The historic old medina of Marrakesh can be overwhelming. The hot Moroccan sun beats down while vendors callout at passersby, hoping for a quick sale. Clanging metal rings out from the ironmongers souk. In the Jemma el Fnaa, the Gnawa rhythm of drums and shrill flute of the snake charmers break through the din. Scooters rip through it all, quickly zigzag through the crowds. It’s no wonder that The Secret Garden of Marrakesh comes as such a reprieve!
The Secret Garden of Marrakesh
It’s easy to walk right past The Secret Garden of Marrakesh without so much as a glance. It’s entrance is marked by a modest sign and a rickety old door, not unlike so many of these old wood doors that you find scattered throughout the medinas of Morocco. Though not exactly a closely held secret longer, the entrance on the busy Rue Mouassine, so easily missed, has the makings of a true cover up job.
The Secret Garden has a long history, dating back to the late 1500s. It was likely first a palace built during the Saadian Dynasty (1510 – 1659 ACE). Most probably, this very same palace was the inspiration (or at the very least, an influence) for palaces built a bit later during the Saadian period. These palaces include the popular Bahia palace as well as the Museum of Moroccan Art (formerly Dar Si Saïd). Though not much is known of the original palace, the grounds were rebuilt and restored in the 1800s. It’s from this later period where the buildings on the palace grounds now take most of their cues, though the garden itself has a much longer history.
Two distinct gardens combine to make The Secret Garden of Marrakesh: The Exotic Garden and The Islamic Garden. The Exotic Garden has much younger roots that traverse the Mediterranean, borrowing from the European traditions popularized in the 1800s, the same time the palace was first restored. The Islamic Garden has deep roots, going back 2500 years, stretching all the way across the Sahara to distant Iran and the garden of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae.
Compared to the placement of the first Islamic gardens in the Middle East, where soaring daytime temperatures and arid desert air made living difficult, Marrakesh is veritably temperate. Still, temperatures during the summer months in Marrakesh can soar well over 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and the heat, at times, can feel stifling. It’s no wonder that Marrakesh is replete with so many historic gardens that give coolness and shade, all of them drawing from this long, storied Islamic history!
The Exotic Garden
When you enter into The Secret Garden of Marrakesh, you immediately pass into the Exotic Garden.
The Exotic Garden is the smaller of the two gardens, each of which comprises a large courtyard, shielded from the outside world. The paths of the Exotic Garden meander to and fro, a small labyrinth not unlike the souks of Marrakesh, though infinitely more relaxing. In the middle of the garden a fountain bubbles on. The entire feeling is one of relaxation.
Though the Exotic Garden is smaller than the more expansive Islamic Garden, it is a veritable bonanza for budding (and fully bloomed!) botanists.
One of the reasons this garden will seem somehow familiar to many visitors is to do with its plants. It boasts plants indigenous to Australia, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, The United States, and countless other countries.
The concept of the Exotic Garden was to collect plants from around the world from a similar climate of that of Marrakesh. Because of this, the garden boasts a number of agave and aloes, in addition to a number of herbs and grasses, at ground level, while all of the trees and shrubs were chosen for their resistance to drought.
The Islamic Garden
From the Exotic Garden, you pass through a pavilion and into the Islamic Garden. This garden boasts plants commonly found throughout the Kingdom of Morocco. In many ways, the Islamic Garden is no different from the original garden that was most likely here 600 years ago.
There are four principles you should know to understand a bit more about the tradition of the Islamic garden:
- The importance and ritual of water
- The necessity for shade
- The concept of enclosure
- The chahar bagh layout (or the four-fold design)
It’s not news that water is important to a garden. In the 11th century, the Almoravids constructed waterways that spanned from the High Atlas Mountains all the way to Marrakesh. Water was (and still is) taken from the mountains to the city entirely by the force of gravity. The resulting underwater passageways crossed through the plain, used for irrigation for plants and gardens, as well as for use in public fountains. In fact, these waterways share much in common with the famous water passages of the Alhambra in Granada. Originally, these waterways buried just beneath Marrakesh would have fed The Secret Garden. These days, all of the water for the garden is taken from a nearby well.
Water is important beyond the obvious necessity for drinking and plant cultivation and sustenance. In Islam, water is the diving essence of all that is living. It is also cleansing, much in the way of a Baptism. Before performing each one of the daily prayers (salat), one must first make ablutions, cleansing oneself with pure, running water. Throughout The Secret Garden, you confront running water and bubbling fountains, all of it placed just-so and with a mind to this long history.
Throughout the garden, you’ll find tall trees and corners that provide ample shade from the hot Moroccan sun. Against the fresh breeze whipping off the fountains, the sensation is one of coolness. Because Islamic cultures are rooted in the hot, desert lands, whatever is a cool sensation is considered welcoming. That is, while in Europe, North America and other parts of the world with roots in colder climes, a “warm welcome” is tradition; in Morocco, as in other parts of the world with roots in warmer climes, a “cool welcome” is the equivalent tradition. Like this, The Secret Garden of Marrakesh will give you a cool welcome, even on the warmest of days.
All of the gardens are inclosed with 20 meter (65 foot) walls. Depending on the time of day, these walls contribute to the shade and coolness of the garden. However, they also contribute to the quiet, the din of the city effectively blocked out. The result is that you can better sense the bubbling fountains and quiet babble of water, as well as the occasional chirping bird or the wind rustling the palm fronds above. The most important reason for the tall enclosure though is privacy.
The entirety of The Secret Gardens are laid out in a chahar bagh (or “four-fold”) design. This design is a reflection of the descriptions of heaven (jannah, literally: “paradise” or “garden”) found in the Holy Qu’ran. Though a celestial heaven, the descriptions of jannah in the Islamic tradition take the form of a garden divided into four parts — four being an important number for various reasons. This is not unlike other well-known gardens with their roots wound deep into religious texts — the Garden of Yahweh in Jewish tradition and the Garden of Eden found in Christian tradition.
The Buildings of the Islamic Garden
In the Islamic Garden, there are also three buildings of note.
The first of these buildings, the Oud el Ward, is unmissable. A great tower, as tall as many of the local minarets, looms large over the gardens below. From the top of this tower, it’s possible to look out over the gardens and beyond to the distant peaks of Jbel Toubkal and the rest of the High Atlas Mountains.
The second is the hammam, or traditional bath. At the time of its construction, and even during its reconstruction, having a hammam within a private home was something notable. It was an extravagance only for the wealthy. Aristocrats and wealthy merchants, usually owning expansive palaces, were generally the only people capable of having a hammam in the home. For everyone else, the public hammam was the only place to have a good scrub and a wash with hot water.
The third of these buildings is the Hbiqa Pavilion, named after one of the favorite wives of Muhammad Loukrissi, a watchmaker from Fez, who lived in The Secret Garden of Marrakesh during the early days of the French Protectorate after garnering favor with the sultan. Loukrissi died here in 1934. The palace was divided between his many heirs and gradually fell into ruin. Yet another story in the long, winding history of Marrakesh.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the palace was consolidated into a single ownership. Shortly thereafter, restoration began using primarily traditional methods, tools, techniques, and materials throughout the buildings and the garden itself. The Secret Garden of Marrakesh opened to the public in 2016. It has proven to be a welcome respite from the heat and the bustle of the city… for those who know the secret.
To visit The Secret Garden on your next trip to Marrakesh, make sure to check out their website for the most updated information: https://lejardinsecretmarrakech.com.
About the Author
Text and photos by award-winning writer, photographer, and Morocco expert, Lucas Peters. After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco and writing about his adventures, he penned the best-selling guidebook Moon Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond. He is the Managing Director of Journey Beyond Travel and currently lives in Tangier with his family.