The Islamic Garden


Abu Uthman Ibn Luyun al-Tujibi of Almeria (1282-1349) composed in 1348 within the last years of his life a poem in simple verse,[1] which has been known to the outside world as the ‘Andalusian Georgics.’ It is in fact a masterpiece of compression, scientifically abbreviated from the best earlier sources, Muslims and non Muslim.[2] Sections on soils, water and levelling, manures and labours such as ploughing are followed by a detailed treatise on propagation of all kind and of the various categories of plants.[3] In all more than 150 species are named, over 30 of them grown for the beauty of their flowers or for their scent. Somewhat unusually for a work in verse, this is fully referenced in over 350 notes directing to the sources.[4] Ibn Luyun, thus, designs for us  the garden:

‘With regard to houses set amidst gardens and elevated site is to be recommended, both for reasons of vigilance and of layout;

and let them have a southern aspect, with the entrance at one side, and on an upper level the cistern and well,

or instead of a well have a watercourse where the water runs underneath the shade.

And if the house have two doors, greater will be the security it enjoys and easier the repose of its occupant.

Then next to the reservoir plant shrubs whose leaves to not fall and which rejoice the sight;

And, somewhat further off, arrange flowers of different kinds, and, further off still, evergreen trees,

And around the perimeter climbing vines, and in the centre of the whole enclosure a sufficiency of vines;

And under climbing vines let there be paths which surround the garden to serve as margin.

And amongst the fruit trees include the grapevine similar to a slim woman, or wood producing trees;

Afterward arrange the virgin soil for planting whatever you wish should prosper.

In the background let there be trees like the fig or any other which does no harm;

And plant any fruit tree which grows big in a confining basin so that its mature growth may  serve  as a protection against the north wind without preventing the sun from reaching [the plants].

In the centre of the garden let there be a pavilion in which to sit, and with vistas on all sides,

but of such a form that no one approaching could overhear the conversation within and whereupon none could approach undetected.

Clinging to it there be roses and myrtle, likewise all manners of plants with which a garden is adorned.

And this last should be longer than it is wide in order that the beholder’s gaze may expand in contemplation.’[5]


The shape of the Islamic garden, Lehrman informs us ‘was nearly always rectangular. It was surrounded by a wall, and an elaborate gateway gave on to a main axis often formed by a water course with one or more subsidiary axes at right angles. Channels and pools were flanked by paths and terraces, often bordered by defined areas of flowers and shrubs with trees for shade; this planting softened the man made geometry. With a pavilion or other form of building in the centre, all vistas were precisely terminated by a further pavilion, gateway, or vaulted recess. Paths were always straight and paved with bricks, stone, pebbles, or mosaic. Although the use of geometry was universal across the Islamic world, there is always a strong sense of place in the garden, with remarkable little uniformity. When sited on a gradient the garden was terraced. In the large royal gardens, especially in India , the public was received only on the lower terrace. The central terrace was private and used for formal audience; the upper terrace was reserved for women. At changes of level, water fell over cascades of carved chutes. On flat sites, channels were given a slight gradient to ensure a flow. Water  in pools and channels was always contained in a precise manner.’[6]

Hyams adds to this overall description, that ‘The beds for trees and evergreen or flowering shrubs were sunk below the level of the paths, which were always paved, pebbled or covered  with mosaic. Where any flowers at all were grown, they were planted in large earthenware pots or vases. Lawns were unknown; some gardens were paved all over except rectangular beds left uncovered for planting. Walls, balustrades, seats, the sides of fountains and all such vertical surfaces were apt to be covered with brightly coloured tiles, a practice which can be best seen today in some old Portuguese gardens such as that of the Pena palace. There were, of course, no statues in Islamic gardens, since the Qur’an forbids the making of graven images.’[7]


The courtyard and courtyard garden in Islam, and especially the Islamic garden itself, were seen to reflect both human biological and physiological needs as well as the Islamic religious principle of unity and order.[8] Design reflected both the rational and spiritual nature of the human and was expressed in a remarkable unity of concept that was reflected in gardens from southern Spain to north West India , and common to all was the same sense of order, focus on water, and spirit of serenity, yet, each site was unique, and the geometry introduced served only to enhance the genius loci.[9]

Within this sense of order, paths of Islamic gardens were never random or winding, always leading straight to some goal, perhaps a pavilion; sometimes to a view through an ornamental unglazed window in the outer wall; often to an arbour or kiosk made of wood or stone or bricks, brightly tiled, with vines trained over it. The last feature was to become known in later Spanish gardens as a glorietta.[10] The name gloriet comes from the Spanish glorieta, a translation of the Arabic ‘aziz, still surviving at the palace of la Ziza in the royal gardens at Palermo , where an inscription reads: ‘Here is the earthly paradise… this is called al-’aziz (the Glorious).’[11] This resembles the subsequent greater gardens of medieval France and Britain, the plan with a central pavilion or gloriet, surrounded by flowers, by rows of trees, and by pergola arbours covered with vines on trellis.[12]


