Fātịmid Gardens - Archaeological and historical perspectives

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Patterned hedges at a Bohra mazaar in India

July 8, 2017

The recently inaugurated Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah campus in Nairobi has many remarkable features transplanted from ancient Fātịmid conurbations in North Africa including Tunisian arches and grilles from al-Mahdiyyah and the masjid of al-HakimAS in Cairo. However, aside from these trans-plantations in brick and mortar, also prevalent around the campus are significant areas of landscaping. From the Quranic garden at the main entrance to the palm trees and grass areas found within the central courtyard a multitude of areas of vegetation have been handed large areas of real estate throughout the campus.

In this current year Dr. Syedna Mufaddal SaifuddinTUS launched a worldwide tree-planting drive with the aim of planting 200,000 saplings in private gardens, masjids and other community properties. As this date, (Saturday, July 8, 2017) the number planted has reached 46694.

This focus on gardens, landscaping and water features was also, as excerpts from the following academic paper show, a prominent aspect of Fātịmid urban planning. It is a shame that barely anything remains today of these landscaped areas in the bustling metropolises that have come to dominate these ancient cities but that is more reason why this particular paper has greater importance and carries a lesson for urban planners all over the world in this day and age.

© SOAS, University of London, 2016.

Fātịmid gardens: archaeological and historical perspectives.

Our thanks to Dr Stephane Pradines, Aga Khan University and Sher Rahmat Khan. for their permission in using excerpts from this study.


This article is the first systematic scholarly investigation into the location, layout, design and functions of the Fātịmid gardens based on archaeological data and primary sources. Our study focuses on different elements of gardens such as their recreational and ceremonial functions. The gardens were economically productive as well. Bearing in mind the significance of the context, our study also considers the influences of ʿAbbāsid gardens on Fātịmid gardens: belvederes (an important part of Fātịmid garden architecture), continued under the later Muslim dynasties, the play of water, the interplay of shade, and the dividing of gardens into different visual sections.

1. Fātịmid gardens in Tunisia

After establishing his empire in North Africa, the Caliph (Imam) al-Mahdī built the city of al-Mahdiyya on a peninsula. The Arab geographer al-Idrīsī tells us that as a protected recluse for the newly established rulers, the city did not have the luxury of gardens.

In contrast to the geographer’s account [however], Syedna al-Qādị̄ al-Nuʿmān, while narrating the execution of Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Shīʿī and Abū al-ʿAbbās, says that these two men wanted to share the imam’s power and wealth, and had said: “we will not be satisfied unless he [al-Mahdī] shares with us his palaces and the gardens around it”. This suggests that before the Fātịmids moved to Egypt, the city of al-Mahdiya (Figure 1) had gardens which were no longer there when al-Idrīsī visited it later, in the eleventh century CE.

For Muslims of that era, Baghdad was the primary model of architectural magnificence, grandeur, beauty and excellence. That is why the tenth-century Arab geographer al-Muqqadasī compared Sạbra al-Mansụ̄riya with Baghdad to show the former’s matchlessness; in the words of al-Muqqadạsī, “al-Mansụ̄riya was a round city with the Sultan’s house in the middle, like Baghdad”.

The second Fātịmid capital, al-Mansụ̄riya, built by Imam al-Mansụ̄r Billāh, excelled in architectural grandeur. Although there is a scarcity of historical literature and some of the excavations undertaken are yet to be published, we are certain that majestic palaces, lavish use of water, and greenery added grandeur to this city. A poem by the then Fātịmid court-poet ʿAlī b. Muhạmmadal-Tūnisī al-Iyādī gives us some description of the lake-palace built by al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh (Bloom 2007: 39). The poem portrays a palace with extensive use of water and greenery. The dome in the middle of the garden covered an elevated area and was used by the court to view the green space. Smaller gardens beautified the courtyards while the “Qasṛ al-Bahṛ was surrounded by a pool”.

Historical sources tell us that “[Imam] al-Mansụ̄r’s son and successor, Imam al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh built two palaces in al-Mansụ̄riya: one of them, “Qasṛ al-Bahṛ ”, was in the middle of a lake. The building material was hewn stone, acquired from a mountain at a considerable distance (Al-Nuʿmān 1997: 510). The two palaces were connected by a bridge. Besides the gardens in the palaces, some gardens were built outside the city walls. Syedna al-Qādị al-Nuʿmān informs us that Imam al-Muʿizz once recounted that he was travelling with Imam al-Mansụ̄r Billāh when they stayed in Imam al-Mansụ̄r’s estate which had a garden and running water, and where the former found the latter writing a book (Al-Nuʿmān 1997: 122). This garden estate, some distance from the capital, must have been a place for occasional visits from the Caliph.

