Sacred Dwellings: Celestial Gardens and Garden Artistry in Islam

"O Marvel! A garden amidst the flames." ~Ibn Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq

"We are unaware of our own manifestation in this garden, the narcissus does not see it's own spring with it's own eyes.” ~ Mir Dard

When do we really see and take in the delicate beauty of a flower, the majesty and care of trees, the ever changing colors, forms and appearances of a bloom?

Our constant struggle to keep our ever active mind still and to hold our attention in focus is a core theme in Islamic teachings and in it's arts. Islamic has the art of focus, order and structure at it's center. Islam refined this art in science, poetry, and in architecture and gardening - one of Islam's supreme artistic genres. To enter an Islamic garden is a profound experience. One enters a sacred, ordered space, similar to entering a Mosque, a hidden prayer room or forgotten chapel, or an old Gothic or Roman church. It immerses us and carries us into contemplation. Engagement, not distraction, is one of Islamic arts primary and glorious achievments and a topic that is of supreme importance in the digital 21st century where distraction has become so paramount and potentially destructive.

In Arabic the name for the heavenly garden is jannah, of which the highest level of garden is firdaws, most commonly used in the phrase jannaatal-firdaws – gardens of paradise.

There are blooms, water stream, flowers, fruits, shade, all interacting for the human mind to be at peace. It was very hard in most Islamic countries to create gardens like that, as most have hot and dry climatic conditions. The effort that was and is made to create these gardens explains a lot about their social and cultural importance.

The love of gardens in the Islamic world is clearly shown in a particular genre of poetry, the Rawdiya or Garden Poem, which came to be one of the main poetic forms in the Islamic world from the eighth to the tenth century. These are not mere words; they corresponded to reality. Muslims everywhere make earthly gardens that gave glimpses of the heavenly gardens in the beyond. Long indeed is the list of Islamic cities which boast huge expanses of gardens. Basra is described by early geographers as a Venice, with canals criss-crossing the gardens and orchards; Nisbin, a city in Mesopotamia, was said to have 40,000 gardens of fruit trees, and Damascus 110,000; Al-Fustat [Old Cairo had thousands of private gardens, some of great splendour; in North Africa, one learns of a multitude of gardens, and even inside cities such as Tunis, Algiers, Tlemcen, and Marakesh, places which today are not conspicuous for their greenery; in Spain, writers speak endlessly of the gardens of Seville, Cordoba and Valencia, the cities of the former Moorish Al Andalus and of Ibn-Arabi.

Islamic gardens incorporate certain well known features that I can only describe in brief in this post. At the bottom of this post I share some links to resources that describe these outward features in more detail.

Twig, 2019

Shade and Shadow
In hot, arid climates the promise of water is a design imperative, but so too is the concomitant requirement for shade. The Holy Quran promises that in paradise: "we shall admit them to shades, cool and ever deepening." Who can not relate to the joy of a lush, green, shady place on a hot day.

Beyond the actual functioning and pleasure of shade, Islamic gardening architecture was also very fond of the drama of light and shadow, reflecting certainly the drama of the soul, battling with shadow and seeking the light.

Pavilions, Walls and Gates
Paradise, however large or small it may be, is surrounded by gated walls. The Persian word, Pairidaeeza, is a combination of two words that mean ‘surrounding wall’, thus the concept of paradise is of a garden or gardens, surrounded by a wall, isolating those within and enabling them to enjoy the features established within the wall.

From an architectural point of view, the typical enclosure of Islamic gardens has a series of facets to it:

Walls protect from noise, heat and dust, as well as from all kinds of other unfriendly forces.
An enclosed area concentrates the mind on the area and activities within.
Thick and high stone walls create plenty of shade and help to foster a cool miniature climate and environment.

From a spiritual point of view, privacy enables the Muslim to pray and meditate in a sacred safe space filled with beauty, without being disturbed. In public gardens pavilions enable visitors to find seclusion.

Gates are gateways, and have high esoterical meaning in all cultures. In Islamic gardens we do not only find gates that keep the garden itself locked and private away from outsiders, but also hidden gates within walls that symbolize esoterical gateways and secrets.

I found such gateways also at the walls and in the gardens of Roman and Gothic churches. Last year I found such a gateway in St Marien in Dahme, Brandenburg (Germany), an old roman church in an area that was also frequently visited by the famous Brothers Grimm. I was amazed how many features this old church had which I know from Islamic architecture.

