Marrakech is a bustling and energetic city in the Kingdom of Morocco that bursts at the seams with colourful sights, sounds, and smells. The imposing, salmon-hued old city walls of the medina have earned Marrakech the monikers ‘Rose City’ and ‘Red City.’ Yet, the vibrant destination also has a green side. Ancient gardens, tree-lined avenues, and planted rooftops teeming with wild birds have dubbed the city a handful of historic nicknames, including ‘rose among the palm trees,’ ‘oasis in the desert,’ and Al-Bahja, ‘the city of peace and open air.’
Considered an earthly reflection of the paradise described in the Quran, gardens play an important role throughout the Islamic world. It was the Moors who firmly established Morocco’s garden culture, introducing ingenious design elements with both a practical and spiritual purpose. The central idea behind the Islamic design approach is creating a space of quiet reflection and contemplation. Courtyard gardens are divided into quadrants, each with a water channel or rill representing the four rivers of paradise (water, milk, wine, and honey) that flow into a central pool. As the water evaporates it creates a micro-climate that keeps the area cool.
The view from atop the city’s social rooftops will help you to see just how green the Red City is. Marrakech boasts numerous hidden gardens within its medina (old city). Its riads or traditional houses, palaces, and mansions, are built around a central courtyard garden, typically with a large pond for irrigation and a pavilion that provides privacy, allows light to filter in, and lowers the temperature within the building.
For such an arid city, the surprising number of gardens can be afforded to the proximity of the Atlas Mountains, which snow-capped peaks act as a constant water supply to the ancient irrigation systems of the medina. While the city swelters during the hot summer months, the gardens continue to flourish, providing a refreshing retreat to escape the bustling streets. There is nothing quite like stepping inside the tranquillity and beauty of Marrakech’s riads as they invite you to cool down and enjoy a bit of peace and solitude.
Le Jardin Secret
Some gardens simply cannot be missed, and Le Jardin Secret (The Secret Garden) is one of them. UK designer Tom Stuart-Smith recreated a historic riad garden, and it is a complete joy to see and experience. A small doorway in the medina leads you straight into the beautiful and intricate green bejmat (a courtyard with geometric-patterned tiles from the Moroccan city Fes) of a sixteenth-century palace that has been lovingly restored for eight years before being opened to the public in 2016.
Le Jardin Secret boasts two main buildings, two riad gardens, a qubba (tomb structure), and a tower rising as high as some of the city’s minarets, with unmatched views of the medina and the Atlas Mountains. There is also a small café with a large terrace overlooking the gardens. Both the qubba and tower are symbols of the former palace owner’s wealth and power. The skill of Moroccan artisans is showcased throughout the building, with beautiful pise (rammed earth) walls covered in tadelakt (a typical Moroccan waterproof plaster surface) and zellige (a mosaic style made from hand-chiselled geometric tiles set into a plaster base), hand-carved stucco, and hand-painted, inlaid cedarwood ceilings and doors.
Tom Stuart-Smith has taken great care to follow the original layout and function of the gardens, saying, ‘While the two courtyard gardens may initially seem separate and contrasting, they share a common language of bubbling fountains, trickling rills, shady walks, and high walls, which shut out the noise and bustle of the medina.’
The larger of the two is an Islamic Garden based on the Quranic description of heaven. Built with the characteristic orderly, geometric design reflecting the ideology behind ‘paradisal gardens,’ the garden adopts the symbolic four-fold plan known as the Chahar bagh used in Persian and Islamic gardens since 500 BCE. Authentic Islamic gardens typically feature a quartet of trees, including olive, pomegranate, fig, and date. Some say the olive could be the ‘Tree of Bliss’ mentioned in the Quran. Pomegranates represent unity, wholeness, and fertility, and their oil has long been considered sacred. Figs were deemed the fruit of paradise by the Prophet Muhammad, and Muslims regard the date as one of the blessings offered in Paradise. They eat the fruit to break the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan.
Stuart-Smith included several trees and plants of symbolic importance in Moroccan gardens, such as argan trees, grapevines, and both sweet and bitter oranges, which were introduced to the Mediterranean from China between the sixth and eighth centuries. The second of the two gardens also maintains a four-fold layout but is filled with exotic plants from all over the world — plants which would not have been available to the original owners. Both gardens feature several streams of water flowing along narrow ancient irrigation channels called khettara, which signify life. Since access to running water in dry countries was, and still is, a great luxury, the presence of water represents wealth. The sight and sound of cool water also symbolises purity, renewal, peace, and tranquillity.
