Nasrid art, so named after the Banu Nasr family which was the last to rule over the Islamic state of Al-Andalus until the fall of Granada in 1492, developed over the 13th century. It featured a particular style of architecture including the Abencerrajes Palace within the Alhambra walls, the House of the Girones and, outstanding, the Royal Chamber of Santo Domingo, which is an interesting palace-tower built into the western walls of the old potters’ district in Granada. It forms part of the Almohad era tradition of country palaces, examples of which could be found on the Sabikah and Nayd hills south of the Alhambra all the way to the River Genil, attributed by Arab sources to the Almohad governor Abú Málik `Abd al-Wáhid. The Royal Chamber of Santo Domingo exhibits the essential forms of Nasrid palace architecture through Almohad and caliphate art, its roots in the history of Islamic art and pre-Islamic meso-oriental cultures: it combines tower and palace, portico and garden with pond, located on the central axis of the qubba, the royal room, with its tripartite floor, variations of which can be seen in subsequent Nasrid monuments, with curved cusped arches, wide use of honeycomb work, and tiling featuring plant motifs and latticework on both glazed, plaster and ceiling surfaces, in addition to epigraphic calligraphy details which became increasingly rich and complex.

But the most significant decision for the political, architectural and artistic future of Nasrid Granada would be taken by the founder of the Nasrid dynasty, Mohammed b. Yusuf b. Nasr Ibn al-Ahmar (r. 1237-1273) at the beginning of his reign, moving the royal seat from the Albaicín district to Sabikah hill. Here he began constructing the Fortress with magnificent views over the city and surrounding plains, also constructing the Royal Irrigation Channel which would supply water for all the ‘Alcazaba’, or Fortress, buildings. With his construction on Sabikah hill, this first Nasrid sultan Mohammed I, who adopted the sobriquet al-Gálib billáh (Victorious through God) and introduced the well known dynastic motto Wa-lá gáliba illa Alláh (Only God is Victorious), which appeared on official documents and on the monuments and works of art in the royal dwellings, began the creation of a new symbolic space which, over time, became a diverse palatine city, the administrative centre of Nasrid Granada and the heart of his ideological and aesthetic utopia.


Layout and military functions. The Alcazaba.

The buildings which made up the citadel of the Alhambra, whose name “the red one” by the end of the 9th century already meant any small military construction located on Sabikah hill, were the development of the style of military buildings from the Almohad era into the Nasrid style. This style was characterised by taller, slimmer towers whose construction was made possible by thinner walls and vaulting systems which were more varied and elegant than previously. This construction development seems to have had two motives, firstly to create the impression of greater military might and secondly to improve living conditions within the towers. Examples are the Torre de la Vela, which is 26.80 m high, the Torre Quebrada and, especially, the Torre del Homenaje (26 m high), whose top floor was turned into a living area around a small, central patio, which Gómez-Moreno suggests was used as a residence by the first Nasrid sultan.

The Alhambra Citadel, centre of the military district, was equipped with baths, water cisterns and stables on its lower floors, and surrounded by a large barbican and double walls which gave it a good, strong defensive structure. Even so, the specifically military structure of the Alhambra had to be modified by Ibn al Ahmar’s descendents who, in addition to building new walls and palaces on Sabikah hill, also refurbished the Alcazaba, adding large buildings such as the Tower and Gate of Arms to connect to the Albaicín district, and which added a great deal to the Alcazaba’s primitive layout. Over different periods, the defensive architecture of the Alhambra was completed with large tower-gates such as the Tower-Gates of Justice (4), of the Seven Heavens and of the Points with the Arrabal Gate, in addition to the construction of large Tower-Palaces, the most striking being those of Abul Hayyáy, Comares, the Ladies, the Captive and the Infantas. They are all linked together by walls, walkways, barbicans and smaller towers such as the Cadí Tower, and all gave body to the powerful military dimension of the Alhambra’s palaces.

