Mihrab in Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a 'golden age' of learning where libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture.

According to the BBC: “Islamic Spain is sometimes described as a 'golden age' of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some historians believe this idea of a golden age is false and might lead modern readers to believe, wrongly, that Muslim Spain was tolerant by the standards of 21st century Britain. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009]

The true position is more complicated. The distinguished historian Bernard Lewis wrote that the status of non-Muslims in Islamic Spain was a sort of second-class citizenship but he went on to say: 1) “Second-class citizenship, though second class, is a kind of citizenship. It involves some rights, though not all, and is surely better than no rights at all.” and 2) “A recognized status, albeit one of inferiority to the dominant group, which is established by law, recognized by tradition, and confirmed by popular assent, is not to be despised.” [Source: Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam,” 1984]

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Córdoba Under Muslim Rule

From 969 to 1027, Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain,was a thriving metropolis and a great center of leanings with over 70 libraries, 700 mosques, 3,000 public baths, sumptuous palaces on the Guad and paved streets lit by oil lanterns. It was situated at the center of an important agriculture area along a river that was used for trade and the moving of raw materials and finished goods.

According to some estimates Córdoba was the largest city in the world in the year 1000, with 250,000 to 450,000 inhabitants. One traveler wrote its greatness was based on the "size of its population, its extent, the space occupied by its markets, the cleanliness of its streets, the architecture of its mosques, the number of its baths and caravansaries". It had no rival in the Middle East except for Baghdad and no rival in Europe.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

Largest cities in the world in the year 1000 (estimated population) were: 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000), Tchangngan in China and Tollán in Mexico,
Sights in modern Cordoba that were around in the Moorish period include the Capilla de Villaviciosa Mosque, which looks like a rotund cathedral adorned with islamic designs and arches. Originally built between between 961 and 965, it features arches arranged in three tiers, interwoven to create a complex ornamental screen. The vault consists of eight slender arches that divide compartments into eight cellars.

Alcazar (near the Mezquita) is a former military fortress that has been turned into a terraced garden with fish ponds, beautiful fountains and maintained lawns. Judería is one of the most beautiful parts of Córdoba. The center of the former Jewish Quarter, it is the home of cobblestone streets and traditional Andalucian white houses with red tiled roofs, exquisite inner courtyards and balconies decorated with flowers. The neighborhood is particularly known for its beautifully decorated balcony. One of Córdoba’s three ancient synagogues is also located here. Among the other Moorish-era sights are the 700-year-old Synagogue. Eight kilometers outside of Cordoba is the Medina Azahara, the ruins of a Versailles-scale palace that at one time boasted a harem with 6,000 concubines. Only one of the original 400 buildings has been restored, the audience hall.


The Mezquita in Cordoba is a massive 600-by-450-foot block of architecture that until recently was the second largest mosque in the world after the Grand Mosque in Mecca. From the outside it doesn't look very impressive; it doesn't even have any windows. The only indication of the rewards waiting inside are the arabesque decorations around the doorways.

After entering the Mesquita it takes a while for your eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine to the dim light inside: of the 19 original doorways, which were intended to let in light as well as people, all but four have been walled over. When your eyes finally become acclimated, a marvelous site awaits you. Column after column after column stretches out in every direction, seemingly as far as the eye can see. There are 850 columns in all and most of them are composed of jasper, marble and porphyry (a purplish-red marble-like stone).

inside the Mezquita

Built during the eighth century A.D. under the caliph And al-Rahman, it covers over six acres and was intended to surpass all other mosques built in its time. Marble scavenged from Roman and Visogoth temples was used in its construction. The forest of pillars once held up a wooden thicket that one caliph said was the architects’ effort to replicate a grove of palm trees as a reminder of their native Syria.

Visogoth-style horseshoe arches, between the columns, made with alternating red and white bricks, trick the eye into perceiving limitless space. The columns are organized into double arcades and linked together the doubled tiered arches. The alternating red and white bricks almost make the columns look like petrified candy-canes. There is something mystical and enchanting about all these columns, I mean, if I that many Greek columns in one place it would probably put me to sleep.

