Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 36, Fall/Winter 1994
Desert Architecture III: Building a Sustainable Future

Paradise on earth: Historical gardens of the arid Middle East

by Safei El-Deen Hamed


The model for the historic Islamic gardens of the Middle East is found in the Qur'an, which in 164 verses scattered through four chapters describes the colors, sounds, smells, spatial elements, microclimates, trees, flowers, and waters of Heaven.

International garden designers in search of inspiration and useful ideas are exploring the old gardens of Islam, but many emphasize fanciful geometric patterns, elaborate water features, and colorful planting schemes at the expense of the historical, philosophical, metaphysical, and poetic dimensions of these "earthly paradises."

An Islamic garden is a landscape designed according to certain ideological principles, employing certain physical elements, and focused on certain intentions. The articulation of these elements and intentions is deeply rooted in the teachings of the Islamic faith and in the culture of the Muslim people.

A subtle sense of unity

(Back to top)
As geographically large and as culturally diverse as it may be, the Middle East is underlain by a subtle homogeneity. The landscape architecture historian Norman Newton (1971) discussed the similarity in ambiance between the gardens of the Alhambra, built in thirteenth-century Spain, and the Taj Mahal, built in sixteenth-century India:

The similarity between the two great Islamic monuments is not a matter of detailed form; it is not even an apparent physical sameness. It is a unity of spirit. The two are superb expressions of a plain but powerful truth: that for over a thousand years, among peoples united in religious belief but as diverse in geography and racial origins as the Moors and the Moguls, against all the odds of time and circumstances, feast and famine, there persisted unbroken a deep-seated love of the outdoors and a delight in expressing it. In the long run this affection took many varied forms, but fundamentally it was always there, for over a thousand years. No passing fancy this, but an abiding sense of affinity based on understanding and acceptance of simple virtue. To this end every Muslim was encouraged by the teachings of the Qur'an and by the customs of his religious observance. Of Islam's many remarkable accomplishments, this was by no means the least.

Also influential in developing the homogeneous thinking of the designers of the typical Islamic gardens of the Middle East were earlier civilizations, the arid environment, and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. For thousands of years the Middle East was the stage of various old civilizations: Ancient Egypt, Babylon, Mesopotamia, Persia, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and others. In less than 200 years, however, Islam swept across most of the region, adopting from and adapting to an array of contemporary cultures. This evolutionary development succeeded in blending the horticultural talents of the Persians, the agricultural skills of the Egyptians, and the experience in irrigated and dry farming of the bedouins of Arabia and North Africa.

The second influential source of design ideas was the desert environment itself, which affects every aspect of life. The climate of the region is characterized by high average temperature, high solar impact, strong wind, and fierce sandstorms. Ultimately, the lack of sufficient water is the limiting factor in design.

The last source of design ideas in Middle Eastern gardens is found in what Muslims call Al-Sunnah, which may be translated as "the traditions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad," comprising what he said, did, and accepted in the customs and practices of other cultures.

Typical elements of the Islamic garden

(Back to top)
The traditional Islamic gardens of the Middle East included certain shared design elements. The most common were enclosing walls, water features, trees and flowers, and extensive use of the arabesque, the Islamic geometric decoration. These gardens were planned in axial rectangular patterns of simplicity, clarity, discipline, and delicacy not to be found elsewhere during that time.

Many traditional gardens were surrounded by walls and/or a cluster of buildings. This inward-looking composition is interpreted in different ways by different scholars: as an attempt to isolate human-made order from the perceived chaos of the surrounding desert, to insulate the garden's inmates from the harsh desert environment and/or from the dust and pollution of the adjacent streets, to emphasize the privacy of the family and of its female members in particular, and to display a modest and humble exterior to the passing world.

Creswell (1968) sees the clustering of walls, buildings, and tall trees as a prerequisite for the privacy needed to develop the hidden qualities of the spirit. Lesiuk (1980), on the other hand, notes that enclosing the earthly garden with walls and buildings is a metaphoric gesture recalling its heavenly archetype; the surrounding desert on the outside represents desiccation and death, while within are flowers, fruits, shade, water and life. On the whole, there seems to be agreement that, owing to the harsh climate in most of the Muslim countries and to a great moral emphasis on family privacy, the enclosed garden became a typical component for even the simplest house in the Middle East (Newton, 1971).

