Anyone who has ever spent a few days in Marrakech, on the Atlantic coast in Essaouira, or in the university town of Fes, knows what a unique experience such a trip can be. We often hear it described as “paradise”, which in this context is certainly not wrong. The word “paradise” originates from the old Persian “pairidaeza” (pairi: around, daeza: wall), and simply means a walled garden.
Seclusion and shelter are attributes associated with such inner courtyards. Behind thick walls which hardly a sound can penetrate, an almost monastic atmosphere of stillness prevails, transporting those inside to another world. The contrast with the crowded streets of the Medina (old town), brimming with people, noises and smells, makes crossing the threshold into the Riad something magical.
Riad translates simply as “garden”. A Moroccan Riad is usually a one or two-floored residence with a open central courtyard, which is generally square or occasionally rectangular in shape. To merit the term “Riad” as opposed to “Dar”, each sub-square of the courtyard must have a flower bed. Traditionally each bed is planted with a shadegiving orange or lemon tree. Water is very much the protagonist in the Arabian garden. The basin of water in the centre of the courtyard has not only a decorative but also a symbolic significance. It represents the source from which flow rivers of milk, honey, water and wine, the four rivers of Paradise as described in the Koran. In some of the larger and more sophisticated Arabian Patios, such as the Alhambra in Granada, narrow channels suggesting the Pishon, Gichon, Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Paradise actually lead from the fountain in the four directions of the compass. In desert lands where it was always a rare commodity, water became the ultimate elixir of life. The antithesis to the life-threatening desert, the Muslim recognises the walled garden with its lush flora and water features as a place to encounter the divine, which can lead him to inner peace.
Last May I performed a concert on my viola in such a Riad belonging to friends in Marrakech. On the programme, solo sonatas by J.S. Bach, Max Reger and Paul Hindemith. I found the acoustic within these high walls unusually agreeable, in spite of their being open to the sky. The idyll was completed by the birds such as the Tibibt (House Bunting), a small bird about the size of a sparrow, which piped up from time to time and enchanted the audience.
Scents also play an important role in the Islamic garden. As they are unable to escape from a courtyard in the same way as they could from an open garden, the essential oils emanating from a blossoming lemon tree, a jasmine bush, or rose have an unbelievably intoxicating effect on our senses.
Apart from the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, and the gentle burbling of the fountains, one can experience real tranquility and seclusion in such a place. The Islamic garden is of course also intended to beguile and gratify the senses, but more importantly its purpose is to cleanse and calm our soul. Several factors are responsible for this magnificent overall experience, but ultimately it is the simple architecture of this courtyard which significantly determines the sense of space in this microcosm, this miniature world which exists in its own right, this cube that is open and yet selfcontained.
“Se reposer à l’ombre des orangers en fleur dont le parfum embaume, tandis que
les oiseaux chantent et qu’une eau miroitante danse dans les vasques, c’est ainsi
que le monde islamique médiéval s’imaginait le paradis. Et c’est cette
image du bonheur parfait qu’il a tenté de recréer ici-bas à travers ses jardins, élevant
son savoir-faire au rang d’un art à part entière.” (Anonymous)
A Riad in Marrakech in its original form, with a lemon tree in each quarter.
The inner courtyard of the Riad.
The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra, with its four channels emanating from the lion
Plants on the terrace of the Riad, including Bougainvillea and cacti.
A Tibibt (House Bunting)
The courtyard, magical by night.