Breaking up the rows of columns are several domed vaults and off in a corner is a prayer niche which is ornamented with calligraphy, mosaics and scalloped marble arches. To one side of the mosque is the sacred Mihrab, where the Qur’an is kept under three exquisitely carved domes decorated with golden tiles and mosaics. Outside in back there is a courtyard with fruit trees and fountains.

The only thing that mucks up the works is a overblown baroque cathedral that was erected in the cavernous mosque in the 16th century. The cathedral was commissioned by Charles V. After realizing what he done he remarked, "But installing something that is commonplace, we have destroyed what was once unique." Still the mosque is large enough that it is easy to ignore the massive ornate Gothic-Baroque-Rococo cathedral.

Like most mosques of that time, the original design of the Mezquita was relatively simple. To make it larger the brick walls were simply taken down and more columns were added. The size of the sanctuary was quadrupled in this way without really departing from the basic plan of the building. The original wooden roof was later replaced with vaulted roof to has today.

Culture in Córdoba Under Muslim Rule

Jew and Muslim playing chess

Cordoba was one of the greatest centers of learning in the world in the Middle Ahes. Abd al-Rahman III's library reportedly had 400,000 volumes. Muslim Spain was famous for its poetry, which resembled French troubadour poetry.

Córdoba's libraries and poets were celebrated and Islamic scholars kept alive the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks which had died out in the Dark Ages in Europe. The monumental Great Mosque of Córdoba was built by Sultan Abd al-Rahman I and his successors as a symbol of the political and religious power of Muslim Spain.

Córdoba grew rich through the export or beautiful ceramics, green and manganese Alhambra vases, detailed textiles, wool, silks, felts and linens, intricately carved ivory boxes and European slaves throughout the Muslim world at a time when Muslims ruled the Mediterranean, northern Africa, the Middle east and western Asia.

Madinat al-Zahra

The old Caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra is located approximately 5.5 kilometers west of Córdoba.According to UNESCO: “The city was founded in 940 or 941, by the Caliph Abd al-Rahman III as the seat of the newly created Caliphate of Córdoba. However, it was short lived being destroyed in 1010 during the riots which brought about the end of this Caliphate. Even so, the magnificence of its ruins was acclaimed by XI-century Andalusian poets. After slowly being abandoned and after the Christian occu-pation, the city fell into oblivion, so much so, that even its very existence was forgotten, thus converting it into an intangible mythical reference to the Golden Age in a faraway western point of Islam. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre ==]

“The neglect of the city and the fact that it was completely forgotten (indeed, after nearly six centuries the location where the city stood turned into a meadow) has meant that its ruins have been perfectly conserved. Once the excavations began a century ago in 1911, the city’s ar-chaeological remains began to be recovered. This work has continued up until the present day and will go on far into the future. The archaeological research has uncovered a planned structured city, within a walled site. It is in a perfectly geometrical rectangle of approximately 1500 metres across east to west, and 750 metres north to south. ==

Christian and Muslim playing ouds

“The city’s settlement was carefully chosen in a very attractive landscape. It is situated where the mountain sides of the Sierra Morena Mountain Range meet the flat meadows of the River Guadalquivir. Indeed, the view over said meadows and over the countryside of Córdoba is breath taking. This unique situation has been taken advantage of in order to arrange the urban ensemble into three terraces, one overlapping the other, which clearly reveals the hierarchy of the State. The Caliph’s residence was situated on the top terrace, the gardens and dignitaries’ residences were situated on the middle terrace, and the city itself was located on the bottom terrace, with the Moorish quarter, the workers’ houses, state buildings and open spaces. ==

“This stepped distribution gives the city an elaborate landscape, the views over the valley are outstanding. The layout of the gardens and other open spaces are also clearly for visual effect. The landscape is clearly visible too when the city is seen from the valley, it has a wide visual range of more than 50 kilometers. The excavated area, up until now, represents approxi-mately 11% of the total, and mainly covers the central most representative part and the Fortress, with its re-ception areas and huge gardens as well as the Mosque, in the central quarter, the Medina. Outside the site, the remains of great infrastructures like roads and aqueducts have been found. In the part which has not been excavated yet, the aerial ortho-photographs and the geo-physical surveys have revealed the main characteristics of its layout. ==

