As a lifelong garden-lover and fan of imaginative landscape design, I have a particular fondness of water gardens. I’ve been studying the roots of regional garden design concepts, and I’ve been fortunate to have seen many of the world’s finest examples, including the gardens of Ryoan-ji, the serene dry sea of neatly raked gravel in Japan; the damp Zen moss gardens in Kyoto; the formal and ornate fountains of the French gardens of the Palais du Versailles; the relaxed lakeside English landscapes designed by Capability Brown; Villa d’Este, the fabulous fountain garden near Rome; and Generalife in Granada, Spain. My professional interest in the ancient four-part garden style has only increased after seeing the beautifully restored courtyard gardens in Granada last spring. You will find pictures of these famous and elegant gardens, with their linear canals and flowing fountains, in every book on the history of landscape design.
The Bakewell Ottoman Garden
My curiosity about this garden style had been whetted by the development of the Bakewell Ottoman Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden (MoBot) a few years ago. This Turkish garden is a faithful recreation of the traditional Ottoman designs recorded in art and literature. It includes a cheshme stone font for hand-washing, a sundial designed after one at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, and a large paved patio within high, embracing stucco walls. The focal point of the garden is the refreshingly cool marble fountain in the center of the courtyard.
The Ottoman Empire period was selected for this garden to make the most of plants from climates similar to St. Louis as the culture spread far to the north of contemporary Turkey. The garden contains authentic plants that are hardy for us or the closest look-alikes for those too tender for our Midwest winters. The gentle fragrance from the summer bloom is captured and held by the high wall. With shaded seating and sweetly musical arcs of water, this is the perfect place to enjoy on a sunny afternoon.
My first introduction to antique Islamic gardens abroad was in Agra, India, at the Taj Mahal and Moorish palace gardens in Morocco. All of these gardens are filled with citrus, pomegranates, roses and other fragrant flowers. The fabulous tile work, ornate carvings and pebble mosaic pavings captured my fancy. One can see the family resemblance of these stylized gardens from the Mogul gardens in India to the Moorish gardens in Spain. To see another lovely local example, visit the Mediterranean Courtyard in the Shoenberg Temperate House at MoBot. The tiled surfaces and fountain centerpiece are very traditional and beautifully rendered. The plantings here have the winter protection of glass, so the garden includes a very old, large, gnarled fig tree holding court above the wall.
The two Mediterranean garden examples at MoBot have an exotic appeal. In the U.S., gardeners typically are much more familiar with the European-style gardens from the 17th and 18th centuries. We imitate the French with our clipped, formal hedges and the English with crisply mowed lawns. After the 1904 World’s Fair, we became enchanted with the serenity of the Japanese garden styles. In St. Louis, if temperatures continue to be higher and dryer, we may want to consider a more Mediterranean gardening style that is well suited to hotter climes and periodic dry spells.
Four Green Corners of the Earth
In dry climates, the soothing sounds of even the smallest streams can make an inhospitable climate more bearable. The Moorish garden architects understood clearly the worth of water. In the parched lands of northern Africa and Spain, water was revered as the fountain of life and used in gardens to recreate the vision of paradise. The most universal element of this garden style is the shallow pool or havuz, with flowing channels or jets of water signifying the birth of rivers. After the water leaves the central pool, it pours out to irrigate the flowers, trees and vines of the garden, creating the cool, serene oasis that we enjoy so much.
To understand the central theme of water and the four-quarter design integral to Moorish gardens, one must go way back in time. Our words for the compass points of north, south, east and west arose from Proto-Indo-European linguistic origins between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago. The birthplace of our Indo-European languages is now thought to be centered on the Anatolian peninsula of Turkey, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent. It is also in this region that crop agriculture and domestication of animals first occurred. These two incredible developments led to the creation of civilization as we know it. The archeological remains of the earliest villages, then towns, show how early social culture evolved to permit the specialization of humans as farmers, potters, artists, builders and religious leaders. And it is here, in the Fertile Crescent, that one of our most lasting garden patterns evolved. The earliest written descriptions of gardens may be found in the oldest literature known to date, the Kesh Temple Hymn (2600 BC), where, “The four corners of heaven became green for Enil like a garden.”
In later Sumeria, with temple ziggurats built on a four-sided footprint, there were gardens on the terraces that would have had four green corners. Some archeological evidence of the first rooftop gardens, built in stone and tar-lined pits on the rising levels of ziggurat terraces, supports the legend of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (800 to 700 BC).
The four-part design also may have had its earliest roots in Egypt, where the extensive use of irrigation channels spurred the development of symmetrical, rectangular, walled gardens.
Landscape Lessons from the Mediterranean
One cannot definitively say where the first four-square garden really was—Egypt or Ur—but the concept proved to be popular. This formal design concept crystalized from its beginnings in the ancient Persian pleasure gardens to the charbagh design (from the Persian chahar (four) bagh (garden)) became clearly linked to Islamic symbolism and the re-creation of paradise as viewed in the Quran. Water, specifically the central pool and four rivers design, was essential to the plan.
The Islamic style of garden architecture flowed into southern Spain with the conquest of the Moors over the descendants of the Visigoths. These enclosed garden courts would be called in today’s vocabulary ‘patio gardens.’ These paradise gardens included the traditional water features enhanced by the framework of ornate glazed tile walls and detailed pebble mosaic patios and paths.
We may dream of foreign pleasure gardens and borrow elements from them for our own patio gardens here at home. It is hard to imagine living in a dry, hot climate after all the rain we’ve had. But when the heat of summer finally arrives, we may be reminded of last year’s dreadful and damaging drought. Make plans to keep the water flowing when the spring rains become a memory. Our biggest trees were weakened, and newly planted little ones are not yet ready to stand the heat of the coming summer. So as the cooling waters flow through your garden, remember to send some of it to them. Plant some fragrant flowers, find a shady spot for your garden seat, set a little fountain and enjoy a little Persian paradise in your own quiet corner.