Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1293, (28 April - 4 May 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Gardens of Islam

A new exhibition is inviting visitors into oriental gardens, from traditional designs to public parks in the Arab world today, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Gardens of Islam
Gardens of Islam
Al-Ahram Weekly

Many people will know something about the traditions of oriental or Islamic gardens, if only because of the vague perception that they have significantly influenced gardens in Europe and beyond. 

It is widely known that tulips, for example, were cultivated for centuries in the Ottoman Empire before they made their way to Holland, today the world’s main centre of tulip cultivation.

Anyone who has a knowledge of roses will be familiar with the Damascene rose, often thought to have been brought by the Crusaders to Europe from Damascus in the 13th century.

Such stories are mentioned in the major exhibition on oriental gardens that opened at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris this month entitled Jardins d’Orient, de l’Alhambra au Taj Mahal.

However, the exhibition, spilling out onto the Institut’s forecourt on the left bank of the Seine where a pop-up oriental garden has been specially installed, does far more than simply remind visitors of the eastern origins of certain cherished plant species.  

Instead, it aims to offer a survey of the main traditions of oriental gardening, looking at their origins in Persia and Mesopotamia and the ways in which the leading Muslim dynasties, in their different ways perhaps especially the Moghuls in India, the Ottomans, and the various dynasties that once ruled in Muslim Spain, built gardens as places of sensory delight, recreation and dynastic or personal prestige. 

While there is a danger that the exhibition may be too ambitious — one could happily while away several exhibitions on Moghul, Ottoman, or Andalusian gardens alone — a survey of this sort also has advantages. 

It allows visitors to trace the traditions of oriental garden design back to their origins, to understand something of the role and character of traditional oriental gardens, and to appreciate their contemporary function as an important source of thinking about the place of gardens in the contemporary Arab and Muslim world.


ORIGINS OF ORIENTAL GARDENS: The exhibition begins by reviewing the sources of oriental gardens, chiefly in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia, but also in other regions of the ancient world.

Gardens, or cultivated areas set aside for pleasure and recreation, began as side-effects of sedentary agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia, where the major river systems of the Tigris and the Euphrates produced the conditions necessary for the development of some of the ancient world’s most powerful early civilisations. 

These were built on riverine agriculture, like the civilisation of ancient Egypt, and hydraulic technologies such as waterwheels, often driven by animals, and the shaduf, a characteristic hand-operated ancient Mesopotamian water-lifting tool, allowed large areas of land to be set aside for irrigation. 

Irrigation meant agriculture, but it also meant pleasure gardens, and the evidence suggests that the building of gardens as places of recreation and signs of personal or dynastic prestige took place hard on the heels of the development of ancient agriculture.

Among the most famous such gardens were the so-called Hanging Gardens of Babylon, ascribed by the ancient Greek and Roman authors who wrote about them to the 6th century BCE Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, the Nebuchadnezzar mentioned in the Bible, and seen as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

The exhibition includes a 3D reconstruction of the Hanging Gardens that shows them very much as they appear in the descriptions of the ancient Greek and Roman authors, built to resemble a natural hillside with artificial terraces and forest trees with the water being raised by mechanisms like Archimedean screws and the whole looking something like an ancient Greek amphitheatre. 

The problem, not mentioned in the exhibition, which merely notes that the evidence for the Gardens is “inconclusive,” is that the terrain of ancient Babylonia, like that of southern Iraq today, was flat and crisscrossed by a network of canals. It looked something like the Egyptian Delta. There were no suitable hillsides to provide a model for such “hanging” or suspended gardens in this region of flat alluvium that favoured the development of gardens set in rectangular parcels of land divided by irrigation canals, something like parterres.

It is for this and other reasons that recent writers on the Hanging Gardens, among them UK Assyriologist Stephanie Dalley whose book on the subject was reviewed in the Weekly in July 2015, have argued that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were in fact built in Nineveh by Assyrian king Sennacherib several hundred km to the north where there was a long tradition of “hanging” garden architecture and the hydraulic technology needed to irrigate them. 

