Yasser Tabbaa



Control and Abandon: Images of Water in Arabic Poetry and Gardens

Let us compare this 6th century poem by Imru’ al-Qays:

Halt, friends both! Let us weep, recalling a love and a lodging
by the rim of the twisted sands between al-Dakhoul and Haumal,
Toodih and al-Miqrat, whose trace is not yet effaced
for all the spinning of the south winds and the northern blasts;
there, all about its yards, and away in dry hollows
you may see the dung of antelopes spattered like peppercorns.

and this 14th century poem by Ibn Zamrak:

Silver melting which flows between jewels, one
like the other in beauty, white in purity
A running stream evokes the illusion of a solid substance
For the eyes, so that we wonder which one is fluid.
Don’t you see that it’s the water which is running over the rim of the fountain,
whereas it’s the structure which offers channels for the water flow.

Between the Mu’allaqas of Imru’ al-Qays and Zuhayr b. Abi Sulma and the descriptive poetry of Ibn Khafaja and Ibn Zamrak extends a poetic tradition that moved from “weeping by the ruins” to the evocation of vast palaces, luxurious gardens and exotic fountains. Whether in the imagination of the poets or in the physical creations of architects and landscapists, watered gardens and courtyards occupied a central space and retained a constant presence in both verse and verdure. By dwelling on the exchange and interplay between poetry and garden design and by highlighting the physical, aesthetic and technological aspects of water in both poetry and architecture, this paper hopes to develop and enrich this relationship and to examine its resonance from pre-Islamic times to the late medieval period and beyond.

The generally arid climate of most Middle Eastern countries placed a high value on water, making it a central feature in religious and royal iconography and an important vehicle for technological innovation. The provision of water was one of the great meritorious acts of Islamic piety, and most dynasts spent considerable efforts on canalization, water-elevating machines, as well as cisterns, pools, and public fountains. Ruggles has long noted that what we see in the palaces of Spain is but the artistic payoff of a vast hydraulic infrastructure, while Grabar, Tabbaa and Robinson have generally focused on the iconographic qualities of gardens and fountains. Further research in the descriptive genre of later Islamic poetry suggests that poets often extolled the virtues of both fountains and water elevating machines, whether channels, norias, or saqiyas. A dialectical process, in fact, may have formed between gardens and garden poetry, such that as gardens and fountains became increasingly viewed in poetic terms, the gardens themselves may have aspired to these literary ideals. Such congruence between two artistic genres is quite rare in Islam and deserves closer investigation.

Biography / Bibliography

Yasser Tabbaa is a scholar in Islamic art and architecture and an occasional curator of art exhibitions. He has previously taught at several prestigious US universities, including M.I.T., The University of Michigan, and Oberlin College. He has served as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Jordan and is currently Deputy Headmaster and Dean of the Faculty at King’s Academy in Amman, Jordan.

He has published numerous articles and book chapters on Islamic architecture, ornament, calligraphy, and gardens; and two books: Constructions of Power and Piety in Medieval Aleppo (Penn State University Press,1996) and The Transformation of Islamic during the Sunni Revival (University of Washington Press, 2001). He is currently working on a

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