Connected Histories

'Gardens and Landscaping' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article discusses traditional forms of gardens and landscaping in the Islamic world. Authored by D. Fairchild Ruggles and June Taboroff, this article is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Traditional Forms

Islamic gardens from India to Morocco have fascinated architects, historians, and travelers since the fifteenth century C.E. and have been the subject of exuberant descriptions and representations. Today, unfortunately, few of the flowers and planting arrangements in the palace courtyards, tomb gardens, and pleasure retreats are historically accurate, yet a sense of the original often lingers in the layout of stone walkways leading to ornamental pools and fountains, overlooked by charming airy pavilions. One of the most striking elements of the Islamic garden is the use of pools of water as reflective elements mirroring adjacent pavilions, the water 's placid horizontal surface enlivened by occasional fountain jets spurting vertically. The water is often conducted from one pool to another in small channels running alongside of paved walkways, the path of water and pedestrian together delineating the garden 's geometrical plan.

Despite the universal appeal of Islamic gardens, their documentation has leaned more toward the descriptive than the analytical, with the result that fundamental issues of garden typology and meaning have not been satisfactorily explained. For example, there is an ongoing debate among twentieth-century scholars regarding the origins of the Islamic garden. Its primary focus—the cross-axial plan exemplified by the fourteenth-century Court of the Lions of the Alhambra Palace in Granada and the linear plan exemplified by the Alhambra 's Court of the Myrtles—are generally traced to Persian or Roman antecedents. Many scholars reject the idea of eastern influence and propose a strictly Roman legacy of peristyle courtyards and impluvia, as found at Conimbriga in Portugal. Perhaps the divide is caused by the failure to recognize that Islamic culture rests equally on the two foundations, and that the contribution of Persian culture is stronger in the east while Roman influence is more powerful in the Mediterranean.

The question of the origins and development of the Islamic garden is complicated by certain modern historiographic factors. First, the sources of information exist in languages as diverse as Arabic, Turkish, Persian, French, German, and Spanish, making most readers dependent upon translations by Orientalist scholars. In many cases, key sources have been translated poorly or not at all. Second, until recently the excavations of historic sites have focused exclusively on architectural remains, ignoring altogether opportunities for the excavation of gardens. However, current research may be bringing us closer to understanding the origins and the development of Islamic garden typology.

Several scholars have identified the existence of two types of gardens, linear and cross-axial. Georges Marçais writes that landscape gardening began in Iran before the advent of Islam. It consisted of two types: the courtyard garden and esplanade within an architectural framework, as depicted in Persian miniatures and garden carpets, and the larger suburban park (ḥayr), associated with palaces such as the ninth-century Jawsaq al-Khāqānī at Sāmarrāʿ (Iraq), where it was a royal game preserve. In contrast, James Dickie, while also identifying two formal plans, traces both to Roman urban and rural garden types. He regards the cross-axial plan as belonging to the villa rustica (rural villa) and the linear as belonging to the enclosed courtyards of the domus urbana (urban house). Unfortunately there has been little agreement among scholars as to the degree to which the two types developed independently or in relation to each other; however, new evidence suggests that the two gardens may have arisen from different contexts.

David Stronach has identified at Cyrus the Great's palace at Pasargadae what appears to be the earliest datable cross-axial garden. On the basis of excavated evidence from Pasargadae, it is now possible to trace the origins of the quadripartite Persian garden plan to the sixth century B.C.E. Additionally, Tilo Ulbert, working at the Byzantine-Islamic city of Rusafa in Syria, has excavated the earliest surviving dated Islamic garden with a cross-axial plan. It consists of an irregular enclosure fed by a seasonal stream and walled with mud brick. In the center was a square pavilion raised on a plinth with axial walkways leading in the four cardinal directions.

Among the many excavated and studied Roman gardens one is known to have had a true (as opposed to an implied) cross-axial plan, leading to the tentative conclusion that the linear axis may have predominated in the Roman Mediterranean context whereas the cross-axial form (in Persian, chahār bāgh) was a Mesopotamian contribution. Ultimately both forms proliferated in the Islamic world: the cross-axial type can be found abundantly in Morocco and the west; the linear type is found in the terraced gardens of Kashmir. Moreover, both forms are used today by contemporary landscape designers throughout the Islamic world.

