Secret Source: Top Five Fountains in the Gardens of Muslim civilisation
Blue skies, lush greenery, and brightly-coloured flowers. A garden offers shade, serenity and inspiration whether it’s in the grounds of a luxurious palace or hidden within a modest courtyard. Add the soothing sounds of water gushing from a fountain, and the picture is complete.
During Muslim civilisation, garden-lovers from Lisbon to Lahore could enjoy splendid outdoor spaces. Gardens dripped with water features and were packed with exotic species of plants. But what made the fountains in these gardens so special? And where would you have seen some of the best examples around the world?
Discover five of the most fascinating fountains – and learn what these ways with water tell us about the golden age of Muslim civilisation, during which men and women developed new ideas in science, art and culture.
1. Foretaste of paradise – the fountains of the lost city of Medina Azahara, Cordoba, 9th century
Imagine a garden inspired by the Paradise Garden described in the Qur’an. In its four-way design, rivers and fountains flow and fruit and flowers grow in abundance. This was how royal gardens were modelled in Muslim civilisation.
Now imagine that you could see the remains of such a garden in reality.
In farmland west of modern Cordoba in Spain, is the location of a lost ninth-century city called Medina Azahara. For nine hundred years it lay undiscovered after being abandoned in the year 1010 during a civil war. Today it is celebrated as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it shows Muslim civilisation at its peak in Al-Andalus.
Built in around 950 for the Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, the city is laid out on the mountainside with a palace, mosque, residential streets and a marble-lined bath house. The gardens, however, are particularly special. They are the earliest well-preserved example in the Muslim world of a Paradise garden, featuring rectangular plots with paved walkways, irrigation channels fed by a pool, and plants grown in square beds.
Fountains form a centrepiece to many courtyards and open spaces, sometimes made from Roman stonework or carved from marble with decorative leaf designs. The city had abundant water via a repurposed Roman aqueduct from which lead pipes brought water to the buildings, gardens and fountains.
Aerial view of the lost city of Medina Azahara, Cordoba, Spain, with permission of Antonio Rodriguez
2. Super-spouts – the Banu Musa brothers’ fountains, Baghdad, 9th century
Among other advances, clever mechanical engineering was a feature of Muslim civilisation. People created useful clocks, time-saving water pumps and novelty machines to surprise and delight an audience.
Fountains came in for an inventive makeover as early as the ninth century.
The Banu Musa brothers, who lived in 9th-century Baghdad and worked in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and mechanics, published a celebrated volume The Book of Ingenious Devices in 850. It described 100 mechanisms, some of which built on the discoveries of the Greeks and Romans, but with many original inventions.
Some were designs for fountains with mechanisms that would make the water jet form a particular shape. The book showed how lily, shield and spear shapes were possible by using fountain buds, or nozzles, of different designs. The brothers could then combine the shapes into more elaborate configurations, or even enable one shape to change to another using a clever water-powered balance.
The Banu Musa brothers’ inventive fountain shapes, recreated by FSTC
3. Water engineering – fountain in the Court of the Lions, Alhambra Palace, Cordoba, 14th century
Supplying gardens with enough water took proficiency with cisterns, pipes, channels and pools. In early Muslim civilisation, engineers repaired, extended and improved Roman, Greek and Persian structures, becoming experts in managing and preserving water.
Pipework to feed fountains required a lot of ingenuity.
Archaeologists have uncovered pipes in gardens from this period made from earthenware or lead. Precious copper pipes were also used in particularly high-prestige projects. In some cases the pipes were made in short sections, slightly tapered to allow them to connect easily. Elsewhere there is evidence of pipe joints sealed with linen and lime to reduce leaks.
These techniques allowed elaborate fountains to function, such as the fountain in the Court of the Lions at the Alhambra Palace in Cordoba. Twelve white marble lions stand guard surrounding an alabaster basin. Each spouts water from its mouth into a shallow circular channel that flows off in four directions across a courtyard. In the centre of the basin is a pipe supplying water through a marble cylinder that has holes to act as overflows, maintaining the water level.
A major restoration of the courtyard and fountain won a Heritage Award in 2013. While the refurbishment used modern water management materials, the space now allows you to step back in time and see its accurate 16th-century appearance.
4. Sound rather than height - the fountains at the Bagh-e Fin gardens, Iran, 16th century
Fountains today often aim high, prioritising a soaring water jet above anything else. However, the latest research suggests that in gardens of the golden age, fountains were designed instead to bubble beautifully, bringing movement and sound into the garden.
The engineering behind the fountains is what reveals this historical detail.
Evidence does not always remain from centuries past. But where it does, the position of the water tank in relation to the fountain generally shows that the supply would have operated at relatively low pressure.
A beautiful example of this is in an ancient garden in Iran called Bagh-e-Fin. It dates from the 16th century and features pools and channels lined with turquoise tiles. Rows of small fountains protrude slightly from the water’s surface, making it bubble and gurgle.
The water supply is a spring 3 kilometres south of the garden. The original water engineers used natural properties of gravity, water speed and pressure to feed the fountains.
5. Power in numbers – Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, 16th and 17th century
Gentle sound and an elegant shape marked out a good fountain in Muslim civilisation. But where garden designers really put on a show was in the number of fountains they operated at once. An abundance of water spouts often gave an elaborate display for visitors to enjoy.
The Shalimar Gardens in Lahore, Pakistan, once sported a total of 410 fountains.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the gardens are a surviving 16th and 17th-century example of Mughal garden design – a fusion of Islamic, Persian, Hindi and Mongol traditions that grew up in the Indian subcontinent.
The greatest such gardens were enclosed by walls and criss-crossed with paths and flowerbeds. Water in reflecting pools, flowing channels and fountains completed the visionary effect. But a key characteristic of these gardens was the huge numbers of hourglass-shaped fountainheads that bubbled over a large area of water.
To supply so many fountains at the Shalimar Gardens, the city’s engineers built wells, and used water wheels to fill cisterns with water that then flowed through underground pipes. A filtration system even kept the water clear.
In a garden designed to bring heaven to mind, a host of bubbling fountains would have added delightful sound and movement. But fountains reveal more than just a love for the cooling effect of water in a hot climate.
Behind the scenes, engineers required enormous ingenuity to supply water to multiple fountains along pipework made from the materials of the day. The ability to control and use water was a key aspect of developing cities and towns during Muslim civilisation.
The aesthetic appeal of fountains with a water jet that changed shape must have been immense. It is one example of the way in which mechanical engineers were building on past developments with new ideas and advances.
Fountains formed a fabulous aspect of many golden-age gardens – and they reveal a period of history in which men and women shaped the world we now live in. We are lucky to be able to see some of their work still bubbling away in gardens today.
- Fountains and water: the development of the hydraulic technology of display in Islamic gardens 700–1700 CE James W. P. Campbell & Amy Boyington published in Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes vol 38 2018