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The Alhambra - A Palace Layered with Ornament
Sep 1, 2016

“But the building’s identity resided in the ornament.” These words, from architect Louis Sullivan, are an apt description of most Islamic architecture, which are closely connected to the idea of ornamentation. Many mosques are adorned with extensive geometric patterns, vibrant mosaic tiles, and delicate sculptural elements. From the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria, to the Masjid-i-Shah in Isfahan, Iran, ornamentation is widespread and plentiful.

The same ideas are expressed in Spain’s Moorish architecture. There is no greater achievement in Moorish architecture than the Alhambra, located in Granada. This fortress complex is situated atop a mountain, with panoramic views of the city below. The enormous palace complex is rich in ornamentation, which was used to enhance the architectural forms and add character to the buildings. The ornamentation present in the Alhambra includes the elaborate muqarnas, lavish courtyards, and geometric patterning.


The fact that the Alhambra is probably the most important piece of Moorish architecture is due to its sculptural elements, known as muqarnas. “…found in the Alhambra, and unprecedented in the West, (muqarna) is one of the greatest of all Muslim contributions to the history of architecture, originating in some North African structures… the muqarnas work in the star-shaped vaults” (Trachtenberg and Hyman 1986, 219).

It is important to note that the muqarnas were not just thrown all over the walls without reason; they were added for the purpose of enhancing form, and resolving rough transitions: “The Moors ever regarded what architects hold to be the first principle of architecture—to decorate construction—never to construct decoration. In Moorish architecture, not only does decoration arise naturally from the construction, but the constructive idea is carried out in every detail of the ornamentation of the surface” (Calvert 1907, 108).

This idea illustrates the distinction between ornamentation for the sake of decoration and ornamentation that arises from the construction, which is what the Moors of Spain did. In terms of muqarnas enhancing architectural form, they blur the line between where the dome begins and where it ends, so that a seamless transition has been created. “The empty portions of the four corners must be filled to redistribute the load of the dome (in fact there are two domes: the muqarna dome, just decorative, and the structural dome, which can only be seen from the exterior and from which the muqarnas are suspended). This redistribution is achieved with an assemblage of muqarnas, and the four angles are connected with a very simple muqarnas frieze” (Castera 2007, 108).

This interior treatment of the dome gives the illusion of a honeycomb-like appearance that is both striking and functional. A plain dome would not suffice and would not match the characteristics of the rest of the Alhambra. The muqarnas are also used in the various arches that flank some of the Alhambra’s courtyards. These muqarnas are used once again as ornamentation, but they serve a greater purpose: “…They support, like a canopy, filigreed, muqarna (honeycomb) arches that echo the protective role of the palm leaves around oasis pools in the desert. These muqarnas break up the contours of the arches into small, three-dimensional, decorative elements which merge with the surrounding geometric, vegetal and calligraphic ornamentation” (Irwin 2004, 167).

In this instance, the muqarnas grow out of the arches to resemble leaves, giving character to the arches but also breaking up their contours and playing with the lighting. The overall effect enhances the architecture. The muqarnas have been important to the palace because they bring texture, and for lack of a better word, harmony, to the domes and arches.


Another form of ornamentation are the courtyards that give character to the Alhambra. Courtyards might not be considered ornamentation in the conventional sense, but here, courtyards have been important in making connections between architecture and religion. “The romantic imagination of centuries of visitors has been captivated by the special combination of the slender columnar arcades, fountains, and light-reflecting water basins found in those courtyards—the Lion Court in particular. This combination is understood from inscriptions to be a physical realization of descriptions of Paradise in Islamic poetry” (Trachtenberg and Hyman 1986, 219). In Islam and in the Quran, there are many mentions of paradise and the afterlife. In those descriptions, God refers to the greenery and the flowing rivers and coolness of shade and water. At the Alhambra, the goal was to recreate Paradise on Earth within the courtyards.

The courtyards are primarily intended to give character to the palace and make implicit connections with both Paradise and mosques. Ornamental columns that do not bear loads frame the courtyard: “We get very thin columns, single or paired, with no entasis or fluting to show any sense of compression. Exaggerated impost blocks further isolate the supports from their dainty load. The whole seems not so much constructed as spun, painted, conjured” (Kostof 1995, 398). This further contributes to the idea that the courtyard is ornamentation for the palace. It is not necessary, but implemented for the sake of character and symbolism in Islam.


Water is an important element of ornamentation both in the Qur’an and in the courtyards. Kostof elaborates on this idea a lot: “In the Court of Lions, an open space surrounded by porticoes is crisscrossed with thin water channels that slice through the axial pavilions and enter the rooms behind, like a trickle of life seeking its source. The slender columns find what mooring they can in this watery stage, their fragile presence devitalized even more in pale, tremulous reflections.” He continues: “We recall the Koranic descriptions of Paradise, those ‘pavilions beneath which water flows,’ and we see them in the channels and hooded porches of the courts” (Kostof 1995, 398-399).

Geometric patterns

Lastly, geometric patterns are used extensively throughout the Alhambra, as they are in many Islamic pieces of art. The geometries and patterns both give character to the forms, and also enhance the forms by bringing light to certain elements, such as entryways or arches. In the following explanation given by author Robert Irwin, it is evident that the geometric patterns are used to accent the structure of the palace in places like doorways: “The geometric patterns of some of the hangings mimic the structures of the palace’s doors. One has to imagine brilliantly colored carpets and silks blending in with the no less brilliantly colored stucco and woodwork” (Irwin 2004, 33).

The geometric forms are used to enhance architectural forms. But the geometric patterns also give character to the palace: “The most obvious application of tessellation in the Alhambra is in the tile work of the various dados, where repetitive pattern is used to rest the eye” (Irwin 2004, 119). A tessellation of a flat surface is tiling using repetition in geometric forms but with no overlaps or gaps—every surface is covered. In this instance, the geometries provide balance for the viewer because in a palace like the Alhambra, it could cause a sensory overload if there is too much detailing.

Interestingly enough, the Alhambra is unique in its geometric ornamentation because it has all different types of mosaic tiling present throughout the palace: “All seventeen plane groups are present among the mosaics in the Alhambra” (Lovric 2012, 6). This is remarkable, because such mosaic work was costly and time-consuming. But this thoroughness and attention to detail added to the character of the palace, and helped make it world-renowned.

Ornamentation was used in the Alhambra as a means of expressing character and also enhancing the architectural forms. This was done through the use of muqarnas, interpretations of Paradise, and geometric forms. If the palace were stripped of its ornamentation, it would lack a certain magic. Kostof sums it up nicely when he says, “It is impossible to think of this environment of fantasy and introspection, set in an idyllic hilltop amid myrtles, evergreens and running brooks, as anything other than an earthly paradise” (Kostof 1995, 399).  


  • Calvert, Albert Frederick. The Alhambra, Being a Brief Record of the Arabian Conquest of the Peninsula with a Particular Account of the Mohammedan Architecture and Decoration. London: John Lane, 1907.
  • Castera, Jean-Marc. “The Muqarnas Dome of the Hall of the Two Sisters in the Alhambra in Granada.” Ed. Emmer, Michele. Mathematics and Culture V. Berlin: Springer, 2007.
  • Irwin, Robert. The Alhambra. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004.
  • Kostof, Spiro. A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Lovric, Miroslav. “Magic Geometry: Mosaics in the Alhambra.” Journal of Art Historiography 6 (June 2012): 1-29.
  • Trachtenberg, M & Hyman, I. Architecture: From Prehistory to Postmodernism: The Western Tradition. New York: Abrams, 1986.