The Alhambra goes on tour

A microcosm of Islamic Spain has been recreated at The New York Botanical Garden this summer.

A facade of the West Pavilion of the Patio de Acequia
Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra
Photo by Ivo M. Vermeulen
Powered by automated translation

The first thing you notice is the heat: the air is humid and a little heavy, like a Mediterranean summer. Next comes the soothing sound of water trickling in a fountain, then the smell - here, rich and earthy, there, sweetly perfumed by citrus blossoms and jasmine.

"Everybody talks about the fragrance," says Karen Daubmann, the director of exhibitions and seasonal displays at The New York Botanical Garden.

For those who take the 20-minute train ride from midtown Manhattan to its 250 emerald-green acres in the Bronx, any visit to the garden is like a day-trip to another land. Until August 21, the garden is showing vistas even more distant, in both geography and time: Spain in the age of Islamic rule (711-1492) and, by extension, the Middle East, wellspring of its art and culture.

This year's summer exhibition, Spanish Paradise: Gardens of the Alhambra, has transformed the Enid A Haupt Conservatory into a microcosm of Islamic Spain. While New Yorkers await the reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Islamic galleries on November 1 after years of renovation, the Botanical Garden is tiding them over with a glimpse of visual art forms that may rarely cross their minds: landscape architecture and garden design. (The Brooklyn Museum also has an extensive Islamic collection, reinstalled two years ago after its own major renovation.)

The path from the garden's gates to the conservatory sets the stage with Poetry Walk, a sampling of poems by Federico García Lorca, who was born in Granada in 1936, posted in the outdoor gardens. Then it's on to the conservatory, a glass confection reminiscent of London's fabled Crystal Palace of 1851.

The Alhambra is, of course, one of the jewels of civilisation. A cornerstone of Islamic Spain, it was rediscovered by the Romantics and is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. The fortress and palace in the hills overlooking Granada in southern Spain, completed by the Nasrid dynasty (1232-1492), blends mediaeval Spanish architecture with Roman, Islamic and even Renaissance elements. Its very name is believed to come from the Arabic Al-hamra, meaning red, for the red dust on the stucco fortress at the site.

The Botanical Garden seeks to replicate this not in exactitude, but in feeling and spirit. "Our goal is to evoke the Alhambra for those who've been there and those who want to go," said Todd Forrest, the vice president for horticulture and living collections. "They learn how innovative and inquisitive each of the builders were" as they worked to achieve beauty while making the gardens ever more productive. "That extends all the way from the garden's creation to today," Forrest added. "It's still a vibrant, living garden."

Inspired by "the intense summer light of New York, like that of Andalusia and the city of Granada", the curators have put together a collection of plants that speak of not only the Alhambra, but the entire Mediterranean region - among them olive trees, bay laurel, myrtle, cypress, citrus and date palms. Serving as the honorary curator is Penelope Hobhouse, the eminent British garden designer and author. "She came and went through our plant list, making sure we were on the right track," Daubmann said.

The installation is, in Forrest's words, "a garden for all the senses," not just the most obvious one: sight. Visitors should refrain from indulging touch and taste, although the pots of thyme and borders of rosemary are tempting. But small signs scattered throughout the beds ask "What do you smell?" and "What do you hear?" The latter answers itself: "sounds of running water and wind in the trees." Being enclosed by glass, the trees here make no such sound, but there is the occasional call from a bird that has found its way inside. And there is music - Spanish guitar, flamenco, Middle Eastern - soft enough that you can hear the fountains.

Fountains and pools are a key element of the Alhambra's courtyards and gardens, made possible in its arid climate by the sophisticated hydraulics the Muslims brought to Spain, a significant advance over Roman and northern European techniques. Using canals and aqueducts, they moved water six kilometres from the River Darro to create Granada's water supply and, not least, the system of channels and pools that enabled the lush gardens in the Alhambra to thrive, and became things of beauty in themselves. A path through the conservatory, punctuated by small scallop-edged fountains, takes the place of a channel in vintage photos of an Alhambra garden. To enhance the reflections from one pool, the water is dyed black - with the side benefit of reducing algae growth, since less light penetrates the water.

That pool is at the centre of the Islamic "four-part landscape", a bed divided into triangular quadrants with water flowing through, creating axes for "the channelling of views and vistas," Daubmann says. The concept of the mirador - "a place from which to look" - was very important to the Alhambra's designers, she says. So was the organisation of plantings within the quadrants, which display tall elements such as cypress trees with low borders of myrtle or boxwood or scarlet sage serving as "picture frames to contain the landscape".

As at the Alhambra, plants here were selected not only for their beauty and fragrance but also for utility. In Islamic gardens, medicinal and culinary plants are grown alongside ornamental ones, which explains why the Sharifa asma rose, a modern hybrid that smells like the damask rose, shares a pot with thyme. Ornamental lemon trees serve both purposes.

A favourite story recounts how the pomegranate came to Spain: a sister of the 10th-century ruler Abd Al-Rahman sent him the fruit from Damascus as a gift. By the time it arrived, the fruit had spoiled - no expedited overnight shipping in those days - but courtiers planted the seeds. Here the fruit is represented by dwarf pomegranate bushes in terracotta pots.

The Alhambra's architecture, which reached its peak under the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th century, borrowed from Roman, Islamic and later even Renaissance styles to produce a complex of buildings and courtyards replete with strange angles and hidden passageways. Carved into wood and stucco were geometric and vegetal designs that seem especially at home in the Botanical Garden. One of the façades built for the exhibition looks from a distance like a plausible view of antique wooden doors under a lacey carved arch above but turns out, on closer inspection, to be painted particle board.

The show aims to introduce visitors to new views and unfamiliar plants - for example, the fig, which was brought to Cordoba from Byzantium in 840AD. "Where," Daubmann asked, "do you get to see figs growing?" I squealed with delight to see the heads of tiny, white flowers on the valerian plant, the soporific herb in my bedtime tea. Daubmann pointed to bananas growing on a tree - admittedly not authentic to the Alhambra, but always a highlight for schoolchildren who think bananas come from grocery stores.

"It's all about making these connections," she said.

Visit for more information on Spanish Paradise and The New York Botanical Garden.