Islamic Gardens – Catalysts of Change

“…it is the Garden, down through history, that has often symbolised the harmonious interaction of Divine Blessing and Human Creativity.

This merging of Nature’s Gifts with Human Design is an ideal that is deeply embedded, of course, both in Indian culture and in Islamic traditions, with the flow of refreshing water reminding us of the abundance of Divine Blessing.” Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Inauguration of the Sunder Nursery, New Delhi, February 2018.

Gardens bring people of different backgrounds together to enjoy and appreciate nature. Gardens are a central feature of the built environment in Muslim cultures. Some of the most iconic monuments built by Muslim rulers have equally prominent adjoining gardens such as the Taj Mahal in India and the Alhambra in Spain.

Known as “paradise gardens”, they evoke the descriptions of Paradise in the Quran: rivers of water, gushing fountains, the cool refreshing shade of trees and delicious hanging fruit. They provide respite from the daily hustle of human life and bring people of different backgrounds together to enjoy and appreciate nature. They also seek to improve people’s quality of life by providing spaces for reflection, spirituality, education and leisure.
To restore, create and revitalise beautiful green spaces has been a prime goal of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in recent years with the objective of using green spaces to catalyse positive economic, social and cultural change.

Sunder Nursery, New Delhi, India
The project aimed to enhance and showcase the ecological and built heritage of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery.  A nursery was originally established here in 1912 when the imperial Delhi complex was being planned for propagating and testing tree species from across India and overseas. An important aim for the development was to creatively combine monuments, forest and nursery functions within one interactive experience.  The landscape master plan aimed to create a major landscape space of truly urban scale, deriving inspiration from the traditional Indian concept of congruency between nature, garden and utility coupled with environmental conservation.  The nursery also provides a major new green space for public recreation.
Aga Khan Garden, Edmonton
Situated within the wider University of Alberta Botanic Garden, the Aga Khan Garden is intended to be a place for people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with each other and the beauty of nature. The 4.8-hectare Mughal-inspired space is the northernmost Islamic garden in the world. It features secluded forest paths, granite and limestone terraces, still pools that reflect the prairie sky, and a waterfall that tumbles over textured stone.
Al Azhar Park, Cairo, Egypt
AKDN / Gary Otte
Al Azhar Park, located by the Old City of Cairo, offers a 30-hectare expanse of greenery on what was dust and rubble for over two centuries. Offering a contemporary design inspired by historic Islamic gardens, the spine is a formal axis with a water channel leading in the direction of a small lake, with accompanying alleyways, and pointing towards the Citadel. The project included the excavation and extensive restoration of the 12th Century Ayyubid wall and the rehabilitation of important monuments in the Historic City. Several landmark buildings, including the 14th Century Umm Sultan Shaban Mosque, the Khayrbek complex (encompassing a 13th century palace, a mosque and an Ottoman house), the Aslam mosque and square and the Darb Shoughlan School were restored.
Bagh-e Babur, Kabul, Afghanistan
AKDN / Christian Richters
Babur’s Garden (Bagh-e Babur) provided a much needed green space of beauty in the face of so much destruction. Rehabilitation of the 16th century Garden, where the first Mughal Emperor Babur is buried, not only re-establishes the historic character of the site, with its water channels, plant-ed terraces and pavilion, but also brings to life the array of monuments within its bounds, providing spaces for leisure, recreation, meetings and cultural events.
National Park of Mali, Bamako, Republic of Mali
Iwan Baan
Under the terms of a public-private partnership, the Government asked AKTC to concentrate on the Park’s 103 hectares, a large, semi-circular canyon of protected forest that lies beneath the terraced outcrops of the Koulouba plateau, between the National Museum and the Presidential Palace Complex. The project brief called for the unification of the sites of the National Museum and the existing Botanical Garden and Zoo into a single cultural/ecological park of significant value, with natural and cultural attractions.
Chihilsitoon Garden and Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan
Simon Norfolk | AKTC
The 12.5 hectare Chihilsitoon Garden laid in ruins for the past 26 years before a project by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture restored the site to former glory, incorporating 10,200 m2 of modernized or newly constructed rammed earth buildings to provide high-quality facilities for visitors. A historic formal axial garden forms the core of the site, surrounded by informal patches of dense landscapes and open lawns, with nodes of activities inserted along its longitudinal spine. These include family picnics areas, an outdoor amphitheatre, and the historic formal promenade (containing original marble fountains) which were restored and made functional again.
Forodhani Park, Stone Town, Zanzibar
The revitalisation project has transformed the heavily used park – one of the last open spaces in this densely populated World Heritage Site – and upgraded social and recreational amenities in the historic Park. The Park, once the location of the main port and a landing point for the former Sultans of Zanzibar has remained a central meeting place for civic discourse, leisure and entertainment. Works included the restoration of the walkways, landscape improvements, infrastructure upgrading including lighting, sewage, drainage and civic amenities and the rehabilitation of the seawall fronting the Park.
Aga Khan Park, Toronto
AKDN / Janet Kimber
The Aga Khan Park lies on the outskirts of Toronto’s city centre in a dense setting surrounded by high traffic streets and highways. It occupies a 17- acre site where two institutional buildings are housed: the Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre. The Park’s aspiration was not only to embrace and unify these two buildings, but also to offer a serene and contemplative space.
A formal garden inspired by traditional Islamic gardens functions as the central feature of the entire Park. Surrounded by a densely planted buffer zone and conceived as the outdoor extension of the Museum and Ismaili Centre, the formal garden captures the essence of Islamic gardens, translating them into an expression that reflects its new context. Embracing the five senses, every space within the formal garden is imbued with the delicate sensations that we seem to have lost in this fast-paced era. Shadows, light, petals, leaves and water in motion are complemented by the solidity and purity of created forms.
Islamic Gardens at the Aga Khan Center, King’s Cross, London
Edmund Sumner
Each roof garden, terrace and courtyard in the Aga Khan Centre echoes Islamic architectural and garden styles. These contemporary landscaped spaces represent the diversity of Muslim cultures around the world and over time. The modestly-sized but beautiful spaces range from contemplative and secluded to open and social. Islamic gardens come in many different types, styles, shapes and sizes with most containing plants and flowers for shade, colour and scent. Other characteristic features include water, geometrical patterns, architectural elements and hard surfaces, arranged symmetrically.
Khorog City Park, Tajikistan
AKDN / Christopher Wilton-Steer
The town of Khorog, capital of the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous region in Tajikistan, is situated 2,100 metres above sea level in the heart of the Pamir Mountains near the border with Afghanistan.The design inspiration for the Park came as a direct response to the dramatic climate and landscape of the region and the common need for a public garden for both refuge and recreation. The design intent was to preserve the best of what existed and then work creatively with the ordinary, stone, water, flowers and shade trees in an extraordinary way. Khorog Park, with its café, teahouse, open-air theatre and pond provides an enhanced park facility for the entire city.
A Short Documentary - Islamic gardens - Catalysts for change