (Qalat Al-Hamra), associated with the words "castle of red." A qualat is a fortified castle, so the name might identify the sun-baked red bricks of the fortress, or the color of the red clay earth. As al- generally means "the," saying "the Alhambra" is redundant, yet it is often said. Likewise, although there are many Nasrid palace rooms in Alhambra, the entire site is often referred to as "the Alhambra Palace." Names of very old structures, like the buildings themselves, often change over time.

Alhambra in Context - A Little History, A Little Geography:

As is always the case in architecture, the location of Spain is important to its architecture.

To understand why Moorish architecture exists in Spain, it's helpful to know a little bit about the history and geography of Spain. Archeological evidence from centuries before the birth of Christ (BC) suggests the pagan Celts from the northwest and the Phoenicians from the East settled the area we call Spain today—the Greeks called these ancient tribes Iberians. The ancient Romans have left the most archeological evidence in what is today known as Europe's Iberian Peninsula. A peninsula is almost entirely surrounded by water, like the state of Florida, so the Iberian Peninsula has always been easily accessible to whatever power invaded.

By the 5th century AD, the Germanic Visigoths had invaded from the north by land, but by the 8th century, the peninsula was invaded from the south by tribes from North Africa, including the Berbers, pushing the Visigoths northward. By 715 AD, Muslims dominated the Iberian Peninsula, making Seville its capital. Two of the greatest examples of Western Islamic architecture still standing from this time include the Great Mosque of Cordoba (785 AD) and the Alhambra in Granada, which evolved over several centuries.

While medieval Christians established small communities, with Romanesque basilicas dotting northern Spain's landscape, the Moorish-influenced citadels, including the Alhambra, dotted the south well into the 15th century—until 1492 when the Catholic Ferdinand and Isabella captured Granada and sent off Christopher Columbus to discover America.

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Architectural Characteristics and Vocabulary

The Alhambra in Granada, Spain Is Well-Known for its Intricate Detailing in Plaster and Tile
The Alhambra in Granada, Spain Is Well-Known for its Intricate Detailing in Plaster and Tile. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Mixing cultural influences is nothing new to architecture—the Romans mixed with Greeks and Byzantine architecture blended ideas from the West and the East. When the followers of Muhammed "started on their career of conquest," as Professor Talbot Hamlin explains, "not only did they use again and again capitals and columns and bits of architectural detail taken piecemeal from Roman structures, but they had no hesitation whatsoever in using the skills of Byzantine craftsmen and of Persian masons in building and decorating their new structures."

Although located in Western Europe, the architecture of the Alhambra displays traditional Islamic details of the East, including column arcades or peristyles, fountains, reflecting pools, geometrical patterns, Arabic inscriptions, and painted tiles. A different culture not only brings new architecture, but also a new vocabulary of Arabic words to describe features unique to Moorish designs:

alfizthe horseshoe arch, sometimes called a Moorish arch

alicatado—geometric tile mosaics

Arabesque—an English-language word used to describe the intricate and delicate designs found in Moorish architecture—what Professor Hamlin calls a "love of surface richness."  So breathtaking is the exquisite craftsmanship that the word is also used to explain a delicate ballet position and a fanciful form of musical composition.

mashrabiya—an Islamic window screen

mihrab—prayer niche, usually in a Mosque, in a wall facing the direction of Mecca

muqarnas—honeycomb stalactite-like arching similar to pendentives for vaulted ceilings and domes

Combined in the Alhambra, these architectural elements influenced the future architecture not only of Europe and the New World, but also of Central and South America. Spanish influences throughout the world often include Moorish elements.

Source: Architecture Through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam's, 1953, pp. 195-196, 201

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Muqarnas Example

Muqarnas and Dome in the Alhambra
Muqarnas and Dome in the Alhambra. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Notice the angle of the windows leading up to the dome. The engineering challenge was to put a round dome on top of a square structure. Indenting the circle, creating an eight-pointed star, was the answer. The decorative and functional use of the muqarnas, a type of corbel to support the height, is similar to the use of pendentives. In the West, this architectural detail is often referred to as honeycomb or stalactites, from the Greek stalaktos, as its design appears to "drip" like icicles, cave formations, or like honey:

"Stalactites at first were structural elements—rows of small projecting corbels to fill in the upper corners of a square room to the circle required for a dome. But later stalactites were purely decorative—often of plaster or even, in Persia, of mirrored glass—and applied or hung to the actual hidden construction."—Professor Talbot Hamlin

The first dozen centuries anno Domini (AD) was a time of continued experimentation with interior height. Much of what was learned in Western Europe actually came from the Middle East. The pointed arch, so much associated with Western Gothic architecture, is thought to have originated in Syria by Muslim designers.

