The Moor in Our Midst: Inspiration From Africa

The present is a perpetually prolonged past. The palaces in their overgrown gardens, with pale green trellises dividing rose beds from the blue-and-white tiled paths, and fountains in fluted basins of Italian marble, all had the same drowsy charm.

Edith Wharton, In Morocco

The water-frugal gardens we associate with Andalusia and with Moorish architecture have meaning to us beyond the present vogue for drought awareness. Their small size, fine proportion, sparing use of plants, sensitive incorporation of water and use of colorful tiles and ornaments are the consummately civilized results of generations of adaptation to living in a dry land.

Perhaps we can find some new ideas and uncover a half-forgotten trick or two by looking back into a culture which was very much in touch with its environmental limitations and which, at its celebrated zenith, attained mastery of its resources through intelligent technology. Perhaps we, too, can learn to create oases with the minimum of precious water from examples to be found in Morocco, where the past is not so distant, and we have a clearer view of life in the time of the ancient Musselman and his gardens.

That Morocco, in the northwestern corner of North Africa, looks and feels like southern California isn’t surprising. The capital city, Rabat, lies at almost the same latitude as Los Angeles. The estuary of the Bou-Regreg River that separates Rabat from the pirate city of Salé looks very much like the Santa Maria River valley or La Ballona Creek in Los An­geles, with low tan bluffs rising from a flat, tan, meander-threaded plain.

The Moroccans call their country Maghreb Al-Aksa “the land of the farthest west.” Like California, it embraces a variety of spectacular scenery. Ringed with natural barriers — the High Atlas mountains, the Sahara desert, the Morocco is, like California, an environmental island. Morocco is about the same size as California, too, and, as along the Pacific shores, maritime influence brings cooling summer breezes and equable winter weather to coastal areas.

The Past

Cultural influences upon the Moors were many. At the time they invaded Spain, the Moors had become a mixture of nomadic Berber natives and their Arab conquerors, with traces of Syrian, Jewish and Greek heritage. Their language was Arabic. Their religion was Islam. This was the result of colonization from Rome and many migrations and conquests among peoples surrounding the Mediterranean, but especially of the great Arab invasion of the seventh century.

The Arabs who had imposed their manners and militant religion on Persia (now Iran) in turn adopted from the Persians the concept of a garden, carrying it with them into North Africa, Turkey, Spain and parts of Italy.

To wandering Arab tribes, a garden had meant any ground where crops — grain, dates, olives, grapes and pomegranates — could be scratched out of the uncooperative land. Green, the color of vegetation, was sacred to them. Their Koran described Edenesque gardens with four amazing underground rivers: one of clearest honey, one of pure milk, one of delectable wine and a fourth of unpolluted water. It is not surprising therefore, that the walled, rectilinear gardens they found in Persia, with their four paths converging at the center like four mythical rivers, seemed like Islam heaven to them.

Persian carpets, now museum-pieces, provide clues to the character of these gardens. In them, walled compounds are divided by crossing channels of water to create quadrants, planted with trees and flowers and populated with birds and animals.

Within this simple framework there were, invariably, pools and fountains with arrangements for irrigating the beds, roofed kiosks near the water, and straight paths crossing at the center. In some gardens there were parterres of flowers and in some a ground-cover of alfalfa as forage for horses. These basic elements remained the essence of gardens while, for centuries, the decorative elements were refined in elegant and subtle ways.

Inside the garden enclosures, the plane trees, like our sycamores, gave welcome summer shade and let in winter light. Cypress and poplar trees were favorites for tall screens. The fleeting flowers of almond, apricot, plum and orange trees were among those that yielded fruits and nuts. For scent, jasmine and violets and roses and carnations enhanced the flowerbeds, as did aromatic herbs such as lavender, rose geranium, mint, marjoram and thyme. Over fifty familiar plants have been identified from the few old manuscripts that remain. Early Persia was the plant-treasury and horticultural cradle of many of today’s best-loved plants.

Besides the gardens themselves, the Arabs embraced Persian ways of using them: for spending balmy evenings with friends in carpeted pavilions; telling stories under the stars; listening to the splash of water and the sounds of birds and enjoying the scents of flowers held on the still air.

