Landscaping in Burhanpur mazaar, note the foliage covering the residence wall

Outside the Bāb al-Futūḥ was situated the garden of al-Mukhtār al-Saqlabī. This great garden had a belvedere erected on it. Thus, the entire area from the Bāb al-Futūḥ in the east to the Khalīj in the west and al-Maṭariya village near ʿAyn al-Shams in the north was a green space full of gardens and orchards.

In the north-east of Cairo at a distance from the Bāb al-Naṣr stood the Bustān al-Raydāniya. This garden belonged to Raydān al-Ṣaqlabī, a notable in the court of Imam al-ʿAzīz BillāhAS. The former used to carry the royal umbrella (al-muẓilla) for the caliph. Raydān imported plants called al-Hulaylij (myrobalan) from India for his garden; hence the area was named al-Hulaylij.

A complex of rose gardens was laid out in Khāqāniya. The caliphs would go there for excursions and take part in festivities: a structure was erected which was called the Rose Palace (Qaṣr al-Ward). The site of this rose garden, also called Kharqāniyya, was a place on the eastern bank of Nile near Qalyūbiya. Nearby, to the south of a village called Sardūs, a garden called the Bustān al-Sardūs was built by Imam al-ʿAzīz BillāhAS. Thus, gardens were built and maintained not just within the city and around it, but also at sites in places remote from the royal city.

At a considerable distance further north of these gardens, there were al-Ḥayr (hunting parks) for the caliphs. Al-Musabbihi’s account reveals that ʿAīn al-Shams (Heliopolis) used to be a hunting ground for the Fāṭimid caliphs who would go there with a parasol and sometimes without it. Many hunting scenes were depicted in the wood carvings in Princess Sitt al-Mulūk’s palace.

Hunting is a multifaceted sport combining prowess, physical strength, a sense of victory, pleasure and celebration. Many dignitaries, local and foreign, accompanied the rulers on their hunts; it was the sport of the elite and most rulers in medieval times enjoyed it.

The Fāṭimid caliph had a private garden with fresh water in ʿAīn al-Shams, which Nāṣir-i-Khusraw visited:

“Near the garden I saw an edifice made of four large stones, each of which was thirty ells and shaped like a minaret. From the top of each of these water trickles, but no one knew what it used to be”.

In this garden Nāṣir saw a tree about which he says:

“There is a balsam tree in the garden, and it is said that the ancestors of the present Sultan brought the seeds of this tree from the Maghreb and planted them…”.

The balsam oil produced here was highly valued, and oil from other areas could not compete with it. It was a previous rarity for Egypt and enough balsam oil was made to be part of the state income as well as being one of the diplomatic gift items to be exchanged with other rulers.

The transfer of the Fāṭimid caliphate from Tunisia to Egypt was an unprecedented event in which a large royal family and the court migrated thousands of miles. The Fāṭimids brought with them, among other things, the seeds of trees, as is evident from Nāṣir’s account. Trees were also brought to Cairo from as far away as India. Cairo, as the centre of trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, through the red sea and Nile, also made this sort of contact possible. Al-Maqrīzī mentions that “in the year 358 AH (968 AD) presents to the Caliph from India included branches of Aloes tree”.

Within Cairo plants were bought and sold on a large scale:

“among the other things, if anyone wants to make a garden in Egypt, it can be done during any season at all, since any tree, fruit bearing or other, can be obtained” (Khusraw 1980:81).

Such large-scale engagement with trees and plants at the market level makes gardening and plantation a profitable business. This was exactly the case in Cairo: a special group of people were engaged in the business of plants; Nāṣir-i-Khusraw writes:

“There are special people called dallals who can obtain right away anything you desire because they have trees planted in tubs on rooftops. When a customer wishes, porters will go and tie the tubs to poles and carry the trees wherever desired. They will also make a hole in the ground and sink the tubs if wished. Then, when someone so desires, they will dig the tub up and carry the fragments away, and the trees will not know the difference. I have never seen or heard of such a thing anywhere else in the world, and it is truly clever!”

Besides forming geometric patterns, the different trees planted provided a colourful setting for the gardens. We learn specifically about tamarisk, sycamore, orange trees, palm trees, pomegranate trees, roses and herbs. In one of the walled garden complexes in the north-west outside the Cairo wall “there were 17,200 trees at a time”. The tamarisk is a small tree which looks like a large shrub: it has attractive pink flowers; it is strong and can be used for protection against strong winds. The sycamore is a large tree which is usually planted to provide shade; thus it is well suited to areas with a hot climate. Its wood is quite useful. Some of the wooden elements of Fāṭimid architecture on display in the Museum of Islāmic Art in Cairo attest that a variety of architectural items were made from sycamore wood: a wooden miḥrāb commissioned by the Imām al-ḤākimAS for al-Azhar; wooden panels from the Fāṭimid palaces; mosque and palace doors; and ceiling beams were all made of sycamore. The strength of the wood allowed the artist to decorate it with designs, which did not compromise its durability.

