Monday, December 14, 2009

Summer Travels - Part 10: La Grande Mosquée de Paris

I apologize for the lack of posts during the last couple of days; it is finals period and while I was not writing posts I was busy writing term papers and reviewing lecture notes for upcoming exams. Alas, I now only have one exam left and four days to prepare for it, so I thought it would not be too irresponsible to take a break and write a new post. Besides, I want to finish up the 'Summer Travel' pieces by the end of the year, and there are still two more to go after this one, so I better hurry up.
The subject of today's post, the Great Mosque of Paris, is easily one of my favorites among the garden-related sites I was lucky enough to visit this summer. According to Wikipedia as well as the plaque next to the main entrance to the building, the mosque was built to commemorate the Muslim soldiers who had fought for France during World War I and was inaugurated on July 15, 1926. Reflecting the North African origin of most of France's Muslim troops then as well as most of its Muslim population now, the mosque was constructed in a style reflecting Maghribi - Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian - and Andalusian styles. The elaborate tile designs, intricate stucco decorations, and even the style of the Arabic calligraphy running in bands along most walls are all typical of this form of Islamic architecture and will seem quite familiar to anyone who has visited or studied the Alhambra in Granada or some of the historical mosques and madrasahs in Morocco. Similarly, the minaret of the mosque is a scaled-down version of the typically Maghribi minaret model that can be seen in La Giralda, the famous bell tower of the Seville Cathedral ( and the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech ( . The official website of the mosque can be found at . Though mainly focused on religious life at the Mosque, the website does have some picture galleries and even French translations of the Arabic poetry inscribed on the walls.
The mosque garden has a decidedly Andalusian feel as well. Set in the first of the mosque's two main courtyards, it is arranged geometrically, with rectangular beds bisected by blue-tiled walkways and small rivulets of water. At the end of the courtyard closer to the main entrance of the mosque a tall fountain serves as a focal point, while on the right side of the courtyard as seen from the portal, a small water channel, also tiled in bright blue, follows some steps down from a raised terrace leading to a monumental gate through which one passes to the other courtyard. The other sides of the courtyard are framed by beautiful rows of arches, heavily hung with various climbers, among them Wisterias (Wisteria sinensis) and Jasmine Nightshade (Solanum laxum or Solanum jasminoides).

The beds themselves are lined with neat low hedges of boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) and are filled with as Mediterranean a planting scheme as the Parisian climate will allow. Windmill or Chusan Palms (Trachycarpus fortunei) and cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) provide the main vertical elements in the plantings, but there are also specimens of Chaste Tree or Monk's Pepper (Vitex agnus-castus) - one of my favorite flowering shrubs - and loquat (Eriobotrya japonica). Ivy (Hedera helix) serves as a groundcover throughout the beds, which I found somewhat surprising. While it is certainly an effective groundcover, particularly in the mild, wet climate of Western Europe which keeps it growing virtually year-round, the very vigor of ivy makes me wonder how much work it must be to keep it from overtaking and smothering all the other plants in the garden. In my family's gardens in Germany keeping the ivy in check is always a challenge...

Flowers in the garden include roses (Rosa sp.) and plenty of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) as well as Mexican Orange Blossom (Choisya ternata), the latter unfortunately no longer in bloom at the time of our visit. Perhaps my favorite plant in the whole garden, however, was a double-flowered variety of pomegranate (Punica granatum) with huge, bright red blossoms. As you can probably tell by the background picture of this blog's header, I love pomegranate blossoms, and the ones on this particular shrub combined the silky petals and flaming red typical of the species with the lush density of peonies or antique roses.

The other courtyard of the mosque is much more architectural, completely tiled and without any plants. Surrounded by beautiful white arches and with a large, low bowl-shaped fountain at its center, this courtyard is a bright, visually calm space with a cool elegance. The play of the light between the arches and on the tiles was absolutely beautiful.

For garden lovers visiting Paris the mosque is ideally located since it is situated right behind the Jardin des Plants and the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in the 5th Arrondissement on the left - or southern - bank of the Seine. The museum and botanic garden are fascinating and really a must-see, and after visiting these, the mosque is an ideal stop before heading to a different part of the city. It even has a restaurant and a café in two small additional courtyards accessed separately from the outside of the mosque, in case refreshments are needed. They serve North African fare, and though they can be crowded and pricy, sitting in the cool courtyard under shady trees and drinking sugary mint tea accompanied by rose-flavored pastries can be a beautiful way to while away a hot afternoon hour...

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful architecture and gardens. I'll put it on my list for the next time I'm in Paris. Thanks for sharing it with us. Happy blogging!


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