Islamic tiles in Spain

LAST UPDATED: 25 Jul, 2016 @ 19:02

By Mary Roulston

THERE are three things that particularly
stand out in my memory from my first trip to the
Alhambra Palace in Granada on a crisp,
clear February day. The first was the outstanding backdrop of the snow capped
Sierra Nevada mountain range. Then,
there was the smell of the violets which scented the air of this first
mesmerising experience of what some call the eighth wonder of the world. The
third were the beautiful tiled floors of the corridors of the Nasrid palaces – beautiful yet tiny hand painted tiles, all
of a different design or depicting a scene.

On my second visit to the Alhambra all these
things were gone: snow on the
Sierra Nevada had, naturally, all melted by late July; likewise, the violets were
out of bloom; but the tiles? I was horrified to see they were not only all but
gone but a trench had been worn in the once magnificent floors by the millions,
perhaps billions, of feet which had walked over them in my four and a half year
absence. Only the tiles round the edges had escaped but they too were looking a
little worse for wear. What could have been done to save these small tiles of
such great beauty that, hitherto, had survived hundreds of years in a near
immaculate state I had wondered? Had wooden walkways or matting been used then
I and other past visitors would have been robbed by the sight.

Fortunately not many people, except Michael
Jackson circa 1986, walk on walls. For it is there in the
Alhambra – as with other great Islamic buildings – where
the more intricate and impressive tile work is found.
Hard to believe they were laid nearly 800 years ago. Look at the
triangular helix in the Patio de los Arrayanes or the cut tile designs in the Salón de los Embajadores.
The patterns in which the tiles were laid, both on the
floor and the wall, are particular to the Islamic culture. Regular, irregular
and star-shaped tiles are juxtaposed to create geometrical shapes that flow
over the whole of the chosen surface; the patterns reveal a mathematical link
to Islamic poetry and music where the rhythms flow towards infinity, a metaphor
for eternal life. All the individual pieces of these intricate designs, called alicatados, were cut out by hand by blows delivered
by a pick or by pincers.


The alicatados
were not just beautiful and symbolic but, importantly, hygienic. The use of
tiles was an integral part of this main cornerstone of Hispano-Muslim culture. It
is similar to today. We place tiles where hygiene is most important: namely the
kitchen and bathroom. Of course, these rooms are naturally the first place to
experiment with tile decoration but there are many other places where tiles can
be used to create an attractive feature – even recreating one’s favourite
designs from the

The town of Órgiva in the
western Alpujarra has not one but two tile workshops which recreate tiles in
the Moorish style: Alizares and Albayalde.
Their names in themselves betray their Moorish influence.

Delia McGrath, who has been running Albayalde since June with the assistance of Antonio Diaz Soriano, assures me the striking similarity between the
tiles they make and the
Alhambra tile work is 100 per cent intentional.

"We make copies of the Alhambra designs,
we even use the same glaze recipe as they used there," she told me. But
she is quick to reassure me that, although that recipe contains lead, any toxic
ingredients lose their potency thanks to the high temperatures in the kiln. A bit like using wine in cooking.

The designs are stars, diamonds and arches
among others in the wonderfully subdued greens, blues and earth tones of the
Alhambra tiles. However,
they are also experimenting with brighter more contemporary colours and mural
designs. An example of the former is a replica of the tiles on the walls of
Patio de los Arrayanes. And of the latter a fantastic jig-saw puzzle-like mural of four
nudes which an architect fell in love with during a visit to the workshop and
commissioned as a house warming gift for his son’s French home.
designs can be custom-made to compliment any colour scheme for interior walls,
mirrors and tables or exterior pools, patios and fountains. 

One difference between the tiles produced
by Albayalde and older methods is that they are
thicker and so better able to resist changes in temperature despite the fact,
as the centuries have proved, the
Alhambra tiles are
extremely durable – except on the floors. Delia is a little stumped as to why
the floor tiles I saw should have worn as they did over the four and a half
year period between my visits. We can only conclude that hard wearing they may
be they are not tough enough to withstand such an enormous amount of feet. She
also tells me she has found that the brilliant glaze of her tiles would scratch
easily on floors. Then I notice an example piece involving bizcocho,
matt terracotta tiles, and smaller ceramic, alicatado,
much like what I saw on the floors of the
Alhambra corridors
on my first visit. Would that be suitable for a small terrace or patio I ask
tentatively. "Oh yes! That would be perfect for that kind of area," Delia


As I already have the snow-capped Sierra Nevada view, albeit from
the other side. With a few pots of violets and the Albayalde floor it seems I really can recreate my special
Alhambra memories
on my own terrace. Tel
(00 34) 958 785 199

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