Back to All Events

Lecture: Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis (The Graduate Center, CUNY)

TITLE: "From Hortus to Hayr: The Connections between Classical and Early Islamic Gardens"


The continuity between the visual and material culture of the classical and the early Islamic worlds is well established. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus were decorated with stunning mosaics that drew upon the traditions of late antiquity. Scholars have yet to fully consider the relationship between classical and early Islamic gardens. The charbagh (quadripartite) garden, defined as the quintessential Islamic garden, was once thought to be an ancient Persian design; however, a recent reconsideration of the evidence at Pasargadae has demonstrated that this was not the case. Therefore, it is an opportune moment to examine the connections between ancient and early Islamic gardens.

The mosaics in the courtyard of the Great Mosque in Damascus contained architecture and landscapes that evoked the architectural traditions of Alexandria and second style Roman wall paintings. While the landscapes in the Great Mosque of the Damascus have been interpreted either as representations of the local landscape and the Barada River or of Paradise, the other evidence for early Islamic gardens and landscapes has yet to be explored in depth. Using the mosaics of the Great Mosque as a starting point, this talk examines the evidence for continuity and transformation between the gardens and landscapes of classical antiquity and those of the early Islamic world in Syro-Palestine and Iberia. Several of the folios from some of the earliest known Qur’ans, discovered in the roof of the Great Mosque in Sana’a, Yemen, include representations of mosque architecture. Three folios also depict plants and trees. I consider how these Qur’anic landscapes relate to the landscapes in the Great Mosque of Damascus and to those appearing in the floor mosaics of late antique churches.

            The second part of this talk focuses on the archaeological evidence for early Islamic gardens and landscapes. The so-called “Desert Castles” of the Umayyad period (661–750 CE) are an important source of evidence for understanding the conceptualization and construction of early Islamic gardens and bounded landscapes. Specifically, this paper considers the hayrs, or the bounded hunting parks, that were associated with many of the 8th-century Umayyad caliphal residences, including Khirbat al-Mafjar, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi (West), and Rusafa. For the “Desert Castles,” where we lack any trace of enclosed gardens, the artistic representations of hunting scenes (e.g. Qusayr ‘Amra) inform us about the importance of hunting as an expression of kingship.

The gardens of Islamic Iberia, where there was a long and well-developed tradition of Roman and late antique villa and domestic gardens, is also important for understanding the debt of the early Islamic garden and villa to the villa and garden traditions of the ancient Mediterranean. Recent scholarship on the munya, the early Islamic villa, has demonstrated that the munyas and their gardens and cultivated enclosures were an important aspect of the Iberian landscape during the transition from late antiquity to the early Medieval period. The presence of courtyard gardens in the 10th-century palatial city of Madinat al-Zahra (outside Cordoba) and in other cites is also examined. The concepts of the villa urbana and the villa rustica have been used by James Dickie to interpret the gardens of Islamic Spain, especially those of the Madinat al-Zahra, and those of the Alhambra palace in Granada.  This paper reassesses the use of Roman concepts to interpret the gardens of Islamic Iberia and the legacy of Roman gardens in these important Islamic gardens.

Earlier Event: December 9
R.R.R. Smith (Oxford)
Later Event: February 24
Lecture: Caitlín Barrett (Cornell)