On another occasion Imam al-Muʿizz wrote that he and Imam al-Mansụ̄r went to a garden called Lakiniya (Al-Nuʿmān 1997: 50), but no details concerning the location and layout of this garden are available. Imam Al-Muʿizz built a garden in al-Qasạriya near al-Mansụ̄riya: “This place was previously a barren site from where people brought soil to make bricks. The imam commissioned building a garden there.” (Tāmir 1991: 233). Building in a new space is the symbolic expression of new power and a break with the past, as well as its continuation in a new form. Al-Mansụ̄riya was near Kairouan,a Sunnī–Mālikī centre and stronghold of anti-Fātịmid sentiment. For the Fātịmids, building new cities and gardens was a way of bypassing the established order, and this was particularly significant because the Fātịmids were the first Shīʿī dynasty to establish major political power after Imām ʿAlī (d. 661). Building on barren land was a sign of creativity and charitable spirit as well as an expression of marked difference from earlier rulers who had not turned the place into useful properties (Ruggles 2000: 92).

2. The Fātịmid gardens in Cairo

The Fātịmids realized their dream of excellence in Cairo more than in the two previous capital cities. As a manifestation of the splendour of the new order, al-Qāhira, the City Victorious acquired grand palaces, beautiful mosques, magnificent gardens and huge parks. Though Cairo was built as a new city at a distance from the old city of Fustạ̄t,̣ the Ikhshidī garden, Bustān al-Kāfūr, which the last Ikhshidī ruler Kāfūr built between AD 949 and 968, was made part of the Fātịmid royal residence and the Western Palace (al-Qasṛ al-Gharbī) opened into it. In front of the Western palace stood the main residence of the Caliph, the Eastern palace (al-Qasṛ al-Sharqī). The royal palaces “... contained several buildings surrounded by gardens where the daily life and ritual of the court took place. Their loveliness and luxury was described by the William of Tyre” (Raymond 2000: 51). Ibn Hawqal (1979: 138), who visited Cairo in the early years of the Fātịmid caliphate in Egypt, deals with Cairo in a few lines and mentions that “Jawhar has made a strong wall around the city where the open space is three times greater than the built area, the city includes parks”. The traveller’s reference to parks in Cairo lacks detail. However, with the passage of time the magnificence of the city increased greatly and visitors could not but praise its beauty. A case in point is the Iranian philosopher, poet and traveller, Nāsịr i-Khusraw, who visited Cairo in 1047 and stayed there for three years; he informs us: “In the midst of the houses in the city are gardens and orchards watered by wells. In the Sultan’s harem are the most beautiful gardens imaginable. Waterwheels have been constructed to irrigate them. There are trees planted and pleasure parks built even on the roofs” (Nāsịr-i- Khusraw, Safarnama, 1980: 60).

Nāsịr’s description leads us to believe that most of the open spaces to which Ibn Hawqal refers were gardens and orchards, and a century-and-a-half later, Nāsịr’s observations of the grandeur of the palace and the gardens in it were confirmed by a member of the Crusader’s delegation to the Fātiṃid court. The delegates were impressed by the Fātiṃid palace; they found that there were ". . . marble fish-pools filled with limpid waters; there were birds of many kinds, unknown to our part of the world. These were larger than those familiar to us, their forms were unusual, their colours strange, and their songs different."

The beautiful gardens which surrounded the various pavilions of the palace catered to the needs of the royal family as well as the court rituals that took place there (Raymond 2000: 52). Not only was the available land used for gardening and plantations, but the roofs, too, housed greenery and exotic plants. Nāsịr i-Khusraw’s first-hand account informs us of roof-gardens in both Cairo and Fustạ̄t.̣ The royal palaces had terrace gardens, which became a recreational space for family members, while in the city “many roofs are gardens and most of what is grown is fruit-producing trees such as oranges, pomegranates, apples, quince, roses, herbs and vegetables” (Nāsịr-i- Khusraw 1980: 81). The brother of Imam al-ʿAzīz had a garden in Fustạ̄t ̣ (Lev 1991: 66). Through a reliable source the traveller learns that in Fustạ̄t, “someone has made a garden of flowers, herbs and fruit trees on the roof of a seven-storey building and this garden is fed by an oxen-driven water wheel” Lev (1991: 67).