Such pleasure-gardens as these were perfectly suitable in all countries of the Mediterranean region. They provided physical and spiritual refuge from a sere, inhospitable environment. They muffled the noises and imperatives of sun-saturated streets and provided settings for enchanted interludes. They appealed especially to the psyche of the Muslim, who, prohibited the use of alcohol by religious strictures, could use a garden as a sort of drug: a quieting agent to soothe the soul and refresh the body. In an environment of such beauty, the heat-weary might induce a state of serenity over nothing more intoxicating than a glass of sweet mint tea.

In a society that eked out a marginal existence from an uncharitable terrain, the development of agriculture became the most fundamental technology of advancement. At first, skimpy crops were limited to oases and benign coastal areas. Few surpluses ever relieved the perennial anxiety of survival. Clusters of desert-dwellers were entirely dependent on permanent wells or running water.

With native ingenuity and borrowing liberally from Persia and Syria, Arabs devised methods for conserving water. They built cool, dark, covered cisterns. They sank wells to tap underground reserves. They built waterwheels and they made underground channels, or ghanats, to direct water with minimum loss. They built dams and water-staircases in the foothills for underground ponds and other artificial bodies of water. In time, Arabs achieved an astonishing mastery of hydro-engineering. They even preserved ice brought from the mountains in straw and stored in large conical clay huts.

Terraced citrus orchards on the road to Meknes, Morocco.

Terraced citrus orchards on the road to Meknes, Morocco.

Water was thus made available for both permanent dwellers and nomads. Settlements flourished. Arab oases became productive orchards and farms. At first, only the wealthy could enjoy watermelons, dates, figs, honey, almonds, fruit-pastes and flower preserves. In time, bee- and silkworm-culture thrived. Food (rice, beans, bananas, oranges, barley, wheat, poppies, sugarcane, celery, eggplants, artichokes, cucumbers, pumpkins), herbs and spices (aniseed, fennel, basil, saffron, peppers, oregano), henna, hemp, indigo, and cotton were cultivated. Flowers were grown for the manufacture of perfumes. Myrrh- and balsam-producing plants were valued along the spice-trade routes. A highly organized body of agricultural knowledge developed from the simple needs of water conservation.

With prosperity came leisure — for a few anyway — and no greater luxury could be imagined than a pleasure garden. The art and science of gardens, the result of outwitting the elements in order to reclaim marginal areas for human habitation developed there for over a thousand years.

To fully comprehend the impact of a Moroccan garden, we must place the jewel in its setting: the context of Arab life. The hot, dust-filled streets of the earth-colored medinas (cities) present blank faces to the passerby. There is nothing in those thick, iron-hinged doors, to suggest the opulently patterned, colored and textured walls beyond. Modesty is a basic tenet of Islam and, just as a plain djellabah is worn over dressy garments in the streets, the expressionless exterior of a house belies the rich ornamentation of its interior.

There is a dramatic contrast in ambiance on entering a Moroccan house from the architecturally undistinguished streets of the rabbit-warren medinas. The heavy door is placed to allow no view of the inside. A dark, narrow passage connects the entry to an open courtyard with a dazzling wet-look of glazed tiles glistening in the sunlight. Every surface is carved or colored, as an antidote to the ennui of the monochromatic land outside. The quiet intimacy and serene order of the courtyard create a sense of living in a finite, manageable world, so unlike the chaotic, awesome, unpredictable universe beyond the door.

Morocco faces Spain across straits only a few miles wide and was important in the invasion of that country during the great Moslem conquests of the late seventh century. Their power in Spain was maintained largely from Morocco, and when driven out in the sixteenth century, many Moors settled there. What we find in Morocco now, therefore, also shows Spanish influence.

In Morocco today there are two kinds of houses, the dar and the riad. The most common, the dar, is rather like a townhouse, with a sheltered courtyard, but no real garden. The riad is more like a suburban villa with a true garden, green with trees, shrubs and flowers. It is instructive that Moroccans define and name their houses according to the kinds of gardens in them.

Both kinds of houses contain their outdoor spaces within envelopes of masonry. Like Greeks and Romans, North Africans built houses that turn in on themselves to create wells of domestic tranquility. Mirroring Islam’s emphasis on modesty and family privacy, the hidden central courts and gardens keep women, children and servants from the public eye.

The Nedjarine fountain in Fez is decorated with mosaic tile and carvings in bas-relief.

