Alhambra: Granada´s hidden gardens
Islamic gardening drew on traditions going back to the very early civilization of ancient Mesopotamia. In the Epic of Gilgamesh (third millennium BC) there are descriptions of cities with lavish gardens and orchards. And we know from relief carvings and wall paintings that the later kingdoms of Assyria and Babylon were full of orchards and pleasure gardens, carefully irrigated and stocked with a wide variety of flowering shrubs and trees. Unfortunately no visual record remains of the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the world, built on a rising series of terraces by King Nebuchadnezzar II (ruled 605–562 BC), although many artists have attempted to depict them from imagination. The ancient Egyptians also had gardens (albeit mainly for practical purposes such as fruit growing), as did the Persians from about the sixth century BC – and it was the latter that most directly influenced the Islamic style of gardening.
A central idea which Islam took over from these earlier civilizations was that of the garden as an image of paradise. The Greek word paradeisos comes from the old Persian pairidaeza, meaning a walled enclosure, that is to say what we would today understand as a garden or park. Among the key features of paradise, as conceived by the ancients, were four rivers, which then flowed out to the four extremities of the world itself. Frequently paradise is identified with the Garden of Eden, the primal state of innocent bliss which the virtuous will regain after death. In the second chapter of Genesis we read: ‘Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads.’ And the Quran (47:15) refers to four rivers of wine, water, milk and honey. This concept merges conveniently with the classic quadripartite garden design (chahar bagh in Persian) dating back to ancient Mesopotamia, with four water channels formed by two crossed axes – being a practical way to irrigate a square or rectangular area – but it is also a reflection of the ancient idea that the whole world itself is divided by the four rivers. This quadripartite form is, in the view of C.G. Jung, one of the archetypal patterns that lie deep in the collective unconscious of the human race. The arrangement of four channels in the form of a cross, dividing the garden into quarters, which became the standard pattern for Islamic gardens, was therefore a powerfully meaningful one on a number of levels.
Idealized representations of paradise gardens can be seen depicted in Persian miniatures and woven into carpets, showing the traditional four channels, often with an octagonal pool at the centre. Islamic poets such as Rumi often use garden imagery in their work, and the Quran itself, which the Muslim believes to be the literal word of God, contains abundant references to gardens. To quote the horticultural writer, John Brookes:
The garden is constantly cited as a symbol for paradise, with shade and water as its ideal elements. ‘Gardens underneath which rivers flow’ is a frequently used expression for the bliss of the faithful, and occurs more than thirty times throughout the Quran. . . Also frequently mentioned are the abundant fruit trees in the paradise garden and the rich pavilions set among them, wherein the owners of the gardens and their friends might relax.
Brookes emphasizes that ‘God has actually defined paradise as a garden, and it is up to the individual not only to aspire to it in the after-life, but also to try to create its image here on earth’. He identifies two contrasting ways in which the paradise garden concept was applied. One is the walled private garden, hidden away behind the house and providing a refreshing and meditative refuge from the crowded and busy streets of a Muslim city. This he characterizes as having a centripetal, or inwardly directed, quality. The other is the centrifugal, outwardly directed form, typified by the chahar bagh, with its four channels radiating outwards from a central pavilion and/or fountain.
The enclosed garden thus becomes a defined space, encompassing within itself a total reflection of the cosmos and, hence, paradise. Within it, this concept fosters order and harmony and can be manifested to the senses through numbers, geometry, colour and, of course, materials. . . Within this space the traditional pool provides a centre and an upward-reflecting surface for directing the creative imagination.
Sometimes the fourfold pattern became a symbol of worldly power as well as heavenly bliss. Timur (Tamerlaine) the first great Muslim conqueror of India, was fond of placing his throne at the centre of the garden; ‘thus he symbolically ruled the four quarters’.
I have already mentioned the symbolic importance of the entrance to a garden. In the Islamic tradition this is often expressed in the form of an intermediary structure, such as the porch-like building known in Iran as the talar. ‘Metaphysically, the talar is viewed as the locus of the soul moving between garden and building, where the garden is spirit and the building body. It is therefore the transitional space between the spiritual and terrestrial worlds.’ Thus, the talar is an Islamic counterpart to the Chinese moon gate.
How was the idea of paradise represented, apart from the motif of the four rivers? Since Islam is monotheistic and has for most of its history forbade the depiction of human or animal images in sacred art and architecture, we find in Islamic gardens almost no counterparts to the mythological figures that we shall discover later in the gardens of Renaissance Europe, no equivalent of the Chinese worship of rocks, and no concept of trees or plants as sacred to particular deities or objects of veneration in themselves – the only exceptions being where there was some surreptitious influence from earlier indigenous traditions, as happened to some extent in Mughal India. Instead we find the idea of paradise conveyed in various other ways. We have seen the importance of the four rivers, but this is only one example of the use of water, a virtually sacred element in the arid Middle East – water made to flow, ripple, dance, spurt from fountains and catch the light in a thousand ingenious ways. Water is surely the most sensual and seductive of the elements, and the garden of paradise is a highly sensual place. But in Islam even sensual pleasures are sanctioned by being part of a divinely ordered pattern. Hence the importance in the paradise garden of form, proportion, pattern, geometry and number.
Many Islamic gardens are built in terraces, ornamented by water chutes, which the visitor is meant to experience in ascending order, as though approaching heaven. There are some particularly fine examples in Kashmir, such as the Shalamar Bagh, built by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir (1569–1627) and his son Shah Jahan (1592–1666). At the entrance to the Shalamar Bagh is a quotation in Persian which reads: ‘If there be a Paradise on the face of the earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.’ The number of terraces in a garden is significant. Eight is the number of the divisions of the Muslim heaven, with its corresponding eight pearl pavilions, while seven corresponds to the planets and 12 to the signs of the Zodiac. Many gardens with 12 terraces are found in Mughal India, an example being the Nishat Bagh in Kashmir not far from the Shalamar (although the terraces have now been reduced by a road that cuts through the garden). Eight is the number of glorietas, arbours of rose and jasmine, found in the garden of the Alcazar at Cordoba in Spain and probably representing the eight pearl pavilions of heaven. The number eight was also found in the form of the octagon, often used for pools, platforms and other garden features. ‘The octagon as the circle squared – the circle symbolizing eternal perfection, the square symbolizing earthly order – represented man’s wish for order.’