Acacia is a tree indigenous to Egypt and is particularly suited for areas with little water, it has a short trunk with hard, durable wood. According to Herodotus, most of the vessels in Egypt were made from the wood of the thorny acacia tree. Trees in the Fāṭimid gardens had multiple functions and importance: they made the garden profitable by producing fruit and wood, and added to the aesthetic appeal by providing cool shade in the hot summer and, through “light-management”, the sunlight sneaking through the leaves and branches created a beautiful scene. It would have been particularly charming for someone sitting in an elevated position to see the combination of shade and light overlapping in the garden. Light passing through the layer of trees produces a zigzag of light and shade on the green ground. Sitting on belvederes, the caliphs could enjoy the view and fresh northern breeze, which becomes zephyr-like after passing through leaves. As well as the trees, these gardens contained flowers which, along with fruits and herbs, produced a huge income.

This passion for gardens, plants and flowers is also apparent in other forms of Fāṭimid arts. There are reports that the governor of Mecca “came to meet the Fāṭimid caliph al-ʿAzīz and the gifts he brought included a garden of silver with replica fruit trees and flowers on it all made of silver”. A similar miniature garden was presented to the Imām al-ḤākimAS by his sister, Sitt al-Mulūk, in 997 AD. Fāṭimid wood carvings likewise depict garden-related natural objects. Some of the wood carving in the palace of the Fāṭimid princess Sitt al-Mulūk show that the carvings of various birds and vegetable motifs gave the illusion of an indoor garden to be enjoyed all year round. Dishes and wooden panels from the Fāṭimid palaces, held in the Museum of Islāmic Art Cairo show a deep appreciation of natural objects, i.e. birds, animals and flowers, as well as music and dancing scenes and a rock crystal ewer depicts a hunting bird jumping on a gazelle. Though some of the animals depicted there are imaginary, others are not, and are direct references to paradise like doves and peacocks.

4. Archaeology and garden layout

Very little is known about the layout of the royal Fāṭimid gardens because no garden has survived, nor have any been excavated. However, we have some physical insights into the layout and shape of thse Fāṭimid gardens due to the archaeological excavations on three sites in Cairo: a mausoleum in Darrāsa (Darb al-Aḥmar), houses in Fuṭāṭ and a necropolis in Isṭabl ʿAntar. These gardens were reserved for the elite, but not for the caliph. It is quite probable that these gardens were miniature reproductions of the gardens of the princes, and it is through these gardens found in archaeological excavations that we will try to give a more detailed picture of the Fāṭimid gardens.

The excavated Fāṭimid structures in Darrāsa, Fāṭimid Cairo, consisted of a building with a lime floor, delimited by walls made of fire bricks and mud bricks. The northern part of the building opens up onto a court with a fountain. The basin was constructed with a channel for incoming water in a vertical ceramic pipe set at a north-east angle with a second hose inserted at a south-westerly angle to evacuate the overflow. Water was discharged towards the desert, to the east. The water travelled beneath the garden wall, entering the pool through a ceramic pipe and through another ceramic pipe being evacuated into a subterranean canal. The ceramic pipelines are built inside masonry of red bricks. The channel for incoming water forms an elbow, delimiting a roadbed of compacted black clay constituting the organic soil of a small garden. The garden is rectangular, and is surrounded by a wall, while the overall structure of the basin is square with an octagonal central water tank.

Later the foundations of a huge Fāṭimid tower were built over the fountain and the garden. This tower was part of the town wall of vizier Badr al-Jamālī, connected to a monumental gate, Bāb al-Tawfīq, dated by inscription to AD 1087-90. The Fāṭimid garden and fountain are dated to AD 980-1040. They were built after the creation of the town wall of Jawhar in AD 971 and before the construction of the town wall of Badr al-Jamālī in AD 1087. The fountain was constructed outside the first walls. Is the purpose of the building more difficult to interpret; is it a peripheral settlement or a funerary compound? So far, we have not found any tombs or human remains that allow us to confirm a funerary function for this building. Nevertheless, our structure presents strong similarities to one of the contemporary mausoleums found in Isṭabl ʿAntar.

Roland-Pierre Gayraud carried out excavations on the Isṭabl ʿAntar plateau, on a cliff south of Fusṭāṭ. The Fāṭimids used this area as a cemetery. Gayraud’s excavation showed that the Fāṭimids built tombs, gardens and water-pools there.

The compounds excavated are composed of tombs with a central court, with one of more basins and gardens. The archaeological evidence shows that the gardens were rectangular and in most cases surrounded by walls. The soil in the gardens consists of a black earth, Nile silt according to Gayraud. One of the gardens Gayraud found in Isṭabl ʿAntar is a rectangular structure measuring 8.5×6 metres, which is “probably the biggest garden found on the site”. It is surrounded by a wall, and water reaches it through two successive basins. On the north-west side of the garden a sump is made in order to collect excess water.

The famous Muslim traveller Ibn Baṭṭūṭa, who visited Cairo in the Mamluk period, writes:

“The big cemetery of al-Qarāfa has sanctity because of the graves of many scholars and pious people, there. People have built beautiful pavilions there surrounded by walls which makes the structure look like houses. They also built chambers and hire Qurʾān readers, who recite night and day in agreeable voices.”

As this activity took place nearly a century and a half after the end of Fāṭimid caliphate, we cannot be certain that these gardens were used for the same purposes during Fāṭimid rule. The traveller’s account makes it clear that gardens in medieval Muslim societies were places of contemplation and meditation and it would seem highly probable that the gardens at Qarāfa cemetery played this same role in Fāṭimid times.