Islamic Iconography in Alhambra’s Court of the Lions


            The light of Allah, it is taught in Islam, remains invisible until it hits the prism of creation.  Thus the world is a theatre for the manifestation of Divine attributes.   The art and architecture created under the aegis of Islam bears witness to this fundamental Islamic metaphor.  In this paper, I intend examine the artistic and architectural methods by which the artists of Sultan Muhammad V turned this root metaphor into an iconographic system, using Alhambra’s renowned Court of the Lions as an example.

By far the most complex in the palace, the Court of the Lions consists of the court itself and four principal surrounding chambers: the Hall of Muqarnas, the Hall of Justice, the Hall of the Abencerajes, and the Hall of the Two Sisters with the House of Aisha to its North.  All were built around a polygonal basin supported by stone lions by Muhammad V from 1354-1359. 

The location of the court itself invites speculation that its builder sought to create a complex with Divine orientations.  Being on a hill known in medieval times as Sabikah, the Court of the Lions contains many rooms with windows or loggias designed to command an extensive outlook.  One could gaze out the Hall of the Abencerajes at the many gardens within the palace, or on the city below[1].  While still remaining behind walls, this layout gives the feel of a view from up above, surrounded by gardens, and is strikingly similar to the Quranic description of heaven, or Jannah as “…gardens beneath which rivers flow…[2]

Water holds a special place in Islam, as it is considered to be the gift of Allah from the Heavens.  The Quran repeats what means “And We send down water from the sky according to (due) measure, and We cause it to soak in the soil; and We certainly are able to drain it off with ease.[3]

Thus it seems that despite the many practical advantages of running water, its use in the Court of the Lions was perhaps part of a greater iconography.  The presence of water in a Muslim palatial setting is not unusual.  Almost all Umayyad estates were provided with baths, at times highly elaborate, as at the Khirbat al-Mafjar.[4]  There are, however, several features of the Court of Lions that suggest that water was used for more than just aesthetic appeal.  One is that the central fountain itself was built in the 11th century, and is curiously older than the rest of the monument.  It has been speculated that it was retained only because of its symbolic attachment to the story of Solomon in the Old Testament.[5]

Water is carried by aqueducts from the surrounding hills into the buildings, where it flows from the fountains through an elaborate system of channels in the floor.  The are no less than eleven fountains, combining both sight and sound to form the perfect metaphor for the Quranic Paradise.  Olivares describes the Court’s central basin, supported by the twelve stone lions as “twelve crystalline jets falling like dew drops from the mouths of the lions.[6]  The fountain perhaps aspires to al-Kauthar, a fountain in Paradise.

The water symbolism is continued by projecting pavilions, each sheltering a fountain. The overflow drains through four channels to the center, perhaps forming al-Tasneem—the river of Paradise.  This theme of a garden with pools or fountains, with a division of cultivated space into four parts, and with a pavilion in the center, is easily found in Muslim tradition.  Mosaic representations in the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Masjid al Aqsa echo this theme.  Indeed, we also see this pattern repeated in fourteenth century Mongol constructions, as well as the great Mosque of Ali Shah in Tabriz, and in the chehar baghs of later Iran.[7]  One may conclude that by channeling the water in such a specific manner, the Court of the Lions echoes a root metaphor shared with its Islamic brethren.

There is yet another aspect to a consideration of water in the Court of Lions.  Unlike the Court of the Myrtles, where the use of water is essentially static, we find it here used dynamically.  Agitated by a single slender jet, each fountain basin is flush with the marble floor and overflows into a narrow depression around its edge.  This agitation sets the reflections in the water in motion; the image of the richly ornamented court would thus be made ethereal to an observer seated next to the fountain.[8]  This dynamic use also gives rise to the sounds of flowing water—the music of heaven—and as we shall see later plays a significant role in creating an ambience in synchrony with the dynamic architecture of the court. 

The columns of the court create spectacular visual illusions, adding an important element to its heavenly aura.  The thin, once highly polished marble columns form a complex pattern of two, three, or four clusters at the pavilion that sets the whole composition in motion; a subtle shift in position reveals radiant light and soft shade succeeding each other.  As Olivares notes “It is a sequence of various and multiple prospects, but all within one theory of a rich variety disconcerting in its prevailing oneness.[9]  Perhaps it is the unity of the Divine that this one theory seeks to embody.

  The slender nature of the columns beckons the attention of the observer—who would have been seated on the floor—towards the heavens instead of laterally.  Indeed, the thinness of the columns themselves seems to spite any earthly requirements.  If vertical space tends to seem infinite, the horizontal space does not.  Rather than having a flowing or unified space, we are presented with a succession of independent cells, each complete in itself and separated from its neighbors by a screen of columns or an arch.[10]  Architecturally, this produces a complex contrast that questions the distinction between internal and external space. 