The Generalife Gardens, the Partal Palace and the Mexuar Audience Hall

After the death of Ibn al Ahmar, his successor Mohammed II (r. 1273-1302), who revitalised the culture of the Nasrid sultanate, completed works on the Alcazaba and built the royal gardens of the Generalife (5) outside the walls of the Alhambra. These gardens would be significantly added to in subsequent periods, particularly in the time of Ismail I and Yusuf III, and later on by the Catholic Kings. Following the tradition of Almohad gardens and country palaces, the Generalife was a true palace with royal qubba and enclosed garden crossed by the Royal Irrigation Channel, which imitated the Persian style of enclosed gardens, although with greater and more varied ornamentation than was customary in earlier Almohad constructions. Mohammed II also introduced the office of vizier into the Nasrid kingdom in order to make state administration more efficient and created the Diwán al-Insha', the Correspondence Department, which regulated relations between the court and its poet-functionaries. One of the functions of these poets was to compose sultániyya verses, which were basically panegyric compositions dedicated to the monarch for official celebrations: religious festivities, weddings, births, circumcisions of princes, journeys, military displays, the return of victorious armies, funeral ceremonies, the epitaphs for the tombstones of sultans and poems which adorned the palaces and court objets d’art (6). Under the politician and literary figure Ibn al akím de Ronda (1261-1309), the great saga of the poet-functionaries that dominated 14th century Granada began, these poets composing verses which were engraved on the walls of various palaces within the Alhambra: Ibn al Yayyáb (1274-1349), his disciple Ibn al-Jatíb (1313-1374), and the pupil and subsequent enemy of the latter, Ibn Zamrak (1333-c. 1393) and also the sultan Yusuf III (1376-1417) and his court poet Ibn Furkún (c. 1379/80- c. 15th C). Although members of the Correspondence Department composed official poetry in an artisan manner, their works are of great importance since they describe the life and ideals of the court and develop a sub-genre of poetry whose purpose was to exalt buildings and create the symbols of the sultanate on the monuments and sumptuous court objets themselves. Their poems add a peerless literary dimension to Islamic art in terms of their profusion, detail and meaning.

After the assassination of Mohammed II, his successor Mohammed III (r. 1232-1273) instigated the definitive transformation of the Alhambra into the palace setting, building the Partal Palace (7), the Tower of the Ladies and the main mosque of the Alhambra with adjacent baths. Through Ibn al-Jatíb and other sources, we know that this mosque was particularly beautiful and was built around 1305 with three moderate sized halls and a brick factory (Torres Balbás, 1945); from here comes the lovely bronze lamp, now kept in the National Archaeological Museum, decorated with plant motifs, the Nasrid motto and the commemorative inscription 1305. Mohammed III also built a small palace on Nayd hill with its qubba, water tank and patio adorned with lions, as described in many poems by Ibn al-Yayyáb and Ibn Zamrak. Nasr (r. 1309-1314) added the Abu l-Hayyáy Tower to the constructions of his predecessors, whilst Ismail I (r. 1314-1325) built what must have been a royal palace or an administrative area between the Machuca Portico and the Mexuar, in addition to the Baths of what would become the Comares Palace; moreover, to celebrate his victory over the Infantes Pedro and Juan in 1319, he made significant changes to the gardens of the Generalife and constructed the royal gardens of the Genil Palace-Fortress (8), located on the plains near the St Sebastian hermitage, and which is the only ribát, military and religious construction found in frontier areas of Muslim era Granada, which has lasted.

When Yusuf I and Mohammed V undertook their grand architectural projects, the Alhambra began turning into a palatine city with well established designs: a fortress of considerable size, an artisan district also providing services to the court, delicate castles and small palaces with central arcaded patios built around a pond, viewpoints with lovely arched windows overlooking the city landscape, niches decorated with poems and a jug of water at the entrance to the royal rooms, epigraphs with the Nasrid motto next to votive captions and beautiful short poems of a pious nature. However, under Ismail I, Ibn al Yayyáb began to create verses in the Generalife in honour of the palaces and the sultan which can be seen in subsequent Nasrid buildings: idealisation of architectural beauty in nuptial terms, comparison of wall adornment with fabrics or the gardens and the presentation of an entire iconography of the sovereign: victorious, noble builder, generous, inspired and protected by God, of exalted lineage, full of light and virtue.

