La Alhambra: A Clash of Cultures Produces a Legacy of Greatness

La Alhambra is a place of timeless beauty. Reflecting pools and water features like the Patio de los Arrayanes give it a magical feel. Comares Tower, in the background is the tallest building in the complex. It is where the Moors surrendered to the Catholic Monarchs and also where Christopher Columbus had his audience with the king and queen and was granted permission to embark on a voyage of discovery.

The 26 acres that comprise La Alhambra were built up over the years and include mosques, churches, a palace and royal apartments. It is one of Spain’s most popular visitor destinations.

Restoration of La Alhambra continues, but even areas like Patio de Armas, or Arms Square, where military personnel and workers were quartered and lived, are of interest to visitors.

Flashpoints of animosity between Christians and Muslims is a heartbreaking saga that has sullied the human spirit for well over a thousand years. The misguided notion that only one religion represents a divine faith has sparked wars across nations and continents, spilling oceans of blood. But occasionally, from the rubble of destruction people might find common ground – and accept that differences are something we share and should be celebrated.

A visit to La Alhambra is an experience to be savored. Its design elements beckon, inviting you to linger as you absorb the beauty and reflect on the history.

Occupying the high ground has always been advantageous, particularly if you have invaded a land. La Alhambra is located on Sibika Hill and makes it easy to keep an eye on things down below.

The Ziri Wall, upper right, was first constructed in the 6th Century and is thought to have extended nearly five miles. The wall is not currently open to tourists but there are plans to develop the site.

The massive stone walls and ramparts provided La Alhambra with formidable defenses to fend off attackers. And the excellent sight lines atop the hill would provide plenty of warning in the event of impending trouble from afar.

One place where this occurred was the southern region of what is now Spain in the city of Granada. For centuries it was a major center of influence for Muslims, often referred to as Moors. Over the centuries they built a castle, home, and gardens known at La Alhambra, “The Red One”. (The color is described in Arabic as “al-qal’a al-hamra.”) The remarkable beauty and technical excellence of its buildings and architecture were key reasons it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

From any number of perspectives, under a gleaming blue Andalusian sky, there are outstanding views to take in and a tapestry of history to appreciate when visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

From late spring, throughout the summer, and into the early fall this arbor would be covered in greenery and provide cool shade for people to walk under as they discussed their hopes and dreams.

Granada was first settled by a group of people known as the Turdulos, who were in turn conquered by the Romans sometime in the 1st or 2nd Century B.C. The area had the essential elements for settlement: good climate, water, land for raising crops and animals, and prominent hills to build fortifications and keep watch over the lands below.

The size and scope of the buildings on the grounds are truly impressive and shows the efforts made by the Moors to make La Alhambra the best they could. Note the notching of the arches on the left side of the passageway.

These successive topiary shrubs offer an appealing visual element as well as giving one a sense of privacy. The intricately-laid stone walkway offsets and complements the simplicity of the topiary.

“Granada” is the Spanish word for “pomegranate” which now grows throughout much of Spain. The fruit was first brought to the region in 711 A.D. when Tariq ibn-Ziyad (often referred to simply as “Tariq”), sailed with his army across the Strait of Gibraltar. He proceeded to conquer the southern region of Andalusia (Andalucia is the preferred Spanish spelling). Tariq was a Berber, and he was a Muslim. Within a few years he and his army conquered the region including cities such as Granada, Córdoba, Toledo, and others.

It may be just a courtyard with a fountain in the center but it was carefully designed to exude calm and to blend in with the surrounding buildings. The slender columns provide more viewing space as people walked by.

The care in planning and designing La Alhambra results in moments of fetching beauty at nearly every turn. The intricacy of detail on the arches and walls is nothing short of astounding. This view looks out to the courtyard in the photograph above.

In the late 880s, the long-abandoned Roman fortification above Granada was converted into a fortress by the Moors. In the mid-1200s work began to develop the site into what would become La Alhambra when the Emirate of Granada, Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Yusuf ibn Ahmar built fortress walls and a palace. In 1333 the Sultan of Granada, Yusuf I, converted the complex into a royal palace and undertook further developments.

