Until the end of the 19th century, Marrakech was known as the “garden city”, because of its huge gardens and the immense palm grove surrounding it. The majority of the gardens, which are called “agdal”, were not just recreational, but actual functioning orchards. They were equipped with large ponds for irrigation, and pavilions where the monarchs could rest. Today it is the gardens, the palm grove (Palmeriae) of 150,000 palm trees planted by the Almoravids and the incomparable setting of the mighty snow covered Atlas Mountains (second highest in Africa) which give a special quality to this unique city which gave its name to Morocco.
The Almoravids founded Marrakech in 1060 and did not take long to turn it into the metropolis of an empire that stretched from Algeria to the Atlantic and from the Ebro to the Draa. In 1106, Ali Ibn Yusuf urbanised the city. He brought the water down from the mountains using a network of khettara, underground canals. He paved the streets. He built the mosque that still bears his name and which became the main pole in the urban agglomeration. He built a wall around the city, which still stands today, the 14 km of ramparts.
Gardens are the conceptual key to the development of Arab city architecture. In the middle ages, historians describing these towns praised the walkways, the orchards and the cultivation of plants surrounding the town. Everywhere, the model of the garden city prevailed – from Damascus to Baghdad, from Cordoba to Fez – houses appeared like cubes nesting in an ocean of green. Arabs associated gardens with urbanism in their towns. Indeed the name of the capital of Saudi Arabia “Riyadh” means the garden city.
In a hot climate the idea of a secluded garden with water at its centre was a haven from the heat and noise and in fact the word so redolent with meaning and symbolism in our culture, “Paradise” comes from the Persian for a water garden. From the time of the Achaemenid dynasty the idea of an earthly paradise spread through Persian literature and example to other cultures, both the Hellenistic gardens of the Seleucids and tby he Ptolemies in Alexandria. The Avestan word pairidaêza-, Old Persian *paridaida-, Median *paridaiza- (walled-around, i.e., a walled garden), was transliterated into Greek paradeisoi, then rendered into the Latin paradisus, and from there entered into European languages, e.g., French paradis, German Paradies, and English paradise. The word entered Semitic languages as well: Akkadian pardesu, Hebrew pardes, and Arabic firdaws.
As the word expresses, such gardens would have been enclosed. The garden’s purpose was, and is, to provide a place for protected relaxation in a variety of manners: spiritual and leisurely (such as meetings with friends), essentially a paradise on earth. The Persian word for “enclosed space” was pairi-daeza, a term that was adopted by Christian mythology to describe the Garden of Eden or Paradise on earth.
Marrakech, known as the “Red City or Al Hamra,” is for most visitors defined by two sensations the dust and bustle of the Medina and Souks and the quiet and beauty of the city’s gardens. There are the great public gardens and then there are the Riads or “Garden Houses.” From the outside just a doorway in a cul de sac or Djerb but inside there is a cool courtyard garden with a pool, fountain, overhanging balconies and seating niches in which to relax, read or smoke a shisha.
The town of Marrakech held an impressive reputation as a green capital for nine centuries. It is in this city that the art of gardens was born in the twelfth century. A new style, the Almohad style, appeared at that time, with big orchards, deep ponds, water monuments, pavilions, all contained within fortifications and enclosures. The creators of these gardens knew how to make a garden, like a dream corner or piece of paradise, in a desert location. The gardens of Aguedal and Menara are remarkable monuments because of their age, but also the originality of their style, the value of their architectural compositions, growth and landscaping. Built in the 12th century, the same period as Koutoubia de Marrakech, the Hassan Tower of Rabat and the Giralda of Seville, they are among the most ancient gardens in the whole of the Arab world.
The pride and joy of Marrakech are its gardens which are taken care of with an age-old passion that dates back to the days of the Almoravids. The truth is that there wouldn’t even be a palm tree in Marrakech if these sovereigns hadn’t started planting them. Since then, the number of parks has multiplied and no one here finds it strange that a garden, like a building, can boast antique origins. This is the case of the Aguedal, a word that means garden, created in the XII century by the Almohad Abd el-Moumen. Much smaller and cosier, the garden of the Menara has a pavillion surrounded by cypresses which seems to have been the place where the sultan met his mistresses. As for Marrakech’s famous palm grove, which has an area of 13,000 hectares, it has no less than 150,000 trees.
