The Landscape Guide

Islamic garden design

It is a characteristic of Asiatic art that, in spite of enormous changes and revolutions among the nations, it remained strong enough always to rise again and become re-established. Nations and nationalities might change, but the tradition of art was never really broken. The Arabian writer Ibn Chaldun (fourteenth century) is perfectly correct in what he says of the superiority of the East. “ In the Orient,” he writes, “ the arts had time to strike deep root in a long succession of centuries under different rulers, Persians, Nabatæans, Copts, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, and others. All the habits and tastes of a sedentary people’s life—habits of which art forms but one part—were completely established in these countries, and the traces they left behind will never be obliterated.” Among all stay-at-home arts gardening stands supreme, and it was quick to receive the soothing effect of Eastern tradition. One nation stepped directly into another’s foot-steps, took a lesson, and added what was already its own. The love of a garden is clearly born in Orientals, as is abundantly shown by their history; and a great part of their life is spent there. The enormous riches collected in the hands of a few persons made it possible, with the aid of architect and gardener, to procure the satisfaction of their every wish.

All this was learned by the Arabs, those wandering sons of Islam and the desert, when they came to the land of Eastern conquerors, who were so soon to be conquered. Scarcely ever has a people shown such aptitude for adopting foreign civilisation, and setting a common stamp on every art. In Damascus they were pupils of Byzantine art, in Bagdad of Persian. In Northern Africa and Spain they found the teaching of Rome and later Hellenism; and wherever they were pupils they quickly became lords and masters. From the very beginning they felt great interest in horticulture, and in the Residence towns, which grew up with amazing rapidity under every new dynasty, the caliphs took the greatest care from the first to increase the fertility of the soil by a water system on a large scale, and also to convert the country places round into gardens, and then to settle wealthy owners there.

We can trace this sort of activity very clearly in Samaria, that marvellous town whose whole time for building was only about forty years (836—876), and which in that short period grew up out of nothing at all, so that in the tenth century its size was amazing and incredible to strangers. Its founder was Mu’tasim (a son of Haroun-al-Rashid), whose first care was to conduct water from the Tigris by canals. He entrusted the cultivation of a piece of land to each of his prefects, and trees such as date palms, also vines and many other things, were imported from Basra and Bagdad. As there was so much water at hand, everything prospered on the virgin soil. The geographer Ja’kubi, writing about Samaria in the year 889, says: “The country places were converted by Mu’tasim into houses for the upper class. In every garden there had to be a villa, and therewith halls, ponds, and playgrounds, for riding and the game of ball,” (The Persian polo was only lately known to the Arabs, but by this time no large house was complete without a play- ground.) The estates did extremely well, and rich people were eager to buy land, so that the price rose high.

A number of Islamic palaces with gardens sprang up, with a row of finely ornamented private houses near them. Then, to add to the marvellous, fairy-like character of the place, Mutawakkil, the son of Mu’tasim, made a second wonderful town to the north. It rose up in one year, was inhabited also for one year, and then, after the caliph had been murdered by his son, completely forsaken; and yet there was built in this place a palace whose area covered one and a third square kilometres—almost thirty-five times the size of Diocletian's palace at Spalato. A palace like this is entered by wide courts (Fig. 106),

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which are no doubt paved, and ornamented with flowering plants in pots in the ordinary Oriental fashion. One would walk through these garden courts before arriving at the state-rooms, and as a rule only after passing the master's own part. On both sides were the servants’ apartments, and the storerooms, and very often other large places, possibly tree-gardens and courts for games.

The chief palace generally looked towards the river and often had large gardens in front. Such is the picture of the palace of the successors to the throne—the only one unearthed at present, and that imperfect—to the south of the town, the Balkuwara. Its most striking feature is the strict axial plan, which makes it possible to get a view on every side by help of the raised site of the chief palace. The garden on the river side is enclosed by a wall, with pillars that end on the bank with finely decorated pavilions. At the very extremity is a harbour for boats—an arrangement that calls to mind the palace of Tel-el-Amarna. In the middle is a kind of pond or large basin.

The same axial arrangement appears in the palace of the caliphs, which is in the centre, so far as the very superficial excavations allow us to judge (Fig. 107).


