Lion Fountain: The beauty within Islamic architecture

History Tamalika Basu
lion fountain
Lion fountain in Alhambra palace. © Lenka Pribanova |

They are like the lover who in vain

tries to hide his tears from his beloved.

I have had the fortune to visit quite a few medieval palaces in various countries. And fabulous fountains are not really uncommon in majestic monuments. In the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria, for example, I marvelled at the massive Neptune Fountain. And I shuddered for a moment standing in front of the Cellat Cesmesi at Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace. That was built for the royal executioner to wash his hands and sword.

World Heritage Site Lion Fountain

But none of these, at least in my mind compares to the Lion Fountain at Alhambra palace, in Cordoba Spain. On the basin of this fountain is carved a small poem, the last two lines of which, quoted above, describes the bubbling water overflowing the basin as tears of a lover which he tries in vain to hide from his beloved. That for me is certainly Islamic architectural designing at its best.

The Lion Fountain is the centrepiece of the Court of the Lions courtyard. In the middle of the Palace of the Lions. Which is at the heart of the Alhambra citadel and palace complex. The palace was built by Abu Abdallah Muhammad V. The eighth Nasrid ruler of the Emirate of Granada. The palace was built over 29 years, between 1362 and 1391. The site has been declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO.

Carved couplets

The Palace of Lions is an exquisite example of the mixture of Moorish Islamic and Christian architecture. That has often been called Nasrid Style. The Court of Lyons is an oblong courtyard 35 M in length and 20 M in width. At each end of the courtyard lies a pavilion, and each of the pavilion have fine filigree walls and domed roof with stunning ornamentation. And right in the middle of this courtyard stands the majestic fountain, with the poem stated above carved on its basin.

The poem was written by noted 14th century poet Ibn Zamrak. The poet also describes the fountain: “The fountain is the Sultan, which smothers with his graces all his subjects and lands, as the water wets the gardens.” Thus the courtyard and the fountain together is said to be reflecting the garden of Paradise described in the Holy Quran.

Restoration of Lion Fountain

Interestingly the lions, on which the Lion Fountain rests, were built in the 11th century, and came from the house of a Jewish vizier Yusuf Ibn Nagrela. Another noted poet Ibn Gabirol, of the 11th century gives almost an exact description of this fountain, thus suggesting that it was built before the Palace of Lions was constructed, and the lines by Ibn Zamrak must have been inscribed on the basin at a later date. The fountain has gone through elaborate restoration in recent times. The lions were removed in 2007 and put back in 2012. It is now a working fountain, that stands in great beauty in the middle of the courtyard, with water flow through its internal channels properly restored.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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