Enclosed within high walls, roses and jasmine release heady scent, light streams through latticed screens and shimmers on water, and canopies of foliage provide relief from the sun. This is the traditional Islamic garden, designed to be a tranquil haven that provides privacy and stimulates the senses.
For centuries, many religions have regarded the garden as an earthly version of paradise. This is a core Muslim belief and, according to the Qur’an, the promise of the heavens is a floral wonderland: Allah has promised to the believing men and the believing women gardens…
The walls of the Islamic garden firmly mark it as a safe, spiritual space, set apart from the pressures of everyday life. Within them, plants and architecture create a peaceful, sensory environment that induces contemplation.
The basic layout is known as a Charbagh, comprising four areas or quadrants traditionally created by water channels (rills) that divide the space and echo the Quran, which describes paradise as a garden flowing with rivers of milk, honey, water and wine.
These beautiful designs grew out of the ancient oasis gardens of Persia, which is another reason water is always the central feature. In the dusty heat of that desert country, the ancient gardens were sanctums of greenery, where shade and water provided relief from the sun. And as well as cooling visitors, the water irrigated the plants.
Water is also used to create luminosity: shimmering in sun and shade, it mirrors the sky and surrounding trees and buildings. It also provides sound and the gentle murmuring of the waterways and the trickling of fountains relaxes guests.
This sensory mood is amplified by scent. Traditional Islamic gardens are planted with lemon and orange trees with fragrant blossom, aromatic herbs and richly scented roses, jasmine and lilies.
Sometimes the flowerbeds in the four quadrants are sunken – often to 6ft – both to capture the scent and create a mood of depth, enchantment and enclosure.
Garden of Light, Aga Khan Centre, King's Cross.
The peace and containment of the Islamic garden style is the perfect counterpart to our fast-paced world and many modern landscapers employ it to create de-stressing spaces. At the Aga Khan Centre, an educational and cultural hub in London, the Islamic garden style has been updated for the 21st century and the UK climate. Its six gardens incorporate traditional elements with contemporary design.
For instance, the Terrace of Unity employs the small ‘zellige’ tiles of Moroccan courtyard gardens, but in stone rather than traditional terracotta to endure the British weather. The Garden of Reflection features a modern black pool and sleek limestone, combined with traditional patterns from the Moorish gardens of Andalusia.
Traditional Islamic gardens can be enjoyed all over the world, including in Turkey, India, Syria, Iran and Morocco.
Some of the most famous can be seen at the Alhambra in Andalusia, southern Spain. There - in the Court of the Lions, the Court of the Myrtles and the Generalife's Court of the Water Channel - the Islamic garden is exemplified in enclosed ornate sanctums, within which water is the central feature and the hurly-burly world is shut out. In these enclosed spaces, peace reigns. Light, water and scent produce a mood of introspection and calm, much sought-after in our hectic, material world.
Visit the Aga Khan Centre gardens at King’s Cross on 9 June during the Open Garden Squares Weekend in London, 8-9 June; tickets cost £20 for access to more than 100 gardens, from opensquares.org. Saga Possibilities members can get tickets for £10 until 8 June.
How to achieve an Islamic-style garden
The Charbagh layout
Islamic gardens are split into four quarters - usually via waterways - to represent the four rivers of paradise. You could mark out the four quadrants using paths, hedging or trees rather than water, if that seems too ambitious.
Grow fragrant plants to perfume the air, such as Rosa Jacques Cartier, Rosa Jude the Obscure and Jasminum officinale ‘Devon Cream’. Instead of regular orange blossom, which is too tender for the UK climate, use Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternate).
Employ water to reflect light and create soothing sound, via a rill (a shallow channel cut into stone), fountain or pool. Lining a water feature with black or blue stone will enhance its reflective property.
Walls or latticed screens create an intimate haven that provides privacy and contains the scent of fragrant plants. Install them along boundaries or as dividers between garden areas.
Islamic gardens to visit in the UK
Aga Khan Centre at King’s Cross
Sezincote House and Gardens
Lister Park, Bradford
Highgrove House, Gloucestershire
The Alhambra Garden
Roundhay Park, Leeds
Arif Muhammad Memorial Garden
Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking
Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies
New Cambridge Mosque
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