Gardens have great importance in Morocco, as elsewhere in the Muslim world. As an earthly version of the paradise described in the Quran, they are places of repose and reflection, but also somewhere heaven meets earth, where humans may encounter the divine.
The idea of the Moorish garden
In Morocco, and especially somewhere like Marrakech, which sits on the divide between the desert and the sown, it is easy to understand the appeal of the Moorish garden. The Moorish garden usually has orange trees, flowers and a water feature, all intended to provide calm, shade, perfume, beauty and pleasure. The sound of the fountain adds tranquillity and a sense of luxury, but also provides water for the rest of the garden. Marrakech and the northern slopes of the Atlas Mountains boast a variety of wonderful gardens, many of which are open to the public.
'Agdal' is an Amazigh (Berber) word for both a closed garden and a grazing land up in the mountains. The agdal as grazing land was crucial to the herds and, as their survival depended on it, the tribes always respected and looked after these lands. The Agdal of Marrakech was originally spread over 500 hectares, about the same size as the entire medina. Laid out as a garden in 1156 by the Almohads, the Marrakech Agdal is centred around the Sahraj el Hana (Tank of Health), a pool that became infamous after the 19th-century Sultan Mohammed IV drowned while out rowing with his son. It is now surrounded by orchards, a palm grove and several ornamental pavilions. Sitting just beyond the royal palace, it is open to the public daily, but closed on weekends if the king is in residence.
The closed city garden
The word ‘riad’ refers specificially to a house with an enclosed garden, something the French orientalist painter Jacques Majorelle understood when he planted his garden in the Guéliz area of Marrakech in the 1930s. Cactuses collected from around the world, majestic palms, bougainvillea and a wonderful bamboo forest surround his studio-house, the bright green of the plants reflected in many slender pools, and set off by the cobalt blue on pots and walls. Restored by the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, who lived next door, the Jardin Majorelle & Museum (Avenue Yaqoub el Mansour) has become one of the city’s most popular attractions.
An arsat is an orchard garden, where vegetables grow in the shade of citrus, fig, quince, pomegranate and other fruit trees, which are in turn shaded by date palms. Although it calls itself a jnane (a paradise garden), the garden of the Jnane Tamsna guesthouse is most like an arsat. Sitting in the middle of the palmeraie some miles from the medina, planned by the ethno-botanist Gary Martin, the Tamsna garden includes orange trees, pomegranates and rosemary, and produces organic vegetables which are used in the guesthouse kitchen. Jnane Tamsna also organises gardening workshops and promotes the use of herbs in medicine and cosmetics for adults and children. Visitors may book for lunch if they are not staying at the house.
Herbs and spices continue to play an important part of healthcare in Morocco, and have a growing role in the relatively new luxury spa business. Although herbalists of the region have traditionally gone to collect wild plants and seeds in the Atlas Mountains – and sold them in the Marche des Epices in Marrakech – many products are now grown in market gardens, such as the Jardins Bioaromatiques de l'Ourika (Nectarôme). Up in the Ourika Valley, a short drive from Marrakech, the organic Nectarome Garden (www.nectarome.com) produces fifty different aromatic and medicinal plants, as well as a range of essential oils. Guided visits and workshops involving plant use are available.