Islamic art emerged as a manifestation of religion: singing and music, sculpture and architecture, poetry and prose, all have their genesis in the religious life of man. Islam not only fostered these artistic talents but also influenced their direction. Fearing that man might lapse into his old habits of attributing to statues heavenly authority, it prohibited the portraying of live objects in stone and even, according to some scholars, on canvas. The development of Muslim art, therefore, followed a different direction from that of its Western counterpart. The visual expression of beauty was manifested in geometrical designs of an exceptionally beautiful and intricate nature. It was also manifested in magnificent Islamic buildings that have influenced the development of architecture throughout the world. Calligraphy was a rich substitute for pictures and drawing as known in the West.
Another aspect of Muslim culture is the art of landscaping and gardening. Just as Muslim architecture is unique, so is Muslim gardening and landscaping. Muslim building emphasizes light and space, the Muslim garden celebrates the sound of water flowing from various directions, and shrubs and trees are scattered with studied carelessness to beautify nature without violating it, to emphasize its spirit rather than suppress it. It is this spirit of harmony with nature that is the most obvious characteristic of the Muslim garden.
Islamic gardens were fully sensory environments, delighting the eyes, nose, ears,” Dr Dede Fairchild Ruggles says. “The fleeting sensations made by a fountain’s spray or the scent of a rose do not last in the body or in the garden — both living entities — but they leave traces in poetry, visual images and architecture.”
These are Dr Ruggles’ notes on Islamic gardens for Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, an exhibition held at the Alhambra and the Met in 1992.
The Alhambra gardens represent the culmination of a long line of gardens and garden estates that began in Cordoba in the middle of the eighth century with the founding of al-Rusafa by the first Umayyad ruler of al-Andalus. Such estates, in which agricultural enterprise was combined with the cultivation of nature for the sake of its beauty, proliferated throughout the 9th and 10th centuries, and the Umayyad kingdom of al-Andalus reaped the benefits of their fruitfulness.
The Umayyad gardens were representations of landscape as well as actual landscape – essential parts of the surrounding environment. On the one hand, the garden was acted upon by that environment, for gardens are shaped by current agricultural technique, plant species, soil, water, and climate. On the other hand, the environment was acted upon by the garden, for the increase in available cultivars and botanical knowledge in the first two centuries of Umayyad rule in al-Andalus was facilitated by royal patronage and gardens, which were repositories for exotic plant species and testing grounds for new techniques that in turn stimulated agricultural expansion into hitherto unarable areas.
The earliest recorded mention of the acquisition and deliberate transplantation of exotic plants into Andalusian soil is in a reference to the palace of al-Rusafa, named after one outside Damascus built by the grandfather of Abd al-Rahman I, where he had been brought up. Dating to the beginning of Abd al-Rahman I’s reign (756-788) and built three kilometres northwest of Córdoba in the area known even today as Arruzafa, al-Rusafa was the first garden state in al-Andalus. The historian Ibn Said praised its beautiful irrigated gardens, saying that Abd al-Rahman had sent a messenger to foreign parts in order to obtain special plants, so that “al-Rusafa became famous for the excellence of its plant varieties”. Among the introduced plants were the date palm and the pomegranate, the latter now being the emblem (if not the source of the name) of Granada.
Al-Rusafa contained within its extensive gardened grounds a superior pomegranate that had been sent especially from Syria by Abd al-Rahman’s sister. The courtier Safar planted its seeds in an experimental garden near Malaga and, when the young tree grew and bore fruit, he brought the pomegranates to Abd al-Rahman. Ibn Said noted: “The Emir admired his discovery, appreciated his efforts, thanked him for the work he had done, and recompensed him generously. He then planted that pomegranate in al-Rusafa and in his other gardens. That pomegranate species spread and the people planted groves of them.” This is the first reference to a botanical garden in al-Andalus where exotic species could be cultivated in a controlled manner and acclimatized. It not only demonstrates the precocious interest in botany and practical agronomy that existed in the eighth century, but also indicates that royal patronage promoted the spread of improved plant species.
The concept of the garden continued to develop in Córdoba for the next two centuries, a particularly important expression of which was realized in the palace city of Madinat al-Zahra. Al-Zahra emerged from the Córdoban tradition of building farm and recreation estates in the agricultural zone surrounding the city, yet it was an architectural type new to al-Andalus. Like al-Rusafa, Madinat al-Zahra was built well apart from Cordoba in a landscape made green and fertile through the introduction of water from the mountains for irrigation and through the planting of gardens and orchards for both enjoyment and profit. However, Madinat al-Zahra was larger and more architecturally complex than previous estates, for it unified the typology of the Córdoban garden estate with the sophisticated palace architecture of the Abbasid court in Samarra in Iraq, which was more cosmopolitan than that of the Umayyads.
