In the city of Marrakech, “God’s Earth” in the Berber language, there are few public open spaces that produce a feeling of relief, freshness and peace as the Ménara (twelfth century), the Saadian graves (sixteenth century), the Bahia Palace (nineteenth century) or the Garden Majorelle (Twentieth century) which is also the botanical garden in Marrakech for the richness of its plants. Plants are not the unique protagonists of the history and quality of this garden. Its founder Jacques Majorelle (1931), and afterwards Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé (1980), were responsible of its landscape and conceptual importance.
The French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) acquired this property in 1923 at the border of the Palmeraie de Marrakech. Fascinated by botany and gardening, he eventually acquired a full variety of rare trees and plants (cacti, palm trees, bamboo, coconut palms, thujas, willows, carob trees, jasmines, agaves, white water lilies, daturas, cypress, bougainvilleas, tree ferns) to create a luxuriant garden. During almost forty years, he will continue acquiring new varieties of plants from the five continents: “…a cathedral of forms and colors (…) an impressionist garden…”
At present, these are some of the species we can find in the garden Majorelle:
But… What did Majorelle discover in Marrakesh? Which landscapes did seduce this artist?
The gardens, created by the successive Arab dynasties, are an important mirror of the Moroccan cultural identity. The reigning dynasties designed gardens that have competed in beauty and refinement all along history. These works of art, a fusion of men and nature, represent the sensibility and taste of the Moroccan civilization.
Both Agdâl and Buhayra designate a large walled garden with large pools for water supply. From the Almohad Empire (1130-1269) comes the buhayra, a model of garden with large ponds of water which expands from Marrakech to Seville, not forgetting Rabat, Ceuta or Gibraltar. The Almohads provided these spaces with many water works as represented in the arsa, an auto-irrigated garden with plantations and housing. The arsa were developed inside walls and close to the medinas of the imperial cities. These gardens generated food during city sieges. On the other hand, the fruit trees and palms extensions so-called jnân (“Paradise” according to the Coran) also proliferated. From the Saadian period (s. XVI) in both Marrakech and Fez the arsa and the jnân grew rapidly.
The riyâds, which have dominated the imperial cities of Morocco, are catalogued according to the distribution of the housing and the aspect of the interior garden. This model of Arab-Islamic garden was born in East (Damascus, Baghdad, Kairouan and Cordoba) a few centuries before and served as a reference in Morocco and Muslim Spain. Arabs are heirs of the Mesopotamic, Egyptian, Persian and Syrian civilization. These ancient cultures introduced the advances in the hydraulic engineering, the big parks with plants and exotic animals, the botanical and zoological gardens, the big ponds and the firdaws (fragrant paradise). A key element of these territories is the arid and semiarid climate so the art of gardens depends on the water and its control. With the advent of Islam (s.VII) great part of hydraulic works were destroyed.
The end of the Sassanid period (s.VII) was marked by the loss of the hydraulic infrastructure, the silting and the formation of swamps of the Low Iraq. The gardens of the conquered regions suffered the consequences of the constant wars and the looting. The Islam changes the history of art of gardening. The Koran was teaching that man should protect nature, which origin was divine. This commandment represents a decisive role for the safeguard and protection of the nascent ecosystems. The VIIIth and XIth centuries are marked by the scientific, technical and urban development revolution. The advances in hydraulics, agronomy and botany favor the emergence of big parks. The garden was key in the development of the architecture of the Arabic cities. In the Middle Ages these cities were provided with walks, gardens and surrounding crops. The model of city – garden was established from Damascus to Baghdad and of Cordova to Marrakech; cubic houses surrounded with an exuberant vegetation.
You can find in Marrakech all the models of gardens known in Morocco from the XIth century. This way the almohad garden (XIIth), the model of the palace Al-Badî (XVIth) and the complex of the Bahía palace and his “riyâds” (ends XIXth). The Almohad garden develops along the reigns of the caliph Abd to the Mu’min (1133-1163) and of his son Abû Ya’qûb Yûsuf (1163-1184) due to the political stability, the wealth of this dynasty and the work performed by the architects and hydraulic engineers of the epoch. The almohad historian Ibn Sahib al-Salât describes in detail this model of garden and thanks to him it’s known that for the creation of these spaces there were using large technical personnel, equipments and the capital. A good example is the Agdâl of Marrakesh, living testimony of the almohad refinement which characteristic feature is the existence of large sheets of water for the irrigation, the supply of drinking water to the city and the regulation of hydraulic resources, in addition, these water reservoirs resulted in recreational activities.
Both the Agdâl of Marrakesh and the rest of the gardens almohads were divided in enclosures. The orange grove, placed near the pool to make use the water, was the first space; the second enclosure was the extensive olive grove that was followed by the vineyard which distilleries were installed in the Imperial Palace. The rest of the enclosures followed one right after the other with plantations of pomegranates, fig trees, palms, walnuts, almond-trees or other species. All areas were interconnected and delimited by paths bordered of myrtle, black elder, rose bushes, rose-hips and jasmine. This concept of garden spread to Rabat, Gibraltar and Seville, turning into the “cross-border language” that linked the shores of the Mediterranean.
