Moorish Gardens in Spain

I love indoor/outdoor living spaces.  Did you know that we have the Moors to thank for the whole idea?  The Moorish garden always begins with a beautiful courtyard, or patio (a distinctly Moorish concept) and spreads outward to carefully tended spaces beyond the walls of the main dwelling.

Picture, if you will, a long courtyard with a beautiful reflecting pool running though its center, flanked by fruit trees and fragrant, exotic flowers.  100 young girls (dressed in white with tiny blossoms woven through their hair?) are lined up around the reflecting pool, waiting to be presented to the Sultan, whose harem they will soon join.  These 100 girls are a tribute paid by the few remaining Christian kings in the north of Spain, whose territories were left untouched when the Moors swept through most of the country and conquered it in the 8th century.  The Patio de las Doncellas, or Courtyard of the Maidens, will be filled with 100 virgins each year for 80 long years — or so the legend goes.

For me, gardens are not so much about plants.  Gardens are stories people tell about their dreams and their fears; stories that ultimately reflect their relationship with nature, with god, and with their fellow man.  I am fascinated by gardens in Andalusia because the story is actually stories, a compendium of tales told by two very disparate cultures — the Moors and the Christians — throughout many generations of conquest, assimilation, the usual politics and propaganda (the 100 virgins story isn’t likely true) and ultimately, creative synthesis.

I recently visited the extensive gardens of the Reales Alcazares in Seville and the Alhambra in Granada, both prime examples of this creative synthesis (and of the intriguing stories of the people who created them).

The gardens closest to, and within, the buildings of both the Alhambra and the Reales Alcazares retain the most Moorish influence.  In the Reales Alcazar for example, an inner courtyard has been excavated to show a delightful design of fruit trees grown several feet lower than the walking path, enabling visitors to walk along the path and easily reach out to pluck a piece of fruit from the upper branches of the trees.   In the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra, courtyards feature fountains that remain unadorned with human statues because the Koran forbade the depiction of the human body.

But even in the outer gardens, which bear the indelible mark of the Christian kings who came after the reconquest, Moorish influence persists.   Water features for example (a primary motif in a Moorish garden) are still a key theme and retain a distinctly Moorish feel: low fountains, overflow pools that are filled to the brim and often designed in the pattern of a blossom, interconnected channels paved with beautiful tiles that allow water to run between fountains and various garden “rooms”.  Many other Moorish motifs persist as well, such as pathways paved with pebbles that are arranged in a unique design.

Over time, as the Christian kings piled up, so did the addition of “new” types of hardscape: renaissance fountains, Gothic balustrades, and human sculptures.  For example, the Renaissance-style pavillion, or gazebo, in the Reales Alcazar garden was added by Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1500 to 1558.   Charles also spent quite a bit of time at the Alhambra and he told his own story quite clearly there through his choice of architectural styles: the towering spires of his palace speaks strongly of concerns with territorial expansion, the security of his throne, and fulfilling his role as the defender of an increasingly threatened Catholic faith.

One could safely assume that Charles, who was a great student of botany, would have continued his story in the garden somehow.  After all, one of his greatest concerns at the time was the threat of Suleiman the Magnificent, who was very interested in reconquering Spain and spreading the Islamic faith.  I can imagine Charles wanting to rid his gardens of all Moorish influences, just as George Washington did when the British were readying themselves to quash the American revolution.  But, unlike good old George, he doesn’t appear to have done so — and thank goodness.

The gardens of the Moors were designed to be a paradise that engages all of the senses at once with beautiful color, wonderful fragrance, soothing sounds, and even luscious tropical fruits to munch on.  But above all, a garden was meant to be a place of quiet contemplation.  I think they got it just right.




  1. Susan Kilday says

    Your vivid depiction conjures curiosities about what my own garden says about me or my life. ;) I do hope we make it to Ravello together soon!

    • Nan Dawkins says

      I started thinking about the stories gardens tell after I read the book Founding Gardeners. It was so fascinating to me that George Washington yanked out every plant that was not native to America as he sat there waiting for the British to arrive. Then when I visited Thomas Jefferson’s home (Monticello) I struck up a conversation with someone in the museum about the tomato seeds planted by Jefferson that are still active seeds. That got me thinking about how gardens really are historical record in a way. I don’t know why it surprises me that gardens tell stories — any creative endeavor tells a story I suppose (architecture for example). In any event, I’m fascinated — and delighted — by gardens as stories or records of people who lived in a different time and what it is that drove them. Another one of my weird preoccupations. :) Can’t wait to see you in Croatia (and then on to Italy!)

  2. Chris S. says

    Love the pictures and your thoughts on gardens. Thanks again for meeting us in Paris…and the lovely dinner.

    • Nan Dawkins says

      I can’t believe we were able to get together in Paris! What a memory! Hope you had a great trip back!

  3. Sharon Davis says

    The various textures of gardens always intrigue me. Texture is a dimension of music and some gardens have such rich texture I can almost hear the strains of glorious melodies floating around.

    • Nan Dawkins says

      Hadn’t thought about it that way. Makes me think of savants who can play a painting (see notes as colors). The next time I’m in a garden (today, in Cornwall England) I’m going to listen for the melodies!


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