From the point of view of the history of urban planning, Madinat al-Zahra offers us both a unique example of Islamic town planning as well as an insight into the territorial context at such a crucial time in its evolution. ==

“The excavated area, where the layout of terraces still remains, has allowed us to see how the masonry was elaborated; however, a great number of examples of the adornments have been discovered all over the site, especially in the form of carved limestone relief plaques, featuring such motifs as plants and shapes, which were found on practically all of the walls of the most repre-sentative buildings in the city. This type of plaster work was analyzed and classified. The painstaking work of anastylosis was carried out and some of the most signifi-cant constructions of Madinat al-Zahra were recovered. Consequently, Madinat al-Zahra offers us one of the most important examples of parietal decoration from a key era in the development of this consubstantial feature of Arabic architecture.” ==

Buildings at Madinat al-Zahra

Madinat al-Zahra

According to UNESCO: “The main representative buildings are characterized by their basilica-shaped ground plan. Amongst which the great reception Hall, which is in the centre of the city, is worthy of special mention. Its walls were completely covered with parietal plasterwork adornments. Indeed, at present, the restoration of this building is in the pro-cess of being finished. The collection of palaces and representative buildings with their gardens, baths and annexes represent a unique testimony of the evolution of this important type of architecture. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre ==]

“Next to this area, which is very well defined by a sur-rounding wall around the palatial city, an extensive buffer zone has been marked out. It stretches 11 km east west, until the edge of the city of Córdoba, and some 6 km north south, from the old cattle road which comes into the city, to the top of the ledge of the mountain range where the city is settled. ==

“There are two important sites to the furthest western and eastern points of Madinat al-Zahra: the al-Rummaniyya farm to the west, which has been partially excavated, and a large official building to the east, in the area known as Turruñuelos, which has not yet been excavated. In the space between, there are the remains of the great road infrastructures and aqueducts which supplied the city, as well as the original quarries which provided the material for construction, together with other significant archaeological remains. ==

“The Madinat al-Zahra Museum has been open since 2009. It is located 1.5 kms. away from the archaeologi-cal site and is not visible from the site, thus avoiding any impact on the landscape. Due to the quality of its architecture, the building has in fact been awarded some international prizes, such as the Aga Khan prize for Ar-chitecture, 2010, and the Prize for the Best European Museum, 2012. The Museum comprises of reception areas and spaces to explain about the city to the visi-tors: a presentation room, an auditorium, an informa-tion centre, etc. There are also areas devoted to the con-tinual conservation and research work carried out by the managing body of the site: restoration workshops, store-houses for goods, a library, research rooms, offices, etc. ==

Significance of Madinat al-Zahra

According to UNESCO: “The archaeological site of Madinat al-Zahra is outstanding due to the fact that the remains of the en-semble of a structured X-century city (this represents one of the peak moments in the history of Andalusian architecture and culture) were hidden and their integ-rity has been unaltered. The Caliphs, Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II were actually building the most monumental part of the Mosque in Córdoba (declared World Heritage in 1984) at the same time. In fact, the first excavations that took place were started by the archi-tect who was actually restoring the Mosque in Córdoba, Velázquez Bosco. He began this work in order to have more insight into Andalusian Caliphal architecture to be able to better restore the Mosque. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre ==]

“Its outstanding and universal nature comes from its unique values in the field of art, architecture, town planning and territorial layout. It includes some of the first and most important Islamic gardens ever known, as well as the fact that it represents a testimony, without comparison, of the culture and urban life at a time when al- Andalus was the most important cultural focal point in Western Europe and the Maghreb. ==

“Another outstanding factor stems from the fact that it represents an example of the perfect unison of urban planning with the environment. It is a city with buildings and structured gardens for the population to be able to enjoy the natural characteristics of the surrounding area. This unison with the landscape is shown in the modeling of the territory as well as in the way the local stone, water supply and plants were taken advantage of. The fact that the place has stayed just as it was, affected only by its natural deterioration, without any new con-structions being built, has meant that its value concern-ing its environment, has been conserved. ==

