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Introduction to the North African Gardens Catalogue

Abbey Stockstill

Gardens, in the most conventional sense of the term, are not a widespread phenomenon in the medieval and early modern Maghrib. While they do appear, most often within strictly imperial contexts, they generally represent certain already well-established types characteristic of other parts of the Islamic world—namely a quadripartite organization with a water feature such as a pool or fountain at the center. This relative paucity of formal garden spaces, however, does not mean a lack of attention to the design of outdoor spaces; rather, it is indicative of a different relationship with the North African landscape.

Prior to the rise of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the architecture of most palatial complexes mainly reflected a concern with fortification against frequent incursions, which only allowed the creation of relatively small garden spaces within the fortified enclosure. Roman houses, such as those at Volubilis, provided the architectural models for the development of the Moroccan riad or riyad, in which rooms one or more stories high were organized around the central courtyard, limiting, for the reasons of security, access to the open space within the residence. This type of residence proliferated in the Maghrib as early as the Idrisid period in the ninth and tenth centuries, though the most lavish examples of the riad appear under the Saadians in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Beyond the scope of imperial patronage, other types of landscapes were mostly created and managed by smaller rural communities. The Berber communities that lived across the Maghrib, from the plains and coastal regions to the Atlas Mountains and the encroaching desert of the pre-Sahara, developed sophisticated methods of crop rotation and stewarding water resources. Most of these communities practiced some form of transhumance (seasonal migration) as early as the eighth century, thereby engaging in a cyclical relationship with landscape. This approach could take the form of creating small-scale khettaras for irrigation (see Hydraulics), or the use of the agdals as a form of passive soil fertilization (see Atlas Mountains).

As dynastic powers exerted more extensive and authoritative control over the Maghrib, these practices—already well established among the rural communities—would flourish. Moreover, these practices were crucial to the urban resource management under the Almoravids and Almohads, who monumentalized and formalized vernacular spaces and techniques. Sites such as the Agdal Garden employed traditional methods on a scale unprecedented within the Maghrib, creating a walled garden that recalled the traditional mountain agdals on an imperial scale. These gardens were not spaces to be enjoyed only by the elite, but rather extensions of the public works undertaken as part of the late medieval urbanization of the region, providing water and agricultural income for its tenants.

The Merinids, who ruled from the late thirteenth to the middle of the fifteenth century, and the Saadians that followed them, were greater patrons of the riad type, though under these dynasties it was no longer treated as a private, interior space, becoming a palatial expression of luxury and prestige. At the Badīʿ Palace, for example, the quadripartite enclosure was placed within the palace whose architecture asserted wealth through access to foreign materials, while the vegetation and water features emphasized the role of the garden as a respite from urban space.

At the same time, the Merinids and the Saadians also understood the riad as a space for meditation, taking the paradisiacal connotations of the garden and amplifying them through their patronage of public mausolea, such as the Chellah and the Saadian Tombs. The former served as a suburban space outside Rabat that welcomed devout pilgrims and dynastic supporters to pay homage to and receive blessings from the Merinid ancestors buried there. The latter, nestled within the heart of Marrakesh, served a similar function for the Saadians. Both complexes provided a respite from the outside world, bringing to mind the contrast between the earthly realm and paradise.

This catalogue is not intended as an exhaustive list of Maghribi gardens, or even as a representative selection. Rather, it is meant to convey the complex ways in which different dynasties and social groups related to the North African landscape during the medieval and early modern periods. This can be a challenge for scholars, since a poor state of preservation at many of these sites, or their complete destruction as one dynasty succeeded another, has left us precious little on the basis of which we can reconstruct a full picture of the cultural landscape of the Maghrib.

Excavations by French scholars Lucien Golvin, Georges Marçais, and Henri Terrasse in the early and mid-twentieth century have gone a long way to advance our understanding of such provincial sites as the Qalʿa Beni Hammād or urban spaces exemplified by the Kutubiyya courtyard, whose histories run the risk of being buried under the successive layers of building. More recently, Ronald Messier and James Miller’s excavations at Sijilmasa, Julio Navarro Palazón’s work at the Agdal Garden, and the archaeological contributions and scholarship of Abdallah Fili, Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel, and Patrice Cressier have given us a better picture of suburban and rural development throughout the medieval and early modern periods.

This scholarship reveals a much more complex relationship between the Maghribi rulers, people, architecture, and landscape—of which the urban garden spaces that exemplify dynastic patronage form only a small subsection—than had been imagined previously. The work of D. F. Ruggles in particular has been instrumental in this endeavor, helping to expand the scholarly definition of what a garden is, and how these cultivated spaces were used and what they meant to humans. In the Maghrib, rural communities engaged in sustainable practices of land and water management, creating a network of spaces that marked different modes of human negotiation of the landscape. Further investigations should give us better understanding of the links between Maghribi monumental and vernacular landscapes, as well as the links between the Maghrib and the Islamic world as a whole.