Abbasid Gardens in Baghdad and Samarra

by Qasim Al-Samarrai Published on: 11th July 2002

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The love of gardens during the Abbâsid period, whether in Baghdad or in Samarra, was born within the already existing cultural tradition of Mesopotamia, where the art of gardening had been perfected many centuries before.


Professor Dr Qasim Al-Samarrai studied comparative mysticism for his doctorate at Cambridge University. He has held teaching posts at the universities of Cambridge, Baghdad, Leiden, Garyunis (Libya) and Ibn Saud (Saudi Arabia). He has published more than 60 works on various themes and topics especially on Arabic and Islamic Paleography and Codicology.

It is a revised version of a paper read at the symposium ‘The Authentic Garden’ edited by Y. L.Tjon Sie Fat & E. de Jong, and published in the proceedings, the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, 1991, pp.115-122.

Practically the Abbasid horticultural art responded just as much to its surroundings as the Assyrian or the Persian one did in the arid and hilly country in north Mesopotamia or Persia. Despite the diversity of its origins, however, the Abbasid art of gardening was rather a new creation, in which all these elements were fused together into one new and original artistic whole by the transformation into Islamic form. Such a transformation was mainly due to the assimilative power of the Abbasid culture, often misrepresented as merely imitative. By this is meant its tendency of comparative tolerance and receptivity. Unlike the Umayyads before them, the Abbasid regime was generally liberal and tolerant, in so far that it depended for its cultural success and achievements not on one particular race or creed but on all, leaving all of them their religious, economic and intellectual freedom, and the opportunity to make a considerable contribution to the Abbasid civilisation.

Not long after the collapse of the Umayyad dynasty in 749, whose seat of the Caliphate was in Damascus, at the hands of the Abbasid house, the new victors soon transferred the seat from Syria to Iraq. Al-Mansur (754-775), the second Abbasid Caliph and in many ways the founder of the new dynasty, established the permanent seat of the Abbasid capital in the new city on the west bank of the Tigris river not far from the ruins of the old Sassanid Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The new city soon acquired an official name: Madinat al-Salam (the city of peace) or Dar al-Salam (the abode of peace), an appelation which occurs twice in the Koran (6:127; 10:26) to mean: the Heavenly Paradise. As the Abbasid dynasty came to power through a religiously motivated movement, and sought in religion the basis of unity and authority, the Koranic meaning was certainly in their mind.

On the whole, the history of the Abbasid art of gardening is almost exclusively connected with two cities, namely: Baghdad and Samarra, the second Abbasid capital built some 110 km north of Baghdad in 835 CE by the Caliph al-Mu’tasim. Here I must point out that in spite of the numerous allusions in literary and historical works to gardens and fountains, there are rarely any specific references to the architectural design of an Abbasid garden. There remains, nevertheless, certain invaluable archaeological data, which combined with literary descriptions may permit for the reconstruction, in some detail, of the Abbasid garden. Evidently the monastic art of horticulture, as it seems, was a major factor in influencing the Abbasid style at the beginning, but it soon began to be transformed into something more splendid and elaborate under Persian influence. This was characterised by a taste for costly and glittering materials, ostentatiously displayed to impress the visitor with rank, wealth and pomp of the owner. This is very much in evidence in the palaces in Samarra and then in Baghdad. Al-Mu’tadid laid the foundation of al- Taj palace (the Crown Palace) on the Tigris nearby, but he later on decided to build another palace, al- Thurayya palace (the Pleiades palace), linking it with an underground passage of more than three kilometres to his first palace. He surrounded it with magnificent gardens; and in their middle he ordered an immense lake to be dug out and filled with water, which was brought through a canal connecting two rivers; the Musa river to the east of the palace and the Tigris to the west. He, moreover, ordered the building of a large zoo to house all sorts of animals.

In the ninth century, a son of Harun al-Rashid’s who founded a new Abbasid capital, Samarra, on the Tigris which exceeded even Baghdad in luxury and splendour. Of this city, the geographer, al-Ya’qubi, writing in 889 CE reports that ‘the whole land was converted by al-Mu’tasim into gardens for the upper class’. In every garden there had to be a palace and herewith halls, ponds and playgrounds for riding and for the game of polo.

