Gardens of
the Alhambra

by Philip Smith

Though most of their descendants have long since departed southern Spain, the influence of its former Islamic rulers endures as a strong undercurrent within Spanish culture. This is manifested in aesthetic traditions, such as the beautiful azulejos (tiles) that adorn so many households in Spain, and throughout the language. For example, the commonly-used Spanish word ojalá (which translates as ‘Hopefully …’) is directly derived from an Arabic phrase that means ‘God (Allah) willing’1.

The mark of the Moors also remains in the form of the palaces and everyday buildings that have survived from their time as rulers of southern Spain. The most celebrated of these is the Alhambra, an impressive complex of palaces and towers that perch above the city of Granada. I hold a special affection for the Alhambra, as I spent two months living opposite it (in the old Islamic Quarter, called the Albaicín) in my early twenties – during which I was able to spend extended periods within its walls.

For a person whose background is firmly rooted in Western European traditions (as is the case for most New Zealanders), it is rewarding to take in separate aesthetic traditions – that are derived from different beliefs and influences. This serves not only to introduce one to unfamiliar systems and motifs, but also teaches us new ways of looking at gardens and landscapes. At the Alhambra, the difference between the Western and Islamic sensibilities of former periods is illustrated reasonably clearly, by the presence of buildings and gardens built by both the Muslim and Christian rulers.

Although one must take the mark of the Spanish Christian rulers with a grain of salt (particularly with respect to the bombastic and arrogant Palace of Carlos V)2, one distinction between the two sensibilities stands out as being of particular interest. The environments that the Islamic rulers created were very much inward-looking, whilst the subsequent works of the Christian rulers looked outwards (especially with respect to the intention that they wished to communicate).

In his book on Islamic gardens, “Gardens of Paradise”, John Brookes describes the contrast between the Western focus on a building’s external appearance and the “traditional Islamic concern …. for the feel of space within”3. This difference in outlook is illustrated in physical form within the most famous garden of the Alhambra complex, the ‘Patio de la Acequia’ (pictured below).

The court was originally entirely enclosed, with a small lookout at one point. However, following the Christian conquest, the high wall on the city side of the court was removed and replaced with a belvedere that shifts the focus of the space out towards the view. What is so fascinating about this is that the original Islamic inhabitants preferred the intimacy of an enclosed space, over the option of a magnificent view. This is a refreshing counterpoint to the Western obsession with the view – that the New York architect, Charles Renfro, entertainingly referred to as ‘view pornography’ (during a talk delivered in Auckland).

An interesting feature of this court is the arrangement of the garden beds, which were laid out in four quarters – in the fashion of the archetypal Islamic garden form, the Persian chahar bagh. The chahar bagh was divided into quarters by intersecting axes (traditionally water channels) that represented the four rivers of paradise (these were said to flow with water, milk, wine and honey, respectively). One of the most intriguing aspects of these gardens is that, consistent with many Islamic gardens elsewhere, the beds originally sat about half a metre below the paths – such that when these were in bloom, it would have seemed that one was walking on a carpet of flowers.

The walls of the Alhambra complex are adorned variously with coloured tiles and ornate plasterwork, in intricate, repeating patterns. This reaches a dazzling complexity in the Court of the Lions, where the filigreed walls and ceilings convey a seemingly infinite level of detail that is evocative of the character of certain natural phenomena (like caves, or the surface of cliffs). Much of this plasterwork would have originally borne an even more opulent appearance, as large areas of it were painted in vibrant colours.

One of the most abiding impressions that visitors leave the Alhambra with is the omnipresence of water throughout the entire complex. Water fills one’s senses, whether through the murmur of fountains, the rushing of rills on staircases, or the calmness of the great reflecting pool in the Court of the Myrtles. There is a natural ebullience to the Alhambra’s system of waterways, that could only be provided by the diversion of naturally-occurring watercourses to feed it. The Alhambra is just one of numerous examples of Islamic ingenuity in the procurement of water – whereby water was diverted from a considerable distance via a system of channels. The original source for the Alhambra’s water is the Sierra Nevada range, that stands inland from Granada.

As indicated previously, there are many layers of history embedded in the Alhambra, including recent additions like the theatre-like space that is pictured below (on the right). Several of these additions exhibit a sensitivity towards, and interplay with, the pre-existing aesthetic traditions of the site, whilst bearing an unequivocally modern character. In so doing, they represent the best manner of engaging with such a historical context.

The simple treatment of red concrete and bricks within this space clearly relates to the brick and stonework of the old fort (pictured below, to the left). The very nature of these materials is central to the identity of the Alhambra, for it is from their colour that it receives its name – originally al-Qalah al-Hamra, or the ‘Red Citadel’3. I can only presume that the modern concrete works utilised the same ferrous mud that the Alhambra’s early builders used in their construction, thereby imbuing the massive walls with the bleeding ochre stains that adorn them.

As a designer, it is particularly interesting (and gratifying) to spend time taking in an aesthetic that does not focus on literal figurative representations. Statuary, paintings or tapestries that decorated contemporary palaces of other European kingdoms were heavily concerned with depicting ‘actual’ people, creatures and scenes.

In contrast, the non-representational Islamic sensibility (which was born out of reverence and doctrine) delivered the advantages of promoting abstraction and invention in the work of the Moorish artists that created it. For this reason, there is a considerable cohesion to the Alhambra’s ornamentation (despite its unfathomable complexity) that, like the water that pulses through the site, serves to bind it.


  1. An origin that is particularly interesting when one considers modern Spain’s staunch Catholic roots.
  2. The arrogant posture of the new palace that sits at the core of the Alhambra should be interpreted as part of the intent of a conquering force, and therefore does not represent the true face of Spanish Christian traditions. Indeed, a hybrid character that heavily borrows from Islamic traditions is one of the most interesting aspects of the development of southern Spain’s culture – this hybrid style is termed ‘mudéjar’ in Spanish.
  3. Within ‘Gardens of Paradise : The History and Design of the Great Islamic Gardens’. Brookes, J. 1987. New York : New Amsterdam Books.