Impact on History


The Islamic garden impacted considerably on the subsequent history of the Western garden, and was itself to be impacted upon, but in the very reverse manner, by Western history.


The great value of Islamic botanical treatises was recognised in Christian Spain, where translations of some of them into Castilian were made as part of the great programme of scientific works initiated by Alfonso X. Of these, a substantial part of the versions of the works of Ibn Wafid and Ibn Bassal has come down to our times.[1] The Majmu fi’l Filaha (Compendium of Farming), was attributed to Ibn Wafid (Abenguefith) but in fact was a work by Al-Zahrawi, and was translated to two romance languages, Catalan[2] and Castilian.[3] This work had great influence on the ‘Renaissance’ work of agronomy, the Agricultura General of Gabiel Alonso Herrera (d. c. 1539).  The 11th century farming treatise by Ibn Bassal, which in its abridged form was published at Tetuan in 1955, was translated into Castilian in the Middle Ages.[4] The significance of these translations, and of the original scientific works produced under Alfonso the learned, lies largely in the fact that they were in vernacular, languages not in Latin .[5] There is a presumption that the users of these works were largely laymen with a direct interest in craft skills, and for such readers, the precepts of a practical gardener like Ibn Bassal, writing from his own experience, would be of real importance.[6] At a later date, we shall find comparable attempts to put practical advice into English, along the translations such as those made by John Trevisa, Henry Daniel and others at the end of the 14th century.[7]

Islamic scientific influence also travelled through clerks belonging to royal households, who moved to and fro on diplomatic missions.[8] Some served both in England and in Spain, like Geofrrey of Everseley who was in the employ of Edward I and also Edward’s brother in law, Alfonso of Castile (r. 1252-1284) in 1276-82, at the very time when the learned king was producing the scientific treatises and the Alfonsine astronomical tables which have immortalised his name.[9]


In the 12th century, the art of gardening took a most important step forward, for the whole spiritual life of the West was astonishingly uplifted.[10] We are now at the time of the crusades: the Christian soldiery beheld, in the East, gardens of a splendour beyond their wildest dreams.[11] The poets listened to their tales, and from now onward they sang of the East, which was the darling theatre for the adventurous knight errant.[12] ‘Gladly,’ says Gothein, ‘do we try to depict these distant scenes, and the tale of Herzog Ernst is pleasant enough’:

‘Near they came to a valley in a garden hall; it was very roomy, and therein stood many cedar trees rich in leafy bowers; they found two rivulets also that rose there and flowed through the grounds, winding as they pleased, and as the master had planned who made all by his skill. They found a bath, too, bright and clean, wrought of green marble, well walled in and overhung with fifty high branches; the streams were brought herein by silver channels. Much water ran out in a silver course from the thicket, and flowed around the castle, in straight or curving lines around the whole castle. All the paths were of white marble, all bridges made where men would walk.’[13]


Peaceful assimilation of ideas also went on through such channels as the medical school of Montpellier, founded by Muslim physicians and incorporated by 1221.[14] Montpellier was the northern outpost of Spanish science, for it belonged to the crown of Aragon from 1202 to 1349. Its university formed a main international link, and appropriately came to possess one of the oldest botanical gardens in France, opened by Henry IV in 1593.[15] Those started in Pisa (1543) and Padua (1545), Parma and Florence in 1545, Bologna in 1568, Leyden in 1577, Leipzig in 1580, Konigsberg in 1581, Paris (le Jardin Royal du Louvre) in 1590, Oxford in 1621 etc,[16] are regarded as the earliest in the world, which overlooks the far older gardens of Muslim botanists under the patronage of Muslim rulers.[17] In 1031 the western caliphate broke up into succession states, the most important centred on Toledo  and Seville , and at both were notable palace gardens of the sultans, maintained as scientific botanical gardens.[18] The one at Toledo was founded by Ibn Wafid (999-1075), and his colleague and successor Ibn Bassal continued working there until the Christian conquest of 1085 forced him to seek sanctuary further south where he improved the royal gardens of Seville for sultan al Mu’atamid (r. 1061-1091).[19] The most famous of these scientific collections of plants was set up a century later at Guadix by Mohammed Ibn Ali Ibn Farah for the Almohad sultan An-Nasir (r. 1199-1214).[20] Only many centuries later, as already noted, did Europe possess similar botanical gardens which acted as the same kind of medium for plant diffusion that the Islamic world had experienced in the middle ages.[21]  The comparative study of plants and the systematic introduction of exotic species with experiments in their cultivation all derive from these Muslim gardens on European soil.[22]


