All gardens are the same from a functional point of view. But as landscape architect Achva Benzinberg Stein observes, “They differ in detail and expression of form.”
And what determines that difference is the place itself – its geography and its history.
So California’s gardens have Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Mexican flavors; the South’s, French and Far Eastern; and the Northeast’s, English.
But in a sense, all these gardens have their origin in the Middle East, home of the biblical Garden of Eden.
“It’s an ideal, not a particular place,” says Navina Najat Haidar, curator, Department of Islamic Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Nevertheless, the earliest evidence of gardens, in the West at least, comes from the Middle East, specifically Egypt and Persia. Around 2000 B.C., Egypt established the basic elements of the garden – vegetation, pools, a wall or other kind of enclosure, says Stein, founding director of the graduate program in landscape architecture at The Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at City College of New York.
Small models of the deceased’s dwellings, with particular emphasis on the gardens, were included in Egyptian tombs, suggesting another element now evident in many cultures – the link between the garden and the divine.
Perhaps nowhere has this connection been more apparent than in the Persian garden, one of the most influential achievements in horticultural history.
Ranging from modern-day Turkey and Egypt to Central Asia and northern India, the Persian Empire began with the chivalrous Cyrus the Great, who reigned from 558 to 528 B.C. Building his capital at Pasargadae (pah SAR gah day) in what is now Iran, Cyrus created a garden whose structure is familiar to us today. And once again, geography was destiny.
“The topography in Iran is quite dry,” says Sheila R. Canby, the Patti Cadby Birch curator in charge of The Met’s Department of Islamic Art. “It’s not desert, just arid.”
The solution, she says, was to drive water from mountain streams and snow through an underground system into intersecting rills that divided the royal garden into quadrants, with a pool in the center. Flowers, including roses, tulips, irises and poppies, lined the channels, beyond which bloomed fruit trees – wild sour cherry, almond and pomegranate, symbol of Persian power.
The Persians’ gift for gardening was not lost on their archenemies, the Greeks, for whom the garden was a sacred space. As described by Penelope Hobhouse in her invaluable “Gardens of Persia,” the historian-soldier Xenophon translated the Persian word for garden, “pairidaeza” (meaning “around the wall”), into “paradeisos,” or paradise, which became synonymous with the Garden of Eden in Greek translations of the Bible.
Some 200 years after Cyrus, his great admirer, the young Greco-Macedonian king Alexander, conquered his empire, tagging native flora and shipping it home to his mentor Aristotle, who had trained him in the medicinal botanical arts. Alexander’s military descendants would do much to spread Greco-Persian culture east and west. But what really disseminated the notion of the Persian garden as a true paradise was the rise of Islam in the seventh century. As Muslim conquerors swept west and east, becoming the Moors and the Mughals, respectively, so, too, did their fantastic filigree architecture, their shimmering illuminated manuscripts, their leafy, geometric tiles and rugs and their murmuring gardens, whose channels became the rivers of everlasting life – water, milk, wine and honey.
Readers will immediately recognize the Persian garden in the haunting beauty of India’s Taj Mahal and Spain’s the Alhambra. For an Islamic evocation closer to home, you need travel no farther than Kykuit, the landmark Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills. There you’ll find the Inner Garden, whose intersecting rills and verdant quadrants, crowned by Aristide Maillol’s “Bather Putting Up Her Hair,” make the Rockefellers one with Cyrus the Great.