Here, too, both the palace and its courts stand above the high river-bank as on a prominent platform, which may possibly be a garden. Farther inland one passes through an immense door into a great ornamental garden court, which is watered from a basin in the centre by means of a long canal. At the end there is a sort of grotto, with a basin in front of it, but its significance is obscure. Behind and crosswise to the main line is yet another enclosure, perhaps meant for the ball game—an arrangement that makes one think of the Byzantine Mesokepion. By the side of the garden is a large round place deeply dug, possibly for an arena) possibly for a large tank. All the pictures, and all the attempts at reconstruction (including the one given here), are purely hypothetical; but descriptions of other gardens are helpful for colour and form.

Even when there is a better supply of information from literary sources, as for Bagdad gardens, it is difficult to distinguish between the influence of Hellenistic and Sassanid art. The straightness of the main lines of plan and site is here, as at Byzantium, very like the Western style, whereas the ornament in plantation, water devices, and fountains, points to Asiatic influence. Bagdad was the residence of Islam's Commander of the Faithful for nearly five hundred years, with the sole exception of the period of less than fifty years at Samaria. By reason of its favoured situation, it has maintained its importance, in spite of having been destroyed by Mongols in 1270, and notwithstanding many subsequent disasters. Immediately after the Residence had been removed back from Samaria to Bagdad, a great time of building began. The enormous array of the caliphs’ palaces sprang up on the east bank of the river, and practically created a town of their own, with their many edifices and gardens, all included in an encircling wall.

A certain favourite of Haroun-al-Rashid, much addicted to wine and to poetry, made for his own use an extraordinarily handsome country place, at a little distance from the town, which later on he presented to the caliph’s son, who added a maidan (racecourse), and a park for wild beasts. After the return of the caliphs from Samaria this place was greatly enlarged and built upon, so that certain Byzantine ambassadors, visiting the court of Bagdad in the year 917 (A.H. 305), reported that the number of palaces had increased to twenty-three. Among them the most conspicuous were the House of the Crown, called the Taj Palace, the Palace of Paradise, and the Hasani Villa, the oldest of all. They were all surrounded by one wall, and the Palace of the Pleiades was united to the chief palace by an underground passage three kilometres long.

Every individual palace had its own separate encircling wall. It very often happened that disagreeable near relations were shut up in a palace of this sort, as it might be in a kind of state prison. There they could enjoy the fine situation, and had any number of servants, but on pain of death they might not show themselves outside the walls. In such a way the Palace of the Tree was used for a long period. The gardens of the palaces reached down to the River Tigris, and from its farther bank the old town looked down from the west with its domes and its palaces. The Byzantine ambassadors were amazed at the magnificence of what they saw. First they passed through marble halls and corridors at the so-called Riding House, beside which was a great animal park, with special houses. Various wild beasts were kept there: elephants, lions, giraffes, leopards. These were sufficiently tamed to eat out of a visitor’s hand.

One of the most famous places of that day was built by the reigning prince Muk’tãdõr, and named the House of the Tree. It stood in the midst of lovely gardens, and took its name from a tree made of gold and silver, standing in the centre of a great round pond in front of the large room of the palace, between the trees in its garden. This tree had eighteen boughs of gold and silver, and innumerable branches covered with all sorts of fruits that were really precious stones. On the branches sat birds’ which were made of gold and silver, and when a breeze passed through, they whistled and sighed in a wonderful way. At the side of the palace, right and left of the pond, were sculptures of fifteen knights on fifteen steeds, dressed in silks and brocades and girt with swords: in their hands they carried lances, and they were able to move forward in a line, so that it looked as though each knight was trying to hit his neighbour. Here we see how the fancy for mechanical imitations of nature has gone on as far as to include human beings. The golden tree and its singing birds were no longer a novelty to the Byzantine legates, and the caliph was only in his magnificent way extending a far-spread Asiatic custom. Wherever there was a fine garden court, there was bound to be an artificial tree. The Sicilian poet Ibn Hamdis describes a similar one made of precious metal and with singing birds.

