"But the building’s identity resided in the ornament.” These words of architect Louis Sullivan seem very true for Islamic architecture. Much of Islamic architecture is closely connected to the idea of ornamentation. Many mosques are adorned with extensive geometric patterns, vibrant colors on mosaic tiles, and delicate sculptural elements. From the Great Mosque in Damascus, Syria to the Masjid-i-Shah in Isfahan, Iran, ornamentation is widespread and plentiful. In Spain, the same ideas were instilled in the architecture and out of the Moorish architecture came the Palace of Alhambra located in Granada. This fortress complex was situated on a mountainous site with views of the city and the ornamentation covered the palace complex. Ornamentation was used in the Alhambra as a way to enhance the architectural form and give character to the palace. The ornamentation present in Alhambra includes the elaborate muqarnas, lavish courtyards, and geometric patterns.

The Alhambra is given importance because of the grandeur that comes from the sculptural elements known as muqarnas. The domes and arches are given this magnificent treatment that was first created in Northern Africa and not seen before in the western world. Because it was innovative and also crafted so carefully, the muqarnas were something unique to Muslim architecture found in the Alhambra, and unprecedented in the West, is one of the greatest of all Muslim contributions to the history of architecture, originating in some North African structures of the element century—the muqarnas work in the star-shaped vaults. It is important to note that the muqarnas were not just thrown all over the walls without reason, they were instilled in the construction for the purpose of enhancing form, and resolving rough transitions. “The Moors ever regarded what architects hold to be the first principle of architecture—to decorate construction—never the construct decoration. In Moorish architecture, not only does decoration arise naturally from the construction, but the constructive idea is carried out in every detail of the ornamentation of the surface. This idea from the author illustrates the distinction between ornamentation for the sake of decoration and ornamentation that arises from the construction, which is what the Moors of Spain did. In terms of muqarnas enhancing architectural form, they blur the line between where the dome begins and where it ends, so that a seamless transition has been created. “The empty portions of the four corners must be filled to redistribute the load of the dome (in fact there are two domes: the muqarnas dome, just decorative, and the structural dome, that can be seen only from the exterior and from which the muqarnas are suspended). This redistribution is achieved with an assemblage of muqarnas, and the four angles are connected with a very simple muqarnas frieze.This interior treatment of the dome gives the illusion of a honeycomb-like appearance that is both striking and functional. Just a plain dome would not suffice and would not match the characteristics of the rest of the Alhambra. The muqarnas are also used in the various arches that flank courtyards at the Alhambra. These muqarnas are used once again as an ornamentation device, but they serve a greater purpose. …They support, like a canopy, filigreed, muqarna (honeycomb) arches that echo the protective role of the palm leaves around oasis pools in the desert. These muqarnas break up the contours of the arches into small, three-dimensional, decorative elements which merge with the surrounding geometric, vegetal and calligraphic ornamentation. In this instance, the muqarnas grow out of the arches to resemble leaves which is giving character to the arches, but they also break up the contours of the arches and play with the lighting so in that way, the architectural form has been enhanced. The muqarnas overall have been important to the palace because they bring texture and for a lack of better words, harmony, to the domes and arches that otherwise would not be there. The muqarnas enhance the architectural form and give some unique character to the building.

Another form of ornamentation that is present at the Alhambra is the courtyard that gives character to the palace. Courtyards might not be considered ornamentation in the conventional sense, but here, courtyards have been important in making connections between architecture and religion. “The romantic imagination of centuries of visitors has been captivated by the special combination of the slender columnar arcades, fountains, and light -reflecting water basins found in those courtyards—the Lion Court in particular. This combination is understood from inscriptions to be a physical realization of descriptions of Paradise in Islamic poetry. In Islam and in the Quran, there is often mention of paradise and the afterlife. In those descriptions, God refers to the greenery and the flowing rivers and coolness. It is a magical description, and at the Alhambra, the goal was to recreated Paradise on Earth within the courtyards. The courtyards are primarily conceived in the palace to give character to the palace and make connections with the mosque. Ornamental columns that do not bear loads frame the courtyard. “We get very thin columns, single or paired, with no entails or fluting to show any sense of compression. Exaggerated impost blocks further isolate the supports from their dainty load. The whole seems not so much constructed as spun, painted, conjured. This further contributes to the idea that the courtyard is an ornamentation form for the palace, because it is not necessary to have—but it is implemented for the sake of character and symbolism in Islam. Water is an important element of ornamentation both in the Quran and in the courtyard. Kostof is thinking the same thing because he elaborates on this idea a lot, “In the Court of Lions, an open space surrounded by porticoes is crisscrossed with thin water channels that slice through the axial pavilions and enter the rooms behind, like a trickle of life seeking its source. The slender columns find what mooring they can in this watery stage, their fragile presence devitalized even more in pale, tremulous reflections,” and he also continues by mentioning it further, “We recall the Koranic descriptions of Paradise, those ‘pavilions beneath which water flows,’ and we see them in the channels and hooded porches of the courts. To sum up, the courtyard gives character to the architecture at the Alhambra because it makes the connection between Islam and architecture and that creates a very special place at the courtyards where one can see the representation of Paradise on Earth.

Lastly, geometric patterns are used extensively at the Alhambra because physical representation is not allowed in Islam; meaning portraits of living beings is forbidden. The geometries and patterns both give character to the form, and also enhance the form by bringing light to certain elements such as entryways or arches. “The geometric patterns of some of the hangings mimic the structures of the palace’s doors. One has to imagine brilliantly colored carpets and silks blending in with the no less brilliantly colored stucco and woodwork. In this explanation given by author Robert Irwin, it is evident that the geometric patterns are used to accent the structure of the palace in places like the doorways. In that aspect, the geometries are used to enhance architectural form. But, the geometric patterns also give character to the palace. “The most obvious application of tessellation in the Alhambra is in the tile work of the various dados, where repetitive pattern is used to rest the eye. A tessellation of a flat surface is tiling using repetition in geometric forms but with no overlaps or gaps—every surface is covered. In this instance, the geometries are used to provide balance for the viewer because in a palace like the Alhambra, there is so much going on and it could cause a sensory overload by the sheer amount of detailing. Interestingly enough, the Alhambra is unique in its geometric ornamentation because it has all the different types of mosaic tiling present throughout the palace. “All seventeen plane groups are present among the mosaics in the Alhambra. The Moors of Spain took very seriously the concept of geometry in the Alhambra because it was used throughout and in every way possible. Every surface is covered, which is remarkable because it was costly and time-consuming. This all added to the character of the palace and it is so world-renowned because of the vast amount of ornamentation present.

Concluding, ornamentation was used in the Alhambra as a means of expressing character and also enhancing the architectural form. This was done through the use of muqarnas, geometric patterns in tessellations and also the interpretation of Paradise in the form of courtyards. All of these types of ornamentation enhanced the beauty and magic of the palace. If the palace were stripped of its ornamentation, the result would be very tragic. The Alhambra is a magnificent piece of architecture that lies in the mountainous region of Granada, Spain, and it has been a jewel in Islamic architecture. Kostof sums it up nicely when he says, “It is impossible to think of this environment of fantasy and introspection, set in an idyllic hilltop amid myrtles, evergreens and running brooks, as anything other than an earthly paradise.The Alhambra is a magical place and the ornamentation is incredible.