Descriptions of gardens abound in historical sources. Early ones are often found in the writings of Arabic geographers such as Ibn Ḥawqal (second half of the tenth century), who traveled to Sicily, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and Transoxiana. He is a particularly accurate source, having based his work on direct observation, whereas many other geographers relied on hearsay. Such texts tend to be brief and nonspecific; they often mention the existence of gardens and occasionally state who owned them and their source of water, but rarely do they offer much information as to their appearance.

Poetic panegyrics can be useful as well, although they are prone to exaggeration. Such an example is al-Shaqundī 's poem boasting of the wonders of Spain. Of Málaga he wrote, “its environs are so covered with vines and orchards as to make it almost impossible for the traveller to discover a piece of ground which is not cultivated.” Also valuable are chronicles and dynastic histories eulogizing the accomplishments of a royal house, such as Aḥmad ibn Abū Yaʿqūbī 's ninth-century history of the ʿAbbāsids, with its description of the founding of Sāmarrāʿ and its landscape of orchards and gardens. Likewise, the Bāburnāmah recorded Ẓahīr-ud-Dī Muḥammad Bābur 's patronage and planting of gardens in sixteenth-century Central Asia at the stations where his army camped on their way into India. Bābur is particularly important as it was he who brought the Persian garden form to India, and yet with the exception of a lotus-shaped pool in one garden and the debated layout of another, nothing remains from this important formative phase from which the great Mughal garden tradition emerged.

Travel writers (like geographers) are particularly useful because they describe gardens for an audience that has not seen them and does not fully understand their context. Thus in the account of Timur 's gardens of Samarkand, the ambassador Ruy González de Clavijo describes a geometrical layout on sloping terrain with a central axial canal, pools, trees, a central pavilion, and an entrance portal. Similarly, there are several descriptions of the gardens of Isfahan recorded by foreign visitors such as John (Jean) Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, and Engelbert Kaempfer. The last is noteworthy for having included an engraved plan of the palace quarter with its extensive gardens.

Despite the abundance of written texts, few historic gardens have been studied or excavated to discover their material remains. Unusual is M. T. Shepard Parpagliolo's study (1972) of a sixteenth-century garden in Afghanistan; this is a preliminary survey prior to an excavation that never occurred, combining historical descriptions with observations at the site. Also notable is Henri Seyrig's discussion (1931) of a garden attached to the Umayyad agricultural estate Qasr al-Hayr, Syria. In Morocco, a twelfth-century garden was excavated by Jacques Meunié and Henri Terrasse in 1952. In Spain, renowned for palace gardens, studies have been made of Murcia Castillejo, the Seville Alcázar, Madīnat al-Zahrāʿ, and the Alhambra (see especially work by Leopoldo Torres Balbás and a 1993 reappraisal of the sequence of excavations in the Islamic western Mediterranean by D. Fairchild Ruggles). However, in these excavations it is generally the architecture of the garden that has been examined—pavements, water channels, and pavilions—rather than botanical remains. Gardens are indicated on plans as empty spaces; this is visually misleading, yet to fill the spaces with imagined vegetation would be equally misleading, because we have very little idea of the contents and organization of gardens. Thus, without seed flotation, pollen analysis, and simple digging to unearth buried tools and ceramic containers, an important aspect of garden history may be overlooked.

Manuscript illustrations may occasionally yield reliable factual information on the floral content of gardens. A particularly useful case is a sixteenth-century manuscript of the Bāburnāmah showing the architect holding a grid plan as he directs workers laying out the Bāgh-i Wafā garden. This is the only garden plan known to have survived. In order to show the garden in its entirety, the convention was adopted of representing it as a tiny plot of land, accuracy of scale being sacrificed for the sake of including detail. The garden consisted of a walled enclosure with fruit trees and a raised bed divided into symmetrical quadrants, the cross-axial plan defined by raised walkways lined with water channels. The techniques of mensuration, leveling, spading, and design—and even the patron, Bābur—are all depicted. Also valuable are the agricultural manuals, botanical manuals, and almanacs from the medieval and later periods. Daniel Varisco (1989) has worked on Yemen, Jürgen Jakobi (1992) has worked on Iran, and Lucie Bolens (1981) has published extensively on the botanicals of medieval Islamic Spain. For a study of the economics of agriculture, plant migration, and the impact of the introduction of new plant types, based largely on his reading of these manuals, Andrew Watson (1983) is a useful source. John Harvey's studies (in the journal Garden History) of plant lists inform us as to the contents of the gardens but not their organization. A notable exception is a manuscript by Ibn Luyūn that gives instructions for the optimal placement of the house, arbor, pavilion, vines, and other features in a Andalusian garden.