After the House of the Tree, the thing that most interested ambassadors to the Islamic court was the new, or modern, so-called Kiosk. This word (gausak = kiosk) means a pleasure-house with its gardens. In certain cases the kiosk might be strong enough to serve as a defence at need for the caliphs, and for a considerable time. This "New Kiosk" had a fine garden round it. In the middle was a tank lined or filled with pewter, at that time more costly than silver, and a canal treated in the same material. The basin was thirty yards long, and twenty wide, and beside it were four grand summer-houses, their seats made of gold. All round were gardens, wherein grew 700 dwarf palms, each about eight feet high. The trunks of the trees were entirely covered with pieces of teak-wood, held in place by gilded copper rings. These palms bore large dates, and were so trained that ripe fruit was always there, In the beds were melons and other fruits. Palms set the stamp of the desert, so to speak, on all these gardens, since for the Arab they were the venerated trees of his true home, and gave him, all in one, his cool shade, his repose, and the beauties of the natural world. And so he took the palm wherever he went, and did a great deal towards naturalising it in the West. Apparently its stem was thought ugly, for we often hear that in rich men’s gardens it was dressed in some costly covering.

There is a similar garden at the castle of the Tulunids at Cairo, laid out by the Sultan Rhumarawaih on a racecourse of his father’s. Here too there were dwarf palms, whose fruit, mostly dates, could be reached and picked by anyone standing up, or even sitting. These trunks also were covered with gilded copper finely wrought. Between the copper and the trunk leaden pipes were introduced from which water was thrown upward. The concealed water appeared to come straight out of the palm branches, whence it was received in a fine basin and was then conducted by canals all through the garden. This may perhaps be the original model for artificial fountain trees, just as the other was for the little trees that were so popular later on all over Asia. There were sweet-smelling plants and all manner of roses in this garden, also oddly-grafted trees. The Arabs liked artificial culture: different fruits on one tree. Different grapes on one vine they thought specially pleasing. They liked to have flowers of unnatural colours, and to graft a rose upon an almond-tree.

All these things were to be seen in the Tulunid garden; moreover they planted saffron and other plants. Their gardeners cut plants into various figures, as well as the shapes of letters, and this had to be kept up regularly, lest a single leaf should stick out. We need not speak of the marvellous foreign importations that the sultan brought. A tower was made in open-work teak, to serve as a bird-cage, painted in many colours, with raved floors, and little streams purling. The garden, plants, and animals were all watered with well-sweeps, like the Egyptian ones used in the gardens of the Pharaohs. The birds, which filled this house with their sweet songs, not only found baths and food there, but also their nests, in pretty coloured pots prepared for them and let into the walls. There were also peacocks and fowls, and various wild creatures in great numbers running loose. Near this ornate bird-dwelling there was another house to live in, called the Gold House. Its walls were gilded, with inlay of lapis lazuli, and on them were curious figures, with realistic clothing and ornaments. In this living-room was a large tank, answering to the one at Bagdad that was filled with pewter, but this was filled with quicksilver, more valuable still; its rocking movement was meant to soothe and rest the sultan, who suffered from sleeplessness, and accordingly he had his bed put upon it.

Another Islamic North-African garden was unearthed near Tunis, It was of the seventeenth century, and had an immense four-cornered basin, into which water “poured down steep as a wall,” At either end was a grand pavilion, standing on pillars of marble and mosaic. Other basins, kiosks, and tall shady trees made this dwelling the favourite haunt of the sultan.

In Arabian texts we get a great deal of detail; the lingering over curiosities and beautiful stuffs produces the feeling of romance very strongly, but there is no real grasp of the whole. To get an idea of colour and size, when there is such a poor supply of pictures to help the eye, we have to depend on examples of an earlier period—on Egyptian garden pictures, which give us straight avenues of palms, broken by basins and pavilions, or on the villas of Pliny with their xystus, figures and floral inscriptions and rows of dwarf trees, on Persian parks alive with beasts, and with little garden pavilions mirrored in water, on Byzantine marvels of irrigation, on the court-gardens of Pompeii; for it is out of all these things that the Arab garden has grown, and on all of them it throws, in return, some light of explanation.

The Roman-Hellenistic influence, always active, is evidenced anew in information about particular spots, preserved, one might say, by mere chance. In a story in the Thousand and One Nights a garden is described, shut in by a wall which is painted with all kinds of pictures; as for example two knights fighting, with pedestrians near by, and also birds. It is highly probable that we have in this story a place showing landscape and accessories as they are found in many Roman villas. It is certain that the tales are not mere inventions, from the confirmation given by the latest diggings at Samaria, for here have been found in private houses many frescoes that give human and bird pictures, and not only ornamental ones. There is unquestionably some Hellenistic influence, and yet it remains a surprising fact that Islam was not in every age hostile to pictorial art.