Moorish poets have described La Alhambra as “a pearl set in emeralds” to describe how the white buildings were set among the greenery of trees and vegetation.

It would be easy enough to punch holes in the ceiling to allow light to illuminate a darkened space, but architects and builders of La Alhambra added that extra touch to make the holes look like stars.

A couple, left, takes in the design elements of the room and slender column with horseshoe arches that supports part of the room in an area of La Alhambra that is lighted by holes in the domed ceiling, while the woman, right, exits.

La Alhambra is referred to by Moorish poets as “a pearl set in emeralds” to describe the light-colored buildings set among the green trees and hillsides. It is the sum of its parts that make La Alhambra enduringly special; it is a place of technical and engineering innovation, a military barracks, gardens and water features, mosques, churches, towers, and a palace and royal apartments, much of it richly decorated.

Gaining entry into the complex would have been extremely difficult in the years when Moors, and later Spanish royalty controlled La Alhambra. The location had a water supply and sufficient acreage to grow food and feed livestock.

This water feature shows the balance, beauty, and serenity and the pleasing curves and sounds of the arching water spouts.

The Generalife Palace was built after the Moors were expelled, and is located on a slightly higher elevation which made the location a bit cooler in the hot summer months in southern Spain.

While the complex took many years to develop, the result is a harmonious blend of form, function, and beauty. The use of water is just one example of the technical and aesthetic gracefulness of La Alhambra. Moorish engineers were able to move water from the Darro River uphill, using a series of aqueducts that feed a network of fountains and water features. The soothing sound of water can be heard throughout much of the grounds. The Courtyard of the Lions is a water feature focal point where waterspouts from the mouths of 12 marble lions empty into small, carefully built courses that transport water to other fountains and pools located around the grounds.

This grand hall is breathtaking for its size, ceiling height, and incredible decorations on the floor (cordoned off), the walls, and the ceiling.

Arabic is written as a cursive style alphabet flowing from right to left. The walls of La Alhambra include a number of religious passages and messages.

The border detail on the upper portion of this wall impressively defines the space as well as gracefully transitions to the ceiling above. Again, note the use of script to impart messages.

The walls, floors, and ceilings are a sensory overload of detail. Some of the wall tiles include designs that represent 17 mathematical wallpaper formulas, and they were the inspiration that famed artist M.C. Escher used in his drawings of tessellations. Other walls are adorned with intricate patterns of incredible detail, including scriptural passages from the Quran. And both the floors beneath your feet and the ceilings above your head are a masterwork of design and decoration.

A portion of the barrel vault of this suspended ceiling has been replaced and restored, showcasing the complexity of the design and the quality of the construction.

A mother tends to her child as visitors take photographs and admire the grandeur of La Alhambra. As with nearly every part of the complex, the floor, walls, arches, and ceilings are richly decorated.

Many visitors find it mind-boggling that so many intricate, and incredible details were included throughout La Alhambra. In any age, and in any country, this domed ceiling and decor would be a masterwork of architecture and construction, but given that it was built 700 or 800 years ago, it is all the more impressive.

At first, to an unfamiliar eye, the amount of decoration on the walls and ceilings of the complex can be overwhelming, but after a while the harmony and beauty of it makes perfect sense.

The people who constructed the buildings of La Alhambra were much more than just craftsmen — they were artists, executing their work in exquisite detail.

The use of arches is another prominent and distinctive feature of La Alhambra. An arch provides both function and form. It is a load-bearing element that allows light to fill space, resulting in the perception of a larger space. The form of the arch lends a grace, and using arches in repetition creates passages, hallways, and vaulted rooms. There are several types of Moorish arches found in many places around the complex. They include horseshoe arches, pointed arches, and arches with notched-out edges. In many locations around La Alhambra the arches are supported with slender columns which lends added grace notes to walls and structures.

El Palacio de Portal is thought to be one of the earliest palaces at La Alhambra. It was constructed between 1302 – 1309 and experts believe it has been little changed from its original design.

