Alhambra: The Architecture of Palaces and Power.

Look under “Castles in Spain,” and the Alhambra is certain to figure in any list.  It was a castle, and more … in fact, it was a mini city, with the star attraction being the magnificent royal residence complex generally referred to as the Nasrid Palace (sometimes pluralised, Palaces), after the founding dynasty of the kingdom of Granada.

Alhambra Walls. © Casselman.

The Alhambra is impressively large, and with powerfully constructed exterior walls it fulfils the general function of castles: fortified structures meant to defend against attackers.

It was built and strengthened at a time when Christian expansionism in the 13th century from the north threatened to overrun what was left of the once powerful Muslim state of al-Andalus. Córdoba (1236), Valencia (1238), Seville (1248), and Murcia (1243)  fell quickly, leaving only the kingdom of Granada.

The Nasrid kingdom of Granada The Nasrid kingdom of Granada. Dates indicate year when towns fell to Christian forces.

There are several reasons, amongst them the willingness of the king, Muhammad I (ibn Nasr), to help Christian forces in their conquest of both Córdoba and Seville; he further agreed to become a vassal of Ferdinand III, King of Castile.

Other important factors to explain Granada’s survival as an independent kingdom include e.g. the kingdom’s mountainous terrain, which made it difficult to conquer; Castilian energy was diverted by dynastic wars in the 14th century; also in the 14th century a bubonic plague disrupted social patterns; there was always the fear that fellow Muslims in North Africa might come to the aid of Granada…

Palaces and Power.

The Alhambra was not only the jewel of Granada, it was also the centre of political power in the kingdom, and the Nasrid Palace was its heart. As royal residence, the Nasrid Palace was meant to impress, and despite a prolonged period of neglect (see History), it has worked its charm on most visitors, from the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella (conquerors of Granada in 1492), to millions of modern tourists. 

People have remarked on its delicate arabesques, decorative muqarnas (honeycomb-like niches), slender columns, latticed windows, ornamentation, tinkling fountains, sense of lightness and feeling of  intimacy etc. 

These features have led many to attribute feminine qualities to the Nasrid Palace. Others, less enthusiastic, have attacked it as effeminate, and compared it unfavourably to the massive, granite Palace of Charles (Carlos) I/V that adjoins it.

Charles’s Palace exudes power and majesty; its size, symmetry, impression of weight, and lack of exuberant ornamentation suggest restraint, dignity and authority.

Palace of Charles V within the Alhambra. M. A. Sullivan
If the Nasrid Palace does not communicate power or authority through size and grandeur, where then did the authority of the kings of Granada rest? Was there anything in the architecture of the Nasrid Palace that signalled power?

Well, the sheer splendour of the Nasrid Palace may be viewed as a source of power. The palace is as awesome in opulence as Charles V’s Palace is in size.

Only two years after the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella, the German humanist and geographer, Hieronymous Münzer, praised the palace enthusiastically: “I don’t think there is anything like it in all of Europe. It is superb, magnificent and exquisitely constructed with so many different materials that you could believe yourself to be in paradise” (95).

It’s not difficult to imagine how the awe registered on the faces of visitors could easily be translated into respect for the owner of such splendour, although the materials used were in fact relatively poor: wood, stucco, brick (only the marble paving and columns were of durable materials).

However, these materials were disguised by rich ornamentation that dazzled the eyes, while the ever-present channels of water, fountains and pools entertained the ears. Implied beneath all this splendour, of course, is the idea of wealth, and wealth is often allied with power.

Opulence alone, however, is insufficient as a source of power; it can, as noted, be considered effeminate. But there are further means to convey power.  One way was to create uncertainty in the visitor and a sense of mystery regarding the presence of the ruler. 

The labyrinthine layout of the Nasrid Palace lent itself perfectly to such ends. There are narrow passages, blind alleys, dead ends, and rooms at odd angles. Visitors (including potential assassins!) would be at a disadvantage, disoriented.  The ruler determined the route to be taken, thereby securing power in his hands (something like modern shopping stores that oblige us to wander through several aisles until we reach check-out!).

If opulence and disorientation were not enough to impress or cow visitors, the rulers of Granada had one more trick up their sleeve. The centre of power in the Nasrid Palace was the Hall of the Ambassadors, in the Comares tower. The hall is of very modest dimensions.

Hall of the Ambassadors. Protected area can just be seen roped off in the lower forefront. © M A Sullivan.

To reach the king, seated between the alcoves facing the entrance, did not entail a lengthy and intimidating walk, only a relatively few steps.

However, in the centre of the floor there was (and still is) a protected area in which are inscribed the words of the Nasrid motto “There is no victor but Allah.”   Since no one dared walk over the name of Allah, visitors approaching the king were inconvenienced by having to step around the central space or remain on the other side, separated from the king by the name of God.  It was a subtle but effective way of reminding visitors of the source of authority: i.e. the king’s power was granted by divine authority.

The ceiling, too, conveys a similar message. It is a magnificent artesonado (wooden recessed –coffered—ceiling) cupola made up of over 8,000 pieces of wood.  It looks like a never ending display of fireworks, exploding simultaneously against the night sky.

Ceiling of the Hall of the Ambassadors. ©  Casselman.

Half stars along the edges suggest infinity and man’s finite reach, i.e. the impossibility of ever containing the heavens within human dimensions. The whole ceiling is awesome and beautiful, and probably had a functional role of transferring some of that awe to the person who sat beneath it: the king beneath the dome of heaven, so to speak.

The power and authority immediately visible in the size and volume of Charles V’s Palace are expressed differently in the Nasrid Palace.  They were no less important to the Nasrid rulers than to European rulers, but different architectural traditions led to different ways of expressing such matters. 

You can find something similar in the clearly distinctive architecture for Christian and Muslim temples of worship: the church and the mosque. Simply look at the Great Mosque of Córdoba with a Christian cathedral embedded inside it.

Alhambra. Nasrid Palace in foreground. Comares tower to right. Charles V’s Palace to left back- ground. © M A Sullivan.

Barracund, Marianne and Bednorz, Achim Moorish Architecture in Andalusia Cologne 1992

Dodd, Jerrilynn in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, ed Salma K Jayyusi   Boston 2000, pp 599-620
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge 2004
Jacobs, Michael     Alhambra London 2000 (paperback 2005)
Munzer, Jerónimo     Viaje por España y Portugal   Madrid 1991 (Transl Ramón Alba)

The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra.
Images by M A Sullivan:
Image Casselman:
A very useful map of the Alhambra can be found in: