Walking through the Alhambra Palace is a mesmerizing stroll in divine geometry and perfection. Behind every stone there is a mathematically calculated move; each mosaic piece is a perfection coming together with precision and the vision the creators of this wondrous place had. What fascinates me the most about this palace is how the grand scale of architectural genius accommodates the minuscule perfection of each tile fitting into the overall sensation the palace creates. Both mathematically as well as artistically is a carefully crafted design that never fails to impress.
Examining each part of the palace is essential to get a sense of what life used to be here. The geometric design is integral part of satisfying the senses, almost as if they are there to bring order and structure to the seemingly random building. Yet, everything is in perfect order when we take a closer look. I could write a blog piece of each room; in fact, tons of books are dedicated to the subject, but let’s linger a little longer on the harmonious aspect of this place. Perhaps the best place to start this is in the Comares Palace.
This was the residence of the king, and it is surrounded by other iconic structures such as the Court of the Myrtles and the Hall of the Ambassadors. Here we see what defined Islamic culture at the time- poems scribed on the walls, Qur’anic verses, expressions of piety and descriptions of the king all add an element of power of the whole. The patterns of the Comares Palace are intricate, yet they follow an internal logic. Each piece of mosaic is individual, but as soon as we step back and look at the whole, we see how they are part of the whole. The “form” and the “ground”- as it is called in artistic expressions- is in full play here as a gentle reminder of our individual lives as human beings, yet part of a bigger picture, Life, where we all have our role to play.
( Steven Nightingale, the author of the book, Granada, elaborates on this and you can read my interview with him here: https://henriettaszovati.com/2021/09/02/interview-with-steven-nightingale/ )
According to another observer and student of the building is Valerie Gonzalez, who talks about the wall decorations, “the texts, including Qur’anic quotations, poems and pious expressions, present an imagery full of pictures and poetic metaphors that create a highly animated textual world coexisting with the visual world”. I imagine the atmosphere as a dignitary would step into this palace in the medieval times along with nightingales singing as the orange blossom overtook the courtyard…Any visitor would be impressed, even intimidated, to see the glorification to such extent. Using Quranic inscriptions was a deliberate attempt to show the ruler’s non-secular persuasion, as well as highlighting their firm power in the continent. Arabic writing flows through the walls like a melody, creating a sense of elation, perhaps towards the heavens above.
One of the poems recites:
For how many are the gorgeous robes in which thou,
O Sultan, has attired it, which surpass, in brilliancy
of colour, the vaunted robes of Yemen.
You conquered Algeciras by the sword and opened a gate which had [until then] been denied to our victory…
Praise be to God!
The building holds a certain mystery, and we will perhaps never truly know the intention behind the decorations. Some sources say it was to show deliberate attempt to draw attention to the beauty of God by placing decoration on every inch of the walls, so wherever the eyes fall, they see beauty. Others say it was to express domination and power. There is an inherent complexity to the building, and Robert Irwin invites us to study it, so we might begin to understand the complexity of the people who lived here and created it.
From a mathematical standpoint, we can reflect on how things can be made simple. Never-ending patterns often have a tendency to be difficult to analyse and while it is the case with all geometric design in the Alhambra, it is also a point of reference for distilling things into simpler forms for more impact. Just like the duality between the simplicity of the Alhambra patterns as well as their inherently complicated symbolism behind them.
The Comares Hall continues to make us ponder and ask more questions. It also encapsulates what we face daily when we study a building, a situation in history or a people and their contribution. Its ceiling is certainly one of its most prominent feature. There has been a strong agreement that it is a representation of the seven Islamic heavens. However, it could be a false and rather complex assumption based on the mathematical analysis of the ceiling. There are many assumptions and while it is important to study all of them, it is also necessary to understand the people who created this place. The idea of Heaven being a constant feature of the palace was central to this building and it begs the question why the inhabitants would not include this in the overall structure of the building. However, the analysis that tries to prove that the ceiling cannot be the heavens was done by historians who most likely did not have the string background to make the necessary analysis. The belief has been that the six rows of stars and the central cupola represent the seven heavens indicated by a scripture on a wall below the ceiling.
We continue our discoveries as we move through the Nasrid Palaces and our next stop is the Palace of the Lions. This part of the palace was started by Yusuf I, whose son, Muhammed V finished the building you of this part. Here you see the use of simpler, less excessive use of geometrical and abstract decorations. This par to of the palace is where we begin to see the connection between Muslim and Christian architecture and decorative arts. It is perhaps naturally so, as Mohammed had a close relation with the Christian king, Pedro, the Cruel, so the influence is more visible. The Nasrid Palace obtained its name from the fountain in the courtyard, which includes sculptures of lions positioned in a circle and supporting a fountain.
This part of the palace reminds us of the importance of collaboration and openness to other cultures and influences and as many scholars of Andalus say- this is what beauty can be created when people become open to the other. The geometric design patterns here are subdued and taken over by the figures of lions, that represent power and force. Yet, the lions are in humble positions, as they are holding the basin that indicates humility and consent.
The Palace of the Lions, as widely accepted, was used for education and to inspire people and was referred to as a madrasa. This is a possible explanation as the central courtyard hosts a fountain, often used for remembering the invocations of the Qu’ranic parable concerning the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon (Qu’ran 27:44), its likeness to a shimmering sea.”. The emphasis is on the four directions, as well as keeping the central garden as the focal point, just like the Islamic concept of prayer that is directed to one spot, Makkah (even though the prayer direction is not pointing this way).
Around the Palace of the Lions are various halls, like the Hall of the Abencerrajes, where the intricate patterns continue to make us marvel the overall complexities of this palace. Walking through here is a gentle meditation on the celestial and earthly beauties. Each wall decoration is a stark reminder of nature and our essential connection to it and includes branches, leaves, floral motives often coupled with water or features of water. It somewhat puts the world in an interpretation only scholars and intellectuals would truly enjoy, and Washington Irwin suggested that the palace was built and ornamented by scholars for scholars. What is astonishing is how simplistic it looks, yet how complex the intentions behind it are! I reckon it is the message of education- how do we articulate and interpret complex ideas in the simplest, most digestible way.
History and art would not always agree, which is why we need to study significant buildings, like the Alhambra, ourselves. We must educate ourselves about the people who build prominent buildings to make sense of their work. We should learn their lifestyle, ideologies and expressions so we can make a coherent interpretation that has the hope to be close to the truth. The Alhambra Palace is one of the most intriguing building in the world and we should all have our own relationship with it. It embodies various themes and meanings, and we should seek our own interpretations as we study its history and artistic genius. Its symbolism and texts seem to speak for themselves, yet they carry layered meanings, depending on how we interpret them. If there is, however, one thing to take away from this stunning palace is this: things that appear simple, carry a lot of planning, work, intellectual rigour and intentions behind them. Just because something looks simple, it does not mean it is simplistic. The Alhambra is one of the most intricate places in the world and it deserves our time and dedication to understand its structure, secrets and message for us in today’s world. When we understand the Alhambra, we understand the world.