06 November 2013

Plants and Their Properties: Moorish Perspectives

When the ancestors of the Moors came out of the arid climates of Arabia and North Africa into Spain, they continually perpetuated one among many Islamic principles in their newly-conquered land; the concept of Paradise upon earth. In Arabic, the word jannah translates as heaven or a garden. The Qur'an, the Muslim holy book, described heaven or paradise as a garden of perpetual bliss. As adherents to their faith, the Moors emulated the virtues of their religion by building homes and palaces constructed around dazzling garden courtyards with central fountains. Earthly gardens, like their spiritual likenesses, were supposed to be places of contemplation and relaxation, which also served practical needs for their inhabitants. Some of the finest examples of Islamic garden planning can be found in modern Spain. As a common feature, these open spaces were divided into quarters through which four canals flowed from a central pool or fountain, each representing the rivers in heaven, thought to bring milk, honey, wine and water to denizens.

Imagining Medina Azahara
As a source of sustenance, water became critical to the Moors in the development of their gardens. To irrigate the landscape, the Moors developed innovative water wheel designs and used existing technology to create the qanat, a series of wells linked to form an underground watercourse, which allowed for the establishment of a sizable city of Madrid. In mid-tenth century Spain, the Umayyad caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III built a palatial city complete with terraced gardens. The limestone ruins of Medina Azahara, north west of his capital at Cordoba, became the crown jewel of the Umayyad dynasty for eighty years. Aqueducts from Spain's Roman period were put to use, bringing water to the terraced gardens and orchards of the caliph's new city. Around this time, Cordoba also became a center for botanical study. The Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII sent the caliph an illuminated manuscript about plants, authored by the Greek physician Dioscorides in the first century.  In 951, Abd-ar-Rahman commissioned an Arabic-speaking monk named Nicholas to translate the work.  
The Generalife

In later centuries, the Nasrid dynasty of Granada expanded on the foundations of an existing fortress and created the beautiful Alhambra along with the summer palace at the Generalife, both of which feature extensive gardens and courtyards. The Nasrids brought water along aqueducts into channels to maintain the beautiful surroundings. Their medieval buildings fared better than those at Medina Azahara, which declined as political rivalries fractured Muslim Spain. In this period, the species being introduced into the country served mainly decorative purposes. Myrtles, oleander, water-lilies, marshmallow and ivy flourished, but medicinal herbs soon joined them. Almost everything in a medieval Moorish garden had a medicinal use. The quiet, sculpted spaces we see today at Spain's Alhambra and Generalife are unlike those the Moors had designed. 

In the medieval Moorish world, gardens were places of pleasure and beauty, but also utility. Fruit trees and aromatic herbs grew alongside flowers and shrubbery, and vied with pavilions and pools to capture the imagination of inhabitants. During the 1100's, Ibn al-Awwam wrote in his Kitab al-filaha (Book of agriculture) about the cultivation and care of almost 600 plants, flowers and trees then grown in Spain, including sugar cane, pistachios, olives, bananas, saffron, figs, pomegranates, jasmine, lemons, date-palms, anise, and roses. In addition to identifying their properties and potential uses, he offered plans for laying out a garden. Volumes one and two are available here and here in Spanish and Arabic.    

The Moors introduced the cotton plant to the peninsula and harvested it in September. This material served as the basis for the tunics and leg coverings worn beneath silk or wool overgarments. Cotton went into the stuffing for mattresses or became fashioned into seasonal bedcovers. Where the best cotton once came out of Egypt, the quality of its production in Spain soon rivaled the best manufacturers in Cairo. The Moors believed layers of cotton garments were best for the climate of Spain.

Dried saffron
The country remains the world's top producer of saffron, a spice derived from the centers of crocus flowers. Most of the flowers are grown in the hinterlands of Castilla-La Mancha. Approximately 75,000 crocus flowers are necessary to make one pound of dried saffron, hence its once exorbitant price.  The Moors introduced saffron into Spain during the medieval period, where it has been used for food flavoring, perfumes and as a yellow-hued dye since at least the ninth century. Italy and France became chief importers of saffron from Muslim Spain. Demand for it grew when doctors associated saffron with possible cures for the Black Death, which first struck Spain in 1348. 

The Moors understood the properties of plants and flowering buds beyond their beauty. Islamic gardens in the west encapsulated every variety of plant life the Moors' ancestors brought into Spain, some of which changed the textile industry, improved hydraulic technology and gave us delicious foods.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the medieval period. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written three novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana,  Sultana’s Legacy and Sultana: Two Sisters, where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.