The Comares Palace

During the reign of Yusuf I (r. 1333-1354), cut short by his assassination, the Alhambra and Nasrid architecture in general entered their period of greatest splendour, not simply in terms of the number of buildings constructed but, more importantly, for their status as monuments, the formal classicism of the different adornment and construction devices used, and their deep symbolic meaning. Yusuf I built the Cadí and Captive Towers, the latter of particular interest for the adornment of its walls and the epigraphic poems of Ibn al-Yayyáb carved into them. They describe the architecture, defining the calahorra, castle, as a combination of a military building and a palace, and give an interesting description of the decoration using terminology taken from Arab rhetoric which married the art of the word form with the traditional Islamic visual arts. Yusuf I also undertook construction of the monumental Towers and Gates of Arms and Justice (1348) with bent entrances, the refurbishment of the Royal Baths and the Partal Palace Oratory.

But his most magnificent construction was, without doubt, the Comares Tower which, standing 45 metres tall, is the highest tower in the Alhambra, and the splendid Throne Room (10) inside, which measures 11.30 m long and 18.20 m wide. He was known to be a pious man, favouring the dissemination of knowledge, founding the Yusufiyya School in 1349 and composing his own poems, and he built a throne room inspired by the description of the seven heavens in the Koranic Sura of the divine Kingdom (Koran 67), which was carved in its entirety into the adornment of the wooden roof of the hall, one of the peaks of Arab Islamic carpentry (11). The interformal dialogue of the hall is completed with a poem carved on the central alcove, its author unknown, which creates precise and grandiose monarchic symbolism: the sovereign, like a shining sun, has his throne in the centre of the constellations that surround the hall, like the daughters of the exalted celestial cupola (al-qubba al-`ulyá) at whose apex is the Divine Throne from which emanates the Light that descends through the Seven Heavens to illuminate the sultan. This latter, like a new Khosro in his Iwán, is enthroned over the city and under the divine protection, inspiration and guidance that come down from that firmament, worthily evoked by marquetry work that has no peer in terms of its richness and originality of geometric lines, its many colours based on afterlife and Sufi sources and its dimensions truly majestic (the largest stars of the ceiling measure 2.5 metres in diameter). This type of cupola, with its representation of the seven heavens or the seven levels of ascension to the higher world of other symbolisms, often accompanies crowning or ordaining rites in many cultures, especially paleo-oriental ones, for they place the sovereign in the perfect intermediate position between the three cosmic levels: Heaven, Earth, and the Underworld. It creates an imaginary transit upwards from historical and earthly time, corresponding to the rectangular shape of the hall floor, to the divine and timeless of the higher spheres represented in the tiny cupola at the apex of the ceiling, by way of bringing together the geometric and polychromic design of the entire cupola. M. Eliade notes that these mystic reminiscences portray the nostalgia of “living in a pure and holy cosmos, such as it was in the beginning when it left the Creator’s hands”, as expressed in the Koranic Sura carved into the Comares Hall, by calling the viewer to contemplate the universe and also, in this new context, the marvellous polychromatic coffered ceiling, a sublime and perfect work: "He created seven universes in layers. You do not see any imperfection in the creation by the Most Gracious. Keep looking; do you see any flaw? Look again and again; your eyes will come back stumped and conquered” (Koran LXVII). The tracework of the ceiling of the Comares Hall attempts a faithful reproduction of this cosmic order, but the symmetry of the stars that make it up is undone in the four diagonals of the coffering, where the eight-pointed stars form independent figures perhaps representing the Islamic Tree of Paradise, Tuba (‘of Happiness’), which has its roots in the last sphere of the universe and spreads divine light and goodness to the whole of Creation.