In addition to studies of treatises and agricultural practice, there are a few rare studies of gardens within the conceptual framework of human geography. James Wescoat (1990), for example, looks at Mughal gardens within a larger landscape context, seeing them as the product of a Pan-Islamic typology and regional hydraulic, climatic, and social requirements.

Unfortunately, the abundance of informative texts notwithstanding, without more excavation of specific sites and examination of landscapes in their entirety, interpretive studies of garden iconography and meaning will continue to make assertions for which there is little confirming evidence. One such assertion is the widespread notion that all Islamic gardens have a paradisiac dimension. While paradise is specifically invoked in the building inscriptions of later gardens such as that of the Taj Mahal in Agra, where the choice of Qurʿānic verses is insistently eschatological, the paradisiac theme may not, in fact, have been explicitly incorporated into garden design and meaning until the eleventh century. At this time the Islamic world underwent a number of changes—architecturally in the proliferation of mausoleums as a new form of architectural patronage (particularly in Egypt, Iran, and Central Asia) and politically in the fall of the Umayyad caliphate of Spain, the rise of new dynasties throughout the Islamic world, and the presence of ever-increasing numbers of Turks throughout central and eastern Islam.

Without a detailed understanding of the botanical character of historic gardens, it is difficult to make accurate restorations; thus bougainvillea, a New World vine, anachronistically adorns Spanish Islamic gardens today. Despite the difficulties, however, garden designers of the twentieth and twenty-first century often draw on past forms in an attempt to reassert a self-conscious Islamicism, in some cases in defiance of international modernism (regarded as antithetical to the expression of national identity), or in other cases in an attempt to blend nationalism (often confused with “tradition”) with modernity by realizing in new materials designs using a historically based vocabulary of fountains, ornamental water chutes (chādar), pools, and paved walkways.


  • Brookshaw, Dominic P.“Palaces, Pavilions, and Pleasure-Gardens: The Context and Setting of the Medieval Majlis.”Middle Eastern Literatures6, no. 2 (July 2003): 199–223.
  • Habib, Irfan. The Agrarian System of Mughal India, 1556–1707. 2d rev. ed.New Delhi and New York, 1999. Important study of agricultural history.
  • Jakobi, Jürgen. “Agriculture between Literary Tradition and First-Hand Experience: The Irshād al-zirāʿah of Qāsim b. Yūsuf Abū Nasrī Havarī.” In Timurid Art and Culture: Iran and Central Asia in the Fifteenth Century, edited by Lisa Golombek and Maria Subtelny, pp. 201–208. Leiden, Netherlands, and New York, 1992.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Islamic Aesthetics: An Introduction. Edinburgh, 2004.
  • MacDougall, Elisabeth, and Richard Ettinghausen, eds.The Islamic Garden. Washington, D.C., 1976.
  • Moynihan, Elizabeth B.Paradise as a Garden: In Persia and Mughal India. New York, 1979.
  • Reifenburg, Adolf. The Struggle between the Desert and the Sown: The Rise and Fall of Agriculture in the Levant. Jerusalem, 1955. Important contribution to agricultural history.
  • Ruggles, D. Fairchild. Gardens, Landscape, and Vision in the Palaces of Islamic Spain. University Park, Penn., 2000.
  • Varisco, Daniel. “Medieval Agricultural Texts from Rasulid Yemen.”Manuscripts of the Middle East4 (1989): 150–154.
  • Watson, Andrew M.Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World: The Diffusion of Crops and Farming Techniques, 700–1100. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1983.
  • Wilber, Donald N.Persian Gardens and Garden Pavilions. 2d ed.Washington, D.C., 1979.

