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Marrakesh: The rose amongst the palms

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Marrakesh: The rose amongst the palms

The arsat model also inspires the overall structure of the gardens of an unusual guesthouse in the Palmery, Jnane Tamsna. They follow the traditional blend of tall palms sheltering a middle stratum of fruit trees, with a lower level of seasonal vegetables – an edible landscape.

However, there are changes of mood between different planted areas, like movements in an orchestral work, the bustan garden flowing in and around the buildings. The term bustan is derived from the Persian bu meaning “scented” and stan meaning “place”.

So ornamental perfumed plants such as daturas, jasmine and lavender syncopate with aromatic herbs. Its owner, Gary Martin, like other conscientious gardeners, is aware of Marrakech’s precipitous change in the very recent past, which has led to an increasing disconnect between city-dwellers and their agricultural heritage. He has initiated a number of successful “edible schoolyard projects”, in which children tend their own vegetable plots.

The concept of homes in the Medina is to exclude the world outside, to protect the privacy and sanctity of family life

Unbelievably vast in dimension, awe-inspiring and yet unsettling in its now abandoned, empty and ruined state, the Badi Palace is a monument to human achievement and to its ultimate fragility.

“El Badi” means “The Incomparable” and is one of the 99 names given to Allah. It took 25 years to build and only 12 for it to be destroyed by another dynasty, less than a century later. The “incomparable” palace and monumental Andalusian-style courtyard garden at its centre were designed to impress ambassadors and confirm the sultan’s position as a force to be reckoned with. The courtyard contained sunken gardens, pools and pavilions.

The bare surfaces of today were all covered with ornamentation, with results from marble in every conceivable colour to intricate zellij-work pathways and pavilions dressed in onyx, ivory, lapis lazuli and even gold. When it was inaugurated, Sultan El Mansour – the Golden One – asked his clairvoyant what he thought of the ensemble. He replied: “Sire, when this is all in ruins, it will make a huge pile of stones.”

In 1894 Ahmed ben Moussa, known as Bahmad, created the Bahia Palace to rival the Badi, though it is a different and of course later vision of wealth and power, in which the concept of communal family living informs a gentle, harmonious relationship between architecture and gardens, creating three glorious outdoor rooms or courtyards. The first, the Petit Riad, is a masterclass in proportion and balance, featuring the classic four planted areas, evoking the rivers of Paradise in the Qur’an, intersected with tiled paths, and of course, has a fountain at its centre.

Then the visitor bursts into an incredibly richly adorned courtyard, also designed on a quadripartite basis. The buildings around it glow with multi-coloured tiles, intricate plasterwork, known as geps and carved cedar panels. Elsewhere in this marvellous palace, painted plants and flowers flourish everywhere: on doors, shutters and ceilings.

The Bahia also has large-scale productive gardens. Canny Bahmad realised their value so close to the markets of the Medina, growing high-value crops such as mandarins unseasonably ripe in the winter months.

Just ten minutes from the Bahia, the Dar Si Said houses the Museum of Moroccan Arts, built concurrently by the same artisans for Bahmad’s brother, Si Said, whom he made Minister of War. His home and garden are a haven of peace. Dar is essentially a very large house built on more than one storey with several interior courtyards. This reviewer was lucky enough to stumble upon the Riad Si Said, a much more modest but equally exquisite building with just one lovely courtyard; now a guest-house, previously home to Si Said’s concubines.

Whether dar or smaller riad, the concept of homes in the Medina is to exclude the world outside, to protect the privacy and sanctity of family life, and to create a little world of harmony and equilibrium.

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