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The Otherworldly Alhambra

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

The mostly 13th century palace is a studied combination of science, statecraft, and mysticism.

The Alhambra began its life on the ruins of a Roman fortress, remade in the late 9th century as "The Red Fort" for the ruling Caliphate in Spain. Much of its outside appearance is the fortifications, with the palace within its walls. The palace embodies the height of architectural beauty, technology, and prestige messaging for its time.

The View from Below

The fortress overlooks the river valley and the opposing hill, which comprise the medieval city of Granada. This medieval fountain may have been made by Christian or Jewish artisans in the city, because its decoration is figural (note the faces on the spouts), possibly after the expulsion of Muslims from Spain in 1492. I couldn't find even an approximate date for this fountain.

View from the Albayzin

Here is a wider view of the Alhambra, from the opposite hill, where the Albayzin neighborhood lies. As you can see, the palace complex is quite extensive, and this photo cuts off more of it sprawling to the right.

When you enter the Alhambra, you are processed through the gates of the fort, with twisting and constricting passages, to make it more difficult for an army to lay siege. Once you are inside, you can move through a series of increasingly glamorous palace and patio settings.

Patio of the Myrtles

The Patio of the Myrtles contains a great reflecting pool, stretching before the Comares Palace. Water, then as now, was a precious resource in the arid environment (even with the abundant snows in the Sierra Nevada looming to the west). This reflecting pool (as well as numerous other water features in the palace complex) was a majestic demonstration of conspicuous consumption. It also permitted a view of the palace in reflection, which suggested symbolically two worlds--the earthly and the otherworldly, with the Caliph at the nexus of both. The complex is framed with poetry, prayers, and symbols inscribed all over it, and embodied in its architecture. Church and state would never have been thought of as separate in this time (among any of the monotheisms)--the ruler was the agent for God, and the palace (which contains mosques, some more private than others) followed the observances and conventions of Islamic rule.

Here is the view from the Comares palace side, with rooms, I was told, apportioned to the royal women in the complex. Note the vivid tiles on the wall, called azulejos.

Within the Hall of the Ambassadors, a throne room, one finds a stunning ceiling, comprised of an 8000-piece cedar-wood mosaic.

The Seven Heavens

The ceiling is said to be a representation of the seven heavens of Islam. The throne of the caliph is placed beneath it. A guide also told me that the construction of the dome is based in the Pythagorean theorem: indeed, you can see at the layers of the corners where equilateral triangles are bisected into right-triangles. I admire how, with limited light in the room, the ceiling glows and the stars spin and hover in a bedazzling manner. The wood is lacquered in an iridescent substance which adds to the glow of the pieces.

Sculpting Infinity

In the Hall of the Abencerrages, one finds a very different kind of magnificent dome. Here (as in many spaces within the Alhambra), muqarnas (a sculpting method which transitions a building's dimensions upwards from one geometric form, such as a rectangle, to another; in this case the transition is first to an eight-pointed star, and then to a multi-foliate rose at the peak. The muqarnas technology comes from Ancient Persia, and in Islam, symbolizes the creation of the universe by God--a transformative fractal wave of growing complexity (or, when it emanates to a point, a way of showing the center of all creativity as coming from God). From an architectural/aesthetic standpoint, creating all the many facets causes light that hits it to bounce around and diffuse, giving the light in the room a glowing quality. This light would give the Caliph holding court here a kind of radiant halo, which would dazzle the visitors coming in from the darker passageways.

"God Alone is the Victor"

In the stucco wall above, a band of poetry runs along the dado border, while above each blue-backed section contains a calligraphic design to embody a slogan of praise to God.

Christian cathedrals have been referred to as "the poor man's bible," meaning that they are figural to tell stories for those not rich enough to be literate and own prayerbooks. And while there was a mystical devotion in Christianity to the "logos" (from the Gospel of St. John, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." "Word" = "Logos"), literacy was not a ritual element of Christianity on such a profound scale as it was in Judaism and Islam. The Alhambra is not a poor man's text, but a rich and powerful one's, and all over it is written prayers and poems about the powers and beauty of God, as well as moral instruction to rule well, and to respect rule. "God alone is the Victor" is inscribed over 9000 times in the walls of the Alhambra. It's an injunction to realize that all power and success derives from following the will of God.

The Word (usually recited) resonates in all three Western monotheisms, but the written word is invoked in Islamic architecture as a consecration.

Same Feature, Different Concept

Though pillars are pretty much as old as architecture itself, the Romans' use of decorative capitals influenced their design and use in prestige buildings all around the Mediterranean and wherever their empire held sway. Christian architects were strategic about when and where they used columns with capitals as ornamental elements, and when they employed narrative or symbolic elements in capitals. Western Islam (from what Westerners call the "Middle East" and across the Mediterranean to Al-Andalus, as opposed to Eastern or Asian Islam) was emphatically aniconic--it forbade representations of living creatures or people, to avoid idolatry. In the Alhambra, the decoration throughout goes so far as to ensure that even plants are alluded to, rather than realistically portrayed. This capital has scrolling curves which suggest vines, and has a cross-hatched pyramidal form which is reminiscent of pine cones (a fertility symbol), but the only certain messaging is the calligraphy (and even it is very stylized), as seen in the top and bottom banding.

An Absence to Invoke Presence

The Alhambra is overwhelming with its ornaments, colors, dimensions, and messages, but there are places which are relatively bare. I *think* this niche is a mihrab--a space which orients a person toward the direction of prayer in Islam. (Early Christians used to orient their prayers toward Jerusalem, but abandoned this practice during the Middle Ages.) The only reason I'm hesitant is that the hallway is very narrow, and so there's not much space to have a gathering of people to pray, since that requires prostrating oneself. Nonetheless, there were places of prayer for the Caliph's household, and for visitors. If this isn't a mihrab, it certainly bears a striking resemblance to one, as seen in the Cordoba Mosque's mihrab.

There's Always an Exception

During a massive restoration project in 2018, conservators uncovered three early-15th-century frescoes, in vaults on the porch of the Hall of the Kings. This central one depicts the first ten kings of the Nasrid dynasty's rule (the Nasrid kings built and ruled from the Alhambra). The figures are striking in their individual differences (hair color, eyes, expressions). The other two vaults have scenes of hunting and chivalry, and aren't as skilled in execution as this one. Note the two heraldic bosses on either end (supported by little lions as standard-bearers) and the straight-scabbards for their swords--these elements give the piece a medieval Christendom feel. The research into the frescoes is ongoing, but early speculation is that the frescoes were executed by Christian, or Christian-influenced artists, because, hey, these are figural! They show people (and in the others, animals). It may be that the last Nasrid kings had developed a sensibility about representation that ran very much against their fellow-Muslims outside of Europe.

In my next post, I'll focus on the other exception to the non-figural rule: The Patio of the Lions.


Carolyn Whitson
Carolyn Whitson
Mar 16, 2021

Thank you, Sonia! I love getting responses to my posts--I get to see these images and places with new eyes. I hope you get back to the Alhambra one day--it's never the same place twice.


The Alhambra is one of my favorite places. Knowing the history helps me interpret what I’m seeing. You share your knowledge and love of this topic, changing the way I experience these different places. Thank You!

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