The Place of Water


Water  played the most significant role in Islamic gardens just as it did in every aspect of early Islamic society. Early Muslims (8th-13th centuries) developed a whole legal system around water, even water tribunals.[1] This particular matter will be highlighted  in the chapter on agriculture. The importance of water is further highlighted by the fact that all of Muslim treatises on agriculture, whether Maghribi, Andalusian, Egyptian, Iraqi, Persian or Yemenite, Bolens points out, insist meticulously on the deployment of equipment and on the control of water.[2] A whole science also grew around water, and nearly all sciences evolved around this resource. The engineers, whether Al-Jazari, or the Banu Musa, who will be looked at in great length further on, built machines and mechanisms all related to water; Al-Zarqali built his complex Toledo  Clock also around water; Qaysar the Syrian built huge water wheels on the Orontes; and water wheels and water power drove Islamic factories and mills.[3] Civil engineers excelled at dam construction, some dams in parts of Spain still working to this day, nearly twelve centuries after they were completed.[4] In Tunisia , one of the most endearing engineering accomplishments is the Basin of the Aghlabids , an ensemble of reservoirs near Al-Qayrawan  dating from the 9th century.[5] Geographers and travellers of Islam all focused their minds on water and all that was related to it. So did historians of Islam, and of course poets, and story tellers.[6] Mathematicians, too, gave great interest to the subject of water, their geometry, for instance, easing operations of storage, flow, and efficient use of the resource. The Moroccan Ibn al Banna’s Tanbih al-albab studies the calculation of drop irrigation canals.[7]


The place of water in gardens and gardening was, equally, central. ‘Without water the fruit gardens, which in the Arab consciousness are the gardens of paradise, could not survive,’ says Lapidus.[8]  ‘Water , principally, we cannot imagine a beautiful Islamic garden doing without,’ also says Marcais.[9] In gardens, just as in courtyards of buildings of a religious nature, water was regarded as a symbol of purity, and since paradise overflowed with water, tanks in mosques and theological colleges were filled to the brim.[10]


And the faith, once more, was the greatest of all inspirations. Qura’nic descriptions of Paradise put great stress on the presence of moisture and water, ‘equally as or even more important than the soil,’ Dickie reminds.[11] The Qur’an says of the believers:

‘Theirs shall be gardens of Eden, underneath which rivers flow.’ (18: 30.)

‘And for those who believe and do righteous works, We will cause them to enter gardens underneath which rivers flow, to dwell therein eternally: they shall have purified companions, and We will cause them to enter abundant shade.’ (4: 57).

Indeed, one can understand neither the Islamic garden nor the attitude of the Muslim toward his garden until one realises that the terrestrial garden is considered a reflection or rather an anticipation of Paradise.[12] 

It is a state of blessedness that is promised in the Qur’an as reward to the faithful; reference is made to ‘spreading shade;’ ‘fruits and fountains, and pomegranates;’ ‘fountains of running water;’ and ‘cool pavilions’. For believers who perform righteous acts, the Qur’an promises that the ‘ Gardens  of paradise shall be their hospitality, therein to dwell forever, desiring no removal from them.’[13]

Shade and water as an antidote to the aridity, heat and death of the desert were the first requirements. When gardens were made into a paradise on earth, they became a foretaste of the paradise to come after death.[14] ‘May rain clouds water his grave ad revive it and may the moist garden carry to him its fresh perfume,’ is, says Dickie, an Arab funerary inscription. It perpetuates the sensate outlook of the Arabs who, already in the 11th century, sought in their gardens a voluptuous gratification of the senses from their shade, water and scents.[15]


The gentle trickle of water, in the hot summers of the Islamic land, most particularly, invites contemplation without and within. At the Lion Court in Alhambra (Grenada ), nearly all the main rooms of the palace had water running through them in a marble groove in the floor, and the garden of the Generalife, the summer palace, is typical of the love of gardens with walks and fountains, all arranged in close relation to the living quarters.[16] ‘With the constantly renewed trees and flowers and the flowing and bubbling of its water, the Generalife evokes, even more than the Alhambra, the private life of the Nasrid princes. And the architects of Grenada have never surpassed this perfect alliance of gardens, water, landscape, and architecture, which was ‘their supreme aim, and sets the seal upon their art,’ says Terrace.[17] Elsewhere, in Cordova, some of the gardens had tempting names, which seem to invite one to repose beside the trickling waters and enjoy the sweet scent of the flowers and fruit.[18] The ‘Garden of the Water  Wheel’ gives one a sense of lazy enjoyment, listening to the monotonous creaking of the wheel that pumped up the water to the level of the garden beds; and the ‘Meadow of Murmuring Waters’ must have been an entrancing spot for the people of Cordova in the hot weather, notes Lane Poole.[19] In Toledo , King al-Mamun (r. 1043-1073) was known as ‘the great garden lover,’[20] and his garden had a pavilion called Majlis an-Naura, which raised water from the Tajo to supply elegant fountains in which lions spouted water.[21] In the chronicle of al-Maqqari, Ibn Badrun relates that:

‘King al-Mamun of Toledo  ordered the construction of a lake, in whose centre stood a crystal pavilion; water was lifted to its roof, and from there it ran down to all sides, like artificial rain, into the water below. The pavilion was thus enclosed in a mantle of limpid water which, being constantly renewed, was also fresh, and Al-Mamun could sit inside without being touched by the water.’[22]

In the middle of the pond, he had a mechanical device set up that threw the water high into the air, so that it fell down again all over the sides of the pavilion. The caliph was able, thus, to sit in a cool place with water all around him, even by lamplight.[23]


Throughout the Islamic world, fountains, cascades, channels and pools provided a great variety of sights and sounds, and water could be made deep, dark, and tranquil, or swiftly flowing and scintillating.[24] Edges of fountains and pools were often carved in stone or marble, whilst at night, candles were set on tiny rafts to reflect in the still water of pools, or glowing lamps were placed behind glistening cascades in carved niches which during the day contained flower vases.[25] The Tulunid Sultan Rhumarawaih, in his garden, had many dwarf palms, whose fruit, could be reached and picked by anyone standing up, or even sitting.[26] Their trunks were covered with gilded copper finely wrought, between the copper and the trunk leaden pipes were introduced from which water was thrown upward.[27] 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, which, Gothein notes, may perhaps be the original model for artificial fountain trees.[28]

In Muslim India , the Mughal garden of Shah Jahan’s Shalamar in Lahore exhibited:

‘Sheets of cool, quiet water contrasted with shawls of fast running white water thrown over chadars; deep throated marble chutes sometimes inlaid with coloured marble. The play of water in countless fountains caused the light to sparkle and covered the surface with ripples. And at night, tiny oil lamps set in marble niches sparkled from behind cascades, while flickering lights were reflected from tiny boats floating across the dark water.’[29]

In a 17th century garden in Tunis , there was 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.[30]


Water  works also symbolised the other dominant feature of early Islamic civilisation, its boldness and confidence, its faith in the grandiose and daring. For instance at Samarra, where impressive architecture was greened by a multitude of gardens, and water occupied the central place, and on a vast scale, erupting out of the barrenness of the desert. The city’s founder, Caliph Mu’tasim’s (r. 836-876) first concern was to conduct water from the Tigris by canals.[31] He had trees imported from other parts, and as there was so much water at hand, everything flourished, the geographer Al-Yaqubi in the year 889, saying how in every garden there had to be a villa, and therewith halls, ponds, and playgrounds for riding and the game of ball.[32] Mu’tasim’s son, al-Mutawakkil, built a palace, entered by wide courts, no doubt paved, and ornamented with flowering plants in pots. The chief palace looked towards the river and had a large garden in front. One of the palaces had a garden on the river side and was enclosed by a wall, with pillars that end on the bank with finely decorated pavilions,  and at every extremity is a harbour  for boats.[33] The caliph’s palace and its courts stood above the high river bank as on a prominent platform, which may possibly be a garden, and further 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.[34] At the end there is a sort of grotto, with a basin in front of it, behind and crosswise to the main line is yet another enclosure. By the side of the garden is a large round place deeply dug, possibly for an arena, possibly for a large tank.[35]

The same grand designs were found in Spain. In the neighbourhood of Cordova, Caliph Abd Errahman built a new town, Az-Zahra, the Flower, and again, on a huge scale. The whole plan was a of terrace formation, lowest of all were extensive gardens, orchards, aviaries, and cages for animals, all confined within their own borders.[36] The lovely view of the garden was particularly famed, the finest part of all being the a golden hall and vaulted pavilion; and here again there was a cistern of quicksilver.[37] A great number of fountains and artificial ponds adorned the gardens and the rooms. Very remarkable was the green cistern in the Caliph’s bedroom, adorned with many gilded animals, water gushing out of their mouths.[38]


Great designs demanded a high degree of engineering skills. Water  was often led from its source along a canal, aqueduct, or pipe to a tank, cistern, or public fountain.[39] The walled Agdal gardens of Marrakech  (under Almohad rule) stretched for two miles south of the Casbah, and were irrigated by water brought from far in the mountain.[40] The Almohad ruler Abd al-Mumin built the royal palaces in the city of Marrakech, and one of his gardens is said to have been six miles long and to have contained huge water reservoirs.[41] In gardens and courtyards water was often lifted to a high storage tank to provide a head for the fountains; subsequently it was led to flower beds, kitchen gardens, or fields.[42] In general, gardens within the urban boundaries were irrigated by means of canals led off the watercourses, or, when there were only wells, by means of simple channels leading from basins filled with water by means of norias (large water wheels), or simpler water raising contrivances.[43] An instance is the Palace of Galiana situated in the valley of Toledo  on the banks of the Tagus, where remnants of the device used by the Muslims to draw the water from the river still stand, now restored.[44] Al-Idrisi tells us in his Description of Spain:

‘The gardens surrounding Toledo  are irrigated by canals over which water wheels have been erected to carry water to the vegetable gardens. These produce remarkable quantities of unusually beautiful and delicious fruit. On all sides lovely estates and castles can be admired.’[45]

