Different Ways to Understand the Alhambra


The Alhambra is an architectural complex that is located in Spain, Granada. It is one of the most prominent monuments of the Islamic architecture in Europe. Its history dates back to the 9th century when the small fortress appeared on that place (Lopez, 1992). Only from the 14th century the Alhambra started to become the palace complex as it is nowadays.

Under the rule of the sultans of the Narsid dynasty the Alhambra underwent significant decorations and building. There are various approaches to understand the Alhambra. In the article The City Plan of the Alhambra Lopez (1992) gives general information about the organization of the Alhambra, and describes the details about it, explaining their practical importance from in the historical context. Fernández-Puertas (1997) in The Three Great Sultans of al-Dawla al-Ismāʿīliyya al-Naṣriyya Who Built the Fourteenth-Century Alhambra: Ismāʿīl I, Yūsuf I, Muḥammad V features information about the lives of the main sultans who participated in building and decoration of the Alhambra. Ruggles (1997) in his article The Eye of Sovereignty: Poetry and Vision in the Alhambra’s Lindaraja Mirador proposes the analytical point of view on the Alhambra. In the current essay an attempt to understand the ways in which the authors of three articles tried to understand the Alhambra and which approach covers the issue better, will be made.

How Different Scholars Understood the Alhambra

Lopez (1992) investigates into the city plan of the Alhambra in his article. Such approach to understanding the Alhambra can be called the most general one. According to the author, the territory of the ensemble was divided into three main parts. The first one was Alcazaba, that was used mainly for the needs of the army. The second part was the palace itself and its surrounding, which formed the conceptual unit. The third part was the medina, or the city, where the artisans and average citizens lived. The land outside of the Alhambra palace was also considered to be its part, and it consisted of four gardens – Fuentepena, Colorada, Merceria and Grande. The towers were located on the hills, which made them simultaneously the military outposts and convenient places for distributing water throughout the city (Lopez, 1992).

In the heart of the Alhambra, as in the typical medieval building, the guard of the sultan lived. The Alcazaba was situated on the Sabika hill, between the Vega and the Sierra Nevada spur. On this place a medieval fortress was initially built, that became the spot from which the Alhambra developed. The main part in the Alcazaba was the Tower of Homagem or the Torre del Homenaje, which was the highest point in the entire fortress. It used to be the center of intelligence and the high command of the elite guard. In this tower the rooms of the military command situated and it is possible to assume that the founder of the Narsid dynasty lived there too when the Alhambra was not constructed yet (Lopez, 1992).

The inner streets of the Alhambra help to understand the atmosphere of the medieval Islamic city better. They were traditionally narrow and had numerous branches. Even though there were no such notions as the avenues in the Arab architectural tradition, there were several main streets in the Alhambra. One of them is alled the Street of the Moat, or the Calle del Foso and the Calle de Ronda. Its name can be explained by the fact thatin case of the siege, this street became the moat. After the city gates of the Alhambra were closed, the Street of the Moat divided the outer wall from the the fortress. It was also important because the communication with the dependent streets was made through it. The Street of the Moat underwent significant changes during different periods of the history. Every sultan changed something in its construction and made it more safe, as it was the strategically important street. Though, the biggest part of this street was destroyed in the Napoleon era and it is possible to restore its initial looks by means of written remnants and images (Lopez, 1992).

There were also several types of the towers in the Alhambra. They could be divided into the tower palaces, the tower dwellings, the institutional towers and the luxurious places of living for the family of the sultan and their closest people. Every tower had an independent system of security, fortifications and guards. The towers were connected with the tunnels underneath th main street to let the guard pass there in case of trouble (Lopez, 1992).

The Alhambra had a well thought organization, which served mainly to protect the palace and the inner city from the outside enemies. The towers and the fortifications, as well as the natural hills and ditches, were built to protect the Alhambra. This explains their organization from the practical side. From another point of view, the Alhambra was built as the typical medieval Arabic city, which is now a unique monument of the architecture in Europe.

The Alhambra Palace is a unique architectural complex of the fourteenth century that is characterized by a great number of balconies, towers and windows, from which the inhabitants of the palace were able to see the city. The walls in Lindaraja Mirador feature many poems that create a visual continuum between the Alhambra and the view of the kingdom outside the palace. Such framing of the windows was used to connect the implied sense of possession and vision, between the authority and his territory. The history of decorating the walls with poetic lines in the Islamic world has a long history. Though, the Alhambra is unique because its poetry is written from the first person, as if the building has its own voice (Ruggles, 1997).

The author of the article The Eye of Sovereignty: Poetry and Vision in the Alhambra’s Lindaraja Mirador (Ruggles, 1997) tries to understand the Alhambra with the help of one detail – the window, or the mirador, which ideologically combines the view of the landscape behind the window and the poetic lines from the Quran that frame the miradors. The ensemble of these two things makes the viewer perceive himself as the creator, because the poetic verses are written from the first person perspective, and praise Allah for the creation of the beauty that lies behind the Alhambra.

The Alhambra complex in Granada is considered to be the culmination of the architectural tradition that developed for almost four centuries in Cordoba. Though, despite all similarities with the traditional Islamic style, the Alhambra is unique, because it is now the only representative of this style that was preserved in Europe. The walls of the Alhambra are covered with citations from the Holy Quran, which gives the historians an opportunity to research the image and the word together as the indispensable parts of the monument. The analysis of the Alhambra complex features both the visual component and its meaning, that can be understood from the poems (Ruggles, 1997).