The Islamic garden influence is very obvious in Sicily . In Norman Sicily, the ‘baptised sultans,’ as they were called, of the Hauteville family, took over the gardens of the Muslim emirs whom they conquered; gardens which did not differ in any important particular from those of Iran , northern India  or southern Spain.[23] The suburbs of Palermo , like the Zisa, whose name derives from the Arabic al-Aziz, "the Splendid",[24] highlight the Islamic influence, which persisted even under William 1 (The Bad) (r.1154-1166), the heir to Roger II.[25] He built a number of retreats in the outskirts of Palermo, of which none were more splendid than the "Zisa," the geometric structuring of the design suggesting a relation to woven textile patterns, a frequent means of transmission of ornamental motifs during the middle ages.[26] The palaces of Emperor Frederick II disclosed a marked partiality for Muslim customs and architecture, outworks of vast extent defended their approaches, and in all of them were courts and gardens fragrant with the blossoms of jasmine and orange and surrounded by secluded apartments designed for the occupants of the imperial seraglio.[27] Attached to some of these delightful retreats were extensive menageries, aviaries, and miniature lakes filled with gold and silver fish.[28] There was no appliance of Oriental  luxury, no means which could contribute to the gratification of the senses, that was not to be found in the Sicilian palaces of Frederick II, notes Scott.[29] Although such Muslim Sicilian gardens did not survive, travelling soldier-noblemen and priests brought ideas from what they had seen in Sicily and Calabria into northern Italy, France, and even Germany.[30]



Muslim gardens, as this chapter has shown in great abundance, were grandiose, but, once more, Western literature in general, endeavoured to phase them out of history,  helped in this by the vandalism perpetrated by authorities of diverse ranks. On the first point, briefly, Marquesa de Casa Valdes  makes an important remark that:          

‘Muslim Chroniclers have left numerous descriptions of the gardens and fountains that once existed in the palace and town of Medinat al-Zahra. Recent excavations have confirmed these accounts, which had earlier seemed fanciful.’[31]

The Marquesa here highlights how Western writers on Islamic history and civilisation demean the Islamic impact, and always refer to scholars’ glorification of Islamic civilisation as exaggerated, or mere creations of fertile imaginations.


More grave is the second form of onslaught on the Islamic legacy, that is the physical vandalism:

‘Casual visitors to Spain find it difficult to believe that the magnificent villas and gardens of Muslim Spain ever existed or that they were not taken over and enjoyed by some at least of the Christians who came to occupy and rule the land,’ [observes, Cowell.][32] ‘Such notions,’ [he pursues,] ‘are misplaced because they rest upon the tacit assumption that it would have been natural for Christian victors in the holy war against the followers of Islam to have enjoyed gardens as much as the Muslims did or as most people do today. Spanish Christians were sternly forbidden some of the garden joys of the Muslims. To be able to show that anyone had washed in a pool near a mosque, as Muslims ritual required the faithful to do, might  set inquisitors to work. Such was the danger that the very name of the Court of the Pool at Grenada  had to be changed to the Court of the Myrtle Hedges. Railings and barriers were erected to shut away the charm of such Moorish garden pools that were allowed to remain, while the rigidly orthodox displayed an aversion to water that remained for too long among their less pleasant characteristics.’[33]

Hyams is even harsher, holding, that:

‘Just as they were to destroy the great civilisations of Central and South America, the Spaniards destroyed the Muslim civilisation of Andalusia.’[34]

This destruction is underlined by  Scott in a lengthy tirade, here summed up for the sake of convenience; he says:

‘In the land illuminated by his genius and enriched by his industry, the Spanish Muslim is forgotten or absolutely unknown to the majority of the people  The effects and the influence of his civilization are disputed or depreciated; his sites mutilated or entirely destroyed; his palaces transformed into ‘the squalid haunts of mendacity and vice, while the leather-clad shepherd watches his flock on the once famous site of gardens adorned with magnificent villas and beautiful with all the luxuriant and fanciful horticulture of the East. Barbaric violence has annihilated the palaces, which lined the Guadalquevir, and whose richness and beauty were the admiration of the world..’[35]

The same happened in Sicily , where, as Scott continues:

‘The unrelenting hostility of the See of Rome to everything connected with Islam may account for the total disappearance of the superb architectural monuments which history informs us abounded during Muslim rule. The sumptuous edifices which abounded in every city have disappeared or have been mutilated almost beyond recognition. Ignorance and prejudice of successive generations, in addition to the above named destructive agencies, contributing their share, and no unimportant one, to the obliteration of these memorials of Muslim ‘taste and ingenuity.’[36]


In Spain, few of the of the Muslim gardens still remain. The Muslim gardens of delight with their bright tiles, their fountains and their deep calm pools that had brought a breath of the far distant Orient to the western limits of Europe faded away.[37]

‘In their place,’ [Cowell asserts,] ‘came the glum austerity of monasticism, progressively degenerating by spiritual inbreeding and ritualistic monotony. Its nadir is to be seen in the funeral gloom of the Escorial, while in Cordoba  the great Mosque  with the remnants of courtyards and patios still contrive under the southern sun, amid the scented glory of orange blossoms and golden fruits, to recall some of the pleasant features of Islamic paradises and to stir thoughts of distant lands and ways of long ago, of muezzins and camel bells, when the caliph’s word was law from the Indian to the Atlantic ocean.’[38]

The three principal survivors of Spanish Muslim gardens are the Alhambra and the Generalife in Granada, the Alcazar in Seville ; the surviving and smaller patio de los Naranjos at Cordova mosque is older than any of these.[39] And hardly anything of Islamic origin remains of the others. Neglect of irrigation systems by the Spanish Christians led to worse things than the breakdown of ornamental waterworks: as the irrigation system failed the gardens died, and as the gardens died, the villas decayed.[40]


The fate of the patio of Orange trees (de Los Naranjos) in the Mosque  of Cordova is a very good example of such decay. This is perhaps the most ancient walled garden in the world. It was begun by Abd Errahman II about the year 776, then, Al-Mansur the ‘Victorious’ enlarged the mosque in 987-990 adding eight naves to its eastern side, so that the pond no longer lay at its centre. The Mosque’s floor plan shows the Patio of Orange Trees was designed and planted in conjunction with this final addition.[41] According to Mrs Villiers Stuart, each row of orange trees was aligned with the pillars inside the mosque and with the nineteen arches that once opened onto the garden in the Arab fashion. One can imagine moments of prayer in the mosque; the light filtering through the rows of orange trees must have formed an impressive image of seclusion and poetry. The arches have since been filled in to permit the construction of chapels, and the row of oranges are no longer aligned with the pillars inside the mosque.[42] An anonymous author, M, on a journey to Spain around the year 1700, described the Patio of Orange Trees as ‘a square garden of nearly three acres, planted with very fine large orange trees forming beautiful avenues, just as our elms do in France. This was the work of the Moors, and that country is still richly endowed with their legacy.’[43] At the beginning of the 19th century, Count Alexander Laborde wrote his Picturesque and Historical Journey through Spain, an account, which, without any doubt, is the most detailed of its kind ever published. About the garden of Cordova, he says:

‘It is a sort of raised garden over a vast cistern: the four or five feet of earth  that cover its vaults suffice to support and feed these lovely trees, among which there are orange trees thirty five or forty feet high and palm trees about sixty feet high. In the centre of this vegetation above the front of the building which forms the fourth fašade of the enclosure, rises a square windowed tower crowned with a rotunda that serves as a belfry.’[44] 

The patio has since fallen into neglect. The cistern has apparently been used as an ossuary and access to it is difficult, the hundred year old orange trees described by Laborde at the beginning of the 19th century can no longer be seen, and those that remain lack symmetry.[45]


The same can be said of the 13th century garden discovered in the Patio de la Cequia in the Generalife in 1959.[46] Although the immediate motive was to repair damage caused by the fire of 1958, the archaeologist Jesus Bermudes not only found the pavement of the Muslim paths, revealing thereby the primitive cruciform design of the garden, but, underneath the accumulated debris of almost five centuries, located the primitive level of the parterres (50 cm. below that of the paths) and even, pierced in the flanking paths of the watercourse, the outlet holes which made feasible the irrigation of the flower beds.[47] Now, for some obscure reason, other authorities have disfigured once more the Patio de la Acequia, sealing the outlet holes, burying the Muslim level under half a metre of earth and debris as before and planting once more upon this false surface the no less false plants unknown to the Muslims.[48] 


