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Reimagining Garden Design: Exploring the Beauty of Islamic Garden Traditions

In the world of art, architecture, and style, few are as mesmerising and captivating as the Moorish style. When we refer to the "Moorish" style, we are transported to the era of Al-Andalus, a state that dominated the Iberian Peninsula from the eighth century CE to 1462. This magnificent style was deeply influenced by Islamic aesthetics and left an indelible mark on the region's cultural heritage.

Al-Andalus was part of the expansive Umayyad Caliphate, which spanned from Iberia across North Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and modern-day Iran. It was a melting pot of diverse cultures, religions, and artistic traditions that thrived harmoniously under Muslim rule. Even today, the palaces and gardens found in Granada, Seville, and Cordoba serve as lasting testaments to this extraordinary architectural legacy. These iconic structures have become emblematic of the Moorish style that continues to inspire designers and artists worldwide.

In this blog, we will delve into some of these prominent examples of Moorish architecture in Al-Andalus. We will explore their intricate geometric patterns, stunning tilework known as zellige, elegant arches and domes, serene courtyards adorned with fountains, lush gardens filled with fragrant orange blossom - all contributing to an atmosphere of enchantment.

Discover their historical significance and learn about the cultural exchange that shaped their creation. We will also discuss how this awe-inspiring style has influenced contemporary design trends.

Court of the Myrtles, Alhambra Palace Grenada

The Moorish style developed over centuries as successive rulers and artisans perfected the style of their predecessors. Being fundamentally based on the Islamic faith, the Moorish style looked to pattern, colour, sound and scent to beautify the palaces and gardens; this was not only to reflect the beauty and perfection of Creation, but also to demonstrate the ruler’s dominance over nature. The rulers and elite who enjoyed the gardens saw them as an extension of their rule; for example, diverting precious water in desert-like climates for a garden took a great amount of skill, wealth and power. Highly stylised calligraphy was often used within richly decorated designs; this often took the form of quotations from the Qur’an, giving the decoration a symbolic and spiritual entity.

Moorish gardens often incorporated water in the form of fountains or water channels; this will be explored in more detail later. They also frequently incorporated scented flowers and fruit trees, particularly when they surrounded a tomb as it was believed the fruit could be enjoyed in the afterlife. Gardens took various forms, from courtyard designs within palaces or grand houses, to larger formal gardens and even hunting or pleasure grounds. Each form of garden contained elements of design that would be identifiable as a Moorish or Islamic garden, even if these elements varied across the vast geographical area of the caliphates. Given that the gardens would be found in hot and often dry climates, Moorish gardens often provided large areas of shade for people to sit and contemplate. The inclusion of water mentioned previously was not only symbolic of the owner’s wealth and power, but it also had religious symbolism (‘Gardens of Paradise’) and the practicality of helping to cool the air and surroundings.

The planting within Moorish gardens often incorporated fruit trees for both food and shade, but also scent. Some fruit had symbolic meaning such as figs and pomegranates. Other plants were incorporated for their medicinal use such as sandalwood and camphor, with cypress and conifer adding additional evergreen shade.

Cultural influences

Gardens within the Iberian Peninsular were influenced by several factors, including cultural influences of the prevailing religious beliefs, politics and responses to the surrounding environment. In Grenada, the gardens of the Alhambra Palace were clustered around the Generalife Palace; it comprised of several gardens and areas with their own characteristics and purposes. The Generalife became an extension of the main Alhambra Palace and was used by members of the ruling class to relax in the summer months and conduct business. The Alhambra in the fourteenth century became a place of refuge as the Catholic Reconquista of the peninsular moved further south towards Granada. Artisans, poets and craftspeople came to Granada and other towns in the area to develop a unique style; they incorporated elements of design from different periods and areas, repeating and perfecting their crafts. As the Al-Andalus state became smaller from military defeats, its rulers established the Alhambra as a quasi-palace fortress on top of the hills overlooking Granada.

Al-Attarine Madrasa, Fes Morocco (1323-5)

Muhammad V (1339 – 1391) was Sultan of Granada and was responsible for many of the extensions to the Alhambra. During a period of exile, he travelled around modern-day Morocco and saw examples of art and architecture which made a lasting impression upon him; buildings such as the Al-Attarine madrasa in Fes was emblematic of the Marinid Sultanate, combining highly stylised calligraphy, colourful geometric tiles and water basins in the centre of enclosed courtyards . Muhammad V also visited the ruins of Volubilis, a Roman city famed for its large ornate houses, the central feature being a sunken water pool (impluvium) surrounded by a columned walkway or garden. It is not difficult to see the influence of the Roman impluvium on the design of the Alhambra. In addition to this, the houses of the ancient Middle East (Arabia, Mesopotamia etc.) were predominantly based around a central courtyard with high walls around it; this helped to provide security, privacy, shade from the heat and helped to block out the noise of the city outside. This also provided a sense of quiet meditation for the occupants to sit and develop their own spiritual practices.

With the origins of Islam being in the deserts of Arabia, the importance of water and the life which was possible from it took great importance and symbolism. Water and gardens are often mentioned in the Qur’an with a common phrase being “Gardens underneath which rivers flow” for example:

Allah has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide eternally. That is the great attainment.

