Mystery and symbolism are embedded in the Alhambra of Granada. This magical architectural complex sits majestically atop a hill overlooking the Andalusian city of Granada and the Darro River Valley. This stunning edifice was initially a small fortress built by Arabs who controlled the Iberian Peninsula between 711 and 1492. The site was transformed into a palace in the 14 century by the first king of the Nasrids, a dynasty of 23 Arab Muslim emirs who ruled Granada for more than 250 years.
In this conversation, Blanca Espigares Rooney reveals the history and symbolism of the Alhambra of Granada. Blanca is an architect from the University of Seville, the city where she studied and lived for a period of time. Specializing in heritage, city and dissemination, with a Masters in Architecture and Historical Heritage, she obtained a doctorate from the University of Granada through a thesis in which she analyzed the way to map the city throughout history. Her family has been in Alhambra for several generations, which likely explains her vocation to architecture. Blanca grew up feeling the Alhambra as another neighborhood in Granada, one that was familiar and close.
She has worked on projects for the restoration and enhancement of heritage, both in Granada and the Alhambra, as well as in other historic cities such as Seville, Córdoba and Malaga. Her time teaching and researching at the University provided her with the necessary tools to teach others about architecture in a more understandable way.
An inveterate traveler, she affirms that it is necessary to know our environment to more intensely appreciate trips to other places with other cultures. She has spent a lot of time getting to know the most hidden corners of Andalusia, its architecture and its peculiarities. For this reason, she dedicates part of her work to the dissemination of architecture with her two business projects: Masquetours, which provide guided tours of Andalusia for demanding travelers; and GA-Andalucía, which provides specialized and technical visits for architects, landscapers, engineers and technicians. Her passion is to observe how travelers, in love with each route, end up immersing themselves in the most authentic reality of Andalusia.
Architecture That “Oozes” Power and Symbolism
Meg: The Alhambra is one of the most impressive structures I have ever experienced and it has a special place in world history. Can you share some context about its builders and the nature of society during its early history?
Blanca: The Alhambra was built during the last 250 years of al-Andalus, by the Nasrid dynasty. By the year 1236, when Al-Ahmar began to build it, Córdoba was already conquered by Castilia, and Seville was already besieged. The kingdom of Granada was soon the last Muslim Kingdom in the Iberian peninsula. Al-Ahmar, the founder of this dynasty, wanted to build a royal city. Probably emulating the list Madinat al-Zahra built by Abderrahman III near Córdoba. A citadel conceived for a royal family, and that’s why its architecture oozes power and symbolism.
Figures Responsible for Building Alhambra of Granada
Meg: In particular, it would be interesting to learn about the stories of a couple of the people who were responsible for the vision behind its construction. Can you share anything about the lives of a couple of the figures who built it?
Blanca: The two main sultans in the construction of the Alhambra were Yusuf I and Muhammed V. The first one built the main tower, the most significant one of you’re contemplating the Alhambra from the Albaicín. It’s the Comares tower, and it contains the magnificent Throne Room, also called the Ambassador’s room. An amazing space with very elegant decoration and covered by the world’s biggest vault of its kind. 8.017 wood pieces representing, some experts defend, the 7 heavens which are described in the Corán. He died soon, killed by one of his sons, in revenge for choosing Muhammed V as his successor.
Muhammed V was only 17 when he sat on the throne due to his father’s assassination. He loved architecture. He was highly educated and the documents say that he always participated in the construction and the decision of the architecture he built. Under his reign, he completed the Comares palace with the Myrtle courtyard, one of the most beautiful places in the world. It had been an inspiration for many artists and even for architects such as Le Corbusier and the modern style. The big reservoir reflects the sunbeams and makes the galleries of arches look like floating.
But his great work was the Lions Palace, where he made experiments with water and muqarnas. The palace changed the style in Al-Andalus architecture and the Arab one. The design is completely different from the rest of the Alhambra. It has the wonderful lion’s fountain, a water art wonder, and the most beautiful muqarnas ceilings in the world, another incredible marvel.
Molding a Hill | Make Room for the Alhambra
Meg: The very location of the Alhambra is a stunning cultural landscape. Can you speak to how the setting was chosen, and how the architects married the environment with the structure itself?