The second design element of the historical garden of the Middle East was water. The innovative use of water in the Alhambra later was imitated and enriched by many European designers throughout the Western world (ElAraby 1972). To the nomads of the Arabian deserts, designing with water was in almost unbelievable contrast to their original arid environment. Their application of water as a design element was quite imaginative and highly colorful. Water played many roles within the garden design, emphasizing architectural elements, masking outdoor noise, producing pleasing sounds, irrigating plants, moisturizing and cooling the hot dry microclimate, soothing the dusty wind, and providing a source for ablutions before prayers. The scarcity of water and the difficulty of bringing it to the garden compelled Muslim designers to develop efficient methods of irrigation and to embrace a high regard for water as the indispensable support of life.

Another important design element in the Islamic garden was plants. The Muslims inherited a superb vocabulary of trees, shrubs, and flowers from the civilizations that preceded them. Poplars and cypresses gave climatological protection. Elms, willows, and oaks gave shade in summer and let the sun shine through in winter. In order to alleviate the problems of turbulence caused by walls, tall narrow-leafed-cypresses were added to filter the dust and to reduce windspeed within the garden. These were planted across the entire east and west sides and thus cast shadows across the whole garden throughout the day. Pines were used as a large-scale contrast. Animals, introduced to give animation to the garden, included swans, pheasants, pigeons, ducks and singing birds.

Citrus trees were treasured for their fruit and perfumed flowers. Fruit trees, in general, had a very high priority in the overall design scheme. They provided not only food and daytime color but also a canopy over the courtyard at night. This canopy restricted re-radiation losses from below and thus effectively trapped cool air. Traditional designers circulated this cool air from the garden through the house, thereby creating a natural cooling system.

The dual paradigm

(Back to top)
In contrast to the modern Western garden, which customarily is a place for extrovert show, the Islamic garden often is introverted, more a mental and spiritual exercise than an exercise in display, as Brookes (1987) noted:

But beneath the superficial delights of the Middle Eastern garden lies a far deeper significance: in Islam no pleasure is taken at random; each is part of greater unity, every individual aspect of Truth links laterally with other aspects and can be analyzed individually to discover its relevance within the whole.

The designer of the historic Islamic garden of the Middle East is a product of an age of reason based on faith (Hitti 1966). In Islam, absolute belief in God meant, by extension, a belief in the seen, including the unity of humanity and the continuity of the message, and a belief in the unseen, including the music of the spheres, in which God and men and nature exist in harmony. This dual paradigm of the object and the spirit is the basis of that subtle unity seen in the similarities that link the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra.

How was this unity achieved in landscape architecture? This question may be answered by examining seven different concepts: diversity, beauty, conservation, contextuality, individualism, multiple-use, and moderation.

The concept of diversity

(Back to top)
As in the theme and style of the Qur'an, the Islamic garden of the Middle East contains constant interplay between the real and the ideal, practicality and fantasy, the physical and the metaphysical, the tangible and the symbolic, and the natural and the urban. And as in most other forms of Islamic art, one finds a melding of science and art, of light and shadow, and a clear yet limitless space for imagination and freedom of the soul. This richness highlights another lesson of design, the simplicity underlying diversity, as noted by Moore (1988):

And the apparently limitless patterns are ingenious variations on very simple themes: the five thousand pieces of stucco in the Hall of the Two Sisters are of only eleven patterns, based on just four plane shapes. Beneath all the diversities of surface are just the seven possible frieze symmetries and the seventeen possible wallpaper symmetries.

In brief, the compositional message of the typical Islamic garden is that intricacy is more pleasing if based on order, and that diversity is more satisfying if it is attained through an element of unity.

The concept of beauty

(Back to top)
Although Islam has serious reservations about making a divine image of statuary, it has always stressed beauty and aesthetic qualities as aspects of faith itself. Muslims produced numerous arts, ranging from that of dress and interior decoration to music and poetry. These were integrated into life rather than being a separate activity or product (Nasr 1988).

Beauty, scenic quality, and other sensory values are not a luxury to the Islamic mind. "God is beautiful and He loves beauty," is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad. This notion is reflected in many design decisions. Beauty without arrogance is a value rooted in the Islamic culture. Thus, the interiors of private homes and public buildings can be decorated to the highest levels of sophistication, while the exterior walls traditionally were plain, austere, simple. This contrast is a physical manifestation of an important moral teaching of Islam regarding the inner richness of the soul and the humble appearance of the body.

