garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
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.
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…