An oasis located in the heart of the city; this botanical garden is one of the most iconic landmarks in Marrakech. French Orientalist artist Jacques Majorelle constructed the garden and villa in 1923, after which he commissioned the French architect Paul Sinoir to design an Art Deco-inspired villa for the grounds in 1931. Yet, perhaps one of the building’s most famous features, is the walls’ iconic shade of blue painted in 1937. The colour now carries his name and is known as “Majorelle Blue.” He opened a large section of the garden to the public in 1947 — something couturier Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé continued to do when they purchased the property in 1980.
The garden is home to more than 300 different plant species from five continents, collected primarily by Jacques Majorelle over several decades. Dense thickets of bamboo groves stand tall in the Moroccan sunlight, while a good number of cacti, coconut, palm, and banana trees, vibrant flowers, and billowing grasses encircle the pristine marble pools. From the pools’ lily pads and water fountains frequented by koi, carp, and frogs, to the white-pillared pavilion and elevated footpaths, there is simply no place quite like it. Additionally, the high adobe tower flanking the garden evokes the character of the nearby casbahs — the mountain fortresses that were the homes of the fiercely independent Berbers.
After restoring the villa and creating a masterpiece of Moroccan craftmanship with elaborately painted cedarwood and zellige interiors, Yves Saint Laurent aptly renamed his former personal residence ‘Villa Oasis.’ Both Laurent and Bergé also restored the surrounding gardens of Jardin Majorelle with the help of Abderrazak Benchaâbane, Morocco’s leading Garden Designer and Ethnobotanist. Although the garden is one of the top tourist destinations in Morocco, Villa Oasis is currently not open to the general public. But new plans are reportedly in place to make it more accessible after the late Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé passed on. At present, only a handful five-star hotels, such as the Four Seasons Resort, can arrange exclusive tours for guests.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent’s 75-seat café, Le Studio, is titled after its namesake’s workspace on 5 Avenue Marceau in Paris, and is reminiscent of the calm and intimate environment where the couturier would retreat and work. The site has an outdoor garden designed by Yves Taralon using pale-coloured wood with plaster light fixtures, white marble, and wicker furniture upholstered in a vibrant canary yellow. Overall, Le Studio serves a bold dynamic that contrasts wonderfully with the Majorelle Blue.
Musée Yves Saint Laurent
Created by French architectural duo Olivier Marty and Karl Fournier of Studio KO, the museum that is devoted entirely to the work of the legendary fashion designer opened in 2017. The late Pierre Bergé, who commissioned the architects in 2014, gave them a short but challenging brief. ‘It’s simple’, the architects recall Bergé saying, ‘I want something strong, Moroccan, contemporary, and, above all, absolutely uncompromising.’
The building marries modernist architecture with traditional Moroccan stone, using detailed brickwork that recalls the kind of weave you see in fabric. What’s more, the interiors take inspiration from the YSL Paris studio, with pared back white marble, light-coloured wood, wicker furniture, and an air of serenity. The result is a stunning 43,000 square metre museum and cultural centre dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent’s archives and sketches, telling the story of the designer’s work and his passion for Morocco.
Marrakech Has More…
Before we leave the green courtyards of the Red City, it’s pertinent that we pause on more of its gorgeous gardens:
- Anima Garden
An Instagram-ready wonderland of botanical staging with pavilions, ponds, mystical artworks, and sculptures backdropped by the Atlas Mountains.
- La Mamounia Gardens
Set on a former royal estate dating back to the twelfth century, the gardens are lush with delphiniums, jacarandas, orange trees, palm trees, rose bushes, lemon trees, and even 700-year-old olive trees.
- Bahia Palace
A palatial complex with sprawling gardens covering 8,000 square metres, this must-see garden was built in the late nineteenth century in the Moroccan style architecture.
- Agdal and Menara Gardens
Dubbed the ‘Islamic Versailles,’ the historic gardens and orchards of Agdal Gardens and its little sister, the Menara Gardens, were listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
- Cactus THIEMANN
The largest cacti farm and garden in Africa, supplying many famous gardens with succulents, prickly pears, giant aloes, and agaves.
- Jardin Bio-Aromatique d’Ourika
Morocco’s first organic garden, which is open to visitors who wish to discover the aromatic, medicinal, and ornamental plants of the region.
Interior Architect, Garden Designer, Travel and Design Writer