Connoisseurs of Dalley’s argument, also presented in her BBC television programme, may thus raise eyebrows at the presentation of the Hanging Gardens in the exhibition. The problem of the invention of the Archimedian screws used to raise the water needed to irrigate the suspended Gardens does not present insurmountable difficulties, since even the ancient Greek authors who claimed they had been invented by the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes were willing to concede prior Egyptian claims. 

Dalley managed to build an Archimedian screw following instructions found in a seventh-century BCE ancient Assyrian inscription in her television programme, but it is still not known what technology was used to rotate the screws. The 3D reconstruction included in the exhibition coyly shows them turning apparently of their own accord, whereas, as Dalley wrote after the transmission of her television programme, while viewers had written in “with suggestions for the method of rotation of the screws, all of them involved cogs or pumps” that were not available in ancient Assyria.

But it is not only ancient Mesopotamia that provides clues about the development of oriental gardens. The desert oases of the Arabian Peninsula also provided garden-like environments, and their early inhabitants developed similar technologies for water transport and irrigation. The traditions of Roman gardening, spread throughout the Mediterranean on the eve of the Arab conquests in the seventh century CE, provide an important source of oriental garden design, perhaps particularly for urban gardens. 

Yet, for many the single most important type of oriental or Islamic garden may be the originally Persian chahar bagh, or quadripartite garden, its quadrants typically divided by water channels emanating from a central pavilion or pool, which the exhibition says became a model for many Arab gardens. “Paradise,” it also says somewhere, traditionally located in a garden, is an Old Iranian (Avestan) word literally meaning “walled enclosure.”

Such gardens — rigorously symmetrical and making extensive use of water in channels and in pools — spread from Persia to Delhi and beyond, with the Safavid, Ghaznavid (in what today is Afghanistan) and Moghul dynasties all building fine examples of them.

Anyone who has visited the magnificent gardens of Isfahan in Iran will recognise the garden-type referred to here. The originally Moghul gardens surrounding Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi, the Taj Mahal at Agra, built by the emperor Shah Jahan, and the Shalimar Gardens at Lahore are all based on Persian designs. The Babur Gardens in Kabul in Afghanistan, built by the first Moghul emperor Babur, are another important example, as are the gardens surrounding the tomb of the emperor Akbar at Sikandra.


GARDENING IN THE MAGHREB: The exhibition’s first three sections review this historical background, identifying the origins of characteristic oriental garden designs and the important role water played in them.

The continuation of the exhibition on the Institut’s second floor shifts the focus to the Hispano-Arab gardens of mediaeval Andalusia in Spain and their analogues in the Maghreb and to the functions these gardens had for their often powerful owners. 

While Moghul gardens tend to be arranged around royal tombs, as is the case at the Taj Mahal, for example, and the private gardens of the east of the Arab world have in most cases been lost, submerged beneath later urban development, a few of the palaces of the Arab royal dynasties of southern Spain have survived largely intact along with the lay-outs of their gardens. 

The fabulous pleasure gardens of Fatimid Cairo have long since disappeared, as author Nassar Rabat mentions in his contribution to the exhibition catalogue, along with the palaces that once gave their name to Bayn Al-Qasrein, today Sharia Al-Muizz le-Din Allah in Islamic Cairo. There is little information available about what these gardens might once have looked like, though they might have shared some of the features of the courtyard gardens of the Alhambra Palace in Granada in southern Spain, even if the latter is on a much smaller scale.  

This type of garden was based on the gardens once attached to Roman villas, and the courtyard garden as a design type was well-adapted to urban environments as it was the central space around which the rest of a house could be built. As the exhibition points out, variations on this design can be seen in traditional Levantine townhouses, built around a central patio-garden courtyard with a fountain, and in traditional Moroccan riads, the courtyard in the latter case also often being faced with decorative tiles and having coloured marble paving.