We find many other styles of architecture within the court that represents Allah’s attributes symbolically.  The vaults in the Hall of the Muqarnas, suspended from wooden frames, direct light in a way that dematerializes the ceilings and suggests infinite space.  Originally polychromed and gilded, the muqarnas alludes to the famous verse from Surah Nur, where the Quran describes the light of Allah as like a niche within which rests a brilliant lamp.[11] 

The vaults themselves are lit from below by rows of small windows closed by pierced shutters or grilles of colored glass.   Similarly pierced, the spandrels may be pierced to admit light.[12]  Thus, what should appear solid becomes cloud-like.  The arches bear stalactite-like surfaces that resemble dripping waters frozen in time, and again add to the water iconography.

The approach to the Court of the Lions appears to signify the great importance of the coming destination.  The Hall of the Kings is a long room opening onto a larger room, which in turn opens onto a larger vaulted area and finally opens onto the main Court of the Lions.  Each of the smaller rooms along the approach has painted ceilings, depicting scenes of chivalry; they perhaps attest to the devotion of the courtiers below.  Artificially thick walls that seem to emphasize the passage into a remarkable place surround the court.  The doorway to the court is given little emphasis so that it forms a complete and inward looking world, the image of Paradise.

The metaphor of the night sky as heaven appears in artistic forms throughout the Court of the Lions.  We find, for example, in the Sala de la Barca alcoves at either end covered in semi-domes decorated with stars.  The windows of the Hall of the Abencerajes, similarly, are oriented to capture nighttime constellations.[13]  We even find an inscription in the Hall of the Two Sisters comparing the chamber itself and the court opening from it to the constellations, while the Hall of the Muqarnas is proclaimed to have beauties both apparent and hidden.  The stars, say the verses, would prefer to remain here than in the heavens.  The arches of the court “vault over columns, adorned with light like the celestial spheres which are over the glowing pool of the dawn.[14]

Study of the inscription, or kasida, around the basin of the lion fountain supports our claim that the court was intended to be an archetypal embodiment of pureness on earth.  It reads in part:


Blessed be He who granted to Imam Muhammad mansions embellished with splendid adornments.—Is not this garden perchance a work whose beauty God wished to remain without equal?—Composed of tremulously resplendent pearls, it has pearls enough and to spare to adorn its own base.—Liquid silver flows between its jewels, the beauty of whose whiteness and brilliancy is without peer.—The liquid and the solid so mingle before our eyes that we do now know what it is that flows.[15]


It is interesting to note that the kasida reflects the insubstantial dream-like air of the court sensed by modern observers, and reveals that this was indeed the intention of its builders. 

            Little would one know from its austere exterior that within lay colonnades, pools and fountains, and rich decoration in stucco and tilework that combine to create the essence of heaven on earth.  Each step through the Court of Lions, with the sonorous hum of falling water, the ebb and flow of light and then shadow, the beckon of a soaring sky, draws the visitor into the magic of its heavenly iconography.  The pent ultimate goal of reaching the Divine is thus brought one step closer—as the artists of Sultan Muhammad V invite his guests to drink from the liquid silver that flows through his palace walls.


















Bargebuhr, F.P. The Alhambra: A Cycle of Studies on the Eleventh Century in Moorish   Spain.. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1968.

Grabar, Oleg. The Alhambra. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Hoag, John D. A History of World Architecture. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1975.

Norwich, John Julius, ed. Great Architecture of the World. New York: Random House, 1975.

Olivares, Rogelio Perez. The Alhambra of Granada. Madrid: The Royal Spanish Academy, 1949.

Peterson, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture. London: Routledge, 1996.

Rosengarten, M. A Handbook of Architectural Styles. London: Chatto and Windus, 1910.

Sturgis, Russell. The Architecture Sourcebook. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984. .



[1] Peterson, Andrew. Dictionary of Islamic Architecture (London: Routledge, 1996).

[2] Quran: Surah Ali Imran, Ayat 15.

[3] Quran: Surah Al-Mu’minoon, Ayat 18.

[4] Grabar, Oleg. The Alhambra (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978).

[5] Bargebuhr, F.P. The Alhambra: A Cycle of Studies on the Eleventh Century in Moorish Spain. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1968).

[6] Olivares, Rogelio Perez. The Alhambra of Granada (Madrid: The Royal Spanish Academy, 1949).

[7] Grabbar, The Alhambra, 103.

[8] Olivares, The Alhambra of Granada, 89.

[9] Olivares, The Alhambra of Granada, 92.

[10] Hoag, John D. A History of World Architecture. (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1975).

[11] Quran: Surat Al-Nur, Ayat 35:  “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.  The parable of His Light  is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp:  The Lamp enclosed in Glass; the Glass as it were a brilliant star…”

[12] Sturgis, Russell. The Architecture Sourcebook (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984).

[13] Rosengarten, M. A Handbook of Architectural Styles (London: Chatto and Windus,1910).  


[14] Hoag, A History of World Architecture, 15.


[15] Bargebuhr, The Alhambra, 112.