“Another outstanding value comes from the fact that, after its short role as the centre of a vast empire and the area where the embassies of the Christian and Mus-lim kingdoms of Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa were welcomed, its sudden disappearance turned it into a myth. This myth fed a rich literature, in which the fortune of a lost paradise was evoked throughout the Arab speaking world. The fact that it has been recently rediscovered has meant that this intangible cultural leg-acy has reappeared, and at the same time, the literary tradition has also been revived, in such a way that, just considering the Spanish language alone, the Caliphal city has become the stage of several novels published over the last few years. It could be considered as a rela-tionship between the city and a literary motive, which evokes Troy, where the same relationship was the main reason for its nomination. ==

Madinat al-Zahra

“The archaeological site of this Andalusian X-century Islamic Caliphal city of Madinat al-Zahra holds a series of characteristics which make it of unique uni-versal significance. a) The unchanged ruins of a city built as a showcase for the most critical moment of a culture of universal impact, have been conserved. b) An extensive city and its surrounding area represent-ing the capital of an Empire, has been completely con-served. Its sudden destruction, after a little more than half a century of life, without being transformed by any subsequent intervention, turns it into a unique object of historic research of this period. c) The supremacy bestowed upon conceiving such a city within such a landscape, from a visual point of view and regarding the relationship with the environment, water and plant life, makes it especially attractive when considering present-day available budgets. ==

“It is true that the idea of creating a city following a new design to represent the power of a Caliphate is not unique to Madinat al-Zahra. Indeed, it was normal practice in the first centuries of the quickly-expanding Islamic culture. However, the case of Madinat al-Zahra, due to its magnitude, its natural framework, the degree of conservation and recovery, is without comparison. ==

Madinat al-Zahra Compared to Other Great Islamic Cities

According to UNESCO: “If we study the great Islamic capitals which have already been declared World Heritage, we can divide them into two groups: cities which have disappeared as such and which are fossilized in archaeological sites, (Madinat al-Zahra belongs to this group) and those cities which are still alive today. The second group is the biggest, and in turn can be divided into two sub-groups: a smaller Eastern group: Isfahan, Damascus, Aleppo, Jerusalem and Cairo; and a larger Western Mediterranean, Maghreb and al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) group: Kairouan, Argel, Fez, Marrakech, Meknes, in the Maghreb, where the medinas of Susa, Tunisia, Tétouan and Essaouira and those of Córdoba, Granada and Toledo in Muslim Spain have also been declared as World Heritage. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Centre ==]

“There are only three examples, two of which are in Asia Minor, which are previous to Madinat al-Zahra: the Umayyad city of Anjar, Lebanon, VIII century, and the great Abbasid capital city of Samarra, Irak, IX century, and another in the Maghreb, from the XI century, la Qala des Banu Hammad, in Argelia. ==

“Anjar, due to the early date of its foundation, (towards 710), and it was soon after destroyed, (744), has an ur-ban and architectural organization in the style of Tar-dorromano models and the Hellenistic tradition of the Eastern Mediterranean, thus, it is far from the complete example of Arabic architecture which Madinat al-Zahra represents. Moreover, it is much smaller (its dimen-sions are 380x350 m.) The fortified desert palaces: Qu-sair Amra Palace on the Representative List, and the Qasr al-Mushatta Palace and the al-Qastal Palace on the Indicative List belong to the same Umayyad period. However, none of these are true cities comparable to Madinat al-Zahra. ==

fragmenting Caliphate of the late Abassid era

“The contrary can be said for the Abbasid capital city of Samarra, Irak, which was developed in the IX century, between 836 and 892. The great size of the place, which is more than 40 km in length, and due to its great com-plexity, as it has a great variety of overlapping styles, makes it different from the singular design present in Madinat al-Zahra. In Samarra, what’s more, consolida-tion and restoration work has mainly been focused on the mosque and its spiral minaret. This is an integral restoration but with questionable criteria. In any case, it is a city belonging to a very different cultural and geo-graphic scope to ours. On the other hand, the damage done during the latest wars and the actual uncontrolled urban development which has taken place on part of the ruins, have meant that it has been included on the World Heritage List of Property at risk. ==