The towers of the Alhambra complex were built on the hills, and the natural landscape determined its form. That is why there were a dozen of towers along the perimeter of the Alhambra palace, and the towers usually had their “viewing places” or salient miradors, that offered a great view on the landscape beyond the walls of the palace. It seems like the Alhambra extends itself with the help of offering a view on the Narsid kingdom and Granada. The poetry on the walls emphasize this feeling and describe vividly the land under the rule of the mighty Islamic dynasty (Ruggles, 1997).

The mirador is an important component of the architectural ensemble of the Alhambra. Ruggles (1997) defines the mirados as the boxes with windows on every side and an ajimez, a framed window in front of the box. According to the Andalusian architectural tradition, the mirador supposes the act of vision. In such contemplating practice the mirador used to be persuaded as the frame that determines the relationships between the view and the viewer. It also supposed the act of creation, because the person looking out of the mirador was the commander of the view, the creator, and the landscape outside the mirador was the end result of the creation. The gardens outside the Alhambra were considered to be the present of God, and people had to take care and to enjoy the view as the divine intention (Ruggles, 1997).

The poetic lines written on the walls emphasize the position of the sultan in the context of his kingdom, and of the viewer in the context of the landscape. The following lines are written on the frame of the mirador: “In this garden I am an eye filled with delight and the pupil of this eye is, truly, our lord, Muhammad, praiseworthy for his bravery and generosity, with fame outstanding and virtue graceful” (Ruggles, 1997). In fact, the verses in the Alhambra are unique in the western Islamic architecture. Mostly all rooms in the palace have a verse from the Quran, and what is even more unique, they have the first person point of view.

Fernández-Puertas (1997) in his article focuses on the descriptions of the lives of the tree great sultans of the second dynasty al-Dawla al-Ismalailiyya al-Nasriyya, Ismail I, Yusuf I and Muhammad V, who built the Alhambra complex. Through the biographies of the most important people of the state at that time, the culture, and the foreign policy of the sultans the author tries to understand the Alhambra.

The main thing that is important to understand from the descriptions of the lives of the sultans is that they were constantly in the state of war, and the Alhambra was the fortress first of all. That is why it is functionally built to protect the inner city and the palace from the enemies. The second issue is that the lives of the sultans were not only filled with wars, but also with the palace intrigues, and the architecture of the Alhambra also has an air of an ancient Arabic palace, where the wifes of the sultans killed each other with the poison to make their sons the only heirs of the throne (Fernández-Puertas, 1997).

Ismail I was an educated sultan who patronized culture. He rebuilt the Alhambra and decorated its walls with poetic lines. During his reign the Alhambra became not only the fortification, but also a refined palace. Ismail I added several buildings to the architectural ensemble of the Alhambra. He built the Palacio de Comares, where the hammam was situated. After Ismail I was killed, his son, Yusuf I , continued decorating the hammam and the great Salon de Comares. The rest of the Alhambra ensemble was decorated and added by the grandson of Yusuf I, Muhammad V (Fernández-Puertas, 1997).

The Alhambra was the center of the court life in the Islamic state. The main ceremonies on state occasions like commemorating the dead warriors or meeting with the foreign ambassadors were held in the Alhambra. After the reign of Yusuf I the sultan sat during such occasions on the throne in the center of the Salon de Comares named qubba. The throne itself named jamuga is preserved in the Museum of the Alhambra and helps to understand the way the Alhambra looked like in the fourteenth century (Fernández-Puertas, 1997).

The rule of Muhammad V marked the culmination of the Narsid art. The Alhambra complex was reconstructed, rebuilt and redecorated at that period of time. As the result, most of the things that are present nowadays in the ensemble belong to this epoch. It can be characterized by the classical grandeur and the monumentalism, that developed during the rule of Ismail I and Yusuf I, but reached its highest point only when Muhammad V was the sultan (Fernández-Puertas, 1997).


It is difficult to underestimate the importance of the historical context in understanding the Alhambra. The architectural peculiarities of the Alhambra are closely connected with the need of the people who lived in the fortresses and palaces to protect themselves from the enemies, as it is described in the article of Lopez (1992). It is also crucial to understand that the cultural development of the Islamic society of that time and the personalities of the sultans played an important role in the style of the decorations of the Alhambra, as the article of Fernández-Puertas (1997). Though, in m opinion the perspective proposed by Ruggles (1997) is more profound. He proposes to understand the Alhambra as the unity of the form and the idea, of the architecture, the landscape, and the verses from the Quran, which determined the world view of people in those times. His approach is analytical and that is why it gives more opportunities to perceive the Alhambra as the unity, while the other two authors use a descriptive approach and only give factual information about the issue.


Lopez, J.B. (1992). The City Plan of the Alhambra. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, 153- 62.

Fernández-Puertas, A. (1997). The Three Great Sultans of al-Dawla al-Ismāʿīliyya al-Naṣriyya Who Built the Fourteenth-Century Alhambra: Ismāʿīl I, Yūsuf I, Muḥammad V. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 7(1), 1-25.

Ruggles, D.F. (1997). The Eye of Sovereignty: Poetry and Vision in the Alhambra’s Lindaraja Mirador, Gesta, 36 (2), 180-89.

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