Did this niche once hold chairs or a sofa where people could relax and talk about the affairs of the day? One would be hard pressed to focus on conversation with such amazing decor.

The grounds are a tranquil array of gardens with walkways, arbors, shrubbery, fountains and water features, including 220 hectares of land once used to grow vegetables and raise animals. Alhambra became an ideal location to govern the region, showcase the majesty and success of the Moorish rulers, and provide a safe and opulent residence for the ruling elite.

The Patio of the Lions is a major focal point in the complex. It is so named because of the 12 lions arrayed around a fountain bowl. Water spews from their mouths and falls into a water course.

The Patio of the Lions was commissioned by Mohammed V. The patio is bordered with 124 slender columns. It’s worth noting that the water system for the 12 lions is separate from other water features on the complex.

As any student of history knows, change is a constant that would eventually impact the Moors ruling the Iberian Peninsula. The agents of that change would become husband and wife, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isbella I of Castille (the two largest regions of what would become Spain). They were fervent, devout Catholics and became known as the Catholic Monarchs. During their lives they accomplished many things (including creating the Spanish Inquisition in 1478 to ensure Jews and Muslims converted to Catholicism or face expulsion or death).

From this vantage point at the top of the fortress fly the four flags that are now part of La Alhambra. From left to right, the flag of the European Union, then the flag of Andalusia, followed by the flag of Spain, with the flag of the City of Granada on the right.

They were second cousins who married young (October 19, 1469), within one week of their initial face to face meeting. She was just 18 and he was a year younger. To sidestep the thorny issue of consanguinity they needed dispensation from the pope. Pope Paul II, an Italian, was opposed to any influence in the Mediterranean from Aragon, so he refused to issue a papal bull. To sidestep that problem Ferdinand and Isabella simply had a papal bull forged. For the rest of his life Pope John Paul II was bitterly opposed to Ferdinand and Isabella.

A simple entryway would not do for the designers and builders of La Alhambra. Like the walls inside, this area is also festooned.

The young monarchs first order of business was to unite Spain. And they were a highly effective team and worked well together. Their royal motto in Latin, “Tanto monta” translates in English to, “As much one as the other.” Their marriage bound together Aragon and Castille and they traveled the lands extensively, wooing local elites to hammer home the notion of a unified Spain.

Once the Moors were driven from La Alhambra, Spanish royals proceeded to add their own touches like this tile panel.

The dizzying array of different styles of tiles installed by the Moor designers and builders served as inspiration to M C Escher went be embarked on his now-famous drawings of tessellations.

In the early 1480s they began a war to drive the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula. Step by step they pushed the Muslims out of Spain (or killed those who resisted). The final Muslim stronghold was Granada, and La Alhambra was the crown jewel. In 1492 the Catholic Monarchs succeeded in defeating the Moors and took possession of La Alhambra. Later that same year the explorer Christopher Columbus was given an audience at La Alhambra and granted permission to make a voyage of discovery to what would be dubbed the New World. Isabella would die 12 years later in 1504 and Ferdinand died 12 years after that in 1516. He was laid to rest alongside her at the Royal Chapel of Granada.

Main entrance, Generalife Palace, constructed after the Moors built La Alhambra, and more reflective of Spanish opulence.

Restoration at La Alhambra continues and will be an ongoing effort. But from the results thus far, it’s well worth it.

Like sentinels standing watch, these Italian cypress trees beckon you to stroll the grounds of La Alhambra.

A couple enjoys a leisurely stroll underneath one of the curved arbors on the grounds of La Alhambra.

Today La Alhambra is one of Spain’s most popular tourist destinations. It holds a special place in the nation’s history, and is testament to the creative beauty, engineering prowess, and symbology of Muslims who were determined to spread their faith on the Iberian Peninsula. They did not succeed as they hoped, but they left behind a legacy that is admired throughout the world.

Another of the many reasons La Alhambra succeeded was the more than 543 acres of land to grow crops, and provide feed for animals and livestock.

Even on a cloudy, windy day, the walls surrounding the water features keeps them still, making them excellent reflectors of the buildings and arches in the background.

For more information on La Alhambra click over to these secure websites: