Marrakesh: The rose amongst the palms

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Marrakesh: The rose amongst the palms

An inspirational new book, Gardens of Marrakech, explores their cultural context and engages with the issues threatening their survival. Angelica Gray, a garden designer who grew up in the city, has selected 20 extraordinary gardens ranging from the 12th century palaces, via exquisitely tiled, riad courtyards to experiments in ecological awareness. We asked a recent visitor to the city, Juliet Highet, to review it.

Amidst the historical magnificence of Marrakech and the razzle-dazzle turmoil of its Medina is a parallel history of passionate garden making.

Medieval Marrakech was conceived as a garden city, with orchards, market gardens and pleasure gardens fully integrated into its urban model, so not only was a constant source of food available, but also cool, tranquil relief from the frenetic chaos of city life.

The name “Rose among the Palms” came about not just from its rose-pink protective walls, but also from its lovingly cultivated rose gardens and its status as an oasis city, with its vast plantation of palm trees.

In what is now called the Palmery, ultra-luxe hotels and villas have recently been built, replete with spacious gardens, formal pools and irrigation canals reflecting blue skies.

There is a growing awareness of the need to protect and encourage Marrakech’s garden heritage. King Mohammed VI has instigated initiatives

In the city, hidden behind carved wooden doors in thick pink pisé (rammed earth) walls are smaller oases of calm greenery and flowers, where the only sounds are of birds and gently splashing fountains. Most of these evocations of paradise to come have been gardened for centuries for the palaces of sultans and retreats of grand viziers and their harems.

Other miniature versions are the still, verdantly shaded courtyards of dars and riads, many of which have become chic boutique hotels. Then there are the large public parks for relaxed walks; the iconic Majorelle garden, restored with stylish panache by Yves Saint Laurent; and the hotel garden par excellence of the Mamounia Hotel, an elegant retreat for celebrities such as Winston Churchill since the 1920s.

Marrakech was still a green oasis at the start of the French Protectorate in 1912. But in recent years, rampant development, making it a boom-town for rural people seeking work, who are housed in vast swathes of tree-less apartment blocks outside the city wall; a water shortage caused by tourism within them; and some municipal neglect of public areas, have threatened the “Rose among the Palms”.

But there’s a growing consciousness of the need to protect and encourage its unique garden heritage, in which King Mohammed VI has become involved, instigating new initiatives. His own property is the 800-year-old Agdal, a vast productive pleasure garden made for a sultan, with a huge water tank whose function was for irrigation and to teach his soldiers to swim, but in which ironically, the sultan drowned.

Nowadays families, escaping the heated downtown frenzy, come to the Agdal to picnic beneath trees of citrus fruit, olives, pomegranates, figs and much more.

The great historic sites are inextricable from their gardens and are beginning to receive the government attention they deserve. Unlike the Agdal, the Menara, which is its little sister in size, has an exquisite pavilion or menzeh, surrounded by a lushly planted walled garden.

Sultans and a few favoured courtiers used them as a private retreat for dalliances. Both were built around the same time – 1156-7. As at the Agdal, water is a crucial element, ensuring both profit and pleasure. The Menara’s gigantic reservoir feeds its irrigation system by gravity, watering orchards and enabling 40 varieties of olive as well as edible plants to be grown on a commercial basis.

Such productive gardens, which nowadays double up as urban escapes, are known as arsats, great concentric rings of market gardens and orchards, which both surrounded the city and were arranged around the interior of the city walls right up until the 1950s, and were particularly useful in the past as a source of fresh food when the city was under siege.

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