Marrakech’s Secret Garden
Tucked away behind 30 foot walls on Rue Mouassine in the Medina is Le Jardin Secret, Marrakech’s Secret Garden. It’s a place to escape the hustle and bustle of the medina and take refuge in the tranquil courtyard gardens of one of Marrakech’s largest and oldest riads.
The Story Behind Le Jardin Secret
There is evidence of a palace on the site of Le Jardin Secret dating back to the reign of Sultan Moulay ‘Abd-Allah al-Galib in the sixteenth century, however what you can see today is the reconstruction of a riad, which was built at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the leader of the Haha tribe, Kaid al-Hajj Ab-Allah U-Bihi. The kaid subsequently fell out of favour with the Sultan and was poisoned by him. The last inhabitant of the riad was watchmaker and Chamberlain to the Sultan, Mohammed Loukrissi. Loukrissi lived in the palatial compound with his three wives and children until his death in 1934. After his death ownership of the riad was divided up amongst his descendants and it fell into disrepair.
The riad was rediscovered by Lauro Milan, the owner of Cafe Arabe, which stands opposite Le Jardin Secret, and his business partner, Sante Giovanni Albonetti. They were curious about what lay behind the imposing walls and discovered a shanty town of dwellings on the site of a nineteenth century palace. After lengthy negotiations with the 130 plus inheritors they purchased the site initially intending to build a hotel but once the shacks were removed and it became clear that this was a site of historical interest the decision was made to restore the riad and the gardens and create a visitor attraction.
The Riad Gardens
Award winning gardener, Tom Stuart Smith, was responsible for the garden design and the planting in the two courtyard gardens. Both gardens adhere to the original nineteenth century layout but are very different from each other. The larger of the two, with its strict geometric structure and planting, remains faithful to the Islamic original whilst the smaller, Exotic garden, is a visual mix of sculptural and textural planting and bold bursts of colour using drought resistant plants which would not have been available in Morocco in the nineteenth century.
The Islamic Garden
The layout of the Islamic garden follows a pattern called the Chahar bagh, meaning fourfold garden. The earliest example of this style of garden dates back to 500BC in Pasargadae in Iran where the four quarters of the garden were divided by irrigation channels. Initially this layout was developed to facilitate irrigation however with the rise of Islam in the 7th century this division of the garden into four sections came symbolically to represent the description of paradise in the Koran.
There are four essential elements to an Islamic garden: water for irrigation, which is viewed as a blessing from heaven, shade, the chahar bagh and enclosure; a space separated from the outside, a private paradise.
Staying true to the traditional design, the most important paths are tiled with terracotta bejmat tiles in a greenish turquoise glaze. The herringbone pattern and variations of green in the tiles create the illusion of running water.
In an Islamic garden the planting as well as the garden layout follows a strict format. The most important trees are the fig, the olive, the date palm and the pomegranate, all of which have religious significance. Tom Stuart Smith has added sweet orange, lemon and argan trees to the mix and planted rosemary, grasses, lavender, jasmine, tuberose, damask rose, musk rose, Turkish tea sage and grape-vine beneath the trees to create a meadow effect.
The pavilions surrounding the Islamic garden have been reconstructed using 19th century techniques. The larger of the two pavilions the Oud el Ward(above), named after one of Loukrissis’ wives features a room with a dome or qubba, which was designed for Loukrissi to receive guests and a 17m tower. The tower, which is the height of many of the mosque minarets, and the qubba both indicate Loukrissi’s status as does the private hammam which is to the side of the garden. If you visit make sure to visit the tower as the views from it extend over the city to the Atlas mountains.
The restored riads feature hand sculpted plasterwork, traditional tadelakt walls and ornate painted wooden ceilings and doors.
Originally water for the gardens would have come from the Atlas mountains to Marrakech via an underground system of tunnels known as khettaras developed by the Almoravids in the eleventh century. The water flowed from the mountains to huge tanks in the Agdal and Menara gardens and from there via gravity to the mosques, public water fountains and hammams in the city. The khettara system hasn’t been in use since the 1950s so an existing well was redug in one corner of the garden and supplies the water for both gardens. The rills and paths and irrigation channels are set above the planted level of the garden so that water can spill over and irrigate the gardens.
Decorative benches are placed by the fountains so that you can sit, listen to the trickle of water and the birdsong and enjoy the serenity and calm of this elegant garden.
The Exotic Garden
Walk into the Le Jardin Secret from Rue Mouassine and your senses are immediately awakened by the trickle of water along irrigation channels and overspilling from fountains, the modern Moroccan architecture, the birdsong and the splashes of colour, and textural and sculptural designs of the planting in the Exotic garden. The Exotic garden is the smaller of the two gardens and contains plants from Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Bolivia, Madagascar, the Canary Islands, Australia and Mediterranean countries. The plants are all from semi-arid climates like Morocco and are drought resistant to minimize the need for water.
The new pavilion was built on the foundations of an earlier structure but there was no evidence of the riad so the design is modern. This pavilion provides the concealed entrance to the Islamic garden so you walk from a modern garden with dramatic shapes, texture and pops of colour through to an elegant, structured garden in calming shades of green accompanied by the calming sound of running water.
A spiky Ceiba tree from South America stands out against the slate grey backdrop of the modern reception building.
Le Jardin Secret provides insight into the design, beauty and symbolism of an Islamic garden, the lives of the wealthy in Marrakech in the nineteenth century and the development of Marrakech as a city. It delights with its contrasting courtyard gardens, juxtaposing traditional and modern planting schemes and old and new architecture. If you are planning to visit my advice is to get there early in the day so that you can appreciate the sights before the crowds arrive.
How To Find Le Jardin Secret
It can be difficult to navigate the labyrinth of alleys in the medina however, Le Jardin Secret is situated in Rue Mouassine, which is one of the larger thoroughfares. It is not far from the Mouassine mosque and is opposite the Cafe Arabe so if you ask in the medina for either of those two landmarks you should find it. I recommend visiting early in the morning and taking a guided tour. If you are interested in gardens and gardening I also recommend Tom Stuart-Smith’s fascinating guide, which I have referred to for this post.