The concept of conservation

(Back to top)
Water is a life-sustaining resource, and the Islamic garden designer treated it as such. Recognizing how limited such a natural resource is in the arid lands, he always used it with restraint. As an aesthetic element, it is not used as a gushing, spraying fountain but as a gentle, single, thin jet of water making soft, trickling sounds. And as Moore (1988) observed of the Court of Lions at the Alhambra:

The opulent play of overlaid patterns loses none of its luster when we discern the almost Spartan rigor behind all this complexity: There is really very little water, for instance, and a careful placement of the nozzles makes the most of every drop.

In brief, the emphasis is on the economical, but always aesthetic, use of water.

The concept of contextuality

(Back to top)
Historians have concluded that some kind of zoning in old Middle Eastern cities actually existed (Goitein 1966):

Was there any zoning, e.g. compulsory division of the city into residential, commercial, and industrial quarters? That some such division existed is evident from the very names of many bazaars, markets, squares, streets and other localities - names which indicate a specialization in a certain trade or industry.

The orderly spatial relationship among different land uses apparent in various Islamic cities indicates a sense of conceptual planning. Examples of this are found in the placement of craftsmen's homes above their shops and of student dormitories above their madrassa (school), indicating a deliberate link between housing and learning or housing and business. To Muslim designers, contextuality is a two-sided issue. Architects and planners do not site their buildings, gardens, or any other development in an empty space where they are free to do whatever they like. Instead, they are reacting. Each design has to fit into two environments: the natural and the urban, the God-made and the man-made. If a Muslim designer disrespects the former he will be a sinner, and if he disregards the latter his action will be considered evidence of a lack of civility.

The concept of individualism

(Back to top)
Islam requires that each individual stand on his own merit, find his own truth, and be responsible directly to God. There is no intermediary in this process. No saints, no clergymen, no prophets can help much beyond passing a message. This is true for most Islamic schools of thought. Individuals must make their decisions alone. Given such an attitude, the individuality of ideas and actions within an overall commonalty of purpose is pervasive. The bearing of all this on garden design and planning is both direct and obvious; the right decision in one development seldom can be transplanted directly to another development in another setting. Jellicoe (1975) offers an example:

While the Persian tradition of the char-bagn or fourfold garden was the basis of Mughal design, the emperors were no mere copyists. Their gardens were adapted and developed according to the demands of climate and site and even, upon occasion, reflected state policies toward foreign powers, particularly in their architecture.

This appreciation of regional variations among the Islamic gardens across the Middle East is the key to its rich and diversified typology.

The concept of multiple use

(Back to top)
The typical Islamic garden is a life-sustaining oasis, benefiting humans, birds, and animals. It is an orchard/garden, growing fruits and often aromatic herbs for human consumption. Its trees provide food, water, and resting places for birds, and its walls may contain dovecotes. It provides water for all kinds of creatures. In short, it is as useful and productive as it is beautiful (Llewellyn 1983).

The current, Post-Renaissance notion of what constitutes a garden would have been unintelligible to a medieval Muslim. Producing food while at the same time displaying beauty and accommodating leisure activities is a multiple-use concept that has been declining through the centuries. On the whole, the Islamic concept of open space planning is an inseparable component of mixed-use built form. The functions may be combined hierarchically but they ultimately have to produce an organized complex of great internal clarity to accommodate such activities as movement, formal and informal gathering, prayer and meditation, individual and group learning, orientation and identification, and active and passive recreation (Skidmore and others 1981).

The concept of moderation

(Back to top)
In contrast to the profound dichotomy of European design thinking, represented on one hand by Le Notre in France and on the other by Capability Brown in England, the Islamic garden portrays an equilibrium of both the rational and the natural. Throughout Europe, the two European schools of thought in exterior design were demonstrated in its gardens. In France, Versailles conformed to Cartesian criteria, highlighting the triumph of reason over nature, with man imposing his will upon the external world. In England, the romantic landscape garden symbolized the unconditional surrender of human spirit to nature (MacDougal and Ettinghausen 1976). On the other coast of the Mediterranean, the Muslim designer reached out to a more balanced and newly synthesized position. Echoing the Qur'anic teaching of "we have indeed created you a middle nation," his effort was focused on seeking the Truth, the Way and the Divine Law anywhere they could be found.

In brief, noble intentions precede, in the mind of Muslim designers and craftsmen, any impressive patterns, traditional appearances, or attractive artifacts. As Hill (1964) notes:

The craftsmen of a thousand years ago worked towards some definite goal -- the completion of the Qur'an in honor of God, of a mausoleum in honor of their family or some such worthy object. Today the modern artist often fails when any commission for a modern decoration is given in that he simply works for himself, by himself and within himself, however much he may deny this.