As regards the 36.60 by 23.50 metre Patio of Myrtles (12) (also called the Patio of the Pond or the Comares Patio), it was built by Mohammed V along with the Hall of the Boat, to complete the works of his father Yusuf I. It is a solemn and delicate space, harmoniously included into the Comares Tower and Hall layout and forming a subtle transition through its elegant columns and arches of intricate fretwork, producing on the one hand a substantial visual enlargement of the royal surroundings and, on the other, a marvellous feeling of architectural weightlessness and ethereality.

The patio is one of the three types of gardens, along with the Generalife and the Patio of the Lions, contained within the Alhambra. Its original enclosure was altered by its situation on the Throne Room axis, which places it in intensely representative surroundings. Furthermore, Mohammed V endowed the patio with important symbols of victory by having the poems of Ibn Zamrak carved onto its walls, commemorating the triumph at the battle of Algeciras in 1369, the last great Muslim victory in the Iberian Peninsula through which the Nasrid dynasty momentarily regained control of the Straits of Gibraltar and communication with the Merini state. The structure of this famous patio combines Mediterranean Roman house with distant Iranian traditions of a garden with a pond in the middle, and Arab poet and historian sources confirm that the aesthetic and symbolic function of these surfaces of water was to create a mirror effect. In Arab poetry, these ponds were compared with the glass pavement built by Solomon for Bilkis Queen of Sheba, which is reflected in the Koran and evoked in the poem of Ibn Zamrak carved into the left hand niche at the entrance to the Lindaraja (13) viewpoint. It makes much of the image of the stars reflected in the water and the ripples of the water reflected onto the walls surrounding the pond, in an attempt to create the illusion of movement and even suggest the submission of the celestial stars to the architecture of its lord. The pond is also a place in which the architecture contentedly gazes upon its own reflection, using it, like the bride that it is, as a mirror, as expressively described in a poem by Ibn al Jatíb for the Aynadamar palace: "I am the bride, clothed in myrtles, crowned by the pavilion and with the pond as my mirror". The luminous figure of the sovereign himself is reproduced, distantly, in the centre of his palatial universe by means of this spectacular device.

The Garden of Joy or Palace of Lions

Moham­med V (r. 1354-1359 y 1362-1391), who carried out the greatest amount of building work on the Alhambra, not only finished off the palace construction begun by his father, but also, when coming to the throne in 1362, refurbished the entire administrative area of the Mexuar and built within it a royal qubba, constructed the Comares and Wine Gate façades, and then, subsequently, one of the most original and exceptional monuments of Islamic art: the al-Riyád al-Saíd Palace or Garden of Joy, generally known as the Palace of Lions. This true paradise of aesthetics is made up of three areas: the rectangular patio (28.50 by 15.70 m) with the Fountain of Lions at its centre, rows of columns and two side pavilions, the Hall of the Two Sisters and the Hall of the Abencerrajes, built around their respective cupolas, and the Halls of the Kings and of the Mozarabs, the latter destroyed by a gunpowder explosion in 1590. The whole assembly is finished with successive sub-divisions of its rooms into smaller alcoves and, on its second floor, it has two beautiful viewpoints and the Harem Patio on the south side.