D. Fairchild Ruggles

Contemporary Forms

Contemporary landscape design in the Middle East and North Africa is a little-documented subject. In contrast to the dynamic architectural inventiveness of the region, there has been little of an innovative nature either in design or in the use of plant materials, despite the strong historical traditions of garden design in the Islamic world. Nevertheless, several projects of note can be cited, and important trends can be identified that help situate gardens and landscaping in the context of the environmental, social, and cultural context of the region. Two critical areas of environmental pressure in the region—the degradation of urban environments and the declining availability and quality of freshwater resources—intensify the importance of gardens and green space to the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa.

Since the 1960s cities in the Middle East and North Africa have seen the most radical transformation ever experienced in their millennia of urban development. Urban populations have quadrupled from about 32 million to about 130 million in one generation. Today the region's cities house more than 50 percent of the total population and are continuing to grow at explosive rates of 4 to 6 percent a year. As urban sprawl and the population have increased, especially in the megacities of Cairo, Tehran, and Istanbul, the area reserved for gardens and parks has contracted. Many Middle Eastern cities, for example Algiers and Tunis, have almost negligible green space per inhabitant. World standards for green space in urban situations recommend five acres per thousand people; in 1983 Alexandria, Egypt, offered only one-third acre per thousand inhabitants, down from three-quarters twenty-five years earlier. Moreover, massive air pollution problems in the megacities, as well as in secondary cities such as Sfax and Oran, argue for the planting of city trees and the creation of new parks to help the cities and their inhabitants breathe. The urban land-use policies of most of the region have failed to provide for adequate access to parks and gardens for city dwellers.

Even more threatening to health and human welfare in the region is the crisis of water supply. Water has always been a limited resource in much of the Middle East and North Africa. Nevertheless, only thirty years ago, renewable freshwater resources were estimated at 3,000 cubic meters per person per year, or about three times the conventional definition of water scarcity of 1,000 cubic meters. Rapid population growth, inefficient use of water for irrigation, and new industrial requirements have created a situation in which, in 1990, only seven countries in the region had a per-capita supply exceeding 1,000 cubic meters; by 2025 water availability for the region as a whole is expected to drop to less than 700 cubic meters per person per year. The implications for continued existence of gardens and parks is obvious, as nearly all vegetation in the arid countries demands irrigation. As the water crisis becomes more acute, landscape designers will need to develop strategies to reduce water consumption or rely on water reuse.

Perhaps the most outstanding example of recent landscape design in the Middle East is the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, completed in the late 1980s. It has the distinction of being the only landscape project to be given the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The project transformed a featureless expanse of the bare and rocky Saudi desert into a large urban parkland. Almost 75,000 cubic meters of rock and earth were excavated, and nearly half that volume of rocks and boulders and a further 35,000 cubic meters of topsoil were put in place to create the Diplomatic Quarter landscape. The scheme consists of extensive gardens around the 7.2-mile (12-kilometer) circumference of the Diplomatic Quarter, adjacent access gardens, and the neighborhood's residential intensive gardens. A thorough knowledge of the Riyadh ecosystem, including its limestone geology, drainage patterns, and climatic conditions, informed the choices of the landscape designers. The patterns of social and recreational use were also analyzed, and the scheme encourages both vigorous and contemplative activities. The cliff edges of the Wadi Hanifah became a dominant motif in the general landscape design.

The extensive areas of the project, the transition between the found landscape of the wadi, escarpment, and desert and the new city, were developed with native plants and locally found construction materials. The intensive landscape areas are an expression of the idea of the Islamic garden, a refuge of aromatic greenery. In the neighborhood centers of the Diplomatic Quarter, near mosques and shopping centers, they offer verdant islands. Among the design features are shaded walkways and screened seating areas, often within garden pavilions. Fountains and water channels create an atmosphere of repose. The landscape team used an extensive palette of native plants in the project. Plants and seeds were collected in the desert and a specially built greenhouse was established. More than fifty herbaceous plants were used, ranging from well-known varieties such as aloe (Aloe vera) and sagebrush (Artemisia judaica) to rare species such as Egyptian broomrape (Orobanche aegyptiaca). Among the trees were five types of acacia as well as jujubes (Ziziphus spina-christi), athel tree (Tamarix aphylla), and a relative of the flame tree. Wild fig trees proved very successful. Saudi Arabia has also built a much-admired system of local, regional, and national parks in recent decades. Unfortunately, other countries in the region have devoted little attention to park planning, with the exceptions of Jordan and Cyprus.