Blanca: The Alhambra is placed on the hill which better controls Granada and its surroundings, but is completely independent from it. It was a wise choice. Granada has its productive area in the valley and the Alhambra occupying the whole mountain, 500 hectares. This way the Alhambra could control everything and also be completely independent with its own agricultural area, being the Generalife one of the rural palaces.
Besides this mountain gave the Alhambra the main material of its structure: this soil is so good that it’s like a natural concrete, really stable. You can cut part of the hill vertically, and it stands. It doesn’t need a containment wall. And that was the main material of the Alhambra: the same soil of the hill where they were building it. As if they molded the hill.
Incorporation of Moorish and Andalucian Architecture in the Alhambra of Granada
Meg: Can you describe some of the distinctive features of Moorish architecture and how they are used in the Alhambra?
Blanca: Probably it’s the kind of geometry developed in plasterwork. Not only the bidimensional plasterwork of the walls but also the whole improvement on the muqarnas, the designs of the ceilings and the atmosphere they create. Besides, the wooden work, the geometry they were able to create with wood, is also one of the highlights of the Alhambra.
Meg: Does the architecture reflect any local Andalucian features or traditions?
Blanca: It’s the development of the Al-Andalus features. The exchange between Christian craft men and Al-Andalus was continuous. Also the influences with the Maghreb. We can say that this architecture is the reflection of centuries of wisdom, knowledge and exchange.
Building for Defense
Meg: The Alhambra is both a fortress and a palace. Can you speak to its design in terms of its military/defensive features and why that was necessary during the era in which it was constructed?
Blanca: Well, to be more precise, the Alhambra is a city with its own independent agricultural area. Before the city was built, there was already a castle in the 11th century, and a tower in the 9th. Because it was the highest hill in the area with the best views. Besides, one of the sides is so steep that an attack from there was impossible.
The castle was built strongly and wise, thinking of the possible areas an enemy could attack, and reinforcing the weakest parts. The city is surrounded by a lot of towers and long high walls. But, in addition, the surroundings of the citadel were also walled. And the enemy needed to cross Granada’s walls first and then the Alhambra ones. Not easy at all. The gates are entrances with four corners to avoid the battering rams entering. Every architectural solution is not only beautiful, is also for a better defense.
Alhambra of Granada | Flexible and Adaptable
Meg: On one of my visits, a guide said that the spaces of the complex were constructed to reflect palace life, which involved “intrigue” among the harem of the monarchs. Can you share any insight into that lifestyle and how the complex was used by its residents?
Blanca: The main difference with Western life is that their spaces are multifunctional. We have the Greek and Roman distribution: every function in a different room. Bedrooms to sleep, dining room to eat, sitting room to rest.
In the Alhambra we find a more open architecture: lighter and changeable furniture allowed a space to have a trial, next thing a party, or even sleep, lunch or rest. Every room could be adapted to what it was needed or to what the sultan wanted.
Reason for Detail and Geometric Patterns in Alhambra
Meg: The decorative elements that embellish the complex’s structure are exquisite. Can you describe why there is such rich and extensive decoration, and a description of some of the craft and tradition behind them (i.e., carvings, calligraphy, ceramics, plasterwork?
Blanca: The kingdom of Granada was a poor one. They didn’t have the richness of the Umayyad for example. The small kingdom had marble, plaster, limestone, wood, and ceramic. They didn’t have fancy and exclusive stones or the amazing jewelry Córdoba had. That’s why their effort went into the design. A poor material needed to appear as a fine one. The development of geometry and complexity should be studied from the Umayyads to the Nasrids.
In the plasterwork or in the tiling work, we can find so many different designs, it is really overwhelming. In fact, in the Alhambra, we can find the 17 plane symmetry or crystallographic group. The patterns are really interesting to analyze and I recommend visiting the Alhambra palaces twice: one to contemplate the spaces and the light, the other to analyze the geometric patterns. Maths and proportion are intrinsic to the Alhambra.
Palacio de Generalife, A Surprise Hiding Inside
Meg: The Palacio de Generalife is magnificent. Can you describe the design and symbolism of the garden? In particular, the water features are lovely and it would be great to learn the “back story” of these.
