No. It isn’t the very fancy and expensive decorations or the Court of The Lions, and it certainly isn’t the spiritual feeling that one is supposed to feel when looking at such an enormous built object. Those are not the things that amaze me so much about Al Hambra Palace in Granada, Spain.
What does amaze me, however, is how building such an enormous place was made possible, considering all the difficulties that the Muslim builders faced at the time, and how they tackled them with simple, yet genius solutions.
Located on the high mountains of southern Spain, is the magnificent fortress, Al Hambra قصر الحمراء. It contains more than 35 gigantic towers, and took over 150 years to build. It is a network of palaces, each built by a different Sultan. This made each part somehow unique and different than the other parts, because each Sultan wanted to make his own mark either by building a new palace or by renovating an older one.
During the 13th century the city of Granada lived under Muslim rule. However, the 500 year-old Muslim Spain was shrinking due to Christian advances from the north. As a result, the Muslim Kingdom in Spain was indeed collapsing, and at a very critical turning point. Because of this, Mohamad ibn Nasir headed south and took over Granada. He wanted to build a palace that would house him and his family, and protect them from the Christian advance.
Plan & Layout
The fortress was built on Sabika Hill on which a fortress had already been built nearly 100 years earlier. His first step was to rebuild the existing fortress, which was known as Al Qazaba, into a stronghold that was large and strong enough to house the people and troops needed to run the proposed palace.
They would also guard the series of palaces yet to be built. Beside it, there was to be a town known as Al Medina المدينة that would house all the people needed to run this gigantic palace. All that was to be surrounded by a huge wall dotted with guard towers to defend the citadel and fight off attackers.
For all this to be possible, Mohamad ibn Nasir first had to build a tower. The first tower was called Torre Dela Vella (The Watch Tower) by the locals. It was the largest thing that the people of Granada had ever seen. It sent the message from the rulers of Granada to both Muslims and Christians, that “we’re still strong, and we can protect you”.
Construction & Materials
How to construct a huge citadel on a hill, using nothing but simple tools, was a difficult problem that the Muslim builders had to solve.
The solution to this problem was at the bottom of the Sabika Hill in the form of a useful substance that made Al Hambra possible. A mixture of clay, sand, and stone with a calculated amount of water added to it gave the builders the advantage of an on-site material, and this helped to speed up the construction.
This material also gave the place a red color, and thus it was named The Red City, مدينة الحمراء, or Al Hamra City. The one downside to using this material was that water and wind erode it over the years so that it loses its strength.
The Structural System of the Monument
The core of the towers is supported by tiers of arches transferring the entire load of the building that rests upon them. However, half way through construction, the builders realized that the arches would not be strong enough to carry those loads and that Mohamad’s first tower could collapse at any time. They solved this problem in a simple way by bricking up the arches to provide the support needed.
The need for an Intelligence Network
The Christian advance was a very real danger and so Mohamad needed to install an intelligence network to gather information while his builders continued building his masterpiece.
This system would gather information from people that pass through the area, providing early warning of Christian troops movements. Signals warning of the expected attack would be transmitted from the top of the towers by means of special mirrored plates, smoke, or fire. Those signals were relayed from tower to tower until they reached Al Hambra’s main watch tower.
Al Hambra housed nearly 5000 people. Unfortunately, there is no source of fresh water on Sabika Hill. The closest water source to Al Hambra is the River Darro, which flows to the north of Al Hambra, but the level of River Darro is much lower than the level of Al Hambra.
The most obvious thing to do would be to follow the river, up to a point where it is above the level of Al Hambra, and let the energy of the river itself bring the water to them. But there was no natural lake above the Al Hambra. To solve this problem, the Muslim engineers created one.
They constructed a dam above the level of Al Hambra and this dam would create sufficient water pressure to feed the citadel. The dam is 6 km away from the Al Hambra. It creates a reservoir system capable of providing Al Hambra with enough water to fill an Olympic size pool every 5 seconds! It is hard to believe that this was dug by hand almost 800 years ago.
The dam consists of 2 gates – one that lets the water into the River Darro, and one that lets the water into the reservoir.
Water running through hills and mountains
The reservoir they created runs between 3 hills so, in order for that water to reach Al Hambra, it has to pass along a 6 km long channel running through the hills. This has to carry the equivalent of 7000 Olympic size swimming pools of water each day to support Al Hambra’s growing population. This system would work only if the water flowed downhill at a constant gradient.
The Muslims engineers found a simple and ingenious solution to that problem. Instead of going around the hill, they decided to go through it.
Keeping the water always fresh and clean
Due to the Muslims’ extensive use of water (ablution), clean and fresh water was a must. Creating a system that would ensure the purity and cleanness of the water was the next challenge that the Muslim engineers had to overcome.
Any visitor to Al Hambra will notice that the water there is almost never still. That is the solution. The movement and the motion of the water is very important for always keeping it fresh and clean.
Another thing they did was to create shallow pools designed to slow the water down. The water streams down the channel carrying silt and sand with it until it reaches a wide and deep part, where it slows down and all the silt and sand falls to the bottom. This keeps all the water in the Al Hambra fresh and clean.
Dealing with too much water
Now that they’ve succeeded in delivering the amount of water needed to run the place, they still have to deal with excess water, which can also be an extremely bad thing. To prevent this from happening, the Muslim engineers installed a safety valve.
Any excess water that might overload the main channel entering the Al Hambra, is funneled along a side channel and diverted into an overflow system built within the walls, where it rejoins the River Darro again.
It soon became apparent to that Muslim engineers that, during the dry season, Al Hambra could run short of water. To prevent this from happening, the engineers built several reservoirs on high ground, so that gravity would ensure a constant flow of water to feed the gardens.
To raise the water up to the level of those reservoirs, the engineers used a mechanism of interlocking wooden gears that were driven by donkeys. When the donkey walked in a circle, it turned the horizontal wheel which turned a gear attached to a water wheel, which dips a line of buckets into the pool below, and deposits it into the reservoir above.
With this final invention, the builders succeeded in making Al Hambra a safe, hygienic and pleasant place where people could now live. All that remained to do was add some architecture to make the Sultan feel rich and special.