Several landscape projects were proposed for the 1992 Aga Khan Architecture Award. A Cultural Park for Children in Cairo, the result of a national design competition, is built on the site of an existing green space in the densely inhabited historic urban center. Its facilities include an open-air theater, a children's museum, and structures for the use of the local community. Also in Egypt is the Alexandria International Garden, which is significant because it is built on the site of the former municipal refuse dump. Planned as an active space, with sports fields, playgrounds, and an open-air theater, it is a step in meeting the severe shortage of open space in Alexandria. Moreover, it transforms an environmental health hazard into a recreational and green space. The landscaping of the Gold Horn in Istanbul is another project submitted to the Aga Khan Award Committee. After the Golden Horn was cleared of polluting industries and an improved infrastructure for sewerage and industrial waste was provided, landscaping was carried out. Green areas were planted and promenades and playgrounds built. It should also be noted that historic buildings were razed indiscriminately, and an appropriate archaeological survey was not undertaken before park construction took place. Although the hazardous health conditions and general deterioration characteristic of the Golden Horn have been arrested, the parks have not been adequately maintained. Each of the above projects serves an important social need, but none are outstanding in their use of plant materials, design concept, or execution.

Luxury hotels in the region are also the focus of landscape design. A well-designed garden, particularly from the point of view of planting, is in the Palais Jamai in Fez. The Cirgan Palace Hotel in Istanbul is provided with an elaborate waterfront esplanade and fountains.

Another project of importance is the Paphos Archaeological Site Improvement (Cyprus), financed by the World Bank. The landscape architect in charge has designed a system of raised walkways and landscape treatment for a major archaeological site in which the site's conservation, presentation, and interpretation are enhanced. This project represents one of the first landscape plans for an archaeological zone that takes into account conservation needs and the inherent landscape potential of the site. The rich botany of the site, with numerous endemic plants, has become a focus of the visitor's experience of the site.

An area of some activity has been the restoration of historic gardens. Key examples are the gardens at Topkapı in Istanbul and the courtyard garden in Marrakesh in Morocco undertaken by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. One can also point to the restoration of historic gardens carried out by the Turkish Touring Association at Yildiz Park in Istanbul. Much of this work, however, has been done without the benefit of detailed examination of the historical record or archaeological investigations that would permit a more reliable view of the historic appearance of the gardens and the plant materials that were used.

Landscape architecture as a professional degree is not offered in university curricula in the region. Therefore, most projects are undertaken by foreign-trained professionals (educated usually in Germany, France, Britain, the United States, or Canada) or by expatriates. Establishment of a university-level course in landscape architecture would be an important step in strengthening local capacity and furthering appreciation of landscape design.


  • Cochrane, Timothy, and Jane Brown, eds.Landscape Design for the Middle East. London, 1978.
  • Edwards, Brian, ed. Courtyard Housing: Past, Present, and Future. Abingdon, U.K., and New York, 2006.
  • Husain, S. Ali Akbar. “Exhilarating Fragrances in the Indo-Islamic Garden.” In Interaction by Design: Bringing People and Plants Together for Health and Well-Being: An International Symposium, edited by Candace A. Shoemaker, Elizabeth R. Messer-Diehl, Jack Carman, Nancy Carman, Jane Stoneham, and Virginia I. Lohr. Ames, Iowa, 2002.
  • Klein, Klaus. “Landscape Art in the DQ.”Saudi Aramco World, September/October 1992. Text available online at
  • Ruggles, D. Fairchild. Islamic Gardens and Landscapes. Philadelphia, 2007.

June Taboroff


Ruggles, D. Fairchild and June Taboroff. "Gardens and Landscaping." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #264: 'Gardens and Landscaping' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 21, 2024


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