A passionate gardener, the founding President of the UAE won three gold medals at the Chelsea Flower Show. His final entry reflected Islamic style's continued influence on modern design.
Sheikh Zayed's memorable Garden from the Desert at Chelsea
Ties between the UAE and the Chelsea Flower Show are strong; the late Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, was a passionate garden enthusiast and a patron of the show's organisers, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). He also exhibited many of his own gardens, earning three consecutive gold medals in 2003, 2004 and posthumously in 2005.
One of the most outstanding gardens was his 2003 entry, Garden from the Desert, designed by Christopher Bradley-Hole. His brief was to create an abstract impression of Abu Dhabi and its desert origins, reflecting Sheikh Zayed's vision to transform the desert landscape with the mass planting of trees and lush vegetation. The garden's design was based on five elements: stone, sand, water, grass and salt; the planting replicated the flora of Arabian oases and wadis, an arid landscape transformed by water, featuring plants such as Spanish broom, asparagus, iris, poppies and the iconic date palm tree. The representation of the desert aridity was juxtaposed with planting schemes of vivid lime green fennels and bright purple irises and several long pools set on graduating levels eventually forming a gentle cascade. Dry stone walls dividing the garden into sections were engraved with Arabic calligraphy, the inscription recalling Sheikh Zayed's response when experts told him he would never be able to irrigate and regenerate the desert: "Let's give it a try," he said.
"The garden celebrated the fact that he succeeded," Bradley-Hole says. "I presented the story of regeneration through irrigation. The stonework and sandy surfacing materials represented the desert, while the glass that contrasts with them had the shimmering transparency of water."
The Garden from the Desert was essentially a contemporary reinterpretation of the traditional Islamic garden, and many gardens around the world contain elements of the Islamic template. The word "patio", for instance, is Spanish for "courtyard". The Islamic garden is typically found from Spain and Morocco in the west to India in the east. Famous formal examples include the Taj Mahal and the gardens of the magnificent Moorish palace, Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
The central elements of the Islamic garden are shaded seating areas, fountains and channels of running water, covered beds and seating areas, offering a cool, serene retreat for rest and reflection in hot, dry climates. They also serve to reflect the beauty of paradise itself.
"From the earliest times, Islamic gardens have been places of contemplation, green oases enclosed against a hostile world, where inside and outside spaces are seamlessly interwoven," says the international landscape architect and multiple RHS medal winner Robert Myers. "Water played a significant role in the traditional paradise garden, channelled into narrow rills symbolising the four rivers of heaven. The inclusion of water in such gardens was also a contemplation of the power of irrigation in an otherwise sterile environment."