“Other Abbasid foundations, not included on the List, such as the neighbouring towns of al-Raqqa and al-Rafika have been invaded by new constructions, and the integral nature of any restoration work which has taken place is questionable. ==

“The foundations of Fatimíes-ziríes in Ifriquiya is closer in time and space to Madinat al-Zahra. The foundation of al-Mahdia in 916 is considered by some authors as one of the reasons for Abderrahman III to create the new capital. The fact that, at present, all of this site’s maritime peninsula is full of new constructions, except the port and its monuments, greatly takes away from its archaeological value. ==

“The city which was successor to the latter, Al-Mansuriya, near Kairouan, developed time wise in a similar way to Madinat al-Zahra, as it was founded only five years after, in 946, and was destroyed in 1053. However, there are few remains. La Qala des Banu Hammad, is the next foundation from that monarchy and is of greater interest. It was begun in 1007 and was destroyed in 1152. It was constructed practically at the same time as Madinat al-Zahra disappeared and it is included on the Heritage List. In this case, the degree of conservation and its location at the foot of a mountain, are similar to that of Madinat al-Zahra. However, it is very different to Madinat al-Zahra, due to the fact that the urban struc-ture is irregular, and that there is more emphasis on defensive constructions, also there are several different architectural and decorative models therein. ==

“One of the most relevant values of Madinat al-Zahra is its wonderful palatial architecture, its rich decoration and the accessibility of the gardens which are typical of this type of architecture in Arabic culture. The Umayyad Qusair Amra fortified Palace from the VIII century is already on the World Heritage List, as are the IX-centu-ry Abbasid palaces and gardens of Samarra, amongst which Balkuwara is worth a special mention. Within the culture of the Middle East, an ensemble of nine Per-sian palatial gardens from different periods has been declared as World Heritage recently. In Andalusia, there are two later examples from the XIV century: the Alham-bra in Granada and the Alcázar (the Fortified Palace) in Seville. The X-century palatial architecture and gardens in Madinat al-Zahra represent a necessary link in the historic evolution of said type of architecture, decoration and gardens in Western Islamic culture.” ==



Granada was the last Islamic stronghold in Spain, where the Moors were finally defeated and driven out of Spain by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492. Beautifully situated on the edge of a verdant plain with the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas in the background, the city is divided into two parts: The Arab quarter which is a maze of narrow streets and the newer, modern city with traffic and Baroque architecture. Most of the tourists that come to Granada come to see one thing only, the Alhambra.

Granada is the Spanish word for pomegranate. It has a population of about 288,000 and is built on three hills—the Albaicín, the Sacromonte and the Alhambra. The Albaicín is an Arab-style neighborhood with white houses and lush gardens. The Sacromonte is noted for its gypsy caves. The Alhambra contains the famous Moorish palace. Baños Arabes is an 11th century Arab bath house. It is one of the few original Arab structures remaining in Granada. The countryside around Granada is covered by endless olive groves.

The last Muslim ruler of Granada, Boabdil, had received help from Christian armies in battles against his Muslim rivals and even had received a letter of congratulations from the Catholic monarchs when he won an important battle in Malaga. But when Christians began raiding the farmlands that supplied Granada, Boabdil was forced to attack Christian fortresses, which in turn provoked Ferdinand and Isabella to march southward to attack Granada.

Generalife (adjacent to the Alhambra) was the summer residence of the Moorish rulers in Granada. The palace was designed to provide an ambiance of cool tranquility conducive to relaxation. Located just beyond the Torre de las Damas and an open amphitheater, Generalife features magnificent formal gardens and fountains. The present-day Church of the San Salvador contains an on old Moorish courtyard and has great views of the Alhambra.

Alhambra Palace

Alhambra (1 kilometer outside of Granada) is the most popular tourist attraction in Spain. Described by a European visitor in 1494 as "so magnificent, so exquisitely executed that even he who contemplates it can scarcely be sure that he is not in paradise," it is situated on top of a forested, red-clay hill, with the sometimes snowcapped Sierra Nevadas in the background.

