By Elisa Santafe - MADRID
Researchers armed with modern technology such as digital cameras and 3D laser scanners have embarked on a mission to catalogue and decipher for the first time the words that adorn Spain's most-visited tourist attraction.
For centuries visitors to the Alhambra fortress-palace in Granada, built by Spain's medieval Moorish rulers, have wondered what the thousands of Arabic inscriptions that are carved into its walls and ceilings mean.
What the researchers have found so far is that, contrary to what was widely believed, verses from the Koran and poetry represent only a tiny minority of the messages in classical Arabic that cover the Alhambra, Europe's jewel of Muslim architecture.
"They do not make up not even 10 percent of what has been studied so far," said Juan Castilla an investigator with the School of Arabic Studies at Spain's Higher Scientific Research Council which is directing the project.
Instead the phrase that appears most frequently is the motto of the Nasrid dynasty that ruled Granada from 1238 until the Spanish reconquered the city in 1492: "There is no victor but God."
"It is repeated hundreds of times," said Castilla, whose team has so far decoded 3,116 inscriptions of the roughly 10,000 that cover the sprawling complex since work on the project began in 2002.
The next most common messages are single words like "perpetual happiness" that are thought to be expressions of divine wishes for the Muslim rulers of Granada.
Many other inscriptions consist of aphorisms, terse sayings embodying a general truth, such as "Be sparse in words and you will go in peace" and "Rejoice in good fortune, because God helps you."
Until now there have only been partial studies of what the inscriptions meant, including one ordered by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella who sought to purge Spain of Muslims after the reconquest of Granada in 1492.
"It seems incredible that there is no exhaustive catalogue (of the inscriptions) in the 21st century," said Castilla.
Many of the inscriptions are wrapped around arches and pillars, making them hard to read with the naked eye from ground level.
Further complicating the task is the fact that artisans who did the engraving used an elaborately cursive script, which can be difficult to read. Calligraphy was a major art form.
The researchers hope to have 65 percent of the inscriptions catalogued and translated into Spanish by the end of the year and the entire project finished in 2011.
The inscriptions will be translated into English and French as well later on.
Those that have been translated so far are available on a DVD and a book which outlines where each one appears and when it was created.
The Alhambra, which was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, received 3.1 million visitors in 2008, according to the company that manages ticket sales for the 13th century palace and fortress complex.
It suffered pillage and decay over the centuries but remained intact and in recent years has undergone extensive restoration.
According to legend, when the Spanish reconquered Granada in 1492, the city's last Arabic ruler burst into tears as he surveyed the Alhambra for the last time as the royal party moved south toward exile.
When his mother approached him she said: "Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man."