The splendor of the Almohad Empire ceases to Merínida Domination (1258-1416) and thus the decline of Marrakech and its gardens. The capital of the empire passed to Fez, new headquarters of the central power. We must await to the reign of the sultan saadiano Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603) to assist the renaissance of the art of Marrakech’s gardens and the raising of the Palace of al-Badî. A new complex away from the gigantism almohad and more intimate character with interior gardens and princely dependences because their creators focused more on the Alhambra model (the Arabic kingdom of Granada fell down in 1492). Ahmad al-Mansur represents the excellence and refinement of the architecture of the riyâd, this sultan dedicates sixteen years to build the palace (1578-1594) which is a rectangular enclosure and two pavilions (qubbas) that protrude. In the centre of the palace there is a rectangular courtyard with a pond in the centre of which there is a square-shaped and flowered island that communicates with paths and flowerbeds of plantation. The angles of the patio are occupied also by other rectangular ponds.
The tanks are built above ground level to facilitate irrigation and maintenance. The plantations of citrus, myrtle and jasmine together with other aromatic and odoriferous species were present in this palatial enclosure, enhanced by marble buildings and accompanied as background by the peaks of the Atlas, but this architectural and landscape fabric together with the domes of his pavilions, columns, floors multicoloured pieces, glazed tiles, coffered, gold decorations, stalactites, stucco, fountains and basins were destroyed by order of the sultan Mulay Ismaïl in 1707 though it has also thought that the degradation of the space began commenced before the death of the sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1603. These and other factors like the proclamation of the new capital in Meknes and the commitment of every dynasty for blotting out all memory of its predecessor and the lack of vision of the civilization as an accumulative process has deprived to Marrakech and other Moroccan cities and of the Arabic world of the most important monuments from the cultural, esthetic, landscape, social and technical perspective. Today, through the study of its ruins, the researchers have demonstrated the incredible work and engineering development reached by these civilizations of the past full of sensitivity. The history of the Agdâl, of the Menara and of the Badî shows the relationship between the art of the gardens, the power of the sovereign
and the reigning dynasties.
The second half of the 19th century supposed an important change. The big Caids, pashas and senior officials relaunched the architecture thanks to his wealth and its historical sensitivity. The Palace of the Bahía is a clear example of this synthesis; its name means “The nice“. This work is an architectural and vegetable complex integrated to the history of the Moroccan art. The interior courtyard is divided in four spaces with bitter orange trees, bananas and a vegetation “neglected” accompanied by the adorned lodges (mgâ’ad). The balustrades surround four flowerbeds. The center of the courtyard is crowned with a fountain, space where the ways of marble and of Arabic mosaics intersect. The courtyard is surrounded with green and blue porticoes and canopies of green tiles. Long ago his garden provided of shade to the visitor, the plants compositions were formed by cypresses, palms, flowers and fruit trees that provided a range of aromas and perfumes in the whole stay. The low maintenance of this palatial complex owes maybe to the lack of interest of our society for these spaces that have been losing the utopian value that our forbears were attributing to them.
Other monuments like the Kutubia and the Madrasa de Ben Yussef also have integrated the garden in its architecture with reservoirs and plantations of bitter orange trees in its interiors. Since the colonial epoch the gardens in Marrakesch have continued evolving to the present day and this may be seen in the garden of the French artist Majorelle.
In full movement of the Art nouveau, which was inspired by forms existing in the nature, JM will keep a big sensibility for the vegetable kingdom. The botanical species have an important role in the composition of the garden and besides are an artistic source of inspiration. Plants are arranged, according to a pictorial composition of the painter and the architect Paul Sinoir, around a long central basin and along irregular, meandering walkways with curved, painted walls. In 1937 Jacques Majorelle introduced primary colors in the garden, outlining the “Majorelle blue” on the walls of the studio, gates, pergolas, ceramic jars and various buildings. The color highlights the green foliage. The soft murmure of fountains and water paths, the rustle of leaves in the breeze, the subtle chirping of birds, the croakings of frogs at sunset… contrast with the rumor from the outside its walls. From 1947, the garden Majorelle is opened to the public. At the end of his life, Jacques Majorelle will sell the rest of his property. From his death in 1962 the garden degrades. However in 1966 the fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé “discover” Marrakesh. They visit the first months the Garden Majorelle and buy a house in the Medina. The city council of Marrakesh let the garden languish for lack of maintenance.In 1980, the Foundation which Pierre Bergé had created with Yves Saint-Laurent acquires this space.
This garden is the result of the fusion of the mind and the art of Majorelle with the cultural and environmental landscape surroundings of Marrakech. An original, unique and deeply personal space that forms part of the Moroccan cultural heritage.
“The painter has the modesty to regard this enclosure of floral verdure as his most beautiful work.”…“vast splendours whose harmony I have orchestrated…This garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under its branches, after having given it all my love.” (Jacques Majorelle)