The search for privacy, common to other aspects of Islamic life, was also found in the garden. The garden provided a calm and harmonious retreat from the noisy, turbulent and dusty world outside. The Islamic garden was therefore always enclosed, private, and protected.[13] The differences in psychology between the Muslim and European are accurately reflected in their respective garden traditions, observes Dickie.[14] The high walls of the Islamic garden prevented its owner being seen from outside and insulated him against the clamour and dirt of the antipathetic life of the streets.[15] According to  what can be learnt from excavations, indeed, the favourite kind of garden among the Muslims was the completely enclosed court garden, either shut in the buildings or high walls very like them, and 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.[16]  Muslims surrounded their gardens with very high walls and then to double the measure of privacy and degree of shade by planting trees-sometimes fruit trees, but chiefly cypresses-inside the walls.[17]

Closely related to this desire for privacy, the facades of Muslim dwellings were bare, betraying nothing of the luxury within.[18] All were pervaded by intimacy and secrecy; access was gained by a twisting passage so that the splendour of the patio should not be seen until after the second turning. [19] The buildings were simple to the extreme, made of poor quality brick or whitewashed rubblework, but the patios inside, and their secret gardens, undoubtedly contained a profusion of fruit trees and flowers.[20] This is the origin of the popular song:

‘Mine is the same condition

As the house of the Moorish king

Outside the plaster is rotting

But treasure lies hidden within.’[21]


The tall, dense and evergreen enclosure was, as always, on a rectilinear plan, and central to it was at least one canal, probably two or three parallel, and possibly a whole grid of canals so that the division of the garden was made by water.[22] Jets of water sprang from the canals and fell into them, but there would be other, more elaborate, fountains as well, often in enclosed or cloistered courts.[23] The most simple place has at least one fine fountain; the paths are very often paved with costly marble and shaded with vines; sometimes the whole court is paved, and in that case the trees are planted in great boxes or in reserve corners where earth has been left.[24] 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.[25] Besides 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. [26]  



A special feature of the Islamic gardens, little remarked upon and never generally adopted elsewhere, was their sunken flower beds.[27] In the medieval Spanish Muslim garden of the Patio de la Aceqia the flower beds were half a metre (18 inches) below the surrounding paths.[28] Dickie points out the advantage of such an arrangement.[29] When the flower blossoms were at feet level, they gave anyone walking on the paths the illusion of treading a floral carpet. At the same time such a design accentuated the geometrical form of the gardens, leaving the architectural features of the adjacent buildings clear and un-obscured by vegetation.[30] In heavy rain, the soil would not be washed on to the path, as happens with raised flower beds.[31] Harvey notes, how, indeed, the Muslim Spanish love of sunk beds beside raised paths, giving the illusion of walking on a carpet formed by the tops of plants-contrasting with northern raised beds, as Gorer suggested, may be due to the climatic need to collect or drain the rainfall.[32]


The Islamic Spanish garden also shared with the rest of Islamic gardens the same attributes of order, geometry, coolness, privacy, and a focus on water.[33] There are no large pools, and a local characteristic of large gardens was their division into small enclosures; paths were often placed above the level of vegetation resulting in an impression of walking at the level of the tops of flowers.[34] Due to hilly terrain, the plans of gardens were slightly irregular, but splendid views were offered. Enclosing walls were of stuccoed masonry, and tiles were used as facing on seats, pools, paths and steps.[35] There was great use of accessories such as benches and pots, although these may be of relatively recent vintage. Ever greens, especially citrus trees, were planted, and flowers were chosen for fragrance, and there was no grass.[36] The Muslim chronicler, Ibn Said, described the houses and gardens built by sultans and Cordoba ’s caliphs, and those of rich landowners, as can be found in many extracts of al-Maqqari, already cited.[37] This author goes on to describe the many palaces and pleasure gardens on the outskirts of Cordova, in particular, especially the one built by Al-Mansur (d.1002), on the banks of the Guadelquevir, then known as al-Zahira, which possessed a large lake covered with water lilies.[38]


The most famous of the earlier Spanish gardens was that of Madinat az-Zahra, also near Cordova, built by Caliph Abd Errahman III (r. 912-961). It was terraced on a hillside, the terraces being built of marble; its rides and walks paved with mosaics.[39] Ibn Hayyan (d.1076), relates that among the marvels, there were two fountains whose basins were of such extraordinary form and so priceless for their exquisite workmanship that, in his opinion, they constituted the principal ornament of the palace.[40] Another of the marvels of Madinat al-Zahra was the Hall of the Caliphs, which, in its centre, according to Ibn Backual, had a pond of porphyry filled with mercury. When the rays of the sun penetrated this apartment the glitter of its walls was dazzling.[41] One can well imagine the astonishment of the rough northern chieftains Sancho of Leon and Garcia of Navarre when they were made to walk the length of this series of salons.[42] Miles of clipped box, bay and myrtle hedges divided the garden into many smaller gardens, all rectilinear as was the rule; irrigation canals fed all parts of the garden and worked hundreds of fountains.[43] On these water works, al-Maqqari comments:

‘After supplying this palace, and irrigating with profusion every corner of its gardens, notwithstanding their great extent, the superabundant water went to augment the Guadelquevir, Every author we have consulted on the subject agrees in saying that this aqueduct, with the reservoir, and the figure pouring the water into it, must be considered as one of the most amazing structure ever raised by man; for if we attend to the length of it, to the unfavourable nature on the ground through which it was conducted, the magnitude and solidity of the construction, the height of the piers over which the water was made to flow, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending, we shall scarcely find among the works of ancient kings which have reached us anything to be compared to it.’[44]


Grenada , wrested last from the Muslims in 1492, has preserved most of the Islamic Spanish heritage. There are countless descriptions of such Islamic garden legacy in the city, but the most succinct description, and satisfactorily informative, is by Hyams, and is used here.[45] ‘Most famed of its Islamic heritage is the Alhambra, started in the 11th century but the finer parts of which were built from 1248 by Al-Ahmar. Of the numerous original patios or courts only four remain, but from them we can get some idea of what the whole garden was like in say, 1400, and until the re-conquest (1492). First, the court of the Myrtle consists chiefly of a long, broad pool enclosed by galleries and a colonnade on the north and south sides and by clipped myrtle which, despite the clipping, flowers deliciously. The much more famous Court of Lions into which it opens through a decorated doorway dates from about 1350, and is surrounded by a peristyle of alabaster columns supporting ‘Moorish’ arches, with a pavilion at each end of the long axis. The Lion fountain from which the name derives is central and feeds four small channels, in the manner of the channels of the Villa Adriana, which divide the area into parts now gravelled but originally occupied by shaped citrus tress and possibly by some flowers. The third court, the Court Doraxas, originally for the use of the harem ladies, is contained by walls lined with fine old cypresses and orange trees. Originally they must have been planted regularly, but time has given them a pleasingly scattered or random look. The fountain at the centre looks as if it had been restored in the Renaissance manner and can hardly be called ‘Moorish.’[46]

The making of the Generalife began later than the Alhambra but before 1300. It was built as a summer palace for the kings of Grenada . It is on seven levels, the site being a hillside. The highest terrace is the Court of the Canal, which is enclosed on three sides by buildings and on the fourth by an arcade, its name being derived from the narrow canal down the centre  of the long axis. Other features of this court are a miniature mosque, a fountain, and clipped box parterres. At a  lower level on one side is a square walled garden, the walls pierced by decorated windows commanding fine views. On the other side is the Harem court with a horse shaped canal, ancient cypresses, and oleanders, leading to the next terrace through an arched gateway by way of steps and landings ornamented with pebble mosaics. A belvedere reached by more decorated steps is above this terrace, and from it there is a novel water staircase, the water being carried down the hollow tiled balustrade. Stairs lead to the Mirador from which you have a view of the Alhambra, with the sierra in the distance.[47]

[1] J. Eguaras Ibanes: Ibn Luyun: Tratado de Agricultura (Granada; 1975), review in Garden History; V; No 2 (1977); pp. 6-8.

[2] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 44.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibn Luyyun: Kitab ibda’ al-Malaha wa-inha al-rajal fi usul sina’at al-Filaha; in Lerchundi and Simonet; Gestomatia arabigo Espanola (Grenada ; 1881); p. 136; in J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden; op cit; p. 94.

[6] J. Lehrman: Gardens ; Islam; op cit; p. 278.

[7] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening  (J.M. Dent and Sons LTD; London; 1971), p. 84.

[8] J. Lehrman: Gardens ; Islam; op cit; p. 278.

[9] Ibid.

[10] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ; op cit; p. 84.

[11] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 44.

[12] Ibid.

[13] J. Lehrman: Gardens ; Islam; op cit; p. 278.

[14] J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden in Spain; op cit; p. 105.

[15] Ibid.

[16] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art; p. 151.

[17] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ;  op cit; p. 84.

[18] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; tr E. Tanner (Antique Collectors’ Club’ Valencia ; 1973), p. 27.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ; op cit; p. 84.

[23] Ibid.

[24] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art; op cit; p. 151.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] F.R. Cowell: The Garden as a Fine Art; op cit; p. 75.

[28] Ibid.

[29] J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden in Spain; op cit; pp. 98 ff.

[30] F.R. Cowell: The Garden as a Fine Art;  Op cit; p. 75.

[31] Ibid.

[32] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 44.

[33] J. Lehrman: Gardens ; Islam; op cit; p. 279.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37]Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib.;  see also Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; p. 30.

[38] In Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib,  op cit; vol 1; p. 243.

[39] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ; op cit; p. 82.

[40] In Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib; op cit; vol i; Book iii; chapter iii; p. 236.

[41] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 30.

[42] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 30.

[43] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ;  op cit; p. 82.

[44] Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib.; in A. Thomson and M. Rahim: Islam in Andalus (Taha; London; 1996), p. 63.

[45] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens ; op cit; p. 85.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.