The Palacio de los Leones is one of the most stunning structures within the Alhambra, and according to some, the royal harem. It was built in the second half of the 14th century under Mohammed V, at the political and artistic peak of Granada's emirate. The rooms of the palace surround Alhambra's most popular symbol, the Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard), a marble fountain that channelled water through the mouths of 12 carved marble lions.
Carved especially for this palace, the fountain was originally brightly painted, chiefly in gold, but the originals are now being replaced by copies. The patio's four water channels, running to and from the central fountain, represent the four rivers of Islamic paradise and the 12 lions are speculated to symbolise any number of things, perhaps the 12 signs of the zodiac, perhaps the 12 hours of the day, ticking from birth to death. The gallery, including the beautifully ornamented pavilions protruding at its eastern and western ends, is supported by 124 slender marble columns. Imagine this entire space covered in vibrant colours and hung with bright textiles – that's how it was during the 14th century.
Of the four halls bordering the patio, the Sala de los Abencerrajes on the southern side is the legendary site of the murders of the noble Abencerraj family, who favoured Boabdil in the palace power struggle. The legend tells that the family was massacred because the family's leader dared to get jiggy with Zoraya, Abu al-Hasan's harem favourite. The rusty stains on the floor are said to be the victims' indelible blood. The room's lovely high-domed ceiling features muqarnas vaulting in an eight-point star formation. The staircases are supposed to have lead to the harem, where blind eunuchs waited on the women who were jealously kept out of sight.
At the very eastern end of the patio is the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings), whose inner alcoves have leather-lined ceilings painted by 14th-century Christian artists, probably Genoans. The room's name comes from the painting on the ceiling of the central alcove, thought to depict 10 Nasrid emirs.
On the northern side of the patio is the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters), as beautiful and richly decorated as the Sala de los Abencerrajes, and probably named after the two slabs of white marble sitting on either side of its fountain. This may have been the room of the emir's favourite paramour. It features a fantastic muqarnas dome with a central star and 5000 tiny cells, reminiscent of the constellations. At its far end is the Sala de los Ajimeces with a beautifully decorated little lookout area, the Mirador de Lindaraja. Through the low-slung windows of the mirador, the room's occupants could enjoy the luxurious view of the Albayzín and countryside while reclining on ottomans and cushions.