His son al- Mutawakkil, who was very fond of roses, surpassed his father in building palaces with marvellous gardens. Archaeological data combined with literary sources suggest that one of al-Mutawakkil’s seventeen palaces called al-Jawsaq al- Khaqani consisted of 432 acres, 172 of which were gardens with pavilions, halls and basins, the whole complex being surrounded by a wall. In most archaeological data concerning the architectural design of the Abbasid garden in Samarra, one feature, which will prove of great importance to the architectural form of the garden is wanting, namely the irrigation system. In reality , the water level of the Tigris in Samarra was, and still is, much lower than the adjacent area, even at the time when the water level reaches flood level in Baghdad. The first step the founder of Samarra took was to build an extensive irrigation system to bring water from the river. This he accomplished by digging huge underground canals some 40 km up the river. At the same time, he used the noria (waterwheel) technology to pump the water through the town by means of smaller sub-canals, which in their turn were conducted to almost every garden and pond in the city, and the rest of the water, if any were left, would end its journey in the river again.

We were informed that, in some gardens, waterwheels were erected and that ostriches were employed to rotate the waterwheels instead of oxen. So far, the only palace unearthed at present, and that imperfectly so, to the south of present-day Samarra, is Balkuara palace, a well known palace often mentioned in literary works. It was built by al-Mutawakkil for his son al- Mu’tazz. The palace was entered by means of wide courts, which were paved and decorated with flowering plants, perhaps in big pots. These courts one would walk through before arriving at the state-rooms; on both sides there were the courtiers’ apartments. A large courtyard, that might possibly have been rose gardens, leads directly to two larger courts, which were used as gardens or for games. Like every Abbasid palace in Samarra, this palace looked towards the river and therefore it must have had large gardens in front. Its most striking feature is the strict axial plan, which makes it possible to get a view on every side owing to the raised site of the palace.

In the palace of the Caliphate to the north of present-day Samarra, so far very superficially excavated, one can observe the same axial design. Here again, both the palace and its courts stand above the high river banks on a prominent platform, which may possibly have been a set of gardens.

Further inland one passes through an immense door into a great ornamental garden court, which gets its water from a basin in the centre by means of a long canal stretching from the north down to south-west; that is in the direction of the river. At the end of the garden there is a large sort of square grotto with an underground tunnel on both sides. In each wall there are three speciously constructed niches, dug out in each of the walls and richly ornamented with flowers and animal motifs. It was meant to be the Caliph’s private swimming pool, probably to be used during the day, and the other one situated to the north- west of the first seemed to have been allocated to the Royal ladies and to be used during the night because the entire structure must have been roofed, a stately overture to the grandeur to follow: an esplanade of a completely walled garden.

A definite favourite of al-Mutawakkil in Samarra is his Hair al-wuhush, that is his zoo (or zoological park), which he built for his own pleasure to the south of the city to house more than two thousand kinds of different animals, both wild and domesticated ones. In terms of its plan, it functions as an utterly opulent display of richness as well as a piece of engineering genius. The whole area covered by the park is about 53 square kilometres. A man-made river called Nayzak was brought to flow from the northern part of the Tigris through the park and finally through the pool to end again in the river. The whole park was densely planted with trees and bushes imported from every corner of the empire and the wild animals, we are told, were kept in extremely large cages and were looked after by especially trained keepers. In the pool itself, not only all species of fish were swimming freely, but even some dolphins were to be seen there and some cascades appeared to have been added to complete the scenery. Such scenery inspired a court poet to portray it like a ‘rushing bunch of horses’, while the gardens encompassing the pool are ‘resembling the peacock’s tail feathers in beauty and colours’.

One may well imagine how, in times past, the master of such a park, palace, and pool together with his royal guests were to sit in such place so as to enjoy the gentle breeze and delightful vistas while listening to their musicians and pretty looking singers.

The same pattern can be observed in almost every Abbasid palace in Baghdad. But as there is little or nothing left of the Abbasid palaces in present-day Baghdad, we are forced to rely heavily on literary descriptions, which are above all tenuous in the extreme. Baghdad was the residence of the Abbasid Caliphs for nearly five hundred years, with the exception of the period of less than fifty years spent in Samarra. By reason of its favoured situation, Baghdad retained its importance and remained the great centre of commerce and cultural activity. There were twenty three palaces within the Royal precincts; the most conspicuous among them were the Qasr al-Taj (the Crown palace), Qasr al-Firdaws (the Paradise Palace) and the House of the Tree, often mentioned in literary and historical sources in connection with a certain Byzantine embassy to the court of the Caliph al-Muqtadir in the year 917 CE. The Byzantine ambassadors reported that the gardens of the palaces reached down to the Tigris. They, furthermore, were amazed at the magnificence of what they saw.

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