Architecture of the Alhambra

The Alhambra is a palace and fortress in Granada, Spain. It is an essential and best-preserved Islamic architectural site.  

Its name is thought to derive from the Arabic “Qal’at al-Hamra” (the Red Castle), likely referring to the red clay bricks used in its construction. 

Construction started in the mid-13th century under Muhammad ibn al Ahmar, the Emir of Granada. Yusuf I finished it a century later. 

It gained World Heritage status in 1984 for its beauty, Moorish and Andalusian influences, and regional changes over time.

Alhambra is a mix of medieval and Renaissance palaces and courtyards, nestled within a fortress. It housed both Muslim and Christian royalty, but never at the same time.

This fortress, called an alcazaba, sits near Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. It evolved into a city with baths, cemeteries, prayer spots, gardens, and water reservoirs. 

The architecture features stunning frescoes, columns, and walls, which elegantly depict Iberia’s turbulent history.

Alhambra’s strategic hilltop location, strong fortifications, and lavish palatial parts draws in thousands of tourists, looking for a Moorish paradise. 

Architectural Features and Design

The architecture of the Alhambra is special for its elegant combination of Islamic and Christian features. 

This is obvious in the mashrabiya lattice windows, which are both practical and decorative. 

The Alhambra displays traditional Islamic features such as column arcades, fountains, reflecting pools, geometrical patterns, and intricate Arabic inscriptions. 

These elements influenced European architecture, introducing a new vocabulary of Arabic terms to describe unique Moorish designs. Key features include:

  • Alfiz: The horseshoe arch, characteristic of Moorish architecture.
  • Alicatado: Geometric tile mosaics.
  • Arabesque: Intricate designs characteristic of Moorish art.
  • Mashrabiya: Islamic window screens.
  • Mihrab: Prayer niche in mosques.
  • Muqarnas: Honeycomb-like structures supporting domes and ceilings.

The creativity of the Alhambra architecture is evident in its various palaces, including the Comares Palace, the Palace of the Lions, and the Partal Palace. 

Although not Nasrid, the Palaces of Charles V also form part of the complex, showcasing a mix of Islamic and Renaissance styles.

The Nasrid Palaces in the Alhambra are known for their ethereal and personal feel, which is achieved through perfectly planned courtyards, water features, gardens, and beautifully sculpted stucco and tile embellishments. 

Plaster covers the walls, typically made of rammed earth, lime concrete, or brick, while timber elements are utilized for roofs, ceilings, doors, and window shutters. 

The style emphasizes interior beauty, with courtyards having ponds or fountains in the center, bordered by arcaded porticoes and miradors.

The architecture uses a mathematical proportionate approach for achieving visual harmony. 

The plan was created with climate in mind, and it contains features such as water channels for cooling and sunlight control to promote comfort throughout the year. 

Upper-floor rooms are smaller and more enclosed, making them ideal for winter use, whereas courtyards’ orientation allows for maximum sunlight and shade management.

Decoration and Inscriptions

The decorative elements of the Alhambra extensively use carved stucco, mosaic tilework, and wood. 

Stucco decorations include vegetative arabesques, epigraphic motifs, geometric shapes, and sebka designs, which are frequently used to create three-dimensional muqarnas. 

Arabic inscriptions on the walls include Qur’anic verses, poetry, and the Nasrid motto “wa la ghalib illa-llah” (“And there is no victor but God”).

The inscriptions are written in several types of Arabic calligraphy, including Naskhi, Thuluth, and Kufic scripts. Many were originally painted in vibrant colors with gold or silver highlights.

These inscriptions are beautiful and symbolic, with self-referential poems representing the rooms they decorate.

Notable Sections and Features

The Alhambra complex today includes the Alcazaba, the oldest part, and various palaces and structures added over the centuries. 

The fortress was expanded into royal palaces beginning in 1238 under the Nasrid Dynasty.

After the Christian conquest in 1492, the Christian rulers, including Emperor Charles V, made significant modifications. 

Charles V even demolished parts of the Moorish palaces to construct his own Renaissance-style residence within the complex.

  • Palace of the Lions: Known for its alabaster fountain surrounded by twelve lion statues, this palace exemplifies Islamic art and engineering. The neighboring palace chambers are excellent examples of Moorish design.
  • Court of the Myrtles: One of the best-preserved areas of the Alhambra, this court features a wide pool flanked by myrtle plants and marble pavements. Its historical significance dates back to Washington Irving’s time.
  • Comares Palace: The original residence of Nasrid royalty, known for its grand Tower of Comares and reflective pools.
  • Partal Palace: This is one of the oldest palaces, dating back to the 1300s. It is surrounded by gardens and ponds.
  • Generalife: A hillside royal villa with terraced gardens designed to imitate the paradise described in the Koran. It is an early example of organic architecture that harmoniously integrated landscape and hardscaping.

Architects and Poets

Little is known about the individual architects and craftsmen, but the chancery, or Dīwān al-Ins͟hā’, played a crucial role in the design and decoration of the Alhambra. 

Important individuals like Ibn al-Jayyab, Ibn al-Khatib, and Ibn Zamrak, who served as chancellors and viziers, were important in managing construction projects and writing much of the poetry that decorated the palace walls.

The Alhambra’s architecture, distinguished by elegance and delicate craftsmanship, has withstood centuries of wear, battle, and natural disasters. 

Irving referred to it as “the abode of beauty,” with walls covered in calligraphy and Koranic transcriptions. 

The monument continues to entice visitors with its architectural magnificence and intriguing traditions.

One is surrounding the Court of the Lions, where the sounds of chains and the spirits of dead North African Abencerrages are supposed to haunt.

Ultimately, the Alhambra displays Spain’s rich cultural and architectural past, combining Moorish and Christian elements in a way that has impacted architectural designs around the world. 

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  1. What makes the Alhambra unique?

    The Alhambra in Granada, Spain, stands out for its exquisite architectural architecture, rich gardens, and magnificent embellishments. 

    Its human-scaled, intimate interiors are decorated with beautiful murals, columns, and arches that tell the story of Iberian history, with a delightful contrast to its majestic hillside site.

  2. What is the architecture of Alhambra?

    The Alhambra’s architecture is largely Islamic, with magnificent paintings, arches, columns, tile decorations, and sculpted stuccos that are typical of Nasrid palaces. 

    It also combines aspects from the Spanish Renaissance with column arcades, fountains, reflecting pools, geometrical designs, Arabic inscriptions, and painted tiles.

  3. Which Alhambra building resembles Almohad architecture?

    The building in the Alhambra that resembles Almohad architecture is the gate, one of the earliest structures built in the 13th century. 

    Its exterior façade decorated with a polylobed moulding and glazed tiles within a rectangular alfiz frame characteristics reflect the Almohad architectural tradition.

About the author

Harshitha’s heart lies where greeny mountains meet stretches of beach. She believes getting lost is the best way to explore

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