The Alhambra Palace is the only medieval palace in the world which has arrived intact to the present day. After visiting many times, one of the things which fascinates me are the intricate decorations and inscriptions on the walls. As you step into the Nasrid Palaces it is like walking into an elaborate poetry book. Covered in beautiful filigrees, endless words and poetic phrases.
I wonder what is the meaning of all of these inscriptions? Some inscriptions are beautiful poetry whereas others provide information on construction dates of building within the Alhambra. Another thing that these walls offer are clues into the functionality of the spaces around the monument.
Alhambra Palace Walls
Many inscriptions are phrases like “There is no victor but Allah” which appears many times. There are lots of recurring words such as “happiness” or “blessing” that appear throughout the palace. These words are there to protect the monarch honoured in each courtyard.
Other phrases appear like: “Rejoice in good fortune, because Allah helps you” or “Be sparse in words and you will go in peace.”
It is likely that the artists choosing these texts for the palace walls were poets but also politicians. This wall decoration is an elaborate form of political propaganda. Palace officials reflected the authority and power of the Sultan through its decoration. Visible to anyone entering the rooms at the heart of the Al-Andalus kingdom.
Mosaics and Coloured Tiles
As you wander along the maze like corridors of the palace, you will notice the walls are covered in brightly coloured ceramic tiles. The tiles reach half way up from the floor. Within this mesmerising interior we can appreciate this is a key element in Islamic art. As this historic period is of great importance, we can still see coloured tiles across Andalusia today.
Also these tiles apart from being decorative, keep walls cooler in summertime and protect them too. Tiling done with mathematical precision was intended to be aesthetically pleasing. Geometrical calculations were used in the tile patterns. Creating an infinite design to cover as much distance as needed for each space.
Despite the decorations being created in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries. The artisans were cleverly using colour to decorate their ceramics and designs. Colour for architectural elements came from natural sources and were created with these materials:
- Blue – Cobalt
- Purple or Black -Manganese
- Green – Iron
- Red or Green- Copper
- White – Tin
- Yellow – Lead or Antimony
Tile Design in the Alhambra Palace
Above the tiles, higher up towards the walls geometrical shapes or poetic inscriptions abound. Towards the top of the walls quotations from the Koran appear, intentionally situated far from the ground. The higher up the closer to the heavens and the more sacred they should be.
Water and geometry are the main design elements in the Alhambra. Islamic culture does not accept the depiction of human images. Because of this the Alhambra walls have calligraphy, plant motifs and geometric patterns.
Cuarto Dorado, Alhambra Granada
The façade of the Cuarto Dorado has impressive decoration. The walls are golden in a delicate filigree pattern. The detailed shapes are floral and geometric forms. Due to this extensive detail and the geometry of the Alhambra even mathematicians have analysed the Alhambra.
They see the Golden Ratio in parts of the Alhambra´s design. Despite the ornate appearance of these walls, it doesn´t appear to be a main entrance. This leads to the throne room and into heart of the palace itself.
Although the inscriptions above the door give us a clue.
One of them tells us ¨at which the paths split¨
Another clue is the throne verse from the Koran which appears here;
¨His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth,
and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them
for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory).¨
The Throne Room
The design of this throne room is based of many square shapes. Consequently Mathematicians and architects appreciate this room due to it´s symmetry and precision. Also known as the Hall of the Ambassadors would have looked quite different that how we see it today. Because the room would have had brightly coloured rugs, beautiful vases and musical instruments around.
The intricate cedar wood ceiling has exacting measurements. Extremely difficult to put into place it consists of 8017 multicoloured panels. Symbolizing the seven heavens of Islamic Paradise. Diagonal lines radiate from the centre representing the four trees of life. The ceiling in the photo above is decorated with lots of stars. Painted to shine like ivory, mother of pearl and silver. Also worth noticing is the difference between the 8 pointed and 16 pointed stars.
Geometry was a mathematical and intellectual expression. It is also decorative and artist, also practical as these patterns can cover any space.