The cloistered design of the patio with its magnificent arrangement of columns (124 in total) creates a marvellous play on space which, among other things, makes the patio seem larger than it actually is. The uniformly spaced and harmonious columns, all of the same height, in white marble with high architraves supporting high cusped arches, is a key factor in creating a weightless, ethereal architecture. As soon as you enter the area, from the side as was customary in classic Islamic gardens, you find yourself before innumerable aesthetic perspectives: we can walk around the whole of the central part and admire the centre of the patio from any angle, or approach the fountain and admire the view looking outwards, or enter the pavilions. The perspectives are also excellent and always different from the side alcoves which must have been optional in Nasrid times, having doors which could be opened or closed onto various rooms. The architecture seems to multiply itself from wherever you look as if reflected in a series of mirrors; this is due to the design of the columns in five axes of superimposed symmetry which accentuate the complexity of perception, the richness of the architecture and the illusion of movement. Of this intricate design we must highlight the side pavilions which demarcate square spaces, merely by means of the colonnade, which introduce themselves into the patio in a way that is unusual in Islamic architecture, the only other possible example being the 12th century Murcia castle; the symmetry between them is precise, taking in the columns, arches and decoration, and their north and south ends have their reflection in the colonnade of the longer sides of the patio. Arriving at the pavilions, the spacing of the columns changes and, in such a small space, they are grouped into ones, twos, threes and even fours. Their slim shafts support two bodies from which the arch stalactite work begins and which are finished by fretwork sebka surfaces, which turn the architecture into pure embroidery. The heavy mass reappears above, inverting the architectural order for the sake of weightlessness.

In contrast with the use of still water as a reflective device in the Patio of Myrtles or the Partal Palace, the water in the Patio of Lions (15) is in constant movement, linking all the rooms of the building in four directions. The water bubbles up from floor level outlets under the cupolas of the Hall of the Two Sisters, the Hall of the Abencerrajes and the two side pavilions, and also from the extension of the longest axis under the porticos of the Halls of Kings and of Mozarabs, meeting in the two transverse channels to come together from four directions in the central fountain; it bubbles up in the bowl of the fountain which hides it again and then channels it in all directions through the mouths of the lions. As in an oasis or in the paradise of the Koran, the outlets are in the shade and the water is directed towards the centre of light in the patio where the signs of royal strength and magnanimity are found. Water, always the key feature of this architecture, here takes on clearly totalising connotations: it links all the spaces of the garden paradise, not only on the surface but also at height, burbling upwards and outwards from the subsoil in the central locations. It ensures constant renewal, abundance and purity; giving life to the garden, quenching thirst and always returning to its initial, immutable state, the poem of the Fountain of Lions even endowing it with the quality of stone. Artistically, as a symbol taken out of nature, it is subject to a powerful process of rationalisation and control to make it fit in with the symmetrical design of a setting which rejects all randomness, lack of order and passing of time in the external world. Not for nothing do the very name of the Garden of Joy, the proliferation of the concept of garden (rawd, riyad) in the poems composed for its rooms, and its location alongside the Rawda palace or royal Nasrid cemetery give a special afterlife meaning to the whole assembly. It represents the symbolic fusion of the physical gardens with the spiritual gardens of the Beyond, the sovereign resting eternally facing his works, a clear allusion to the rawa par excellence, the tomb of the Prophet. This notion is suggested to us by the well known prophetic hadíz which prays "the tomb is one of the gardens (rawda min riyád) of Paradise (al-yanna)" and confirmed by the epitaph for Mohammed V written and recited by Ibn Zamrak, head of the palace’s poetry programme: "May you stay eternally in the shade of Paradise and may you be made immortal through your descendents,/ may the Most Gracious lead the waters of the well of the Prophet (aw nabi-hi) to you, in the same way as your predecessor granted you the best spring of water".

