Natural Beauty: the Alcázar and the Alhambra

While traveling through Andalucia, I was astounded by the beauty of the Moorish architecture, exemplified by the Alcázar in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada. I’m by no means an expert on either the history or the symbolism of these places, so here’s my amateur review of what I saw.


The colors in the mosaics found throughout these Moorish palaces are incredibly vivid to this day (and thank you for not using your flash so they’ll stay that way), so I can’t even imagine what they looked like when they were first created. It should be gaudy, but it’s all so well-balanced and perfectly arranged that it never seems overdone. I have never seen a greener green than on the walls of the Alcázar. The photos don’t do the colors any kind of justice. You need to go see them for yourself.


I had to remind myself while looking at these designs–which absolutely cover the walls and ceilings of both of these palaces–that they were carved by actual human beings, with shaky hands, without the aid of computers or lasers. I have no idea how this is possible. Muslims and math–it’s a longstanding love affair. Something so symmetrical and geometric could, theoretically, look cold or sterile, but the lack of images of humans or animals actually isn’t alienating at all. I’m not a religious person, but I can see how these designs could, like walking a labyrinth, bring you to a deep or meditative place.


Some of it is likely due to the climate making outdoor living spaces possible, and some of it is surely just that it’s awesome to have orange trees in your house. But both the Alhambra and the Alcázar incorporate gardens, flowers, and trees into their core. The gardens are as precise and mathematical as the designs on the walls, but they do still bring the sense of peace that nature, even somewhat unnatural nature, can lend to a space.


Water plays a key role in these gardens, as well. Part of it is practical (keeping the gardens green), part of it is spiritual (water as the source of life), and part of it is political (flowing fountains and burbling streams mask secret conversations). Regardless of the reasons, it only heightens the beauty and peace of these places.


In every room I moved through in these palaces, I was struck by how carefully the builders considered how the light would enter and hit the images and colors on the walls. The star-shaped skylights are a common theme, but there are also doors with intricate carvings that let in slivers of light and windows far above your head that allow the sun to stream in.

The amount of planning, engineering, and artistry that went into creating these palaces is staggering. Unlike some Western places, like Versailles, I never found it offputting or overwhelming. It just feels to me like walking through a painting: bright, thoughtful, peaceful, and beautiful.