I have long been an admirer of Monty Don, the horticulturist and garden expert. I love watching him on his TV shows, stomping about in his wrinkled work clothes, with his frowny brows and his mad curls, and his head full of marvellous ideas and fascinating insights about gardens. I have watched many of the series he did for BBC 2, Around the World in 80 Gardens, Italian Gardens, and Monty Don’s French Gardens, and The Secret History of the British Garden. From him, I learned about the features of gardens (like the curious “ha-ha”), and famous gardens and gardeners, but more importantly, why people have gardens – that idea of “bringing order to nature”. Listening to his mellifluous voice is like hearing the restful burble of a water feature in a garden.
Which brings me to his latest book, Paradise Gardens, which is very much about water features in gardens. It was not what I expected, though – the words “paradise gardens” conjured up all manner of exotic, dense, leafy, lush and flowered gardens, much like the best ones in Europe. But these 29 gardens are not western European gardens (except for three): these are gardens in Iran, India, Morocco, Spain and Turkey. They are Islamic gardens, located in dry, hot places, and Islamic gardens is something I had never given any thought to.
What is a paradise garden?
“It is a common cliché to refer to your garden as ‘a little bit of heaven’ or as ‘paradise’. This is shorthand for saying that it seems just about perfect, combining beauty and peace and – momentarily at least – it is devoid of all care. But for the desert Arabs of the sixth and seventh centuries, an oasis really was paradise and paradise was inevitably going to be just like the perfect oasis, running with water, full of fruits and green with luxuriant shade.” (Introduction)
There you have the differences – apart from essentially being an oasis, and being inside or enclosed (rather than in front of or behind a building) an Islamic garden can be identified by the fact that it;
- is called a Charbagh or Chahar Bagh (Persian: چهارباغ, chahār bāgh, meaning “Four Bāghs” – “four gardens”) [Throughout my e-book version, Don spells it “charhar bagh” – and only once “chahar bagh”.]
- has water (always moving water),
- has fruit trees and shade, either trees or walkways
- has fragrance of fruit blossoms or classical flowers such as roses
- has construction or layout in the form of a four-part “chahar”, an Islamic quadrilateral layout based on the four gardens of Paradise mentioned in the Qur’an, and four being a holy number and the cube being the perfect shape
- has purpose – a garden is for something, not just to look at, but to cool down, rest, contemplate and socialize in
Don writes, “This love of sitting and eating in groups outdoors seems to be wired into daily Iranian life just as it has been since the time of Cyrus the Great. It is more than just flopping down on a patch of grass to chat, but a stately and ritualistic process. A carpet is put down, tea is made, food and conversation is shared, all in the green shade of a garden.” (Hasht Behest, Isfahan).
A different kind of beauty
The aesthetics are not so much about abundant colourful flowers, and variety of plants, but about shade, water, fruit and fragrance: “I was assured that when the orange blossom is in flower in April the whole city is filled with its fragrance, which is why Shiraz is called ‘the paradise of Iran’”. (Bagh-e Eram, Shiraz) And traditionally, the fruit trees were planted in deeply sunken beds to that the tops of the trees were at head height for those standing on the paths dividing the charhar bagh. Imagine that: you are strolling along a path with a rill, or narrow, straight water channel. In the middle of it there are refreshing oranges just at the tips of your fingers, ready to be plucked and eaten. Lovely!
Often he refers to the vast systems of mountain rivers, canals, aqueducts, underground tunnels, rills, pools, fountains and “chadars” – a stone or marble water chute – that get the water to the gardens. These were massive undertakings, truly “bringing order to nature”.
What remains of the gardens
But so many of the gardens that he writes about no longer have the running water and fountains. That was the sad part about the book – the dried-up waterways, the stagnant pools, the fruit orchards replaced with that most British, but most incongruous of all garden features: lawns.
Often, a garden is no longer what it used to be. It has changed through the centuries and has been through wars and natural disasters, or it has been converted into a hotel, or it has become a mixture of Islamic features and western features. Sometimes, like in the gardens of the Alhambra in Spain, this mixture of styles and philosophies produces something beautiful.
“Yet there is sadness to the Alhambra. The morning of 2 January 1492, when Boabdil, Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, the last sultan of Granada, rode with his attendants in their full finery to surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile, was the end of the old order. The poet Lorca said that when the last Moors were driven from Spain they took with them a lightness of spirit and a tolerance that have never been reclaimed.” (The Alhambra, Granada)
I learned about the philosophy of gardening, but also picked up some trivia: Did you know that tulips, that most European of flowers, originally came to Europe from Turkey?
“The Ottomans loved tulips and they were particularly popular in the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, the sultan of the great Ottoman Empire from 1520 till 1566. Tulips were first introduced to Vienna in 1554 and then to Holland in 1593 when the first bulbs were planted in Leiden.” (Emirgan Park, Istanbul)
A praise-worthy endeavour
Considering the state of international politics, it is remarkable that Don and his photographer, Derry Moore, got permission to travel to, and photograph, these gardens in the Middle East. The photos are very good – avoiding faces pretty much but catching the atmosphere, and concentrating on the features – the quadrilateral layout, the water, the fruit trees and fragrant roses or orange blossoms.
Yet, while the writing is refined and filled with the affection of the author for these particular gardens, and the photos are as glamorous and pleasing to the eye as they can be, I really had to make an effort to get my head around what these gardens are, and set aside my prejudices.
After all, I come from South Africa, where it is so dry and hot in some places that the golf greens are tar patches, not grass, and the only plants that will survive in a garden are succulents. I do understand the concept of a garden as an oasis. So it ought not to be too odd to think of these spaces as gardens, per definition.
They are, after all, visions of paradise and we all have different ideas about what paradise is like. And it would be possible across cultures to agree with the words of the poet, that “a garden is a lovesome thing, Got wot.”
About the author, Monty Don (Montagu Denis Wyatt Don, 62 years old) is so famous I hardly need to give his bio. He has been writing, speaking and teaching about horticulture since 1994. From 1990 to now, he has written 20 books and appeared in 24 TV programs, including those on gardens that he presented. He is famous for the BBC TV program Gardeners’ World, which he has presented from 2003 to 2008, and again from 2011 until today. The popular program has had seven presenters apart from Monty Don, and was first aired in 1968 and is still running. He is obviously Britain’s favourite gardener – and mine! He is on Twitter: @TheMontyDon.