The Spanish city where water defies gravity

Water is ubiquitous in Granada’s ornate and lavish Alhambra, a 13th-century palatial complex that is one of the most iconic examples of Moorish architecture in the world. It flows in channels that cool buildings; springs from fountains in the great halls and charming courtyards; and sprays in such a way that, from certain angles, it perfectly frames the majestic arched doorways. The same intricate system brings color to the famous gardens of the Generalife, the neighboring former summer palace.

At the time, it was one of the most sophisticated hydraulic networks in the world, capable of defying gravity and bringing water up from the river almost a kilometer below.

The 1,000-year-old feat still impresses engineers today: in an essay on key moments in the history of water in civilization, UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program notes that “modern technology of water is indebted for the legacy of [these] water gardens and public baths”, which were once enjoyed only by the wealthy and powerful, but which today have made private baths and gardens affordable and convenient.

For millennia, great cities have grown on the banks of rivers, the shores of lakes and the coasts of the seas. This was also the case with the great kingdom of Granada, which developed along the Darro and Genil rivers in what was to become the Spanish autonomous community of Andalusia. For the Islamic rulers who controlled this region and other parts of Spain for nearly 800 years, water played an integral function in society, not only for survival, but also for religious and aesthetic purposes.

“In Islam, water is the origin of life, it is a symbol of purity and it acts as a purifier of body and soul; it is considered pious,” said Rocío Díaz Jiménez, general manager of the board of the Alhambra. and Generalife.

Public fountains, decorated with ceramic tiles, abounded in the streets of Andalusian towns. They were installed next to the mosques for ablutions, or near the city gates to quench the thirst of travellers. Even at home, water was a central concern. “It was rare that an Andalusian patio did not have a central water feature, however humble – whether it was a swimming pool, a fountain or a basin,” said Diaz. “Water is also part of the essence of the Alhambra – a fundamental element for its existence.”

But this has not always been the case. Historians believe that the Alhambra was commissioned as a fortress in the 9th century by a man named Sawwar ben Hamdun, during the wars between Muslims and Christians who converted to Islam. However, it was not until the arrival in the 13th century of Muhammad I, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty – who would rule from 1230 until the Spanish Catholic conquest of 1492 – that the engineers overcame the challenge of the he elevated location of the Alhambra on 840m-top Sabika Hill and transformed it into a livable palatine city of 26 acres with access to fresh running water.

Edward K. Thompson