On Andalusian Gardening: The Hidden Link in the Chain of Horticultural History

Did you know, that at Cordoba, in the 9th century, the gardeners of Abd el-Rahman I built the first botanical garden on European soil?

Did you know, that it wasn’t until over 600 years later, that the same was attempted in Christian Europe?

Did you know, that the first tulip came to Europe via Turkey to Spain, 500 years before it was taken to Holland?

What if all the horticultural history of Europe you’ve read, was wrong?

The Olive Tree – an import to Europe via al-Andalus

Sometimes I feel like this when researching Andalusian gardening traditions*. Now, I know I sound pedantic. But it truly is shocking to me how LITTLE recognition the Andalusians are given for their role in horticultural history, and as a gardener and writer, I see correcting this to be a big part of my work.

It is shocking how much European gardening owes to the Andalusian tradition. Plant species, planting techniques, garden design, water management. The monasteries of Europe were sending monks over to Spain to learn from the Andalusians throughout the early centuries of al-Andalus.

The horticultural manuals of Muslim Spain were hurriedly translated into Castilian by their Christian neighbours. Europe was thirsty for this knowledge, but it was first cultivated, and flourished, in the somewhat Arid, mountainous landscape of the southern Iberian peninsula.

Here is an introduction to Andalusian gardening. I’ve been fascinated by this subject for a few years now, and so excited and happy to share it with you, in this space. I hope it can be useful practical knowledge for all the gardeners of the Mediterranean.

And for those elsewhere, I hope it can lead to acknowledgement of the debt that’s owed to the Andalusians, and to Muslim history and its knowledge, in general.

What did Andalusian gardens look like?

It is truly phenomenal what the Andalusians were able to achieve in the land they stewarded from the 8th to the 15th centuries.

When the Amazigh (Berber) and Arab migrants arrived in al-Andalus, they found mostly arid, unworked land. Over the course of a few short centuries, they were able to cultivate the land to incredible fruitfulness, creating water management systems, and common land agreements which in some areas are still in place today.

What they achieved in the world of gardening and horticulture was equally impressive.

The flourishing of Andalusian gardening coincided with a general movement of incredible intellectual growth in the early centuries of al-Andalus. This came with the early translation movement from Greek, Sanskrit and Persian into Arabic, and the court culture that flourished in the imperial cities of the Iberian peninsula.

As the Umayyad Caliphs of Cordoba were building their grand mosques and palaces, they wanted to create gardens of shade and shelter from the sweltering heat that reflected the Quranic promise of the gardens of heaven.

As new landowners were given large swathes of arid land to farm, they had to learn and develop complex husbandry skills that could harness the fruitfulness of a land that was often dry, hot and hilly.

They took from the traditions of gardening from the Babylonians, Romans and Greeks, and transformed and developed them for their time and place.

Out of this context grew the gardens of Andalusia. These were not simply places of rest and beauty, though. They always combined beauty with fruitfulness, and with an incredible ecological consciousness which is exemplary for our time.

Making arid land fruitful – the heritage of al-Andalus

The Principles of Andalusian Gardening:

1. Land Management 

  • Good soil management as the foundation of sustainable horticulture
  • A complete system of ‘husbandry’ which integrates the learnings of horticulturalists, agronomists, tree-planters, water engineers, animal managers and herbalists/cooks. 
  • The emphasis on sustainable water use

2. Planting

  • The integration of mixed planting and companion planting into gardens, e.g. ornamental plants, vegetables, trees, all planted in harmony in the same space. Thus creating a kind of Mediterranean “Forest Garden”
  • The emphasis on fruitfulness and production of food within the garden
  • The use of drought tolerant plants and trees as listed in the Andalusian horticultural manuals
  • Mindful gardening that works with the seasons, weather and astronomical elements

3: Hard Landscaping and Infrastructure

  • Hard landscaping features that work with nature, and in particular, summer heat. E.g. Sunken beds, water rills, fountains. 
  • The creation of sanctuary in nature, for the healing of the human soul as well as the land
  • Building natural sanctuary in urban space for the use of inhabitants
  • The incorporation of other sacred craft into the garden – geometric planting, geometric tile work, plaster work on surrounding buildings, etc
The Botanical Gardens of Fez – Inheritors of the tradition of al-Andalus

What can we learn from Andalusian gardening?

Unfortunately, many of the gardens of al-Andalus (and those established in North Africa by the Andalusians) have now been lost, and those that survive do not necessarily follow the same plantings or principles as were established during their conception.

Gardens are fundamentally political bodies, that move and change and are destroyed like other remnants of past civilisations.

However, we still have the Andalusian horticultural manuals, written between the 10th and 14th centuries, outlining in incredible detail the establishment and maintenance of these gardens.

The lessons we can learn from them, in terms of sustainability and ecological awareness are immense.

Movements such as Permaculture and Spiritual Ecology have in recent decades flourished, in a world where slowly, a consciousness is building that we need to work with the land, not against it, if we are to establish sustainable agriculture and horticulture, in turn saving and stewarding the planet away from the destruction it is currently facing.

These movements do, in many ways, acknowledge the debt they owe to the civilisations of the past. Who, before the age of industrialisation, saw the Earth as a being entrusted to us as humans, that we must protect.

Equally, the traditions of Islam teach in detail the importance of the responsible stewardship of the land.

We can enrich our current movements for sustainability by incorporating and acknowledging the immense knowledge of the past. In particular, the lands of the Mediterranean and dryer countries can learn huge amounts from the traditions of al-Andalus, where water and sun were harnessed naturally, to create Earthly beauty that was sustainable and life-giving.

As gardeners, we need to re-connect with our native lands’ horticultural wisdom. We don’t need to build northern gardens on southern soil. We don’t need to create ‘Earthly paradises’ that in turn destroy the Earth itself.

Gardening is one of the most ancient and fundamental of Human creative acts. To foster, love and nurture plant life, for the purpose of beauty and life-giving power. To cultivate the land for the benefit of the Earth itself, and for the health of its plant, animal and human life.

We need to reconnect to the land. We need to reconnect to tradition, and if we do this, we might be able to create a more sustainable, beautiful world for us all to live in.

Western horticulture must also acknowledge its history, and that this tradition was in many ways the beginning of modern Western horticulture as we know it.

What Now?

Stay in touch to read more on these issues, and to learn more about the gardens of al-Andalus.

Next to come: translations and extracts from the Andalusian horticultural manuals.

Contact us for more information, discussion and collaboration.

Along with friends, we have recently established the Fez Gardens Project, which aims to restore the gardens of the medina of Fez according to traditional, sustainable, Andalusian principles. This will see the restoration of courtyard gardens, orchards and more. Follow us on Instagram or contact me for more information.

The beginnings of the Fez Gardens Project – an orchard and garden to restore

*For more information on Andalusian agriculture, the filaha.org website and its bibliographies are incredibly helpful.

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