What is a Middle Eastern Garden?

The Middle East is where agriculture and ornamental gardens first arose.  As well as the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon (a triumph of irrigation techniques, even by today’s standards) there have been many other gardens created in the region over the centuries.  Many of these traditions and techniques can still be found in the Middle Eastern and Spanish gardens of today.  

The styles of Middle Eastern and Spanish gardens are strongly influenced by the climate of these regions.  Much of the Middle East is dry desert with most of the fertile areas found along major rivers.  Gardens have often served as a sanctuary from oppressive heat.  

Cultural traditions have also played an important role in defining this style of garden.  Most areas in the Middle East are populated by Muslim people, and the conventions of this religion have influenced how gardens have been designed.  For example, the Muslim religion prohibits representations of the human form, so there are no statues in Moorish gardens.  There is, however, a strong tradition of ornate design in Middle Eastern culture (eg. Persian rugs), and this is strongly represented in Middle Eastern gardens.  

For many years of its history, Spain was also a partly Muslim country.  For this reason, and for reasons of climate, typical Spanish gardens share many of the characteristics of Middle Eastern gardens.  Spanish gardens also share many of the features of Mediterranean gardens.  

Gardens in the Spanish colonies in the Americas were strongly influenced by the gardens of Spain (as well as local influences such as the Indian civilizations), and as such, again reflect strongly the characteristics seen in gardens of Spain.


FEATURES OF MOORISH GARDENS

Moorish gardens typically had a central rectangular pond containing many fish and plants.  The two longer sides of the pond would be surrounded by flowering shade plants.  These in turn would be surrounded by an embankment with a row of fruit trees.  Outside these would be other shade trees planted alternately with other flowering shrubs.  The garden was often an open-air area contained within the house so that the main portal of the house, which was surrounded by greenery looked over to the shorter end of the house across the garden.
The gardens of nobility would include canals, fountains and pergolas.  Other common features were aviaries, flowering greenhouses, pavilions and even chapels.   Many of these gardens were vast in size.

Sense of Enclosure

Seclusion is a common feature of Middle Eastern and Spanish gardens.  This may be attributable to the practice of separating men and women in some Muslim societies or perhaps to the need for protection during troubled times.  Whatever the reasons, this has resulted in the creation of gardens that serve as a tranquil oasis from the heat of the day.  

Walls might all form part of the house as in traditional courtyards, or be used to box in the garden.  Typically they are constructed from terracotta tiles or bricks and may have a stone coping.
Cloisters will have windows or portals on the inside.
Pillars are a common feature whether used in the walls or to support pergolas.

Water

Rectangular ponds are frequently the centrepiece of Middle Eastern gardens.  
This practice has extended beyond the region, with one of the best known examples of this style being the pond outside the Taj Mahal in India.  This has evolved from the arid conditions in these countries and the desire of man to harness nature.  Fountains are also included and may be extremely ornate

Symmetry

Balance and symmetry are very important design elements in Middle Eastern gardens.  Ordinarily one side of the garden is an exact replica of the other in terms of the hard landscaping and planting plan.  

Plants

Plants in these gardens will be chosen and used in a way that accentuates the architecture of the plant. It's overall shape, or the shape and texture of the foliage will provide a contrast against other components of the landscape; all year round. The impact of the planting does not depend upon flowering.
Plants may also reflect what is indigenous to or commonly grown in middle eastern or north African places. Succulents such as Agaves may be used for their architectural character and other succulents for their hardiness and colourful flowers. Hedging may be used (eg. Myrtle) to enclose garden beds or whole gardens.

Popular plant choices include: Citrus trees, Palms, Pomegranate, Bay laurel and Olives.

Ornamentation

Ornate design is an important part of Middle Eastern culture and this is expressed in many of the gardens of the region.  Although the overall design may be simplicity itself, within the design there are frequently embellishments added to walls, pillars, and portals which may be ornate stone carvings or ornamentation.
Floor tiles may also have intricate patterns on them, though usually in different natural hues, as might terracotta pots.  These have often been achieved by painting the clay with dyes.
The more affluent have also used marble to great effect.

Pottery

Ceramic and terracotta urns, vases and tiles are often used throughout these gardens.

Seating

Because Middle Eastern gardens are usually places of reflection and seclusion, they include places to sit and enjoy the tranquillity of the garden.  Where pergolas are included these are normally shady spots and contain seating beneath to get away from the sun.

Colours

Middle eastern gardens commonly emphasisew vibrant colour, both in hard and soft landscaping materials.

Although we tend to think of Spanish gardens as focusing mainly on glazed and terracotta tiles to provide much of their colour along with the odd showy plant display, some of the most extravagant Middle Eastern gardens used other materials such as marble and gold to create colour.  Other sources of colour included the fruit on trees such as oranges and limes, flowering shrubs and mosaics incorporated into furniture.   

Using Coloured Gravel
Coloured gravels are often a feature of modern Spanish and Middle Eastern gardens.  Coloured gravels were first used in 18th century France to create designs on the surface of the ground – in effect partitioning the ground, often into geometric/symmetrical patterns.
Red or brown gravel might have been used to mark out circles, rectangles or squares enclosed by low hedges, with white or cream gravel to create paths outside of the hedging.
In this way, very simple gardens created a high impact – with patches of contrasting colour covering the ground, separated by low green hedging.

The same idea can be used today to create a distinctive garden feature. Pebbles are currently very trendy, with landscape designers using them as mulches, in mosaics and paving, and to surface paths and driveways. There are even pebble specialists that supply a large range of local and imported stones, in a range of different textures and colours.