The forest of columns of the Garden of Joy can, moreover, be imagined as an oasis created in stone, linked to a direct evocation of the temple of Solomon and of the fantastic architecture of numerous columns described in classical Arab literature. The marvellous honeycomb cupolas in the Halls of the Two Sisters and Abencerrajes (16), which reach the highest peaks of design and technical skill in their execution in this type of ceiling, complete both chambers. They are laid out in the style of covered patios with central water outlets on the axis of each qubba, the unified emanation of the divine and of life, which endows this royal setting with the intended celestial dimension. The idealisation of the radiant, lofty, moving and eternal architecture contained in the poem for the Hall of the Two Sisters by Ibn Zamrak is completed by the description of the Lindaraja viewpoint as the seat of the royal throne, from where the light of the monarch shines out and from where one can see the city as if through his eyes. It finishes with the Patio of Lions whose poem, by the same author and in the same verse style as that of the Hall of the Two Sisters, attributes the creation of these beautiful buildings to the sultan, prompted by divine inspiration, at the same time making tribute to his strength, magnanimity and noble lineage through the symbol of the lions. Yusuf III himself, grandson of Mohammed V and compiler of the collection of poems by Ibn Zamrak, presents the poem about the famous fountain as the "allegory of the strength (ba's) and generosity (yud)" of the sovereign. The Palace of Lions is all about him from this point of view, a proclamation of the symbols of the Islamic sovereign as the new Solomon, building to defend Islam, and the panegyrist does not forget to cite his monarch as the most noble and wise king on the face of the earth.

Perhaps the splendid painting on the ceiling of the central alcove in the Hall of Kings in the al Riyá al-Saíd palace should be understood along these lines. Its iconography has not yet been fully deciphered, but it is not entirely exceptional in the history of Islamic art if we consider the paintings of the six kings of the world in the baths at Quayr `Amra in Jordan (8th century). Another magnificent example of wall painting in the Alhambra can be found in the early 14th century paintings in the Partal Palace, depicting courtly activities with hunting, tents and male and female figures, scenes of music and entertainment and also war motifs, presenting a range of figurative elements traditional in Islamic art. This wall painting adds to the lion motif fountains in a round grouping so typical of many Nasrid buildings and to the figures of animals and persons so often depicted in sumptuous art. It brings to mind the Basin of the Deer in the Alhambra and many other ceramic or marble pieces from the era, this artistic practice once again contradicting the supposed prohibition under the canons of Islam of such representations.


Among the great works of Muhammad V we must also remember the royal gardens of the Alixares Palace, built outside the walls of the Alhambra after the style of the Generalife, the Genil Palace-Fortress or Dar al-Arusa, and which was destroyed by an earthquake. There are some archaeological remains of the Alixares Palace, along with literary descriptions and the interesting epigraphic poem composed by Ibn Zamrak for this palace, which describes it as a sumptuous place of recreation and a new crown raised on Sabikah hill.

Buildings were constructed around the Alhambra at later dates, such as the Tower of the Infantas in the time of Mohammed VII (r. 1392-1408) or the palace of Yusuf III (r. 1408-1417), which must have been a large building located high up opposite the Partal Palace and of which only one storey remains, since it was demolished by the Count of Tendilla when Philip V removed him from his post as guardian of the Alhambra in 1718. Similarly in the 15th century, but built in the Albaicín near the site of the old 11th century Ziri palace, was the Daralhorra Palace, which had the layout of other Arab houses from previous times such as the House of the Girones and the House of Zafra: central patios, double portico, stucco and other Nasrid architectural and decorative devices. And then there is the House of the Giants, dating from the time of Mohammed V, situated outside Granada in Ronda.

Building activity in Nasrid Granada was not limited to royal and residential constructions, but in addition to the refurbishment and widening of the city walls and gates also included major public works. Examples are the Yusufiyya School mentioned previously, which was probably built in the style of the Merini schools and of which there remains only part of the oratory and fragments of marble bearing commemorative scripts, and the Maristán, the only hospital in Al-Andalus about which we have a degree of information, founded by Mohammed V in 1367, refurbishing a building which already existed by adding a second storey to it along with a central patio with large pond and lion motif fountain. From the archaeological remains we can see that the Maristán in Granada had a layout characteristic of many public Islamic buildings, such as the Corral del Carbón funduq, merchants inn, with roots in the Madinat al-Zahra' and the oriental caravanserais, schools and frontier religious forts (Aleppo, Susa) and other hospital buildings in Cairo.

Autor: José Miguel Puerta Vílchez