According to the BBC: “The Alhambra Palace is perhaps the finest surviving Muslim palace in the world and its symbolic of an episode that many Muslims believe has been all but written out of the history books by Europe's Christians: the flowering of Islam culture, philosophy and science, which meant that once the intellectual heart of Europe beat not in Paris, Rome or Athens, but in the great Muslim cities of Granada and Cordoba.”

plan of the main part of the Alhambra

The Arab quarter offers the best views of the Alhambra, whose fortress-walls blend in harmoniously with the buildings and landscape that surround it. Before the Moors came the Alhambra was a barren hill. With their plumbing system, their skill and their artistry they turned it into paradise that some people believe was the inspiration for the pleasure palaces in “The Thousand and One Nights”.

Each year about 1.5 million people, half of them foreigners, visit the Alhambra. The most visited buildings are the Palace of the Comares, the Hall of the Two Sisters, Patio de Draxas and the Palace of the Lions. If you stay in the Parador de San Fransicio, within the Alhambra, walls you can wander around the palace at night when it is not open to the public.

History of the Alhambra

Established in 8th century and largely built in the 13th and 14th century under the Moorish sultans Yusef I and his son Muhammad V, who believed they had found a setting that rivalled the description of heaven in the Qur’an, the Alhambra contains buildings with marble columns, lacework aches and ornamented tiles. Described as a dwelling worthy of Allah, it is situated on the top of a hill with views in every direction.

In addition to being a worldly paradise, the Alhambra was first and foremost a fortress ("Alhambra" means "red citadel" in Arabic). The Nasrids (an Arab-descended Muslim dynasty founded by Muhammad ibn-Yusuf ibn-Nasr) chose the hilltop as much for it defensible position as for its beauty and installed massive walls, formidable gates and imposing towers. After the fall of Granada to the Christians, the Spanish monarch designated the Alhambra as their royal residence in Granada. Although the Spanish royals rarely stayed there, its status as a royal residence made sure that that it received funds for maintenance and repair.

Much of the Alhambra was made when it was clear that it was only a matter of time before Granada fell. Some scholars argue the beauty of the Alhambra is superficial. Jerrilynn Dodds, a professor of architectural history at the City University of New York, told Smithsonian magazine, "The Alhambra is like a big stage set. It was cheaply done in an opulent way. It was an incredibly defiant gesture. They were defying the Christian onslaught with their own sophisticated culture."

Describing his arrival to the hilltop palace city in the “Tales of the Alhambra”, Washington Irving wrote: "the transition was almost magical...we were at once transported into other times...treading the scenes of Arabian story. We found ourselves in a great court paved with white marble and decorated at each end with light Moorish peristyles..In the center was an immense basin...stocked with goldfish...At the upper end of the court rose the great Tower of Comares."

patio of the palace of Karel V at the Alhambra

Irving lived at the Alhambra for several months in 1829, calling it a "Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away." Irving said that a couple of years before he arrived the palaces were occupied "with a loose and lawless population—contrabandistas who” carried “on a wide and daring course of smuggling; and thieves and rogues of all sorts."

Architecture of the Alhambra

The Alhambra is surrounded by a thick stone wall with 22 massive towers, several of which were turned into small palaces. The complex of buildings inside the wall includes of military, administrative, palatial and religious structures, six pleasure palaces for the sultans, a mosque, sumptuous gardens, shopping streets and quarters for servants and artisans.

In spite of its impressive buildings, the Alhambra is not a structure that is admired for its massive architecture, but rather for it small details and harmony. To appreciate Alhambra it is important to understand first that Islam considers art work with human or animal figures in it sacrilegious. While medieval and Renaissance labored to capture the essence of human form, Islamic craftsman poured their energy and skill into making abstract decorations that were prized for their mathematical precision and symmetry.

