The Gardens of the Moors
Well its been a hot minute since I’ve been able to write in this blog, what with the school year ending and spring kicking off and all. But I did want to set an entry aside following my completion of my Landscape Architecture History and Theory course to explore my fascination with ancient Moorish gardens.
What is it about the Andalusian landscape that captivates historians, artists, travellers, and garden enthusiasts alike? Who were the people that shaped the arid, yet bountiful land? How do the courtyards and patios of Spain, Portugal and Morocco continue to inspire gratitude for the simplest of life’s pleasures; the bright sun, a warm breeze, and the smell of flowers? I am certain you could not point to any single element that fully captures the history, culture and craftsmanship behind these tranquil retreats, but it is the very abundance of details that make Moorish gardens the most wonderful of them all.
A Brief History of the Moors
The Moors were a group of predominantly Muslim peoples that inhabited Northern Africa and the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. Descendants of Berber and Arab tribes, the Moors first crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 AD to conquer the Euro-Christian region of Hispania. The Iberian peoples were largely accepting of the new conquest, subsequent to the harsh rule of the preceding Visigoths.
Although the frontier between the Moorish and Christian forces was to be a hotbed of military activity for many centuries to come, the citizens of the newly named Al-Andalus territory lived side-by-side in relative peace. Islamic, Christian and Jewish peoples came together in a sort of “cultural flowering” of art, architecture, literature and philosophy while the rest of Europe struggled through the relative misery of the Dark Ages. During their reign, the Moors expanded and improved ancient Roman irrigation systems and established a strong agricultural presence. The conquerors brought with them many new plant species like oranges, lemons, figs and pomegranates, which were tended and cared for in enclosed gardens.
The Iberian Peninsula eventually fell to the Christian Reconquest in 1492, but the Islamic culture persisted until the final Expulsion of the Moriscos in 1614. Many landmarks and monuments of the Moorish rule remain intact today, including their cherished gardens. I have been lucky enough to visit some of these in my own travels.
The Functions of Moorish Gardens
In medieval times, enclosed gardens served as places of retreat, solitude and contemplation of God’s creation. This was no less so for the people of Al-Andalus, where the prevailing school of Islam designed gardens as representations of the heavenly paradise. Inspired by God, the form of the Moorish garden was divine. Still, the garden’s delights were Earthly and so were also meant for the sensuality and enjoyment of mortals.
The gardens of the Moorish people additionally provided domain for social activities, entertainment, and localized food and medicine production.
Elements of Moorish Garden
Moorish garden design exhibits Islamic, Spanish, Persian, Greek and Roman influences, mirroring the ethnic diversity of its own populace.
Perhaps the most obvious design element that links the gardens of so many of the world’s ancient cultures was their preoccupation with symmetry. Linear order was important to the Moors because it represented the celestial hand of God. Originating with the ancient Persians, the four-plot layout of the pairi-daeza, or paradise garden (referred to as the chahār bāgh in the Qur’an) is one of the most commonly utilized designs in medieval gardens. These arrangements consist of quadralateral beds divided by a pair of crossed axes with a bubbling fountain or water feature at the centre, enclosed within the safety of high walls. The plots represent the four gardens of paradise divided by four rivers of water, wine, milk and honey fed by an eternal spring.
Other examples of linear design in Moorish gardens are found in orderer plantings, trimmed hedges, long avenues, water channels, and geometric pools.
Water was not only a highly prized commodity, but a central feature in the cultivated Moorish garden. Transporting and containing water would have been no easy feat in the arid climate of Andalusia, but the consistent incorporation of gurgling fountains, arcing hydraulic spouts and tranquil pools all fed by systems of qanats (gradually sloping underground tunnels), cisterns and acequias (gravity-fed water-carrying channels) demonstrate the Moors’ keen understanding of water dynamics and irrigation.
Beyond sustaining human, animal and plant life, water was used for cleansing and religious rituals. The sound of trickling water would have muddled with the gentle breeze and songs of birds, setting a peaceful tone for quiet reflection. The Alhambra’s Patio de los Arrayanes, or Court of the Myrtles, takes the Andalusian connection with water one step further. The infamous courtyard is defined by a grand rectangular pool lined by perfectly clipped hedges, composing a dramatic scene which is made only more magnificent once it’s true purpose is revealed. The placid waters of the pool act as a glassy mirror, reflecting the open sky above and literally carrying the vastness of the heavens to the surface of the Earth, serving as a direct connection from man to God.
Edible and Aromatic Plants
Ample greenery is always present in the gardens of Andalusia, especially highly prized fruit-bearing plants and fragrant flowers. The aromas of jasmine, rose, myrtle, laurel, and other flowering species were used to guide spiritual contemplation and so were always in supply. Citrus fruits were exotic pleasures - not only for their sight and smell, but for eating as well. Plants were deliberately placed where they could be most easily be enjoyed by wandering patrons, as exemplified in the sunken planting of orange trees in the Patio de las Doncellas (Courtyard of the Maidens) at the Real Alcázar, elevating their fruits to just the right height to take in their pleasant scent.
The true hallmark of Moorish Garden design is an overwhelming abundance of visual patterns. From elaborate mosaics to hand-carved doors, perspective-provoking plots with linear plantings all the way up to cut-out ceilings allowing curated glimpses of the heavens, there is hardly a surface untouched by rich patterning.
Islamic cultures in particular favoured the use of geometric tessellations. Like the calming aroma of scented flowers, these sacred repetitions of shapes were understood as sensual vessels, focusing the mind and bridging the connection to the spiritual realm. This effect is amplified by carrying 2-dimensional patterns into the third; surrounding the viewer in a sea of layered doorways, windowns, poriticoes, balconies, all saturated with symbolic motifs.
To me as an individual fascinated with natural patterning, the mosaics, carvings and plantings of the Moors immortalize their reverence of their surroundings as the great creation of God. While much of medieval Europe hid behind high walls, believing the natural world was a thing to be feared, the people of Al-Andalus flourished in it. Perhaps it was the tolerable conditions, the bountiful growing season, or simply the recognition that those Earthly delights were meant for the enjoyment of men. No matter the reason, by honouring and replicating the patterns of their natural environment, the Moors had established a channel to the heavens.
Modern Moorish Gardens
Despite their expulsion over 400 years ago, the art, architecture and gardens of the Moorish people continue to awe and inspire. The concept of the secluded oasis has taken hold across the globe, even in regions far from the arid climate of Andalusia. Lucy Sommer’s Modern Moorish Garden in Dorset is a fine example of how contemporary designers have adopted the essence of the Moorish garden using linear form, geometric patterning and exotic-aromatic plantings.
The Moorish influence remains in abundance in modern day Morocco, Spain and Portugal. From endless grand avenues and bustling public parks, to rooftop oases and uncountable concealed courtyards, it seems that the peoples of present day Andalusia have not lost their appreciation for cultivating their beloved gardens. It is around every corner, behind every decorated doorway, in every fountain, among every carefully tended plant and thoughtfully placed tile. These are the living memories that preserve the richness of an ancient coming-together of people who shaped their environment for their own enjoyment.
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