The Jardin Aguedal on the western edge of the Medina has grown to more than 400 hectares since its 12th century founding. The walled gardens boast loads of olive trees, fruit trees, glittering pools, minzahs, and shaded areas to enjoy a bite to eat. The Aguedal Gardens, which began life in the 12th century as an orchard and were enlarged in the 19th century, when they were enclosed by their distinctive pisé walls, made from packed earth. The gardens are irrigated by a number pools and ditches, supplied by a network of underground channels that bring water down from the Atlas Mountains. There are a series of linked gardens, one leading to the next, with an orange grove and olive plantation as well as the ubiquitous palms trees.
Gardens are a popular destination for picnicking and unwinding among plants and flowers that seem to hold the population captive. Menara Gardens is the most popular of these venues, though the site is more an olive grove than field of flowers. One of the highlights is the lovely tiled minzah (pavilion) that shades a pool.
The garden isn’t as much as a garden as it is a farm. The 200-acre area is filled with fruit and olive trees and it a nice place to escape for an afternoon picnic if you happen to be visiting during the hotter summer months. Like the Aguedal Gardens, Menara was constructed before the 1200s. Only later was the central pool dug out and used as a royal reservoir. The Saadian Pavilion is open to the public for a small donation and it is said that royal guests were able to meet with their concubines here for romantic escapades. Indeed one of the most emblematic photos of Marrakech is of the Saadian Pavillion with the reservoir in front and the incomparable backdrop of the snow capped Atlas Mountains.
The small botanical garden known as Jardins Majorelle most resembles what Westerners think of as a garden, perhaps because it was founded by Frenchman (and artist) Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s. Here you’ll find bright colours and strongly perfumed plants including cacti, bamboo, and bougainvillea. Interestingly, the ashes of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent were scattered here upon his death in 2008. The garden contains one of the more important collections of plants of his era where plants of the five continents are exhibited in an enchanting setting.
The uniqueness of the place lies in the combination of a luxurious vegetation and architectural elements combining restraint and traditional Moroccan elements. Jacques Majorelle was born in 1886 within a family of artists. His father, Louis Majorelle, was a celebrated cabinetmaker of Nancy. Inspired by his father’s artistic friends he enters the Academy of Fine Arts of Nancy in 1901, and then goes to the Julian Paris Academy. Inspired by the prevailing fashion of the “easel in nature”, he is initially inspired by Brittany. It is later in Spain, where he goes to recover from tuberculosis, that he discovers his passion for the south.
After Majorelle’s death in 1962 the garden remained open to the public but lack of maintenance and money led to its decline. In 1980 Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, until there visitors and admirers of the Majorelle garden, purchased it, thus saving it from real estate speculators whose concrete blight had devastated the great inheritance of Marrakech’s gardens. Restoration work started funded by these generous new benefactors and in January 2001 a trust under the discreet patronage of Pierre Bergé et Yves Saint Laurent guarantees the future of these unique gardens. Since the Eighties, the blue workshop, conceived in 1931 by the architect Paul Sinoir houses the Islamic Art Museum. This museum displays the personal collection of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Lauren. It exhibits objects of Islamic art coming from Maghreb, Orient, Africa and Asia. In this extraordinary collection we can admire ceramics and potteries of a great value, weapons and magnificent jewellery, textiles, carpets, woodworks and other treasures. A space is also devoted to the works of Jacques Majorelle, creator of the garden.
Eileen Gray’s Armchair
To my mind the combinations of amazing and eclectic planting and vibrant colour in an enclosed haven with cooling water and enticing vistas makes for a unique garden and setting which is both out of place and at the same time at one with the great Persian traditions of gardens as a place apart, a soothing vision of happiness. Its setting in this great and unique Arab and Berber city with its superb public and private gardens reflecting Man’s inner soul adds to the riches and sensation of this place apart. And in the midst of this special place this is a place apart, one artists vision which others have fallen in love with and lavished with care and thought. Truly this garden stands as a vision of Paradise and no visit to the Red City is complete without sitting in this cooling space and allowing it to work its magic.
