The Landscape Guide

Arabian court-gardens

According to all we can learn as yet from excavations, the favourite kind of garden among the Arabs was the completely enclosed court-garden. Arabian gardens were either shut in by buildings or high walls very like them. It is only at the great man’s palace that the garden set high over the river bank gives the possibility of a fine view and seclusion at the same time. It is from this quiet scene of beauty found in the Arabian court-garden that their poetry takes its beginning.

The simplest Arab garden has at least one fine fountain; the paths are very often paved with costly marble or shaded with vines; sometimes the whole court is paved, and in that case the trees are planted in great boxes or in reserved corners where earth has been left. The beds are bordered with stone, and beside the paths are strong-scented plants, or clipped shrubs, salvia, myrtle, and bay hedges, and climbing plants hanging from tree to tree. The had at his castle, probably the Taj Palace in Bagdad, a garden laid out in a court. This was only a third of an acre in size, but it contained orange-trees brought from Basra, Oman, and India. On the regularly planted trees there gleamed yellow and red fruit, bright as the stars of heaven against the dusky foliage. Around grew all kinds of shrubs, sweet-smelling flowers, and plants. Many birds were there: turtle-doves, ouzels, and parrots, brought from foreign lands and distant towns. People said this garden was “the fairist one could see.” The caliph, once so fierce and bloodthirsty, loved it above all things; here he drank his wine and held assemblies. When he was deposed and blinded by his nephew and successor, he would not let him have this last and dearest thing of all, but by cunning got it destroyed, giving out that there was a hidden treasure buried there.

The Arabs used flowers very extravagantly for display at their feasts, and had learned from an older world than theirs how to use scented oils and waters. Flowers decorated the table, and oils of roses and violets were indispensable for their toilet. Forcing-houses for cultivating plants were by this time also familiar to the Hellenistic and Roman garden-lovers. We hear marvellous tales about the display made by rich Arabs, as for example the son of the eye-doctor who acted as physician in ordinary to Haroun-al-Rashid. This person, who drew an income of 800,000 fr., received guests in winter in a hot-house, that was laid out as a garden in the open; and behind the tapestry hangings on the walls his slaves kept up a constant fire. Similarly we know that at Hadrian’s Villa there was a fancy for treating the rooms like gardens. Here beside the walls there were fountains, and there were water-cisterns in the middle; through the doors one had a glimpse of the flower-garden where antelopes were playing about, and in an aviary pigeons flew hither and thither: such was the reception-room of a mere private person in the time of Haroun-al-Rashid.