At the Alhambra, there is a sequence of courtyard gardens that includes the Court of the Myrtles, which has a long pool set into a marble pavement lined by myrtle trees, and the famous Court of the Lions, built around a fountain supported by 12 marble sculpted lions. Nearby, there is the Palacio de Generalife, built around the Water Channel Court which features a long pool surrounded by flowerbeds, and the Courtyard of the Cypress containing a central fountain framed with trees.

Particular attention was paid to the sensory appeal of such gardens, the exhibition says, with the tinkling of water complementing pleasures such as the sight of beautiful plants, the smells of different flowers, and the sounds of birds. Music was often played in them, and they were seen as retreats from the world and private spaces of leisure and recreation.


FROM EAST TO WEST: Gardens thus took many forms in the Islamic world, from the Persian-inspired chahar bagh, spreading particularly in Iran, Southwest and Central Asia and the Indian Moghul Empire, to the Mediterranean courtyard type that reached perhaps its apogee in the Hispano-Arab gardens of southern Spain.

There were also other intermediate types associated with local urban lay-outs and building designs. Planting, too, must have depended to a large extent on local climates and on the plant species that were available.

Yet, what all these types seem to have had in common was an emphasis on water, in channels or in pools, and on symmetry and straight lines, perhaps a reflection of a similar geometrical emphasis in traditional Islamic architecture and decorative designs. Gardens also seemed to have served similar functions as places of retreat and entertainment and pleasure and prestige. Persian kings and Moghul emperors laid out magnificent gardens, as did Maghreb and Andalusian princes and sultans.

In the exhibition’s final sections attention turns to oriental gardens in more recent centuries, when the attention of western designers and architects was drawn to oriental and Islamic garden designs as it was to Islamic architecture and decoration more generally. There were many modern reinterpretations of traditional oriental designs. 

With the development of modern cities throughout the Arab world in the second half of the 19th century, usually inspired by European-type urban designs, older building types were often cleared away and with them older gardens. Nineteenth-century Cairo and Alexandria are built on a pattern of streets and squares based on what Baron Haussmann was doing at more or less the same time in Paris, and with the broad, straight boulevards came public squares and gardens. 

In Cairo, perhaps the gardens built by the Khedive Ismail in Giza, today the Cairo Zoo, are a good example of this type of public gardens. However, the exhibition looks particularly to the Maghreb and the work of the French landscape architect Jean-Claude-Nicolas Forestier (1861-1930) who built on traditional Hispano-Arab garden designs while working in Morocco, a French protectorate at the time, designing new promenades and public gardens on older models in Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes and Rabat. 

The extraordinary Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech, built by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s as a kind of Islamic botanical garden, are a further memory of this period of rediscovery of traditional oriental garden design. 

This part of the exhibition ends with reflections on contemporary gardens in the Arab and Islamic world, focusing on possible “garden cities” (Casablanca and Isfahan are given as case-studies) and, on a less ambitious scale, contemporary public gardens. There are video presentations on the Al-Azaiba Gardens in Muscat in Oman, and, closer to home, the Al-Azhar Park in Cairo, one of the most successful examples of the reclamation of urban space for garden purposes anywhere in the Arab world. 

Built by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and opened in 2005, the Park, covering some 30 hectares, is located near the Darb al-Ahmar area of Islamic Cairo and uses traditional Islamic designs. 

Outside, the exhibition concludes with a pop-up oriental garden on the Institut’s hard forecourt designed by French landscape architect Michel Péna. This is of a courtyard-style design, with a central water channel dividing symmetrically arranged lines of plants and paths. Pena describes his garden as a “manifesto” for the oriental garden in a modern urban context, but it may be a tough sell. The plants have not had time to mature in their new environment, and it would have been nice to see more of the plants mentioned in the exhibition.

Roses are there, along with lemon trees, rows of dwarf oranges (calamondins) and kumquats, but these scarcely exhaust the plant types mentioned in the exhibition and in any case not everything in Péna’s garden seems to be native to the Islamic world. Perhaps in this outside part of the exhibition the curators might have tried to reconstruct the original plantings of Persian and other gardens. 

Jardins d’Orient, de l’Alhambra au Taj Mahal, Institut du monde arabe, Paris, until 25 September.

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