In Sicily , nearly everything Islamic is gone today, and late medieval travellers in the 14th century, such as Alberti and Fazello, could find only poor remains, which were strung round the city of Palermo , like a ‘necklace of a fair lady’s neck.’[49] Alberti does describe the Villa la Ziza, which is still standing, but so completely rebuilt that one can scarcely find the court with the fountain that he admired so much.[50] The whole of the house floor is traversed by a stream, with a fine decorated hall above it two storeys and a vaulted roof. In front of the hall, Alberti saw a wonderful fish pond, into which streamed the fountain water, and the middle of it was a good kiosk, attached by a bridge to the land.[51]

Another Arab villa, which lay between Palermo  and Montreale, is mentioned by Bocaccio in the sixth tale of the fifth day, calling it Cuba, from Arabic Kubba or domed pavilion.[52] Traces of an important orchard, about two thousand feet long, have been preserved:

‘There was a splendid garden,’ [says the 14th century Italian traveller, Fazello, following older accounts,] ‘with all possible combinations of trees, ever flowing waters, and bushes of laurel and myrtle. From entrance to exit there ran a long colonnade with many vaulted pavilions for the king to take his pleasure in. One of these is still to be seen. In the middle of the garden is a large fish pond, built of freestone, and beside it the lofty castle of the king.’[53]

Hardly anything resembling such late medieval descriptions can be seen today.


[1] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; pp. 43-4.

[2] The medieval Catalan version can be found in the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris; Number 93 by A. Morel Fatio, Catalogue des manuscrits espagnols et des manuscrits Portugais (Paris, 1982), pp. 332-3.   

[3] Text in Castilian edited by J.M.  Millas Vallicrosa: La traduccion castellana del Tratado de Agricultura’ de Ibn Wafid; Al-Andalus ; 8 (1943), pp. 281-332.

[4] R. B. Serjeant: Agriculture and Horticulture: Some cultural interchanges of the medieval Arabs and Europe; in Convegno Internationale: Oriente e occidente Nel Medioevo Filosofia E Scienze; Aprile 1969 (Academia Nationale Dei Lincei; Roma; 1971), pp. 535-41. p. 540.

[5] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; pp. 43-4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid; pp. 42-3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art;  op cit; p. 190.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 40.

[15] Ibid.

[16] See: A. Chiarugi: Le date di fondazione dei primi orti botanici del mondo,’ Nuovo giornale botanico italiano new ser. LX (1953) 785-839; A.W. Hill: The History and function of botanical gardens; Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden; II (1915) 185-240; 195 fwd; F. Philippi: Los jardines botanicos (Santiago de Chile; 1878), etc.

[17] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; op cit; p. 40.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A. Watson: Agricultural; op cit;  chap 22. 

[20] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; p. 40.

[21] A. Watson: Agricultural, op cit, chap 22. 

[22] J. Harvey: Medieval Gardens ; p. 40.

[23] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ; op cit; pp. 91-2.

[24] J. D. Breckenridge: The Two Sicilies; in Islam and the Medieval West; S. Ferber Editor (State University of New York; 1975), pp 39-59; at p. 55.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; vol 3; p. 51.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ; op cit; pp. 91-2.

[31] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 28.

[32] F.R. Cowell: The Garden as a Fine Art; op cit; p. 76.

[33] Ibid.

[34] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ; op cit; p. 84.

[35] S.P. Scott: History; op cit;  Vol II; pp. 537; 553; 557-8.

[36] Ibid.

[37] F.R. Cowell: The Garden as a Fine Art; op cit;  pp. 76-7.

[38] Ibid.

[39] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ; op cit; p. 85.

[40] Ibid; p. 84.

[41] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 27.

[42] Ibid; p. 28.

[43] Anonymous M: Viajes; Ed Aguilar (Madrid; 1952), vol iii; p. 97.

[44] A. Laborde: Voyage en Espagne; Revue Hispanique (Paris; 1925); ed. Fouche Delbose; p. 491.

[45] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 28.

[46]  J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden; op cit; p. 98.

[47] El-Generalife depues del incendio de 1958,’ Cuadernos de la Alhambra; I (1965); pp. 9-39.

[48] J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden; op cit; p. 98.

[49] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art; op cit; p. 159.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid; pp. 159-60.

[52] Ibid; p. 160.

[53] Ibid.