Alhambra. Architecture with Poetry and Arabesque.

The Alhambra** is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world and probably the most popular destination in Spain.

**The Alhambra consists of (1) the Alcazaba or fortress, (2) the Nasrid Palace(s) made up of: the Mexuar; the Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes), the Court of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) and adjoining buildings and gardens; and (3) the Generalife or summer residence.

It weaves its magic on almost all visitors. Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa can relate the Alhambra’s architecture to buildings in their own countries but Westerners find a style very different from what they are accustomed to.

By serendipity, all visitors have a wonderful opportunity to compare both Muslim and Western architectural styles within the Alhambra’s grounds, because standing next to the Nasrid Palace is the Renaissance palace of Charles (Carlos) I/V.  The difference between the two palaces is as startling as that between the Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Christian Church in its very centre, or the Cathedral of Seville and its Moorish bell tower, the Giralda.

Palace of Charles V. © M A Sullivan

Charles’s Palace is a majestic granite monument, befitting his imperial title of Holy Roman Emperor.  The palace is massive, ordered and symmetrical, and gives a sense of epic grandeur. The Nasrid Palace, on the other hand, is low-slung, labyrinthine and anything but monumental. It conveys an impression of lightness, weightlessness and intimacy and, compared to Charles’s Palace, has a lyrical quality.

Poetry and Calligraphy.
The term “lyrical” is appropriate because the Muslim Palace is adorned by lyric verses inscribed in beautiful, cursive Arab calligraphy (decorative handwriting).

Mirador of Lindaraxa, off the Room of the Two Sisters. Arab script frames window. Azulejo (tiled) wainscoting. © M A Sullivan

Amongst the estimated 10,000 inscriptions found in the Alhambra there are (1) verses from the Qur’an, (2) poems that comment on the features of different rooms, (3) panegyrics (i.e. lavish praise) of various kings of the Nasrid dynasty that ruled Granada, and (4) witty aphorisms.

They run along walls, frame doorways and windows, and are embedded in the stuccoed, arabesque tapestries that stand atop vibrant, multicoloured wainscotings of ceramic tiles (azulejos). The most common inscription is the Nasrid motto: “There is no victor but Allah,” a constant reminder that no human feat surpasses God’s omnipotence.

Detail from Hall of the Ambassadors. Azulejo wainscoting at lower level. Horizontal Arab script between arabesque patterns, vertical script forming part of frame to the right. © M A Sullivan

What is striking about these inscriptions is the beauty of the calligraphy. Calligraphy has always enjoyed high esteem in Arab culture through its association with the Qur’an, the written form of Allah’s final revelation.  The word of Allah was holy, and required a beautiful art form worthy of conveying the Qur’an’s message.

We have taken short selections from two poems, both by the poet-statesman (and assassin!) Ibn Zamrak (1333-93).  The first can be found in the Hall of the Two Sisters, the most sumptuously decorated room in the Alhambra.  It combines praise for the ruler (Muhammad V, ruled 1354-59 and 1362-91) and for the room it appears in.

I am the garden appearing every morning with adorned
beauty; contemplate my beauty and you will be penetrated
with understanding.
I excel through the generosity of my lord the imam
Muhammad for all who come and go….

In here is a cupola which by its height becomes lost from sight,
beauty in it appears both concealed and visible…
The bright stars would like to establish themselves firmly in it,
rather than continue wandering about in the vault of the sky… 
 (Dodds 250)

The second poem –on the rim of the basin in the Court of the Lions—describes the beauty and the attraction of the jets of water:
Behold this mass of glistening pearl,
falling within a ring of frothing silver,
to flow amidst translucent gems
than marbles whiter, than alabaster more translucent.  
(Danby 123)

The Alhambra is, then, more than a series of beautiful buildings; it is literally an anthology of lyric verse, its pages always open and its words waiting to be transformed into jewels of sound. Not surprisingly, the Alhambra has been compared to a book. E.g. “A text-laden building, an inhabitable book” (Irwin 88),  the “most luxurious edition imaginable” (Dodds 250)

Although most of us are unable to read the inscriptions of this particular “book,” we can appreciate their beauty and the way they are integrated into the decorative elements of a larger arabesque mosaic, thanks largely to the cursive nature of Arab script which lent itself perfectly to the basic principles of arabesque.

Arabesque is the English term to describe an ornamental style of decoration long associated with Arab culture. Arabesque is basically an art of intricate, repetitive, and symmetrical patterns of intertwined lines. It is, as one critic puts it “characterized by a continuous stem which splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised, leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split again or return to be reintegrated into the main stem. This limitless, rhythmical alteration of movement, conveyed by the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces a design that is balanced and … geometric  (D. Jones in Architecture of the Islamic World 170-71).

But why did Muslim artists pour their creative energies into such intricate designs? The answer lies in Islam’s general rejection of reproducing anything realistically.