(Back to top)
Just as Muslim science and medicine preserved and finally passed on to the Western world much of the knowledge of the ancient world, so Islamic garden design was important both because of its own solutions of many great environmental problems and because it became the great mediating force between the landscape architecture of the Eastern world and the West, as well as one of the great inspirations behind many Renaissance gardens.

It is not a new era in the history of humankind when one culture influences another or one civilization shares the heritage of a former one. It is natural for every nation to build in its own way, first borrowing from the past and then passing to future generations its own special achievements.

To a modern designer, the Islamic gardens of the Middle East may provide new insights and fresh inspiration. They also may illustrate how people in different times and places have successfully related to arid and semiarid environments and how they have coexisted and thrived on the land.

It may not be appropriate today to replicate the old designs in every detail, but certain human needs persist, no matter what the time or place: fresh air to breathe, a warm place to sit and rest, a beautiful landscape to view, a nice sound to enjoy, and a private place to repose and to reflect, to meditate, and to come closer to nature and to one's soul.

References & further reading

(Back to top)
Abdalati, H. 1975. Islam in focus. Brentwood (Maryland): American Trust Publications.

Ali, A. Y. 1977. The Holy Qur'an: Text, translation and commentary. Brentwood: American Trust Publications.

Bier, C. 1984. Earthly paradise: Garden and courtyard in Islam: A book review. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 18(1):105-07.

Brookes, J. 1987. Gardens of paradise. New York: New Amsterdam Books.

Creswell, K.A.C. 1968. A short account of early Muslim architecture. Beirut: Lebanon Bookshop.

Crowe, S., and S. Haywood. 1972. The gardens of Mughul India. London: Thames and Hudson.

Eckbo, G. 1969. The landscapes we see. New York: McGraw Hill.

ElAraby, K. M. 1972. Arabesque: The legacy of Islamic architecture in Europe. Arab World. March-April.

Hamed, S. El-D. The Islamic garden. In The Arab city, edited by I. Serageldin and S. El-Sadek. Washington: Arab Urban Development Institute.

Hill, D. 1964. Islamic architecture and its decoration. London: MacLehose & Co.

Hitti, P.K. 1966. A short history of the Near East. Princeton: Van Nostrand.

Ibn-Taimiyya, T. 1982. Public duties in Islam: The institution of the Hisbah, translated by M. Holland. London: The Islamic Foundation.

Irving, W. 1979 (reissue). The Alhambra. New York: Crescent Books.

Jellicoe, G. and S. 1975. The landscape of man. London: Thames and Hudson.

Lesiuk, S. M. 1980. Landscape planning for energy conservation in the Middle East. Ekistics January/February: 66-68.

Llewellyn, O. 1982. Desert reclamation and Islamic law. Unpublished.

__. 1983. Shariah values pertaining to landscape planning and design. In Islamic architecture and urbanism, edited by A. Germen. Dammam (Saudi Arabia): King Fisal University.

MacDougal, E., and R. Ettinghausen (eds.). The Islamic garden. Washington: Dumberton Oaks.

Moore, C. W. and others. 1988. The poetics of gardens. New York: John Wiley & Co.

Nasr, S. H. 1987. Islamic art and spirituality. Ipswich (Suffolk): Golgonooza Press.

__. 1988. Islam and the West. Unpublished proposal for a six-part film series.

Newton, N. T. 1971. Design on the land. Cambridge (Massachusetts): The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Oldham, J. and R. 1980. Gardens in time. Sydney: Lansdowne Press.

Qutb, S. 1979. In the shade of the Quran, Vol. 30. London: MWH Publisher.

Shirvani, H. 1985. Philosophy of Persian garden design: The Sufi tradition. Landscape Journal 4(1):23-30.

Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. 1981. Design guidelines for Makkah campus. Unpublished report.

Thacker, C. 1979. The history of gardens. Berkeley: The University of California Press.

Tobey, G. B. 1973. A history of landscape architecture: The relationship of people to environment. New York: American Elsevier Publishing Co., Inc.

Wahab, M. A. 1980. Islamic art: Its doctrine and formation. Al-Ithad April/June:10-20.

bar denoting end of article text

Author information

(Back to top)
Safei El-Deen Hamed is Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture at The University of Maryland at College Park.

About the Arid Lands Newsletter

Link to ALN home page Link to index page for back web issues Link to index page for pre-web issue archive Link to this issue's table of contents