Madinat al-Zahra was built in a series of stepped levels cut into the southern slope of a mountain, the highest level being roughly sixty meters above the lowest. Because of the site’s steep incline, the elevated position of the upper structures afforded views onto the palace gardens, and from these gardens toward the landscape beyond. Both the topographic situation and the design of the architecture itself were new, for the gardens and countryside were seen through the controlled lenses of miradors – literally places for viewing – in the form of terraces, framing windows, and pavilions.
Aerial photography of Madinat al-Zahra reveals a perfect enclosure surrounded by a double wall on the east, south, and west, and fortified by square towers, wider at the corners, except on a section of the north, which is bounded by a single, partially excavated, wall (Frontis).
Only three of Madinat al-Zahra’s gardens are known from archaeological remains: the Prince’s Garden, the Upper Garden and the Lower Garden. On the highest level is the so-called Prince’s Garden, a small, elegant residence that was conceived on an intimate scale and probably served as a private dwelling for the heir apparent, the wife of the caliph, or another important member of his family. Rectangular in plan, it is contained at its east and west ends by halls stretching almost the entire width of the garden and on its south side by a blind wall. The northern wall has steps leading to structures on higher ground. A paved walkway bordered by water channels forms a longitudinal axis that divides the garden into two almost equal parts, and an axially aligned square pool occupies the space in front of the western hall.
On the middle level, facing the Hall of Abd al-Rahman III, or reception hall, is the Upper Garden, an enormous enclosed space in the form of a four-part composition. The garden’s axes are determined by paved walkways bordered by water channels used for irrigation. This is the earliest surviving quadripartite garden in the Maghrib and al-Andalus, predating the Castilleja of Monteagudo by two hundred years. The north arm of the crossed axes was made up of a small pavilion surrounded by rectangular pools. Although the elevation of the pavilion is not known, it almost certainly had windows on all four sides so that to a viewer looking out of the building would seem to be surrounded by water. This was a remarkably early instance of a floating pavilion in Islamic architecture.
The word of the luxuries of Madinat al-Zahra echoed around the Mediterranean. Abd al-Rahman III purportedly used quicksilver to fill the central pool of the hall in which he received ambassadors. This hall is presently known as Salon Rico (Rich Hall) because of the extravagant decoration of the walls. It is said that the walls of the room were of marble inlaid with gold and on each side eight doors of ebony and gold were set between piers of coloured marble and crystal. While the caliph entertained – perhaps displaying the room’s chief ornament, a huge pearl presented by Leo, ruler of Byzantium – he would signal a slave to disturb the pool, at which all the walls of the room became a kaleidoscope of reflected colour, dazzling the kings of Leon and Navarre when they sought an audience, and even impressing the emperor’s ambassadors from Constantinople. Workmen from Byzantine Constantinople, who had recently completed the extension of the great mosque, were said to have built the central pavilion.
The Hall of Abd al-Rahman III is the centrepiece of a large architectural complex that includes the Upper Garden. The relative formal simplicity of the plan maintains a rigorous sense of proportion and design that ties the hall with the garden, so that both form a unifying concept that has as its objective the magnification of the caliph.
The Lower Garden, located approximately fourteen meters below the Upper Garden, was an extensive walled quadripartite garden with paved walkways and pools marking the termini of its axes. A rectangular expansion of pavement along the southern arm may have been the foundation of a garden pavilion, but this attribution is speculative because the area has not been thoroughly excavated.
The position of the spectator in Madinat al-Zahra’s gardens was fixed in three points. The first was the central pavilion in the Upper Garden, from which there were four possible views of the surrounding water and vegetation. The second was the presumed mirador in the west wall of the Upper Garden, from which one looked toward the Lower Garden, another large quadripartite garden approximately twelve meters below, and across to the fertile cultivated plain of the Guadalquivir River valley. The third was the Salon Rico, which overlooked the Upper Garden from an elevated position. Cut into the stepped terrace, this hall was windowless on three sides but opened through the south wall to the garden, with five arches framing the view. According to medieval descriptions of the court ceremonies and feast days celebrated in the Salon Rico and Upper Garden, on formal occasions of state, the caliph sat on a raised throne in the middle of the hall; family, government officials, palace staff, and members of the military were positioned in rows, diminishing in rank as they radiated away from him, out of the hall, and across the garden terrace. The uniqueness and primacy of the caliph’s person were asserted by this enactment of social hierarchy. Likewise, the hall’s focused space and dominant position over the garden in which the event took place underscored the centrality of the viewer, who was the caliph.