The various contents of the gardens show an aesthetic as well as utilitarian approach: both fruit trees and flowers were cultivated there. In this quest for new areas to transform into gardens, some prosperous individuals opted for ingenious ways of making terrace gardens. A case in point is Abū Saʿīd, a wealthy Jewish resident of Fustạ̄t,̣ who had on the roof of his house 300 silver pots with fruit trees planted in them so as to form a garden (Lev 1991: 66). Oxen-driven carts were the common choice for watering these gardens. The trees and flowers hanging from the tops of towering buildings must have provided an exciting view for the traveller.

Alongside the palace and terrace gardens, a network of parks and gardens spread outside the city wall. There were large open spaces all around the city; the area to the west of the city wall, in particular, provided an ideal setting for gardens because the Khalīj (the main canal of the city) passed from south to north, while at some distance the Nile flowed. Creating large gardens there meant that the onlooker could combine a pleasant view of both the greenery and the water and enjoy the soothing breeze. It is precisely for this reason that the area consisted of gardens until the nineteenth century.

In the absence of textual evidence it is quite impossible to arrange the Fātịmid gardens chronologically: the modification of these gardens and the process of renaming them under various later dynasties make this extremely difficult. One of the best options has been to focus on their geographic locations (Figure 2 - see gallery). The biggest gardens were located between the Nile and the Khalīj, the main canal parallel to the Nile immediately to the west of the Fatịmid city. Other gardens were located to the south, around the biggest ponds and lakes such as the Birkat al-Fīl and, further south, the Birkat al-Hạbash. Finally, to the east around Darrāsa and to the south on the Istạbl ʿAntar plateau, the desert areas were irrigated by aqueducts, canals and water tanks.

Outside the city wall east of Cairo there were gardens spread over large areas. No textual evidence is available concerning the existence of large gardens on the eastern side, which included Muqattạ m mountain. The only garden that can be ascribed to the eastern part is that known as Bustān al-Wazīr al-Maghribī. The accounts of Ibn al-Maʾmūn and al-Maqrīzī are contradictory in locating this garden. Ibn al-Maʾmūn tells us that it was outside Bāb al-Jadīd,9 and according to al-Maqrīzī, this wazīr was Abī al-Farāj Muhạ mmad b. Jaʿfar Ibn Muhạ mmad b.ʿAlī b. Hụsaīn b. ʿAlī b. Muhạ mmad al-Maghribī, and his gardens were to the south of al-Hạbash pond.10 It seems that Ibn al-Maʾmūn’s account is closer to the reality because there were gardens near al-Hạ bash pond, which was also called Bustān al-Wazīr and which belonged to Yaʿqūb ibn Killis (d. 991). According to Ibn Duqmāq, this was a complex of seven gardens near the Christian graveyard.

The area to the south of Cairo had many gardens. Among the gardens dating from the earlier phase of Fātịmid Egypt (before the rule of Badr al-Jamālī) is one at Qarāfa, south-east of Cairo of that era. Sayyīda al-Muʿizz, the wife of Imam al-Muʿizz li-Dīn Allāh, commissioned a palace called Qasṛ al-Andalus at Qarāfa in AH 366/976 CE . The palace (Qasṛ) included a well, a garden and the al-Qarāfa mosque (Al-Maqrīzī 2002: 580). The qādị̄ of Egypt and historian al-Qudạ̄ʿī referred to this garden in his detailed description of the mosque. Ibn Hawqal (1979: 138) also admired the mosque but gave no details of the garden.

The space to the south, outside the city wall, became a “green belt” when, during Badral-Jamālī’s time, “the areas between al-Qāhira and Fustạ̄ṭ were abandoned and converted into parks and gardens” (Raymond 2000: 72). Outside Bāb Zuwayla there were green spaces called the gardens of Qantạra al-Kharq, which stretched towards the Khalīj in one direction and towards Ibn Tụ̄lūn Mosque in another. This whole area consisted of gardens until AH 700/233 AD 1300 (al-Maqrīzī 2002: 366).

Bustān al-ʿAbbās was another garden located in this area, quite close to Bāb Zuwayla. Ibn Tụwayer, while referring to the route taken by the caliph to the arsenal in Fustạ̄t ḍuring the plenitude of the Nile, writes that after exiting Bāb Zuwayla the caliph would pass through the Bustān al-ʿAbbās. The garden used to have wide paths where the three-storey high belvedere facilitated a view in all four directions.

A second part of excerpts from this paper will be posted in due course.