Column with epigraphy © Alhambra

The Hidden Messages of the Alhambra

Catalogue of  nearly 10,000 epigraphic inscriptions found in Alhambra have recently been concluded unveiling unimaginative riches

Arabic Epigraphy bordering Polychromic floor at Alhambra
Arabic Epigraphy bordering Polychromic wall at Alhambra. Source: Wikipedia

“May The One who granted the imam Mohammed
with the beautiful ideas to decorate his mansions be blessed.
For, are there not in this garden wonders
that God has made incomparable in their beauty,
and a sculpture of pearls with a transparently light,
the borders of which are trimmed with seed pearl?
Melted silver flows through the pearls,
to which it resembles in its pure dawn beauty.
Apparently, water and marble seem to be one,
without letting us know which of them is flowing.
Don’t you see how the water spills on the basin,
but its spouts hide it immediately?
It is a lover whose eyelids are brimming over with tears,
tears that it hides from fear of a betrayer.
Isn’t it, in fact, like a white cloud
that pours its water channels on the lions
and seems the hand of the caliph, who, in the morning,
grants the war lions with his favours?
Those who gaze at the lions in a threatening attitude,
(knows that) only respect (to the Emir) holds his anger.
Oh descendant of the Ansares, and not through an indirect line,
heritage of nobility, who despises the fatuous:
May the peace of God be with you and may your life be long and unscathed
multiplying your feasts and tormenting your enemies!”
(Poem from the Garden with the Fountain of the Lions)

Alhambra - Fountain of Lions
Fountain of the Lions in Alhambra. Source: Wikipedia

Walking around Alhambra, one of the intriguing facts are the numerous and varied graphic designs entwined with inscriptions in Kufic, an early angular form of the Arabic alphabet found chiefly in decorative inscriptions. Everywhere – on walls, columns, arches, fountains and ceilings – these can be found. A modern visitor who is not well-versed in reading classic Arabic will tend to just regard them as no more than decorative details. However, for more than a decade Juan Castilla Brazales and his team of scholars and students have registered, read and studied the many inscriptions; to be more precise, 10.000 of them.

Of course the most prominent and often repeated inscription states “Wa-la Ghalib illa Allah” (There is no Victor but Allah). But many of them renders snippets of poetry, some of which have been identified as the work of three poets in the Court of Granada, Ibn al-Yayyab (1274-1349), Ibn al-Jatib (1313-1375) and Ibn Zamrak (1333-1393), who were secretaries of the royal chancellery and prime ministers. Among them, Ibn Zamrak is considered to be the most brilliant of the poets of the Alhambra.

Other inscriptions renders verses from the Quran, others just prayers; a special category consists of dynastic inscriptions – “Glory to our lord the Sultan Abu l-Hajjaj, whom God help”.


"God is the Only Victor". Inscription from Alhambra. Source: Wikipedia
“God is the Only Victor”. Inscription from Alhambra. Source: Wikipedia

It appears that the Alhambra was not just a jewel in the Nasrid realm, it was also a pregnant testimony to its interwoven political and religious destiny. Each wall was part of a uniform type of propaganda intended to underline the God-given context for the rulers of the Nasrid.

This is the conclusion reached by the Arabist, Juan Castilla Brazales who has immersed himself in this intricate art-form, which may be found in the most unlikely places, for instance on the inside of the stalactites reaching down from the vaulted ceiling in the Hall of the Abencerrajes. “I spent hours looking epigrams on the roof with binoculars”” he tells the El Pais. It appears that inscriptions have been found everywhere: in cellars, beneath stairs, around obscure corners.

The documentation has been collected in Epigraphic corpus of the Alhambra, a bilingual edition consisting of eight books supplemented by DVD’s allowing the user to know the detail of all the entries: localization, translation, context and illustrated with photos and drawings.

Reynaldo Fernandez, director of the Patronato of the Alhambra and the Generalife, publisher of the work, announces that the last two books/DVDs will be published in spring 2017. The Alhambra will then have 10,000 fewer secrets.


Los mensajes ocultos de la Alhambra
By Javier Arroyo
In El Pais, 30.10.2016


Corpus Epigráfico de la Alhambra