Source: Architecture Through the Ages by Talbot Hamlin, Putnam's, 1953, p. 196

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Alcazaba Citadel

Alhambra Palace and Moorish Albaicin Quarter, the Fortress
Alhambra Palace and Moorish Albaicin Quarter, the Fortress. Photo by Richard Baker In Pictures Ltd./Corbis Historical/Getty Images

The Alhambra was first built by the Zirites as a fortress or alcazaba in the 9th century. No doubt the Alhambra we see today was built upon the ruins of other ancient fortifications on this same site—an irregularly shaped strategic hilltop.

The Alcazaba of the Alhambra is one of the oldest parts of today's complex to be reconstructed after years of neglect. It is a massive structure, as shown by the size of the tourists in this photo. The Alhambra was expanded into a royal residential palaces or alcazars beginning in 1238 and the rule of the Nasrites, a Muslim domination that ended in 1492. The Christian ruling class during the Renaissance modified, renovated, and expanded the Alhambra. The Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), the Christian ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, is said to have torn down part of the Moorish palaces in order to build his own, larger residence.

Alhambra Palaces

Alhambra has restored three Nasrid Royal Palaces (Palacios Nazaries)—Comares Palace (Palacio de Comares); Palace of the Lions (Patio de los Leones); and the Partal Palace. The Charles V palace is not Nasrid but was built, abandoned, and restored for centuries, even up to the 19th century.

The Alhambra palaces were built during the Reconquista, an era of Spain's history generally considered between 718 AD and 1492 AD. In these centuries of the Middle Ages, Muslim tribes from the south and Christian invaders from the north battled to dominate the Spanish territories, inevitably mingling European architectural features with some of the finest examples of what Europeans called architecture of the Moors.

Mozarabic describes Christians under Muslim rule; Mudéjar describes the Muslims under Christian dominance. The muwallad or muladi are people of mixed heritage. Alhambra's architecture is all-inclusive.

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Court of the Lions

Patio of the Lions with Alhambra Tourists
Patio of the Lions with Alhambra Tourists. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The alabaster (or marble) fountain of twelve spewing lions at the center of the court is often the highlight of an Alhambra tour. Technically, the flow and recirculation of water in this court was an engineering feat for the 14th century. Aesthetically, the fountain exemplifies Islamic art. Architecturally, the surrounding palace rooms are some of the best examples of Moorish design. But it may be the mysteries of spirituality that bring people to the Court of the Lions.

Legend has it that the sounds of chains and moaning multitudes can be heard across the Court—stains of blood cannot be removed—and the spirits of the North African Abencerrages, murdered in a nearby Royal Hall, continue to roam the area. They do not suffer in silence.

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Palace of the Lions

Ornate Columns and Arches of the Alhambra Palace of the Lions
The Alhambra Palace of the Lions. Photo by Francois Dommergues/Moment/Getty Images (cropped)

The Moorish architecture of Spain is known for its intricate plaster and stucco works—some originally in marble. The honeycomb and stalactite patterns, the non-Classical columns, and the open grandeur leave a lasting impression on any visitor. American author Washington Irving famously wrote about his visit in the 1832 book Tales of The Alhambra.

"The architecture, like that of all the other parts of the palace, is characterized by elegance rather than grandeur, bespeaking a delicate and graceful taste and a disposition to indolent enjoyment. When one looks upon the fairy tracery of the peristyles and the apparently fragile fretwork of the walls, it is difficult to believe that so much has survived the wear and tear of centuries, the shocks of earthquakes, the violence of war and the quiet, though no less baneful, pilferings of the tasteful traveller, it is almost sufficient to excuse the popular tradition that the whole is protected by a magic charm."—Washington Irving, 1832

Source: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, editor Miguel Sánchez, Grefol S. A. 1982, p. 41

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Court of the Myrtles

The Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes)
The Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes). Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Court of the Myrtles or Patio de los Arrayanes is one of the oldest and best-preserved courtyards in the Alhambra. The brilliant green myrtle bushes accentuate the whiteness of the surrounding stone. In author Washington Irving's day it was called the Court of the Alberca:

"We found ourselves in a great court, paved with white marble and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles....In the centre was an immense basin or fishpond, a hundred and thirty feet in length by thirty in breadth, stocked with gold-fish and bordered by hedges of roses. At the upper end of this court rose the great Tower of Comares."—Washington Irving, 1832

The crenelated battlement Torre de Comares is the tallest tower of the old fort. Its palace was the original residence of the first Nasrid royalty.