Most of the room would have been in a dim light, ensuring cooler temperatures. the latticework on the windows allows filtered light into the room. The effect of the light from the windows shone around the throne. This would surround the sultan in diffused light in a dim room creating a position of power and mystery. The throne used to be raised up slightly to give it height.
In the dome above this is a spectacular example of muqarnas. A 3d geometrical shape that began to appear in the mid 10th century in Islamic architecture. Creating a dazzling effect, this is especially used to cover spaces where the levels change.
When we look at the dome we have no idea how high it is or really how big it is as we are mesmerized by so many tessellating shapes and forms. This example in the Hall of the Abencerrajes in the Alhambra is probably one of the best places to see muqarnas.
The Hall of the Two Sisters
Another way to decorate a room was to write poems specifically for the space. Probably by the court poet Ibn Zamrak, (1333-1393). The hall of the two sisters is one of those, it´s verse wrapped around the impressive walls. This room off the Courtyard of the Lions has two huge marble flagstones on the floor. They have the same dimensions on either side of the entrance.
This marble is from the town of Macael in Almeria. I´m sure that it was quite an ordeal moving these huge flagstones almost 200 kilometres in those days. The ceiling in this room is breath taking. Inside the white plasterwork creates a dramatic effect. These shapes are muqarnas . The Alhambra is the best example of Islam architecture in Europe.
Seems like it took many months and years of work to decorate the palace interiors.
The poem mentions this impressive architecture;
The portico is so beautiful that the palace
competes in beauty with the sky.
You dressed it with such an exquisite lamé,
that the loom of the Yemen is forgotten.
¡How many arches are high on its summit,
on the columns that are adorned by the light,
like spheres that turn
above the glowing pillar of the dawn!
The columns are so beautiful in every way,
that their success flies from mouth to ear:
the marble throws its clear light, which invades
the black corner that blackens the shadow;
its highlights iridescent, and one would say that
they are, in spite of their size, pearls.
El Peinador de la Reina
(This space is not open for public visits.) I wanted to include this room as its a complete contrast to the other walls in the Alhambra. Built in 1537 for the Queen Isabel after the conquest of the Alhambra Granada. Originally this was the Tower of Abu I Hayyay. This room is set high up in the tower and has spectacular views over the river and the Albayzin.
With an open balcony, opposite the Carrera del Darro, was a favourite spot for the Catholic Queen. She enjoyed hearing the voices of the people in the town below. Because they would be speaking Mozarabe language….
The wall painting are Italian style with rich colours. The frescos by Julio Aquiles and Alexander Mayner are of historical interest. They depict the expedition of Charles V to Tunisia in 1535. Scenes show the army´s departure from the port of Gagiliari, their withdrawal and their return to Sicily.
Other paintings include flowers, animals, angels and other decorative motifs. All set on a white or red background. The space is full of wall paintings leaving no area undecorated. Unfortunately the Catholic Queen never got to enjoy this space as we see it today as these frescos were painted between 1539-1546, Queen Isabel died in 1504.
Silks inside the Alhambra
Also in the Alhambra silk was used extensively. They used only the best quality materials for covering walls, cushions and curtains. The silks would have been sumptuous colours and with intricate patterned designs. This decorative element is one which we can no longer appreciate today.
Certainly as this was the throne room, inscriptions here are more abundant:
¨From me you are welcomed morning and evening
by the tongues of blessing, prosperity, happiness and friendship¨
¨has decorated me with the robes of his glory and excellence
without disguise and has made me the throne of his empire
may its eminence be upheld by the master of divine glory and the celestial throne¨
Seems like there are infinite an of inscriptions in the Alhambra. So this is just a small compilation to give an idea of the detail along the palace walls.
You really need to see this in person to appreciate how many there are. Plan ahead and book your tickets for a Alhambra Palace Guided Tour
Other posts in this series are
Travel Resources to Plan Your Visit
Here are a few resources to help you plan your visit to Granada: