Water is ubiquitous in the magnificent Alhambra of Granada, a 13th-century palace complex that is one of the most iconic examples of Moorish architecture.
Water flows in the canals that cool the buildings, flows from fountains in large halls and charming courtyards and is designed so that at certain angles it perfectly frames the majestic arched doorways.
The same complex system adds color to the famous Generalife Gardens, a neighboring former summer palace.
At that time, it was one of the most complex hydraulic networks in the world, able to withstand gravity and deliver water from the river to a depth of almost a kilometer.
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This 1,000-year-old feat still amazes engineers: in an essay on key moments in the history of water in civilization, UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program noted that “modern engineering technologies that provide water owe a legacy. [ces] water gardens and baths “, which were once reserved for the rich and powerful, but which today have made private baths and gardens accessible and convenient.
For millennia, large cities have developed on the banks of rivers, lakes and seashores.
This was also the case with the great kingdom of Granada, which developed along the Darro and Genil rivers in what was to become an autonomous community of Andalusia.
For Islamic rulers who controlled this region and other parts of Spain for almost 800 years, water played an important role in society not only for survival but also for religious and aesthetic purposes.
“In Islam, water is the source of life, it is a symbol of purity and purifies the soul and body; she is considered pious, ”explains Rocio Diaz Jimenez, CEO of the Alhambra and Generalife.
Public fountains decorated with ceramic tiles were numerous on the streets of Andalusian cities. They were set up near mosques for washing or at the city gates to quench the thirst of travelers. Even at home, water was a central problem.
“Rarely has there been a central water body on the Andalusian patio, however modest, whether it is a swimming pool, a fountain or a washbasin,” explains Mr. Diaz. “Water is also part of the essence of the Alhambra – a fundamental element of its existence.”
But this was not always the case. According to historians, the Alhambra was built as a fortress in the 9th century by a man named Savwar bin Hamdun during the wars between Muslims and Christians who converted to Islam.
However, only with the arrival in the 13th century of Muhammad I, the first king of the Nasrid dynasty, who ruled from 1230 until the conquest of Spanish Catholics in 1492, did engineers overcome the problem of location. The Alhambra was raised in 840. Sabika Hill is one meter high and turned it into a livable palace city of 26 acres with access to water.
While the Moors for centuries used simple acequias, or small canals, based on irrigation techniques they had learned from the Persians and Romans during their expansion into the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula, the great innovation of the Nasrids was to design a canal capable of carry water 6 km from the nearest river and then up the hill to their well-thought-out complex of courtyards, gardens and baths.
As Diaz explains, “everything points to the fact that Nasrida was the first to bring water to Sabika’s red hill and make it habitable.”
Central to their innovation was the Acequia Real, a 6-kilometer canal that flows into the Darro River. The azud, or dam, was built to divert the river upstream, and the force of the river lifted it up the hill before distributing the water into smaller canals.
Water wheels, or naura, were added to raise the water to different levels. It was then transported through a complex hydraulic structure consisting of large pools, cisterns and many pipes in a perfectly intertwined network, and then transported through the Gardens of Generalife and to the Alhambra Palace. – even through the aqueduct. .
Visitors can still see part of Acequia Real today at the Patio de la Acequia in Generalife, where it flows down the center of the courtyard, framed by arched water jets. “Running water makes the Alhambra charming,” said tourist Christa Timeus, who arrived in Barcelona in March.
“My favorite was to see the palace and the sky reflected in the long pools of the courtyards. Our guide told us that for the Nasrids, the fact that water is a central theme in the palace was an important symbol of the region’s status and wealth, so it makes sense that it will be a central feature of the architecture. It’s hard to imagine this place without it. “
Over time, the irrigation system of the palace city was expanded: new water wheels and alberks (large pools) were built, and tanks for collecting rainwater were completed. Later, another canal called Acequia Tercio branched off from the main canal, Acequia Real, which raised the water even higher and irrigated the gardens above Generalife.
The Palacio de los Leones is one of the most ingenious examples of hydraulic work in the Alhambra. In the center of a large carefree courtyard stands a fountain of lions, shining in white marble, surrounded by many carved columns.
The fountain consists of a large plate supported by 12 mythical white lions. Each beast pours water from its mouth, feeding four canals in the marble floor of the courtyard, which represent the four rivers of paradise, and then flows throughout the palace to cool the rooms.
Diaz described the fountain as the embodiment of the system as a whole. “The Fountain of Lions combines knowledge of technical tradition, the result of research and constructive experience of several centuries, which allowed to create the Alhambra,” she said.
While Acequia Real has been constantly modernized and supplemented over the centuries, other acequia in the region declined in the 20th century and ceased to function.
This was the case of the Ainadamar Canal, dating back to the 11th century, the oldest akekiya in the city. Denoting the “fountain of tears”, he allowed the development of the medieval area of Albayzin de Granada, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This year, José María Martin Sivantos, a professor at the University of Granada who specializes in medieval history and ancient irrigation methods, and Fundación Agua Granada (a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental protection and sustainable development) are working to restore the Ainadamar Canal.
Even today, with all our modern technology, we still have something to learn from these old hydraulic systems.
Therefore, as Mr. Sivantos explained, “the work will be carried out according to traditional customs, with respect for the original route and its heritage, and the canal and its surroundings will be restored.”
We hope that the project will have an impact beyond the Alhambra.
Sebastian Perez Ortiz, CEO of Fundación Agua Granada, said the water would irrigate areas with semi-arid ecosystems and make Ainadamar an ecological corridor for local vegetation and habitat for many animals.
This potential for knowledge and environmental benefits is also why scientists from the International Association for Hydroecological Engineering and Research will hold their World Congress in Granada this year to further explore – and strengthen – the city’s important relationship with water in the past, present and future.
Scientists attending the congress will study these ancient irrigation systems and related ecosystems, as well as the Alhambra’s sophisticated hydraulic system, to see what they can learn today.
“Moorish methods show us that innovation and technology do not necessarily contradict conservation, let alone sustainability,” says Sivantos.
“Irrigation systems provide us with a huge ecosystem on which many of our cultural landscapes depend.”
Ancient Engineering Marvels is a BBC Travel series inspired by unique architectural ideas or ingenious designs created by past civilizations and cultures around the world.