Rosentür (Rose Door or Rose Gate) at St Marien, Dahme/Mark Brandenburg, Germany

Sacred Numerology & Mathematical Order
In Islam we have certain sacred numbers that are incorporated in architecture, art and design and in the landscape design of gardens. These numbers create order and focus. These numbers are four, seven, five, six, eight, forty, twelve and so on. Four represents the four levels of the Quran. Eight represents paradise. Four also represents the four elements  - fire, water, air, earth.

The Quadripartite layout is one of the core features of the Islamic garden. In the Quran, four gardens are described, irrigated by four water courses which are said to represent the rivers to be found in paradise. The lowest pair of gardens in paradise are the Garden of the Soul and the Garden of the Heart (reserved for the Righteous) and the higher pair are the Garden of the Spirit and the Garden of the Essence (reserved for the “Foremost”). The four-fold form of the Islamic Garden is thus not just a harmonious and beautiful design but incorporates a complex and profound meaning. In the garden, the land is divided into the squares by channels of water said to represent the rivers to be found in paradise. Ideally, in the Islamic garden paradise can be found in each square no matter how large or small.

The Persians created palaces and gardens called Hasht Behesht or Eight Paradises – the one remaining palace garden on the Chahar Bagh Avenue in Isfahan is called the “Hasht Behesht”.

The four streams that surround the four squares of land in the Islamic garden tend to be brought together at a central fountain or pool, the central focus of the garden. Water is the central element in Islamic garden design and has both a physical and metaphysical importance. Islam was established and grew in a part of the world which has a hot, harsh climate and where water brings life to the desert and those who live in it. Beyond the irrigating function if the water in the garden, is water also a very intriguing reflecting element. The water's surface reflects like a mirror and can act like a veil to remind us of the multiple realms and the worlds beyond our immediate grasp.In Persian garden design the interaction with water becomes particularly playful: The Chador (a Persian word meaning ‘veil’) is like a small waterfall, the water falling over carved stone, breaking up the image reflected in it and thereby reminding us of the transient nature of this world. The Chini-Khanah, or rows of carved niches set behind a waterfall creating a lovely flowing spectacle when water, light and shadow interact.

The fountain in the centre of the garden or courtyard, representing one of the fountains in paradise, is often set within an octagon. The octagon is the transitional geometric form between the circle, representing heaven, and the square representing earth; frequently, the dome of a mosque is supported by an octagonal drum – the gateway, as it were, between earth and heaven.

Plants, Trees, Herbs and Flowers
Depending on the region, certain trees, herbs, plants and flowers are planted that have deep symbolic meanings in Islamic culture. The most famous Paradise tree is the “Tuba tree”. It is a fantastic tree, that only grows in paradise. It is mentioned in the Quran. In the earthly Islamic paradises we find Fig, Cherry, Peach, Citrus, Pomegranate trees, and Almond, with their abundant blossom. We can also find Lotus trees and Chenar trees (the plane tree, platanus orientalis) with their large, shade-giving leaves, and the cypress, the palm-tree and the olive. Flower-beds are filled with fragrant varieties such as Jasmine, Roses, Tulips, Narcissi, Peonies, Violets and Lilies. “Acacias, palms and vines” are mentioned in the Qur’an. Further to be found in Islamic gardens are the Willow, Bay, Juniper, Myrtle and Laurel. I also know of Islamic gardens where small and very modest flowers are planted and that primarily function as sacred herb gardens.

Gardens in Islamic Healing
Every garden is a therapeutic place, and has as such a very special place in the Islamic healing art traditions. Healing, as it is understood in Islam, is a constant, holistic process and Muslims are encouraged to take care of their well being by tending and visiting gardens. The science and art of medicine, botany, horticulture and phytology are intimately intertwined with the art of the garden. In recognition of the healing benefits of gardens, beautiful scenery and panoramic views, most Bimaristan (Islamic hospitals, in particular also mental hospitals) have windows overlooking gardens and make use of those gardens for various therapies, while also growing plenty of flowers and herbs and whatever is needed in fruits and vegetables. There was no rigid seperation between gardening and farming.

Islamic Gardens as Sanctuaries for Birds, Insects and Other Animals
The Islamic garden not only is a sanctuary for plants, trees and flowers, but also for a wide array of song birds (most famously the nightingale), water birds, deers and other animals. Bee keeping was and is very popular.


Links & Resources


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