The interiors of the Alhambra's rooms are adorned with elaborate lace-like arabesque decorations made with stucco (plaster made from lime and earth) and colored tiles. Using the simplest of tools (hammers, compasses and rulers) and the simplest materials (bricks, glazed tiles and plaster) the Alhambra's craftsman used their skill to decorate doors, arches and columns. Unlike gothic and baroque architecture which adds a lot of heavy unnecessary ornaments to structures, Islamic mujeder architecture, makes do with what was at hand, chiseling material away or adding simple tile and stucco ornaments.

Art and Craftwork of the Alhambra

Although mujeder architecture is incredibly decorative it is also austere and light. Most of the decorations are renditions of geometric forms, flowers, trees, vines, leaves, acorns, pomegranates, coroneted shields, shells and plants that are organized into graceful and stylish symmetrical designs. Victor Hugo called it a "palace that the genies have gilded like a dream and filled with harmony."

detail from the Palacio Nazaries at the Alhambra

Many of the designs are poems or Qur’anic verses written in the flowing and ornate style of written Arabic and Maghribi script. The Arabic calligraphy is so stylized that they are difficult to distinguish from the vines and flowers. There are 30 poems scattered throughout the Alhambra as well as mottoes, brief prayers (like "Blessing" and "Happiness"), quotations from the Qur’an, maxims, notes about the construction, information, and praises of the sultans.

One of the most repeated phrases is "There is no conqueror but God," the motto of the Nasrid dynasty. A poem by the 14th century poet Ibn Zamrak in one of the chambers surrounding the Court of Lions reads: "I am the garden, i awake adorned in beauty; Gaze on me well, know what I am like...What a delight for the eyes! The patient man who looks here realizes his spiritual desires,"

Instead of creating man-made frescoes and painting and natural scenes, which decorate many churches and Christian palaces, the Moors brought in the real thing: trees, flowers and bushes, creating wonderful gardens organized around fountains and pools. The Arabs and Moors found Spain to be an inspiration. Compared to the deserts back home in North Africa and the Middle East, Spain was a lush, green paradise. The Alhambra is filled with gardens and groves of fruit trees that pay tribute to Spain's lushness.

Nowhere in the Alhambra is one out of earshot of bubbling or flowing water. The fountains and pools, which seem to be everywhere, are all fed by a gravity-powered plumbing system that brings in water from a river six kilometers away. With the exception of a few replaced pipes, the Alhambra still uses essentially the same water system built by the Moors, starting more than a 1000 years ago.

Court of the Lions at the Alhambra

Parts of the Alhambra

The Alcazaba, the oldest part of the Alhambra was built in the 9th century. The Nasrid Palace, at the heart of the Alhambra, was constructed around the Myrtles and Lions Court in the 14th century.

The Hall of the Ambassadors in the Palace of the Comares, where the sultan met foreign envoys, is often called the jewel of the Alhambra. It has a magnificent domed ceiling adorned with cedarwood carving, a tiled floor, and stucco work with inscriptions from the Qur’an. Every arched window has a different view of Granada.

The pointy stucco designs in the Hall of Two Sisters burst from the ceiling like a stalactite super nova. Ceramics, carpets, swords and manuscripts are displayed in many of the rooms. Daraxa Mirador overlooks a garden with orange and pine trees, flowers and spice plants. The Myrtles Court contains a narrow reflecting pool stocked with large goldfish and framed by hedges.

The Abencerrajes Gallery is richly decorated with arches, slender columns, a stalactite ceiling and star-shaped cupola. In the gallery's basin Boabdil reportedly placed the 36 subjects sentenced for treason. The King's Chamber contains unusual paintings of Moorish and Christian princes relaxing and enjoying themselves. The Mexuar, the seat of the judicial administration, contains a marvelous carved wood cornice with many tile and stucco decorations.

All of the things that make the Alhambra beautiful come together in the Court of the Lions. Built between 1354 and 1391, this courtyard has a small pool and fountain that is enclosed by delicate columns and ornately engraved arches that conjures up images of a cool oasis. The slender columns that resemble flower stalks and elaborate arches with web-like designs. The central fountain is supported by water-spewing lions that look like English sheep dogs. Running through the garden around the courtyard are narrow canals with rippling water. The wild cats that roam around the Alhambra sometimes hangout here.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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