Science trips – The architectural advances of the Alhambra in Granada

The Alhambra in Granada is not just an impressive palace and fortress, it is also a sample of the most advanced and sustainable architectural techniques of the time.

The Alhambra in Granada is a complex of palaces, fortresses and gardens built by the Nasrid dynasty of Muslim rulers in the 13th and 14th centuries. The site is known for its impressive architectural features and intricate decor, mixing Islamic and Andalusian cultural influences, but what did the Nasrids do when they built this revolutionary building in the Middle Ages? These are some of the incredible architectural techniques used in the construction of the Alhambra:

rammed earth

The construction with rammed earth or rammed earth wall consists of compressing layers of earth to form a solid wall, being one of the oldest known. It is also known as pisé (in French) or rammed earth (in English). Rammed earth has been used in construction for thousands of years, with examples of rammed earth structures dating back to ancient civilizations in China, Africa and South America. The Great Wall is largely built of rammed earth.

The technique involves first digging a shallow trench and then adding layers of soil, often mixed with stabilizing materials such as lime, gravel or sand. Each layer is carefully compacted with a tamper, which is a long stick with a flat end. The process is repeated until the wall reaches the desired height. Unlike adobe, bricks are not formed with earth, but the whole wall with a formwork. Once finished, it is covered with lime to make it waterproof. Today the tapial is resurfacing, updated, as a form of construction that respects the environment and that insulates from both heat and cold.

plastering

mocarabes

Stucco is a type of thin paste made from slaked lime, pulverized marble, plaster, natural pigments and other components. It hardens by a chemical reaction when the calcium hydroxide in the lime comes into contact with the carbon dioxide in the air, but in the meantime it can be carved. That’s why it was the ideal material to create intricate geometric and floral motifs on the interior walls of the Alhambra. Stucco was applied in layers and then carved or painted to create the stunning final designs.

An example of the innovative use of stucco in the Alhambra are the muqarnas, from the Arabic word muqarnas, vaults decorated with juxtaposed plaster prisms that give the impression of being in a cave full of grouped stalactites.

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mosaics

Alhambra tiles mosaic alhambra

The Alhambra is a fortress, but it is also a palace, and as such it should give an impression of luxury and wealth. The numerous mosaics are one way for the visitor to feel enveloped by that air of grandeur. The oldest mosaics date back to the third millennium BC in Mesopotamia and were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, creating intricate designs with small pieces of colored glass and stone.

In the Alhambra in Granada, mosaics are widely used as decoration on walls, floors and ceilings. They are made of small pieces of colored tiles, usually in shades of blue, green and gold. One of the most famous examples of mosaic art at the Alhambra is the walls of the Patio de los Leones.

Photograph: rose luigi

wood carvings

Alhambra coffered ceiling

The Alhambra also features intricate wood carvings, most notably on the ceilings of the palace rooms. Wood (mainly pine) was used for coverings, ceilings, doors and shutters, but it was not limited to a structural function. While the walls were decorated with intricate stucco carvings, the ceilings echoed these patterns in wooden beams with geometric patterns. Although they appear colorless today, at the time they were painted in bright primary colors, mainly red, blue and gold.

Photograph:shadow gate

Sources

Alhambra Fountain

For the Alhambra kings, coming from the desert, water was a treasure and a symbol of wealth and well-being. Not surprisingly, the Alhambra palace contains many fountains, ponds and irrigation canals, which were used for both practical and decorative purposes. These fountains helped keep the palace cool and provided a calming environment for residents and visitors alike.

Despite its importance, the architects of the Alhambra designed extremely conservative techniques for the use of water, aiming not to waste this resource. Many fountains consisted of a pool with a flat sheet of water, which barely made a sound. With the taking of Granada by the Christians, the fountains were modified to have higher and more powerful jets, like the ones we can see today.

Photograph: Henning Supertramp

The architectural techniques used in the construction of the Alhambra were sophisticated and innovative for their time, and the site remains one of the most beautiful and impressive examples of Islamic architecture in the world.

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