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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

Gardens of paradise

In Marrakech, gardens are havens of peace, a refuge from the noise, toil and heat of the city. Enclosed, geometric, with cool splashing water and fragrant blossoms, they have long been perceived as places where mortals can experience paradise on earth. They differ from Western designs that value movement through gardens; instead these are places perfectly at rest.

The palais de la Bahia, in the heart of the Marrakech medina, was a lavish private home created by the sultan for his grand vizier (prime minister) in the late 1800s. Blurring the distinction between inside and out, it consisted of a series of ornately decorated rooms arranged around private courtyards. It was here that the vizier installed his four wives, two score concubines, and many servants and guards. Today, entry through a wooden gate leads directly to a tranquil walled garden full of the scent of orange blossom.

The internal courtyards each have their own character. The first is small and delightful, its four symmetrical beds edged with patterned screens and planted with orange trees and palms. A central stone fountain sits serenely among the bright, intricate designs of the zellij (mosaic tiles) of the flooring. The space is surrounded by arcades of ornate wooden fretwork, while handsome cedarwood doors open to reveal horseshoe-shaped arches and playful mirrors.

A second courtyard is simpler. In the centre is a large water basin, standing on checkerboard zellij flooring, while plain plaster walls are broken up by Andalusian style painted cedarwood doors.

The main courtyard is altogether grander – a large open space, coloured cream and pale green, with zellij and marble floor tiles, and a low rectangular central water feature.

Here are no plants, save for a few in pots, but palm trees (located outside the courtyard) tower over the low buildings and their lattice-screened arcades.

Image from linternaute.com

The final (and oldest) courtyard has a shabby charm all its own. In need of some repair to the crumbling floors and stonework, it nevertheless feels intimate and lush, with its bananas, jasmine, orange trees, bougainvillea and palms, simple water basins, and pretty screens concealing arcades of painted cedarwood and sumptuous tiling.

Designed to appeal to all the senses, with perfumed flowers and fruit, tactile surfaces, the sound of splashing water, and intricate visual patterning, these courtyards belie the simplicity of their layout to provide cool, intimate sanctuaries full of fine craftsmanship and lush greenery – a glimpse of heaven on earth.

The next post will be on a centuries-old ruined Marrakech garden, and a famous modern one…


15 comments on “Gardens of paradise

  1. Elephant's Eye
    February 22, 2011

    Why I wonder are there no plants in the main courtyard? Was it used as a meeting place for crowds? But it would be very hot surely?

    • landscapelover
      February 22, 2011

      Hi. Interesting question. The large space was apparently the harem’s courtyard (surrounded by rooms for each concubine), so I wonder if it was mainly used in the cool of the evening?
      There is little information readily available on the palace, so I am only guessing. Equally, it could be that it was planted when it was first built in the nineteenth century, and has only become so open more recently.

      • landscapelover
        February 23, 2011

        It’s also worth mentioning that the state rents out this space – as a film set (e.g. for Hideous Kinky, Brideshead Revisited, a Prince / Salma Hayak music video), for a jazz festival, and even for a birthday party for rapper P. Diddy, which would explain its current open layout.
        But I’ve been searching and have just found this old photo (from c1910-1925) that shows the courtyard pretty much exactly how it looks now: Bahia courtyard photo With thanks to fellow blogger Jane Librizzi at http://thebluelantern.blogspot.com/

  2. Kerry Hand
    February 23, 2011

    Interesting what you say about movement through as the western concept. The gardens are surely peaceful.
    But a lot of the photos you have show an “Allee” and have the sense of drawing you forward ?

    • landscapelover
      February 23, 2011

      Thanks for the question. I think you’re right that the patterned pathways (plus the perfume, the sound of water and the glimpse of dappled light) are designed to draw you out into the garden. But once there, it is a place of rest and ease – there is not that sense of a journey, or what one critic calls “sequential discovery” that is common in many western gardens.

  3. How beautiful, your photos really capture the patterns. How did you get all the people out of the way–it looks like you were there by yourself?

    • landscapelover
      February 23, 2011

      Thanks. Marrakech is fairly quiet in February – the evenings are still cool, and the tourists apparently start to arrive en masse in March. Even so, there were a fair few people at the palace, and some photos that I couldn’t get – including one of an empty main courtyard, which is why I’ve reproduced an image from another site.

  4. Garden Sense
    February 24, 2011

    Very enjoyable tour, you beautifully captured a sense of the place. I’ve awarded you the Stylish Blogger Award – you can visit Garden Sense to learn more, if you’d like. If you’d rather not participate, no problem. But I hope more people will discover your great blog!

    • landscapelover
      February 24, 2011

      Thanks for the kind words. I won’t collect the award, but am grateful to you for thinking of me.

  5. Jean
    February 24, 2011

    The sense of tranquility comes through so strongly in your photos. I felt my muscles relaxing and my blood pressure going down just from looking at them! It must have been wonderful to experience. -Jean

    • landscapelover
      February 24, 2011

      Jean – you’re right. The contrast between the hot, noisy, busy city (right outside the walls of this palace) and the quiet, cool gardens is wonderful. It’s two worlds juxtaposed.

  6. lifeshighway
    February 24, 2011

    So much beauty. I love the tile work and the colors. I did not even know I wanted to go to Marrakech and now I must begin nagging my hubby.

    Great photos, just lovely.

    • landscapelover
      February 25, 2011

      Thanks. Not many plastic flamingos sadly – but you’ll see from the next post there were lots of real storks…

  7. Pingback: Marrakech gardens old & new « Landscape Lover's Blog

  8. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    February 28, 2011

    What a feeling of paradise this post brings! I love the collection of details in your images, which is one of the most important ingredients in these gardens. I can even fell the quiteness here!

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This entry was posted on February 22, 2011 by in Gardens, Morocco and tagged , , .

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