Andrea Navagero, the ambassador sent from Venice in 1526, confirms these descriptions of the Palace of Galiana:

‘The Tagus rises in Aragon, not far from Catalayud, where it is said Bilbilis, the birthplace of Martial, once stood. Before it reaches Toledo , the river flows through a plain called Huerta del Rey (King’s Orchard) which is watered by norias, wheels invented by the Arabs to draw water from the river. Because of this, the plain is covered by trees and bears much fruit, and the whole of it is cultivated and divided into orchards. They supply the town with vegetables, especially cardoons,  carrots and egg-plant, which are much in demand here. In this plain there is an old ruined palace called Galiana. Galiana was the daughter of a Moorish king… the ruins show the palace to have been very fair and its site most peaceful.’[46]

In the garden of the Alcazar of Cordova, according to Al-Maqqari, was a water jet of surprising strength, attaining a height never before seen in east or west.[47] The Muslims,  as De Casa Valdes reminds us, being the first to construct such vertical water spouts.[48] At Madinat az-Zahra, in Muslim times, the water was so balanced in the complex of lead pipes that the play of every jet was dependent on the play of every other jet, and manipulation of a single valve could alter the water patterns of the whole systems.[49]


Just as their care for water promoted engineering skills, efforts by Muslims to re-create their earthly paradises gave rise  to a rich botanical literature.


[1] S.P. Scott: History; op cit;  vol 3; pp 602-3.

[2] L. Bolens: L'Eau et l'Irrigation d'apres les traites d'agronomie Andalus au Moyen Age (XI-XIIem siecles), Options Mediterraneenes, 16 (Dec, 1972)., p. 451.

[3] For all these points, see, for instance:

D.R. Hill: Islamic Science and Engineering (Edinburgh University Press, 1993).

[4] See for instance:

-N. Smith: A History of Dams  (The Chaucer Press, London,1971).

-A. Pacey: Technology  in World Civilization, a Thousand Year History (The MIT Press, Cambridge, 1990).

[5] A. Solignac: Recherches sur les installations hydrauliques de kairaouan et des Steppes Tunisiennes du VII au Xiem siecle, in Annales de l’Institut des Etudes Orientales, Algiers , X (1952); 5-273.

[6] Al-Muqaddasi: Ahsan at-taqasim; op cit.

Ibn Battuta : Voyages d'Ibn Battuta, Arabic text accompanied by French translation by C. Defremery and B.R. Sanguinetti, preface and notes by Vincent Monteil, I-IV (Paris, 1968, reprint of the 1854 ed).

[7] A Djebbar: Mathematics in medieval Maghreb; AMUCHMA-Newsletter 15; Universidade Pedagógica (UP), (Maputo Mozambique, 15.9.1995).

[8] I. Lapidus: Muslim Cities; op cit; p. 70.

[9] G. Marcais: Les Jardins; op cit; p. 234.

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

[11] J. Dickie: Rauda, in The Dictionary of the Middle Ages; vol 10; pp. 261-2.

[12] J. Dickie: The Islamic Garden in Spain; op cit; p. 90.

[13] J. Lehrman: Gardens ; Islam; op cit; p. 277.

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

[15] Ibid.

[16] F.B. Artz: The Mind; op cit; p. 173.

[17] H. Terrasse: Gharnata; in Encyclopaedia of Islam; op cit; vol 2; p. 1019.

[18] S. Lane-Poole: The Moors in Spain (Fisher Unwin; London; 1888), pp. 132-3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] G.S. Colin: Filaha; Encyclopaedia of Islam: New edition (Leiden; 1986), Vol 2, p. 901.

[21] T. Glick: Islamic; op cit; p. 237.

[22] In Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib, op cit; vol 2; Book vii; chapter v; p. 263.

[23] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art; op cit; p. 153.

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

[25] Ibid.

[26] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art;  op cit; pp. 149-50.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[30] M.L. Gothein: A History of Garden Art;  op cit; pp. 150.

[31] Ibid; pp. 146-8.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid; p. 152.

[37] Ibid; p. 152.

[38] Ibid; p. 152.

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

[40] M. Brett: Marrakech  in  Dictionary of the Middle Ages; op cit; vol 8;  pp 150-1.

[41] R. Landau: Morocco  (Elek Books Ltd, London 1967), p.81.

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

[43] Editor: Irrigation in North Africa  and Muslim Spain; Encyclopaedia of Islam; under Ma’a; vol 5; p. 877.

[44] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; op cit; p. 25.

[45] Al-Idrisi: Viajes de extranjeros por Espana y Portugal, compiled by J. Garcia Mercada; ed. Aguilar (Madrid; 1952), vol 1; p. 192.

[46] Navagero: Viaje por Espana; in Viajes de extranjos  por Espana; op cit; p. vol 1; p. 845.

[47] Al-Maqqari: Nafh Al-Tib; op cit; vol 1; p. 208.

[48] Marquesa de Casa Valdes: Spanish Gardens ; p. 30.

[49] E. Hyams: A History of Gardens  and Gardening ;  op cit; p. 82.