The Amazing Architecture of Spain's Alhambra

Qal’at al-Hamra Architecture and History

Ornate carved detail, arches and columns
Pavilion of the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra. Daniela Nobili/Getty Images (cropped)

Alhambra in Granada, Spain is not any one building but a complex of medieval and Renaissance residential palaces and courtyards wrapped within a fortress — a 13th century alcazaba or walled city within sight of Spain's Sierra Nevada mountain range. 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. 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.

The decorative beauty of 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.

Alhambra in Granada, Spain

looking through an ornately carved nterior arch into a room with other arches and arched clerestory windows with lattice over them
Alhambra Muslim Arch Carving at the Court of the Soultana, Generalife. Richard Baker In Pictures Ltd./Getty Images

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 Alhambra fascinating, mysterious, and architecturally iconic.

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.

Born in Spain about A.D. 1194, 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 until 1492. Mohammad I began work on Alhambra in 1238.

Alhambra, the Red Castle

large stone fort with mountains in the background
The Alhambra at Dusk in Granada, Spain. Michael Reeve/Getty Images

Alhambra was first built by the Zirites as a fortress or alcazaba in the 9th century. No doubt 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 Alhambra is one of the oldest parts of today's complex to be reconstructed after years of neglect. It is a massive structure. 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 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.

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.

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 rammed 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.

Architectural Characteristics and Vocabulary

detail of ornate ornamentation of stone walls above ornamented tile leading to a lattice-covered arched window and door
Intricate Detailing in Plaster and Tile. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mixing cultural influences is nothing new in 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 architectural historian 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 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:

alfiz the 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 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.

Muqarnas Example

looking up at the ceiling of an ornately carved room, an 8-pointed dome with 16 windows in the sides
Muqarnas and Dome in the Hall of Ambassadors at the Alhambra. Sean Gallup/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 (A.D.) 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.

Alhambra Palaces

ornately carved columns and domes
Palace of the Lions (Patio de los Leones). Francois Dommergues/Getty Images (cropped)

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.

Alhambra palaces were built during the Reconquista, an era of Spain's history generally considered between 718 and 1492. 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.

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

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 Irving called "the abode of beauty...as if it had been inhabited but yesterday...."

Court of the Lions

courtyard surrounded by carved columns leading to palaces, sculpture fountain with lions in the center, Alhambra Tourists mingle
Patio of the Lions. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The alabaster fountain of twelve water-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.

Court of the Myrtles

a courtyard of pathways and hedges surrounding a reflecting pool
The Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes). Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Court of the Myrtles or Patio de los Arrayanes is one of the oldest and best-preserved courtyards in 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.

El Partal

Reflecting Pool and Portico with palm trees
Partal Palace. Santiago Urquijo Zamora/Getty Images (cropped)

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

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 (B.C.) suggests the pagan Celts from the northwest and the Phoenicians from the East settled the area we call Spain — 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, the Germanic Visigoths had invaded from the north by land, but by the 8th century the peninsula had been invaded from the south by tribes from North Africa, including the Berbers, pushing the Visigoths northward. By 715, 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) and 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 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.

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

Generalife

looking down a tiled staircase to a multi-level courtyard
Palace Garden of the Sultans. Mike Kemp In Pictures Ltd./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.

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."

Alhambra Renaissance

Circular Courtyard surrounded by two-tiered porticos symmetrically formed with Renaissance columns
Palace Courtyard of Charles V. Marius Cristian Roman/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. Spain has a lot to look at — Alhambra is just one adventure.

Sources

  • Hamlin, Talbot. "Architecture Through the Ages." Putnam's, 1953, pp. 195-196, 201
  • Sanchez, Miguel, editor. "Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving." Grefol S. A. 1982, pp. 40-42