Hall of the Ambassadors, totally covered with arabesque and inscriptions. © M A Sullivan.

To reproduce human figures ran the risk of idolatry; to attempt to recreate the natural world was to compete with Allah, the one and only creator.

While arabesque is a recognised characteristic of Islamic art, Muslim artists may have been inspired initially by earlier Greek, Roman and Byzantine fondness for scrolling stylised plant or vegetal motifs such as vine tendrils, grapes, acanthus on, for example, the capitals atop of columns.

Byzantine capital from Hagia Sophia, Istambul. Built between 532 and 537 A.D. Wikimedia.

Early examples of arabesque were more modest than those we see in the Alhambra, but even then they were characterised by being “denaturalised” or “dematerialised,” i.e. they lost their individuality in the general decorative, ornamental pattern. With more intricate forms came a wider array of stylised plants – e.g. clover, tulips, roses, almond blossoms, pine cones and palm leaves.  In the Alhambra, particular favourites are pine cones and palm leaves.

The vegetal motifs are sometimes referred
to as “ataurique,” from the Arabic  al-tawriq,
meaning vegetation.

Arabesque decoration is not only ornamental, it also breaks up structural mass.  Combined, as it is frequently, with muqarnas (a sculptural transition shaped much like a honeycomb or stalactite) or arches, arabesque helps dissolve sharp contours thus creating a sensation of suspension.

Court of the Lions. Muqarna arches topped by pierced arabesque. Arab script frames the arabesque. © M A Sullivan.

In contrast to Western architecture’s emphasis on structure (e.g. Romanesque or Gothic  churches), Islamic architecture aims to create the sensation of weightlessness. The Court of the Lions and the Hall of the Two Sisters h ave wonderful examples of this.

Hall of the Two Sisters with muqarna cupola. Muqarnas also reach to the edge of the image. Arabesque walls (not visible) begin below the muqarnas.
© M A Sullivan.

What we get as a result is abstract, sensuous art, without the restrictions imposed by figural representation.  Consider, as comparison, medieval paintings of Christian saints**.  True, they were not normally realistic, and even when they were reasonably so we require some knowledge of the symbols normally accompanying the figures in order to identify them: e.g. a key will identify St Peter.  If you don’t know that a key is a symbol of St Peter, you are excluded from the full meaning of the image. Arabesque, on the other hand, is much more inclusive, appealing to our aesthetic spirit. It calls us to enjoy and appreciate “art” without preconditions, and in that sense is amongst the most universal of all art.

**In the Middle Ages, when most people were illiterate, Christian art used sculpture and painting as a visualmemory aid for the faithful to the Bible and to Christian ethics. St Bonaventure puts it this way: Images were made for the simplicity of the ignorant, so that the uneducated who are unable to read scripture can, through statues and paintings of this kind read about the sacraments of our faith in, as it were, more open scriptures…. (Binski).

It’s easy to forget, as we marvel at the magnificence of the Alhambra palace, that it formed part of a fortress and defensive system erected to face the threat of Christian expansionism from the north. 

The kingdom of Granada signalled the last stand of the once powerful Muslim state of al-Andalus. But fierce competing rivalries from within the kingdom also played a significant role in its demise. Violent palace intrigues and assassinations plagued the politics of the country, and the history of the Alhambra –the jewel of Granada– is steeped in skulduggery and blood.

The Alhambra remains the jewel of Granada, one whose splendour beguiles us nowadays while concealing a bloody past. We’ll give the last word to the poet-statesman-assassin Ibn Zamrak, whose image of the Alhambra –atop the Sabika hill– as a ruby cleverly evokes images of both beauty and blood:

The Sabika hill sits like a garland on Granada’s brow,
In which the stars would be entwined,
And the Alhambra (God preserve it)
Is the ruby set above that garland.
Granada is a bride whose headdress is the Sabika, and whose
jewels and adornments are its flowers
. (Harvey 219)

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

Binski, Paul Medieval Craftsmen: Painters Toronto 1991.
Danby, Miles    The Fires of Excellence: Spanish and Portuguese Oriental Architecture Reading 1997
Dodds, Jerrylin D, Monacal Maria R, Balbale, Abigail K  The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Harvey, L. P   Islamic Spain 1250 to 1500 Chicago, London 1990 Paperback 1992
Irwin, Robert    The Alhambra  Cambridge: Harvard  2004
Jacobs, Michael     Alhambra London: Frances Lincoln Ltd 2000 (paperback 2005)
Michell, George ed    Architecture of the Islamic World: its History and Social Meaning New York 1978
The books by Irwin and Jacobs are particularly recommended for anyone visiting the Alhambra. Images from M A Sullivan:
Byzantine capital by Gryffindor:
For calligraphy, see:

Verified by MonsterInsights