Gardens of the Middle East

Gardens of the Middle East

Niki Gamm
Gardens of the Middle East

15th century Persian banquet scene.

Few people know how ancient the word paradise is, that it has been traced to the Achaemenid dynasty that ruled the Middle East from the 8th century to the 4th century BC over an area that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus River Valley. The word is found in the Avestan and Median languages as pairidaēza – and means “walled garden.” This is hardly surprising because when nomadic groups settled down and began raising crops, it would be practical to erect fences to keep wild animals out and prevent them from eating the crops. Only later would these gardens taken on the aspect of a place in which to spend one’s leisure time.

Legends abound about the gardens of the Middle East, including the description of the Garden of Eden in the Jewish Old Testament, which has been speculatively located in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present day Iraq). Persian gardens are known to have existed as long ago as 4,000 BC. The Egyptians had gardens, especially around their temples, and probably these included herbs used for healing purposes. They also had private gardens. The ancient Greeks in contrast don’t seem to have been very interested in gardens, although they counted the Hanging Gardens of Babylon among the seven wonders of the ancient world. That is, the Greeks became interested in gardens after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, although we know Greek medical practitioners and physicians were keenly investigating the properties of herbs and other plants.

The Romans, on the other hand, became fascinated with gardens after they had mounted a number of successful campaigns to conquer the Middle East. Many of these gardens, which included pools and bird cages, were built within the grounds of large villas. The first of these was built around 60 BC. Examples still exist, such as the 2nd century AD villa built by the Emperor Hadrian at Tivoli outside of Rome along the lines of the gardens found in Alexandria, Egypt.

Gardens of the Middle EastGardens that influenced the Ottomans

Few examples of Byzantine palaces and villas, which were mostly located along the shore of the Marmara, have been excavated so little research has been done on gardens, although some written sources exist. From these we know the Byzantines kept animal parks in which the emperor could hunt and even menageries for more exotic animals. It may be that Byzantine gardens had an impact on Ottoman gardens that resulted in the ways in which the latter differed from the ones found elsewhere in the Middle East, such as in Persia.

The Persian garden took into account the fact that the climate in central Iran was arid and establishing a garden had to include irrigation of some sort. One of these was underground water channels that brought water from nearby aquifers by means of pipes, which were used for millennia. Walls and lines of trees were located on the east and west sides of these gardens so that they provided shade from the heat of the sun during the warmest parts of the day.

There are two basic types of Persian gardens – the public park and meydan, and the private garden.  The public park tends to have man-made pools and arches, but few plants, while the meydan would have more plants and fewer pools or arches. Private gardens (chahar bagh) were often hidden behind walls and organized in a rectangular form with either paths or water channels dividing the area into four sections. In addition to trees, shrubs, flowers and even herbs and vegetables would be grown for the benefit of the garden’s owners.

These Middle Eastern gardens were considered depictions of how the paradise of Islam would be like, especially with the frequent reference to running water.

Gardens of the Middle EastThe Ottoman garden

When one comes to describe a typical Islamic garden, emphasis tends to be placed on the chahar bagh and its strict division into four sections as mentioned above. Ottoman gardens are, however, rather less strict in their ordering, perhaps because the different climate meant irrigation was less of a problem.

Gülru Necipoğlu, in an extensive article entitled, “The Suburban Landscape of 16th century Istanbul as a Mirror of Classical Ottoman Garden Culture,” writes, “Created by a sedentarized ruling elite, these gardens combined elements from the last remnants of the Greco-Roman villa tradition inherited from Byzantium [and the Balkan territories] with Islamic practices already available in Anatolia or imported from the Turkmen-Timurid and Safavid territories in the east. It can therefore be argued that the gardens of Istanbul shared an affinity with the antique prototypes and the contemporary gardens of Italy were trying to emulate. Far from manifesting the assumed otherness of Islamic garden traditions, Ottoman gardens constitute a unique synthesis that belonged to the same Mediterranean landscape as their Italian counterparts…”

Drawing on a variety of sources that included observations by foreigners visiting Istanbul, Necipoğlu paints a detailed picture of the many gardens that lined the Bosphorus. Many of these were the special gardens belonging to the sultans, members of the imperial family and prominent, wealthy government officials. Those gardens that belonged to the sultan were overseen by the bostancıbaşı who was in control of the gardens surrounding Topkapı Palace and had a couple of thousand “gardeners” under his command. When in Istanbul, it seems that the sultans made a habit of spending some part of their day at one or another of these gardens, which not only contained ornamental trees, shrubs and flowers, but also provided fruits and vegetables for the palaces.  Whatever was excess would then be sold to the public in the marketplace.

Scenery advantage

Unlike the Persian gardens that tended to be enclosed, the Ottoman garden was remarkably open and took advantage of the scenery before it. These gardens also contained pavilions and even köşks (miniature palaces) that were decorated with marble, tiles and fountains that had a cooling effect in summer; expensive carpets covered the floors in the rooms in which the sultan ate and drank on gild and velvet covered pillows. There would also be buildings that housed kitchens, stables and even dormitories for the prerequisite retinue. Nor was it unusual for the sultan to be accompanied by his chief consort and favorite concubines. The buildings themselves were not placed in symmetrical fashion, but were arranged so as to take into account the lay of the land. The gardens surrounding the pavilions were filled with perfumed herbs and flowers and, more often than not, tall trees that formed an overarching veil to allow the harem women to walk about without being observed.