Qur’an 9.89

Emma Clark (The Art of the Islamic Garden) states that ‘The Almighty knew that in order to tempt his flock back onto the ‘straight path’ (al-sirata mustaqim), He must promise them rewards in the Afterlife that they would understand and desire and which they already revered for their life-giving properties – such as water and shade’. It is unsurprising therefore given the frequent mention of water and its role in the Afterlife that followers of Islam would place great reverence on their own gardens and the use of water. Over time, the principles of gardens mentioned in the Qur’an developed into the concept of Gardens of Paradise (jannat al-firdaus) and the notable concept of the chahar bagh, a garden based on the four quadrants of Paradise and the four rivers which flowed through it.

Court of the Lions, Alhambra Grenada (1362 – 1391)

In the Alhambra, the construction of the Court of the Lions demonstrates this principle of a courtyard being divided into four quadrants, with a fountain at the centre and planting around. Originally the planting was sunken so that the tops of the plants gave the effect of a carpet. Water flowed from the fountain along the recessed rills in the courtyard, with a columned arcade walkway around the edge of the courtyard from which to seek shade. The Alhambra was supplied with water diverted from a river through a complex network of channels and aqueducts. This was stored within cisterns and topped up with the small amount of rainwater. To divert the amount of water required was an expensive undertaking, testament to the power and wealth of the sultans who had it constructed.

Some have described the thin and ornate columns found in the Court of Lions as being reminiscent of palm trees, a common feature across the Mediterranean and Arabian Peninsula. Date palms were often planted in Moorish gardens to not only provide shade and a source of food, but perhaps to remind the viewer of the origins of their faith.

Evolution of style

Given the scarcity of water, early Islamic gardens relied on the date palm and similar plants that could survive in a desert climate. The idea of the garden being an ‘oasis’ saw an incorporation of water and planting, in order to provide a place of refuge and to be reminded of the life-giving properties that were provided by their Creator. As settlements grew, private homes became based around a central courtyard with high walls surrounding it and an opening to the sky. Some have commented that the high walls allowed the outside world to be closed-out, enabling the inhabitant to focus their minds to the sky and therefore their faith. A central water feature could provide drinking water as well as having a cooling effect on the surrounding space; the noise of flowing water could additionally help to close-out the noise of daily life (the ‘mundane’) again helping the inhabitant to be mindful.

The chahar bagh gardens were reserved for the elite in society. The inspiration for a geometric garden can likely be found in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran) which predated Islam by a thousand years. The ancient Persian garden (again the preserve of the elite in society) contained elements later found in Islamic and Moorish gardens, notably water channels, geometric layouts and the inclusion of scented plants and fruit trees. The chahar bagh was given an Islamic interpretation after its conquest of the Persian empire in the seventh-century CE, including the interpretation of the water channels as being symbolic of the rivers found in Paradise (similar to the Biblical Garden of Eden).

The Patio de la Acequia, Generalife, Alhambra Grenada (orig. 14th century)

The gardens that were developed in Al-Andalus took the principles of the water channels, geometric divisions of the space and surrounding walls, but developed a highly stylised version of them. For example, the water channel found in the Patio de la Acequia contains not only a scalloped-edged basin commonly found in courtyards of Al-Andalus, but also a long water channel flanked with multiple water jets that provide movement and sound along the length of the courtyard. On either side of the channel are sunken flower beds containing scented flowers and fruit trees. In this example, a balcony was constructed above the courtyard so that viewers could look down over the gardens and enjoy the symmetry and beauty from above. They also constructed a highly decorated columned walkway to provide embellishment; poems extolling the beauty of the garden and palace, alongside quotes from the Qur’an accompanied intricate carved patterns and tile mosaics.

Influence on contemporary garden design

The concept of a courtyard or geometrically divided garden is found in multiple different styles and eras, from the formal parterre of the French Renaissance to the mid-century Californian homes of Eichler built around a central courtyard. The stylised principles found in the Moorish garden however, have usually become diluted especially outside of the Islamic world. Examples of contemporary Moorish gardens often take the basic elements and adapt them to the local environment.

For example, the Highgrove ‘Carpet Garden’ (above) designed by Emma Clark incorporates a central water basin and fountain with rills coming out to the edges of the courtyard. The walls of the garden are high and there are areas of sunken planting. The decoration around the central basin features colourful mosaic tiles and geometric shapes which are clearly identifiable as being Moorish inspired. There are walkways and covered areas to sit, similar to the original Moorish gardens. As Emma Clark states, the planting found in Highgrove is not technically the same as a Moorish garden, but it is inspired by it; the Islamic world is large and the flowers are more symbolic and suggestive of the beauty of Creation. Ultimately, the planting is suitable for the climate in which it sits, otherwise they would not survive for very long. The garden provides a refuge from the outside world, with the sound of water from the basin helping to focus the mind. The fragrant and colourful flowers, such as rose and verbena, stimulate the senses.

The Highgrove ‘Carpet Garden’

Whilst there may not be many contemporary gardens that are truly authentic to the Moorish gardens found in Iberia, there are many gardens which incorporate one or multiple elements. For example, the placing of a water basin or feature in the centre of a garden, incorporating sunken water rills or having geometric planting beds containing fragrant or fruit-bearing trees could be said to be inspired by Moorish gardens. Simply providing a quiet and secluded place to sit and enjoy a garden, being ‘at one’ with your surroundings or appreciating the complexity and beauty of nature, are all philosophical concepts that have their roots in the ‘Gardens of Paradise’, even if they do lack some of the traditional elements that we have explored. In this sense, the Moorish garden may not have inspired a very common design aesthetic, but it could be said to have inspired a deeper resonating sense of place, scent and sound that we find in nearly all modern gardens.

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