Photographed from the famous Mirador de San Nicolás lookout point in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra and neighboring Generalife perch majestically in front of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Dating back to the 13th century, the complex of palaces, fortresses, and citadels was established by the Nasrid emir Mohammed I; many of its most famous buildings were later constructed under his successors, Yusuf I and Mohammed V.

Francesco Lagnese

Explore the Captivating Beauty of the Alhambra

Designer Stephanie Stokes reflects on her romance with the place that Henri Matisse once called "So moving that it obliterates the senses."

May 1, 2023

When lovers of beauty close their eyes, many think of the Alhambra. A masterpiece of Moorish architecture begun in 1238 by Muhammad I, founder of the Nasrid dynasty, the fortified hilltop complex in Granada, Spain, evokes our deepest fantasies of what a palace can be—brimming with sophisticated ornament and epic views, but also filled with private courtyards, secret corners, and an uncountable number of gossip-muffling fountains.

To understand the Alhambra’s particular allure, we sat down with one of its devoted admirers, Stephanie Stokes, a New York–based interior designer and author of the forthcoming book The World at Your Table: Inspiring Tabletop Designs (Rizzoli, April 2023)—which, naturally, features a chapter dedicated to Andalusia. Here, she shares her thoughts on a beloved place she has known through the decades.

• • •

The Alhambra was very different when I first visited in the 1970s and ‘80s. There was a lovely posada, or inn, and only serious travelers went there. There were no tourists. We were overwhelmed by the peace, the quiet, and the serenity of this extraordinary town. Back then, it was just a ruin on top of a hill, so beautiful and inspiring. It still is, of course, but nowadays, it’s less undiscovered. I dream about the courtyards with their glorious fountains and pools—they are magnificent, and they stay with me.

The walkways of the Generalife are decorated with stones from the nearby Darro and Genil rivers.Francesco Lagnese

The Moors came from Arabia across Northern Africa on their horses before crossing to Gibraltar. I imagine them galloping into Andalusia and building Cordova, Sevilla, and Granada. What they were in search of was water, and when they found it, they created elaborate hydraulic systems to move that precious water around, maintain the rills and fountains, and then reward the eye with a water feature in every courtyard. The Romans are given credit for all of the aqueducts in Spain and elsewhere, but really it was the Moors who perfected the handling of water in the region and with a great aesthetic sense of beauty. The water is the poetry of the place to me.

The Alhambra was not a single palace; it was a fortified town on top of a hill comprised of courtyards, off of which are halls, off of which are rooms looking out over the valley. Unusually, it’s not the views that are the most beautiful feature—it is the private, inward- looking courtyards with their narrow reflecting pools and fountains. I think the Alhambra’s sense of privacy is what still appeals to us today: It is very much about the luxury of looking out at a beautiful view but not being seen yourself—an ancient feeling, but also a modern one that drives a great deal of contemporary design.

Arches carved from densely planted cypress create verdant doorways into the lower garden, originally the site of the palace orchards. The Generalife likely dates back to the late 13th or 14th century, and like the Alhambra itself, was expanded and remodeled over the ensuing 700 years; between 1931 and 1951, the garden underwent an extensive restoration led by Spanish architects Leopoldo Torres Balbás and Francisco Prieto Moreno.

Francesco Lagnese
  • The Generalife, designed as a summer palace for the emirs, sits directly east of the main complex. Filled with lush plantings framed by manicured cypress trees, its name translates to “Garden of the Architect” or “Garden of the Artist.”

    Francesco Lagnese
  • Dating back to 1626, the shell-shaped Lindaraja Fountain is one of many water features that irrigates the hillside.

    Francesco Lagnese

The building itself was not designed to be seen from the outside. It wasn’t meant to be “pretty.” Of course, if you sit on a hill across from the Alhambra in the early evening to watch the sun go down over the pink walls, it is a breathtaking sight.

I flip over the interior stucco work at the Alhambra. You could sit for hours and study one corner of the Nasrid palaces! What the builders were able to create with wet stucco and a knife is simply incredible. An important theme in the art history of Islamic Spain is math and its impact on architecture and design. While northern Europe was in the depths of a Dark Age, Moorish mathematicians worked out extraordinary designs. Their sophistication is matched only by their beauty.

  • The Court of the Lions, located in the Nasrid Palaces, is named for the 12 lion sculptures that hold up the fountain in its central courtyard; it features some of the most ornate architecture within the Alhambra complex.

    Francesco Lagnese
  • Waterways connect the courtyard’s main fountain with four smaller ones surrounding it.

    Francesco Lagnese

Below the famous stucco work are tile dados, and let’s face it—these were practical. The keepers of the Alhambra had to wash down the floors, so a waterproof material was needed at the bottom of the walls. As a result, we see these extraordinarily beautiful tiles. They derive from the ceramic tradition of Iznik, in present-day Turkey, and the eastern Islamic world. The Moors brought this tradition of tin-glazed earthenware to the West, and we all know the beautiful ceramics that are produced in Spain, even today, as a result.

In the Quran, paradise brims with water. And what the builders of the Alhambra were doing was creating a vision of heaven in their magnificent stucco work, the spectacular woodwork decorating the ceilings, the water features, and the wonderful use of light throughout. You also have to imagine that these rooms would have been painted. The calligraphic inscriptions on the walls, which were derived from verses in the Quran would have been picked out in gold or silver, or white and black, so they became incredibly vivid, important elements in the space. To me, it’s as close to paradise as you’ll find on Earth.

I returned to the Alhambra for the fourth time last July. I went without a guide, thinking I knew the place, and finding my way around proved to be an all-day adventure. But, oh, what a place to get lost in! Every time I go back, I see things I’ve never seen before. It’s so rich in design, and design ideas. In fact, talking about it now, I think I might be in need of another visit.

  • An intricately carved arch in the Generalife offers a view of the Church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra, built in the 16th and 17th centuries on the former site of the Great Mosque.

    Francesco Lagnese
  • Despite its name, the Palace of Charles V was never actually home to a monarch; it now holds the Alhambra Museum and the Fine Arts Museum of Granada.

    Francesco Lagnese
Francesco Lagnese
  • While its name comes from the twin marble flagstones set into its floor, the Hall of the Two Sisters is most famous for its magnificent star-shaped domed ceiling. Hand-carved stone muqarnas, sometimes referred to as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting,” represent the complex creation of the universe by God.

    Francesco Lagnese
  • Delicate fretwork and carved inscriptions fill the Hall of the Ambassadors, which served as a reception chamber and held the emir’s throne. The ceiling was carved from cedar wood and inlaid with lapis lazuli.

    Francesco Lagnese

Michael Diaz-Griffith is Executive Director & COO of the Design Leadership Network and author of The New Antiquarians: At Home with Young Collectors, forthcoming from The Monacelli Press in June 2023. He is a contributing editor at FREDERIC.