The Spanish city where water defies gravity
At Granada's famed Alhambra palace, a 1,000-year-old feat of hydraulics still impresses engineers today. Water is everywhere in Granada's ornate and lavish Alhambra, a 13th-Century palatial complex that's one of the world's most iconic examples of Moorish architecture. It flows in channels that cool the buildings; spurts from fountains in grand rooms and charming courtyards; and sprays in such a way that, from certain angles, it perfectly frames majestic arched doorways. The same intricate system brings colour to the famed gardens of the Generalife, the former summer palace next door.
At the time, this was one of the most sophisticated hydraulic networks in the world, able to defy gravity and raise water from the river nearly a kilometre below.
The 1,000-year-old feat still impresses engineers today: in an essay on key moments in the history of water in civilisation, Unesco's International Hydrological Programme noted that "modern water technology is indebted to the legacy of [these] water gardens and bath houses", which were once only enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful, but today have made baths and private home gardens affordable and practical.
For millennia, major cities have sprouted on the banks of rivers, the shores of lakes and the coastlines of seas. This was true too of the great Kingdom of Granada, which developed along the Darro and Genil rivers in what would become Spain's autonomous community of Andalusia. To the Islamic rulers who controlled this and other parts of Spain for almost 800 years, water played an integral function in society, not only for survival, but for religious and aesthetic purposes too.
"In Islam, water is the origin of life, it's a symbol of purity and acts as a purifier of both the body and the soul; it is considered pious," said Rocío Díaz Jiménez, general director of the Board of Trustees of the Alhambra and Generalife.
Public fountains, decorated with ceramic tiles, were plentiful in the streets of Andalusian cities. They were installed next to mosques for ablutions, or near the city gates to quench the thirst of travellers. Even at home, water was the focus. "It was rare for an Andalusian patio not to have a central water feature, no matter how humble it was – whether it was a pool, a fountain or a basin," Díaz said. "Water is also part of the essence of the Alhambra – a fundamental element for its existence."
But that wasn't always the case. Historians believe 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 wasn't until the 13th-Century arrival of Muhammad I, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty – which would rule from 1230 until the Spanish Catholic conquest of 1492 – that engineers overcame the challenge of the Alhambra's elevated location on 840m-high Sabika Hill and transformed it into a habitable, 26-acre palatine city with access to fresh running water.
Visitors can still see part of the Acequia Real today in the Patio de la Acequia, where it is framed by arcing jets of water. (Credit: amoklv/Getty Images)