Court of the Lions

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General view of the courtyard by night in 2019
After restoration (2012)
Court of the Lions in 1910
Sebka decoration and arches.
Stilted arches of the gallery.

The Court of the Lions (Spanish: Patio de los Leones; Arabic: بهو السباع‎) is the main courtyard of the Palace of the Lions in the heart of the Alhambra, the Moorish citadel formed by a complex of palaces, gardens and forts in Granada, Spain. It was commissioned by the Nasrid sultan Muhammed V of the Emirate of Granada in Al-Andalus. Its construction started in the second period of his reign, between 1362 and 1391 AD. The site is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage List[1] and minted in Spain's 2011 limited edition of 2 € Commemorative Coins.

Background and architectural influences[edit]

The Palace of the Lions, as well as the rest of the other new rooms built under Muhammad V,[2] like the Mexuar or Cuarto Dorado, represented the beginning of a new style, an exuberant mixture of Moorish and Christian influences that has been called Nasrid style. During the period that Muhammad V was ousted as sultan of Granada by his stepbrother, Abu-l Walid Ismail, he discovered in exile a host of new aesthetic influences that were not in the language of his predecessors, not even in his own first contributions to the enrichment of the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra. In Fes he saw the Almoravid mosque of Qarawiyyin, built by Moroccan architects. The splendor of the decorations, specially the profuse use of the muqarnas that had once decorated the palaces and mosques of Al-Ándalus, stunned the ex-sultan, as did the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, where he could directly examine the classical orders, Roman ornamentation and, above all, the disposition of the Roman impluvium;[citation needed] the Roman ruins at Volubilis were particularly well preserved since they had been abandoned for a period of time in the Middle Ages and later re-used as a necropolis.[3]

Muhammad became an ally of his personal friend, the Christian king Pedro I of Castile, who helped him to regain the throne and defeat the usurpers. Meanwhile, he was also astonished with the construction of the palace of Pedro I, the Alcázar of Seville, built in Mudéjar style by architects from Toledo, Seville and Granada. The influence of this Mudéjar style of King Pedro in the future Palace of the Lions was going to be decisive, especially the structure and disposition of the Qubba rooms along two axis of the 'Patio de las Doncellas' ("Courtyard of the Maidens").


The Courtyard of the Lions is an oblong courtyard, 35 m in length and 20 m in width, surrounded by a low gallery supported on 124 white marble columns.[citation needed] A pavilion projects into the courtyard at each extremity, with walls of carves stucco (yeseria) and a light domed roof, elaborately ornamented. In the center of the courtyard is the celebrated Fountain of Lions, a magnificent marble basin supported by the figures of twelve lions in white marble.

It has been argued by Georges Marçais that the spacing of columns and arches was set to the golden ratio, but there is no strong evidence that Muslim architects ever used it. Instead, as Antonio Fernández-Puertas postulates, the rectangles used in the construction may have been based on square roots and surds.[4]

Meaning of the structure[edit]

The structure of the courtyard, has, as it has been said, a direct influence of the Sevillian Patio de las Doncellas, but its meaning and origins trace their roots to early Islamic gardening, the courtyard divided in four parts, each one of them symbolizing one of the four parts of the world. Each part is irrigated by a water channel that symbolize the four rivers of Paradise. This courtyard is, therefore, an architectural materialization of Paradise, where the gardens, the water, and the columns form a conceptual and physical unity. The slender column forest have been said to represent the palm trees of an oasis in the desert, deeply related with Paradise in the Nasrid imagination. In the poem of Ibn Zamrak on the basin of the fountain, a further meaning is stated clearly: "The fountain is the Sultan, which smothers with his graces all his subjects and lands, as the water wets the gardens."

Nowadays the flower garden has been replaced by a dry garden of pebbles, in order not to affect the foundation of the palace with the watering. In Nasrid times, the floor of the quartered planting beds was slightly lower than the general level, and the visual effect was like a tapestry of flowers, as the top of the plants were cut to the same level of the courtyard, and these were carefully chosen to cover a host of color nuances.

Lion Fountain[edit]

The fountain

The central fountain of the courtyard, which has been modified and restored several times over the centuries, consists of a bowl-like marble basin surrounded by twelve lions, which face outwards and appear to support the bowl on their backs. They are made of Macael marble from Almeria.[5]: 283 [6] The existence of fountains with lion sculptures is documented at other sites of al-Andalus such as the earlier Medina Azahara near Cordoba.[7]: 168–169  The Pisa Griffin is even larger. The Lions were removed in 2007 for restoration on the premises while the fountain was restored in situ. The lions were put back in place in July 2012 after reconstruction of the traditional water flow system of the Court of the Lions.


The origin of the sculpted fountain and its lions has been debated. A theory by Frederick Bargebuhr in 1956 suggests that the lion sculptures came from the 11th-century palace of the Jewish vizier Yusuf ibn Nagrela (d. 1066).[8] Bargebuhr even suggested that the Palace of the Lions was built on the foundations of this earlier palace. Oleg Grabar later supported this origin story for the fountain.[9]: 124–129  The proposal was based on the description of a fountain found in a poem by Ibn Gabirol in the 11th century which described the vizier's palace. Under this interpretation, the lions represented the Twelve Tribes of Israel, and two of them have a triangle on the forehead, indicating the two extant tribes Judá and Leví. However, this origin theory has since been challenged or refuted by many other scholars, mostly on the arguments that a poetic description is not direct evidence of the two fountains being the same, that the description in the poem itself is not an exact match, and that the style of the lions belongs to 14th-century Nasrid art.[10]: 227 [11][12]: 164–167 [13]: 283 

Excerpt of Ibn Zamrak's poem on the basin[edit]

The poet and minister Ibn Zamrak wrote a poem to describe the beauty of the courtyard. It is carved around the rim of the basin:[14]

وَمَنْحُوتَة مِنْ لُؤْلُؤٍ شَفَّ نُورُهَا تُحَلِّي بِمُرْفَضِّ الجُمَانِ النَّوَاحِيَا
بِذَوْبِ لُجَيْنِ سَالَ بَيْنَ جَوَاهِرٍ غَدَا مِثلَهَا في احُٰسْنِ أبْيَضَ صَافِيَا
تَشَابه جَارٍ لِلْعُيُونِ بِجَامِدٍ فَلَمْ نَدْرِ أَيَّاً مِنْهُمَا كَانَ جَارِيَا
أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ المَاءَ يَجْري بِصَفْحِهَا وَﻻكِنَّهَا سَدَّتْ عَلَيْهِ المَجَارِيَا
كَمِثْلِ مُحِبٍّ فَاضَ بِالدَّمْعِ جَفْنُهُ وَغَيَّضَ ذَاكَ الدَّمْعَ إِذْ خَافَ وَاشِيَا

Such a translucent basin, sculpted pearl!
Argentic ripples are added on it by the quiet dew
And its liquid silver goes over the daisies, melted, and even purer.
Hard and soft are so close, that it would be hard to distinguish
liquid and solid, marble and water. Which one is running?
Don't you see how water overflows the borders
and the warned drains are here against it?
They are like the lover who in vain
tries to hide his tears from his beloved.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ John Stothoff Badeau, John Richard Hayes, The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, 1983, MIT Press, 260 pages ISBN 0-262-58063-2
  2. ^ Map, The Megalithic Portal and Megalith. "Volubilis". The Megalithic Portal. Retrieved 2018-02-22.
  3. ^ Irwin, Robert (2011). The Alhambra. Profile Books. p. 111. ISBN 9781847650986.
  4. ^ Arnold, Felix (2017). Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190624552.
  5. ^ López, Jesús Bermúdez (2011). The Alhambra and the Generalife: Official Guide. TF Editores. ISBN 9788492441129.
  6. ^ Ruggles, D. Fairchild (1992). "The Gardens of the Alhambra and the Concept of the Garden in Islamic Spain". In Dodds, Jerrilynn D. (ed.). Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. pp. 163–171. ISBN 0870996371.
  7. ^ Bargebuhr, Frederick P. (1956). "The Alhambra Palace of the Eleventh Century". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 19 (3–4): 192–258.
  8. ^ Grabar, Oleg (1978). The Alhambra. London.
  9. ^ Barrucand, Marianne; Bednorz, Achim (1992). Moorish architecture in Andalusia. Taschen. ISBN 3822896322.
  10. ^ Scheindlin, Raymond P (1993–1994). "El poema de Ibn Gabirol y la fuente de los leones". Cuadernos de La Alhambra. 29–30: 185–190.CS1 maint: date format (link)
  11. ^ Ruggles, D. Fairchild (2000). Gardens, Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain. Pennsylvania State University Press. ISBN 9780271018515.
  12. ^ Arnold, Felix (2017). Islamic Palace Architecture in the Western Mediterranean: A History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190624552.
  13. ^ Ed. by José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, Reading the Alhambra: A Visual Guide to the Alhambra Through its Inscriptions, trans. by Jon Trout ([no place]: The Alhambra and Generalife Trust and EDILUX s.l., 2010), p. 169.


  • Robert Irwin, The Alhambra, ISBN 978-1-86197-487-7, 2005
  • Manzano Martos, Rafael. La Alhambra: El universo mágico de la Granada islámica. Editorial Anaya, 1992. ISBN 84-207-4833-1, ISBN 978-84-207-4833-7
  • Chueca Goitia, Fernando: Invariantes castizos de la Arquitectura Española. Manifiesto de la Alhambra ISBN 84-237-0459-9
  • García Gómez, Emilio: Poemas árabes en los muros y fuentes de la Alhambra. Instituto Egipcio de Estudios Islámicos. Madrid, 1985. ISSN 1132-3485
  • Al-Hassani, S.T.S, (2012). 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilisation. National Geographic. ISBN 978-1426209345.

Coordinates: 37°10′37.44″N 3°35′21.36″W / 37.1770667°N 3.5892667°W / 37.1770667; -3.5892667