Jardins Majorelle, Marrakech
Ahmad I al-Masur became the sultan of Morocco in 1578, during the reign of the Saadi dynasty. His rule lasted until his death in 1603. In celebration of their victory at the Battle of Three Kings, the El Badi Palace was commissioned and constructed began in 1578. It took approximately twenty-five years for the massive palace to be constructed, and the riches and decoration were so overwhelming that it took Alaouite Sultan Mawlay Ismail twelve years to destroy. Mawlay used the pieces from the El Badi Palace to create his own palace in Meknes, leaving just the shell of the palace behind, which has become a historical landmark in Marrakech. Sadly, as with so many historical buildings, the El Badi Palace in Marrakech has not survived over the years. Its ruins are a cruel reminder of the destruction of war, and while walking through the ruins one is still able to get a sense of how magnificent the palace used to be. The layout and descriptions of how the El Badi Palace once looked conjures up feelings of great regret, as it must have been one of the most spectacular structures in Morocco. Despite its misfortune, the El Badi Palace is still a popular attraction n Morocco, as the layout of the palace and some of its features can still be seen.
It is said that the palace once had three hundred and sixty rooms and was decorated in Sudanese gold, ivory, Italian marble, semi-precious stones and cedar wood. Visitors to the palace will still be able to walk through the courtyard with its large pools and sunken gardens, even though the fountains that once graced this courtyard are no longer there. The small dungeon with four cells, where the sultan kept his prisoners, has also survived and can be viewed. The palace that used to host lavish parties and royal gatherings is still the venue for music and festivities, as the National Festival of Popular Arts is hosted here annually. The entrance fee for the El Badi Palace is ten Dirham and visitors to Morocco are recommended to explore this breathtaking historical monument and discover the beauty of these ruins. Just like the Ravens at the Tower of London the Badi Palace has its permanent avian residents bit in this case they are large and impressive storks who find the safe nesting in the old ramparts and the pools in the grounds an irresistible combination.
Many visitors to Morocco’s most prestigious hotel, La Mamounia in Marrakech don’t realise that the hotel took the name of the gardens it was built in. The hotel takes its name from Prince Moulay Mamoun, and was built on the 20-acre park given to him as a wedding present in the 18th century. Orange and lemon trees, jacarandas, rose bushes and mimosa scent the air. The garden walls are draped with bougainvillea while scarlet hibiscus provides a splash of colour beside the swimming-pool. The hotel came later, built in 1923 by the French Railway company as a destination hotel at the end of the railway system, the combination of Moroccan architecture and Art Deco gives this grand hotel an exotic effervescence.
At the entrance, two be-fezzed doormen, in white pantaloons and pointy slippers, look as though they’ve stepped straight out of The Arabian Nights. Inside, the cool foyer is ornate, with marble pillars, chandeliers, enormous vases overflowing with roses, and rugs scattered across the marble floor. Running water tinkles softly from a fountain sprinkled with rose petals.
But, instead of following the crowds and heading into the hotel’s “Churchill Bar for an expensive cognac head through the hotel and into the gardens. The gardens, with their sweet-smelling jasmine, beds of red and white roses, vegetable plots and wide pathways are alluring. You can glimpse the expansive, ozone-treated pool, a brilliant size for doing decent lengths and a poolside scene which would make the Beverly Hills Hilton seem shabby! Continue to the centre of the gardens to the charming rebuilt minzah. Here surrounded by the shade of orange you can try the Tchaba herbal teas, and admire the silver trays and spoons and the Limoges pottery used to serve them. We were served by just the loveliest young Moroccan woman and you can even try the local speciality of orange scented tea.
Finally there are the secret gardens which you rarely see in the centre of the houses named after the garden at their centre. The word Riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, “ryad”. The ancient Roman city of Volubilis in northern Morocco provides a reference for the beginnings of riad architecture during the rule of the Idrisid Dynasty. The design of these courtyard dwellings in the coastal regions of Morocco were an adaptation and modification of the Roman villa.
When the Almoravids conquered Spain in the 11th century they sent Muslim, Christian and Jewish artisans from Spain to Morocco to work on monuments. These artisans brought with them the idea of arranging the rooms of the house around the central open-air courtyard that has become today’s Riads. The riads were inward focused which allowed for family privacy and protection from the weather in Morocco. This inward focus was expressed in the central location of most of the interior gardens and courtyards and the lack of large windows on the exterior clay or mud brick walls. Entrance to these houses is a major transitional experience and encourages reflection because all of the rooms open into the central atrium space. In the central garden of traditional riads there are often four orange or lemon trees and possibly a fountain. The walls of the riads are adorned with tadelakt plaster and zellige tiles.
The gardens of Marrakech are like the city. They are often ancient such as the Menara and Agadal, two of the oldest gardens in the world, they are often hidden but above all they are unexpected, mysterious but always alluring.
See also; Revisiting the Marrakech Express
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