At all three of the Upper Garden’s viewing points, the placement of architecture in landscape emphasized not just the view of nature but also its view from a particular location. The mirador, whether a pavilion or a projecting window in an enclosure wall, fixes the direction of vision and dictates what is seen. For this reason the mirador is invariably located at the intersection of two crossed axes or at one of the axes’ terminal points, and it is always elevated, directing the gaze downward to the garden. The mirador, as the origin of seeing, denotes the beholder – who is understood to be the caliph or king – and the view is seen from his perspective. Landscape panoramas, especially, were seen through the ruler’s eyes, for in the medieval period, the all-encompassing view of landscape and domain was the ruler’s exclusive prerogative because he alone was responsible for conceptualizing and shaping the structure of the kingdom.
Madinat al-Zahra became the model for subsequent palace estates built in Cordoba until the civil war of 1010 to 1013, when the Umayyad-Amirid government was overthrown. Thereafter, in the period of the muluk al-Tawaif, the idea of the garden was disseminated to the capital cities and royal palaces of the Taifa kingdoms in the rest of Spain. The largest and most powerful of these kingdoms was Seville, which had a palace zone that sprawled on either side of the city wall, as well as a number of suburban palaces. In the 11th century, the Taifa ruler al-Mutamid (r. 1069-91) ordered the planting of the area of Seville called the Buhayra, today the Huerta del Rey. He placed a pavilion in the center of the Buhayra’s orchards and gardens, so that their productive aspect was commingled with the enjoyment of their aesthetic qualities. In 1171, the Almohad ruler Abu Ya’qub Yusuf added a magnificent group of palaces to the Buhayra, supplying them with water via a renovated Roman qaniit (underground aqueduct). According to Ibn Sahib al-Salat, in the 12th century:
The Caliph commanded Abu al-Qasim Ahmad ibn Muhammad, the qadi, and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya, the imam of the mosque, because of his trust in their knowledge of surveying, soil preparation, and cultivation, to design for him everything concerning his palace constructions, and with respect to the barren land surrounding them, to use treasury money to plant olive trees, fig trees, vineyards and fruit trees of all the most delicious and rarest species… He charged the people of the Aljarafe to dig up roots of a variety of select olive trees which were bought with treasury money, and to take them to the Buhayra to be planted. They were brought from miles away, a task in which the most qualified folk assisted. The shoots were planted in rows in order to facilitate tending them. The Caliph used to ride out from his palace in Seville with his principal followers for the enjoyment of watching the olives being planted. Ahmad ibn Basu, the foremost architect in al-Andalus, had no equal in his work on these palaces of the Buhtayra.
The description of men skilled in the surveying and cultivation of the land is particularly significant because it is the first medieval Hispano-Islamic reference to a landscape architect.
Rebuilding in the Almohad and Christian periods erased most of the original fabric of al-Mutamid’s al-Mubarak Palace, which stood within the city walls, but we have some idea of its gardens from verses that praised the variety of its colorful flowers: roses, narcissus, lilies, anemones, jasmine, stock, violets, poppies, daisies, and other flowers that “attract the gaze and make the eyes dally with delicate buildings that seem like spider webs”. A small portion of one of al-Mubarak’s courtyard gardens was discovered by Rafael Manzano in the course of excavating a 12th century garden. The latter, called El Crucero, follows a cross axial plan formed by walkways dividing the space into four sunken quadrants that are approximately five meters deep. A third garden, also of the 12th century and probably built by the Almohads, has been thoroughly excavated by Manzano’s team. This garden is almost square, measuring 12.25 by 11 meters, and is divided by walkways into four quadrants that are two meters deep and decorated with stucco and intersecting blind arches of brick. Pollen analysis has determined that orange trees were planted in the corners of each sunken quadrant. At one end of the courtyard, there still survives the façade of a brick portico consisting of central arches flanked on each side by additional arches. At the other end were excavated three sunken flower beds from the al-Mubarak Palace.