The Nedjarine fountain in Fez is decorated with mosaic tile and carvings in bas-relief.

A dar surrounds a simple, rectangular patio court with small, windowless rooms that present only a blank facade to the busy street. The paved, open-air interior room has, in the center of the floor, a small, coupe-shaped fountain, set in a catch-basin similar to the Roman impluvium. The perimeter of the court is sheltered under pillared arcades which often support a second story with inward-facing balconies overlooking the sunlit area below.

In a North African house the floor-level fountain is central not only to the patio itself, but to the entire household. It is the source of cooking and washing water and makes the courtyard the very heart of all family activity. Water is scarce in the Arab world, and Moroccans practice exquisite economy in its deployment. Every drop is conserved so that householders may enjoy the sight and sound of it, even while it is being channeled to other uses. From the central court, it may flow to other areas, become gray water and ultimately be directed to the garden for irrigation.

In addition to the functional convenience of having water nearby, a freshet makes sweet music of its own which calms and cools. Spattered water keeps the surrounding tile wet and evaporation humidifies the still air of the courtyard. Calm pools reflect fanciful architectural embellishments and shimmering water catches the light, throwing it in rippled patterns on the walls to brighten the gilt of chased brass lanterns and water-bowls.

In addition to a floor pool, a courtyard may contain a wall fount with its own sink mounted at waist level in an elaborately tiled niche. The floors and walls are surfaced with shoulder-high bands of tiles in repeating geometric patterns. The hard, non-porous tile is cool underfoot and is easily washed.

Yet the architectural elements are usually richly adorned with tapestry-like patterns of texture and color. The construction timbers of aromatic cedar are left exposed and are often lightly chiseled all over with an intricate design. Plaster is finely carved with complex arabesques and the traceries are sometimes also painted and gilded. The wooden doors of surrounding chambers may be painted in dusky pastels and decorated with floral designs of great delicacy. The floor basin is usually fluted and of Italian marble. Above, a gleaming brass lantern is hung by a long chain over the water. A canary might sing from a cage and a single potted plant might stand beside an arcade post. In the heat of summer days, the court can be screened at the top with reed mats rolled over wires extended across the opening.

Fountain and kiosk in the riad at the Mamounia Hotel, Marrakech. Photographs by the author.

Fountain and kiosk in the riad at the Mamounia Hotel, Marrakech. Photographs by the author.

The second kind of Moroccan dwelling, the riad, is little different from the dar, except that the court is lengthened along one axis to let in more light and permit the growth of plants. An outdoor pavilion, or interior porch, is usually constructed at one or both ends. A paved walk runs from end to end and another from side to side, crossing at the center, as in the old Persian gardens. A fountain pierces the crosspoint of the two paths. The four quadrants are filled with trees and flowers and aromatic herbs.

The soil in which the plants grow is about a yard below the level of the paths. When the walks are washed each day, water drips into the plants below without muddying the paths. The trees and vines can be flooded without wetting the feet of those in the garden. When flowers bloom, one has the illusion of walking on a carpet of blossoms.

Iron fencing in lacy patterns often borders the raised walks, and delicate iron or wooden treillage supports a kiosk roof over the fountain, both to keep the water cool and to screen out wind-blown leaves and debris. These kiosks — Islamic variants of the gazebo — also serve as arbors for scented vines such as jasmine and wisteria.

Inward-facing design is important in climate control. In winter gardens and courtyards are sheltered sun-pockets. In summer, they can be screened by reed mats or deciduous trees. At any time of year they can be harbors of fragrance, preventing the escape of the scents of roses, jasmine and mint.

By enlarging the courtyard to allow more sun and plants, a skillful integration of outdoor and indoor space was achieved. And the pavilions provided living space in the garden. Pavilions were also built into orchards or very large estate gardens. They were even constructed over artificial ponds and reservoirs. They were used very much as were the summerhouses of Victorian times: for eating and sipping and socializing.

For comfort, pavilions were often equipped with built in loggias: raised banquettes of tiled masonry, spread with carpets and cushions. A loggia might even be curtained against sun and wind with a drape of heavy fabric. From this slightly elevated vantage point occupants could look down upon the dimpled water and sweet-smelling flowers and appreciate the peaceful symmetry and refreshing greenery of the quiet riad.