Source: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, editor Miguel Sánchez, Grefol S. A. 1982, pp. 40-41

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Graphic Poems

Ornated carved detail, arches and columns, Pavilion of the Court of the Lions, the Alhambra
Pavilion of the Court of the Lions, the Alhambra. Photo by Daniela Nobili/Moment/Getty Images (cropped)

It is well-known that poems and stories ornament the Alhambra walls. The calligraphy of Persian poets and the transcriptions from the Koran make many of the Alhambra surfaces what American writer Washington Irving called "the abode of if it had been inhabited but yesterday...."

The word influences. Reportedly it was Irving's Tales of the Alhambra adventures in the 19th century that led to the naming of the Southern California city, Alhambra, California, incorporated in 1903.

Source: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, editor Miguel Sánchez, Grefol S. A. 1982, p. 42

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El Partal

Pool and Portico of the Partal Palace in Alhambra
Pool and Portico of the Partal Palace in Alhambra. Photo by Santiago Urquijo Zamora/Moment/Getty Images (cropped)

One of the oldest palaces of Alhambra, the Partal, and its surrounding ponds and gardens date back to the 1300s.

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Partal Palace

Moorish Architectural Details Inside the Partal Palace
Moorish Architectural Details Inside the Partal Palace. Photo by Mike Kemp In Pictures Ltd./Corbis News/Getty Images

Nobody calls these clerestory windows, yet here they are, tall on the wall as if part of a Gothic cathedral. Although not extended as oriel windows, the mashrabiya lattice is both functional and decorative—bringing Moorish beauty to windows that have been associated with Christian churches.

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Court of Water Channel (Patio de la Acequia) in the Generalife area of the Alhambra in Spain
Court of Water Channel (Patio de la Acequia) in the Generalife area of the Alhambra in Spain. Photo by Mike Kemp In Pictures Ltd./Corbis News/Getty Images

As if the Alhambra complex is not large enough to accommodate royalty, another section was developed outside the walls. Called Generalife, it was constructed to emulate the paradise described in the Koran, with gardens of fruit and rivers of water. It was a retreat for Islamic royalty when Alhambra just got too busy.

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Multi-Level Generalife Area

The Alhambra Palace Garden of the Sultans
The Alhambra Palace Garden of the Sultans. Photo by Mike Kemp In Pictures Ltd./Corbis News/Getty Images

The terraced Gardens of the Sultans in the Generalife area are early examples of what Frank Lloyd Wright might call organic architecture. Landscape architecture and hardscaping take the form of the hilltop. It is generally accepted that the name Generalife derives from Jardines del Alarife, meaning "Garden of the Architect."

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Alhambra Renaissance

Circular Courtyard of the Palace of Charles V, The Alhambra
Circular Courtyard of the Palace of Charles V, The Alhambra. Photo by Marius Cristian Roman/Moment/Getty Images (cropped)

Spain is an architectural history lesson. Beginning with the underground burial chambers of prehistoric times, the Romans in particular have left their Classical ruins upon which newer structures were built. Pre-Romanesque Asturian architecture in the north pre-dated the Romans and influenced the Christian Romanesque basilicas built along the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. The rise of the Muslim Moors dominated southern Spain in the Middle Ages, and when the Christians took back their country the Mudéjar Muslims remained. Mudéjar Moors from the 12th to 16th centuries did not convert to Christianity, but the architecture of Aragon shows they left their mark.

Then there is Spanish Gothic of the 12th century and Renaissance influences even at Alhambra with the Palace of Charles V—the geometry of the circular courtyard within the rectangular building is so, so Renaissance.

Spain didn't escape the 16th century Baroque movement or all of the "Neo-s" that followed—neoclassical et al. And now Barcelona is the city of modernism, from the surreal works of Anton Gaudi to skyscrapers by the latest Pritzker Prize winners.  If Spain didn't exist, someone would have to invent it.