There were other important palaces with gardens in al-Andalus, some of which have been excavated. The Aljaferia of Saragossa was organized around a central gardened courtyard, but all of its plantings and pavements visible today are modern. The Castilleja of Monteagudo, Alcazaba of Malaga, and Alcazaba of Almeria, like Madinat al-Zahra, were built on elevated sites. All of them had interior views of gardens with water channels, pools, fountains and colourful flowers. Additionally, the hilltop locations of the Castilleja and the Alcazaba of Malaga yielded vistas of an irrigated landscape of productive fruit orchards. The Alcazaba of Almeria, which was situated in arid terrain, included interior gardens with axial walkways, a central pavilion, and irrigation channels. Its exterior prospect, however, was not of landscape but of the sea, which made possible the trade that was the basis of the port city’s economy.
Like Cordoba and Seville, medieval Islamic Granada was situated in a fertile landscape irrigated by streams and rivers that provided abundant water for its palace and agricultural estates. According to the historian Ibn al-Khatib, called Lisan al-Din, the Alhambra, as well as Granada itself, was densely planted with so many verdant gardens that the light-coloured stone of the palaces’ many tall towers shone like bright stars in an evening sky of dark vegetation.
The Alhambra is a complex layering of Zirid, Nasrid, baroque, neoclassical, and modern conceptions of nature and landscape. Although the extant palaces at the Alhambra date largely from the Nasrid period, they probably followed the foundations of the 11th century palaces of the Zirid rulers’ influential vizier, Samuel ibn Naghralla. Samuel, whose family had fled Cordoba in 1012, brought Córdoban artistic taste to Granada in the 11th century. Descriptions of the vizier’s sumptuous residence on the Alhambra hill mention gardens and fountains, as well as theatrical effects achieved with water and vegetation. When Samuel died in 1056, his son Yusuf inherited the post of vizier as well as the father’s penchant for dramatic garden and architectural effects, and he built a magnificent palace on the hill where the Alhambra now stands. The parallels between Yusuf’s palace and Madinat al-Zahra are many – each sat on an elevated site overlooking a flat plain and was embellished with luxurious materials and adorned with flower gardens and fruit trees. Moreover, the emphasis in Yusuf’s palace complex on water in the form of large tanks, fountains that were like natural springs, and channels that traversed the courtyards reflects the Córdoban prototype. The poet Ibn Gabirol wrote:
There is a large pool, similar to the Sea of Solomon, but it does not rest on bulls; such is the expression of the lions, at the pool’s edge, that the cubs seem to roar through their jaws; and like springs, they spill their guts through their mouths, flowing like rivers. Next to the channels are sunken hollows so that the water may be decanted to spray the plants in the garden beds with it and to sprinkle the stems with pure water and to water the garden of myrtles with it.
These 11th century lions, which were moved to the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) when it was built in the 14th century, are not the first animal figures used in fountains. One of Abd al-Rahman III’s Córdoban palaces had a golden lion fountain with sparkling jewel eyes that spewed water through its mouth; and the Zahira palace, built by al-Mansur in 978 to supplant the caliphal palace of Madinat al-Zahra, included a lion fountain of black amber with a necklace of pearls. Furthermore, in the hills well above Cordoba, there is a fountain in the form of a large stone elephant that may have been part of the irrigation system of a 10th century agricultural estate.
The Alhambra became the Nasrid seat in the second quarter of the 13th century and was continually augmented and embellished throughout the 14th. The Patio de los Leones, the Generalife, and most of the other constructions visible today date to this period. At the Alhambra, as at Madinat al-Zahra, Monteagudo, and the alcazabas of Malaga and Almeria, the eye is constantly invited to look through and beyond the garden walls. Although spaces such as the Patio de los Leones and the Generalife’s Patio de Ia Acequia (Court of the Channel) are enclosed by architecture, their walls are pierced with miradors that overlook the palace gardens on the lower slopes of the Alhambra hill and the more distant landscape of the Albaidn hill. Such vistas are often framed by arched polylobedwindows, as in the Salon de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors) or the elegant Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room). The windows of the latter look outward to the hills and streams of the “natural” exterior countryside and inward toward the enclosed paved courtyard, where the only reference to nature is a single water basin at the centre. The all-encompassing vistas of garden and landscape at the Alhambra belie the traditional conception of the Islamic garden as an entirely self-contained private space; instead they show that different visual perspectives were incorporated into garden design by manipulating the direction of the gaze and the distance it traversed.
