THE SULTAN’S WATER GARDEN
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon may have been an eternal myth but were a symbolic illusion of paradise on earth. This immortal vision remained until Alhambra was built in Granada. With his mind set on the Assabica Hill for the new palace, the Moorish emir’s challenge was to develop the complex into a lush oasis, with dense gardens and farmlands. The palace had to serve the dual purpose of providing food and entertainment. But although Granada is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the confluence of three rivers, there was no fresh water supply on the Assabica Hill. It was a lifelong problem Granada had to contend with, which made its steep hills difficult to cultivate. Again, the dilemma rested on diverting water from the running streams down below, to the forest of flora and fauna in the mountains above. This meant one thing: developing a sophisticated system of hydraulics, which harnessed the power of gravity to divert the water to the hills. Moorish engineers knew about the ancient system of irrigation invented by the early Mesopotamians, which threaded their farmland with water channels and turned the desert into a fertile oasis.
As the ancestors of natives of an inhospitable terrain where water is a valuable and rare commodity, they had an advantage. They started by first scouring the surrounding hills looking for a fresh water source perched at a higher altitude. They were hoping to exploit the full force of nature to drive the water to the citadel, but there was no natural lake above Alhambra, so they built one. Located at a distance six kilometres away from the fortress plateau, the engineers constructed a reservoir which built up an overwhelming volume of water. Then, using a trail of brick channels running through a tunnel dug into the hillsides, a powerful jet from the dam is fed into the royal compound. With water now running down to the parcels of vegetation the sultan’s water garden based on the Islamic and Persian philosophy of paradise - cascading fountains, textures, colours and smells - bounced to life. And to take things up a notch, the sultan created some stunning engineering tricks at his hunting lodge, the Generalife.
At the centre of the water patio he installed a running canal with an avenue of spouting fountains. Also, the staircase leading up to the mosque, was constructed with a unique cascading trough-like balustrade, which channels a gentle stream of water from top to bottom. This places water as the single most significant element at the heart of an Islamic garden. Its constant moving capability gives the space life and rhythm. Its reflective property, mirrors the gracefulness and elegance of symmetry of the surrounding objects and plants. And its permeability catches light, reflecting it back, to illuminate the darkest corners of the courtyard. Not to mention, its soft trickling sound has a profound soothing effect on people. The channels connecting the fountains and pools may look very simply, but behind this simplicity there is an advanced technology of basins to slow and collect the water, thus narrowing to accelerate its speed. There are also potholes and curves to make the flow varied, and always gentle. No doubt, that in Alhambra the playful nature of water is fully exploited to turn the palatial gardens into a symphonic jubilation of tunes, light, smell, spaciousness, harmony and sophistication.