Blanca: The Generalife is a palace that dates from the late 13th century. It was a rural palace, mostly used for rest and relaxation and for summer. It is built on top of the first irrigation channel which was traced to bring water to the citadel. So the fountain in the center of the courtyard is really an irrigation channel. It is wisely placed on top of it, taking advantage of the breeze that always blows close to the running water.
This palace is different from those we can visit inside the citadel. This one is located in the middle of an orchards area, surrounded by the irrigation channel branches, and instead of an institutional courtyard, we find a low garden. The soil is placed lower than we are used to, so the bushes and flowers create a meadow to the height of the walking corridors, and the fruit of the trees was closer to the sultan’s hand to be taken.
The view from here is astonishing but originally, the galleries didn’t exist, only a little space in the center of the courtyard. This way the surprise was bigger: the garden was shut up inside walls and suddenly in the center of it, it opened to the wonderful landscape. The galleries were open by Christians after the conquering of Granada.
Geometry and Math | Foundations of Architecture
Meg: Symmetry and geometry seem to be defining features of Moorish art and architecture. Is this so, and why?
Blanca: Geometry and math are the foundations of all the Alhambra beauty. It has been a part of art and architecture since all times. But the Arab culture took it to beyond and reached a really high level of complexity and exquisiteness. It is not only in the proportions of the spaces, but in every element that decorates it. We can even appreciate the development from the geometric patterns in the 13th century to the most sophisticated ones in the late 14th century.
Changing the Fate of Alhambra
Meg: The Christian Reconquista changed the fate of the Alhambra. Can you explain the political backdrop that led to this, and how it influenced the architecture of the palace?
Blanca: The Catholic Monarchs when they conquered Granada and the Alhambra, took the citadel and kept considering it a Royal city. In other towns, the Royal Arab palaces were completely destroyed by the Christian kings and in the case of the Alhambra, they weren’t. They were adapted, the new inhabitants added spaces, but always with surprising respect for the Nasrid ones. In fact, if we analyze Cordoba or Seville, or other towns where there were wonderful Arab palaces, we can find just remains. It is not possible to find the level of conservation we have in the Alhambra.
The main problem for the Christians was that their way of life was completely different from the Arab one. The latter built palaces thinking of every space as a multifunctional space. The Western tradition is Roman and divides the dwellings into different rooms, each one with a different use (bedroom to sleep, kitchen to cook, sitting room to relax, etc), so when the Christians began to inhabit the Alhambra, the surprising thing was that they didn’t tear the Nasris palaces down. They adapted the spaces to their needs, or they built new pavilions on gardens, courtyards, or plain houses. This is the moment that the decision to build Charles the 5th palace was taken. He needed enough rooms for all his court, and he attached the new palaces to the old ones in order to preserve them, as part of his new palace.
Living In and Loving the Alhambra of Granada
Meg: Why did you choose a career in architecture and cultural heritage? Was there a pivotal experience you had that gave you the “Aha” moment this would be your professional direction?
Blanca: I belong to one of the Alhambra’s families. In the 19th century, during the beginning of tourism, some entrepreneurs decided to go to the Alhambra, buy some houses and start new businesses giving services to the tourists. One of them was my great-great-grandfather. He was a photographer and his business was selling postcards and antiques. Then, my great-grandmother was born inside the Alhambra, my grandmother, and my father. I am the first generation to be born and live outside the walls of the citadel of the Alhambra. Even today we still have some houses there.
It is because of this that I was born with the Alhambra as one of my homes. I wanted to study architecture because of it among other things, and later it was a natural way to specialize in cultural heritage and restoration. Right now I also work in the dissemination of Andalusian architecture because I think it is a great knowledge to give to the world.
Meg: What is your favorite location/feature of the Alhambra and why?
Blanca: There are so many that it is difficult to decide. I always explain that when visiting the Alhambra, you tell yourself about a space “this is just the most wonderful one”, the next one makes you doubt again. The myrtle courtyard is one of my references: so modern, so exquisite. The big Tendilla reservoir is a very special space. I would say that every inch of the Alhambra is special and deserves attention.
This interview was facilitated and translated by Mahsa Homayounfar, Founder & CEO at Not Just a Tourist, an award-winning travel company in Spain.