Inscribed on the walls and fountains of the Alhambra are verses referring to the gardens and land scape. In the Patio de los Leones and the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters), for example, verses by the poet Ibn Zamrak celebrate the watercourses and vegetation, the architecture and space surrounding the garden, and the view onto the more distant countryside, as well as Emir Muhammad V, for whom the garden was built. A verse in the Mirador de Lindaraja reads: “In this garden I am an eye filled with delight and the pupil of this eye is none other than our lord.” The statement is absolutely clear in its identification of the viewing place – the mirador – with the viewer /king, and the art historian is extraordinarily fortunate to have it. Although the architecture at Madinat al-Zahra, Monteagudo, Almeria, and Malaga makes evident the conflation of power with view, the Alhambra is the only palace in al-Andalus with an inscription explicitly articulating the relationship. Indeed, it is the only palace in al-Andalus known to have been inscribed with an epigraphic program that accompanies and explains its architecture and gardens.
The Patio de los Leones is a quadripartite garden divided axially by paved walkways and surrounded by a columnar arcade on all four sides. Pavilions projecting from the middle of the courtyard’s east and west sides contain water jets; likewise there are basins in the Sala de las Dos Hermanas on the south side and the Sala de los Abencerrajes on the north. The water from these jets and basins flows in channels toward the central fountain, uniting the disparate spaces. Although the garden’s original plantings are not known with certainty, a visitor in 1602 observed six orange trees in each quadrant. The surface of the soil was initially eighty centimetres below the level of the pavement.
The Alhambra contains several post-Islamic gardens, such as those of the Patio of la Daraja, below the Mirador de Lindaraja, and the Partal. The former was originally an open garden with views from a projecting mirador called the Ayn Dar Aisha (Eye of the Sultana’s Palace), but it was enclosed when it was converted into private quarters for Emperor Charles V. The Torre de las Damas (Ladies’ Tower) in the Partal also functioned as a mirador, with windows on the ground floor and a tower on the left side providing far-reaching views across the exterior landscape to the Albaidn hill. Although the orientation of the Partal pavilion to the landscape outside the walls of the Alhambra remains exactly as it was conceived by the Muslim builders of the palace, the Partal gardens themselves are 20th century restorations.
The Generalife Palace was built in terraces on the slope of a hillside on the side of the ravine opposite the Alhambra. When the Generalife’s Patio de la Acequia was excavated and restored in 1959 following a fire, a 13th century Islamic garden was discovered with both its original soil level, half a meter below the surrounding pavements, and its original irrigation system intact – neither of which was retained in the restorations. The garden is organized along a central axial watercourse, the water for which is supplied from mountains via the same aqueduct that serves the Alhambra. The water channel is bordered by plant beds and intersected by a short, narrow walkway. The north and south ends of the garden are each marked by a longitudinal pavilion; both offer pleasant views of the garden and watercourse below, and from the southern pavilion panoramic views of the Alhambra and surrounding countryside can be enjoyed. The west wall is pierced by arches and a projecting mirador that looks over the lower gardens, which are modern restorations, and across the ravine to the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada in the distance. Although this mirador appears to be an alteration made by Isabella and Ferdinand, it is likely that it replaced an Islamic mirador from the late 13th or early 14th century. The gardens on the elevated terrace above the Patio de la Acequia were largely redesigned after 1492.
The Patio de los Leones and the Generalife’s Patio de la Acequia constitute two distinct types of gardens. The Patio de los Leones is of the expansive four-part kind (an early example of which was Madinat al-Zahra’s Upper Garden), and the Patio de la Acequia is of the self-contained, longitudinal type (like that of Madinat al-Zahra’s Prince’s Garden and domestic house courtyards in al-Andalus). However, the typologies are inverted: The cross-axial plan of the Patio de los Leones is realized in a contained domestic space, whereas the Patio de la Acequia is expanded literally, as well as visually, through its vistas onto the gardens and hillside below.
The skilful manipulation of topographical elevation and vision that took place in al-Andalus began at Madinat al-Zahra and was developed further at Monteagudo, Malaga, Almeria, and the Alhambra. Architecture, garden and landscape were united by the mirador so that they gave structure to the relationship between nature and humankind. Although the meaning of the landscape and the way it was perceived changed considerably from the time of the Umayyads and Madinat al-Zahra to the time of the Nasrids and the Alhambra, the formal typology of the garden became a fixed element in royal palatine architecture, an indispensable aspect of the language of luxury and prestige. Even after the reconquest the Islamic taste for architecture oriented to landscape and for elevated views was continued in the carmenes (villas) and aristocratic palaces of Granada and elsewhere in Spain.