Monty Don: why you can find paradise in Islamic gardens
In his new BBC series, the Gardeners' World presenter finds inspiration in Islam’s ancient gardens – and the promise of heaven on earth
It is a common-enough cliché to refer to your garden as a “little bit of heaven” or as “paradise”. It’s shorthand for saying that it seems just about perfect, combining beauty and peace that, momentarily at least, are devoid of all care.
But there is one group of gardens, inspired by the Islamic faith, that are made quite specifically as a reflection here on earth of the paradise that awaits in the afterlife. These are all gardens whose roots begin in the desert.
Fly over any desert and the barren vastness is daunting. The one thing that makes life possible, let alone tolerable, is an oasis. Without occasional patches of green with fresh water, there would be no life at all. Compared with the intolerable heat, the sand storms and the interminable salt flats, an oasis really is heaven on earth. Shade, coolness, green, repose become the greatest luxuries. Fragrance, gentle sound, good company, beautiful carpets and silks and delicious fruits are a sensual refinement.
Add to this the sense of safety and harmony that comes within the protective confines of a domestic garden and you have a good measure of paradise – and the knowledge that this is merely an inkling of the heaven that awaits.
While I had read about paradise gardens and visited a few, I realised that of all the kinds of gardens in the world these were the ones that I knew least about. Yet Islam is one of the world’s great religions. It has contributed as much to the arts, mathematics and science as any of the others and that influence has shaped the lives of all of us, even if we know little about the faith. So in my new series I set out to visit as many paradise gardens as I could. My choice was somewhat limited by the harsh realities of geopolitics in the 21st century.
Syria was once full of superb Islamic gardens but many must have been destroyed in the current conflict. There were gardens in Libya that are simply not safe to visit.
Kashmir, where the Mughals made superb gardens, is one of the more dangerous places on this planet to go garden-visiting. But I did manage to go to Iran, and as a result we have the very first footage of gardens from there.
My press visa came with just 48 hours’ notice and lasted for just four days – Gardeners’ World filming had to be hastily rearranged to a Sunday – and I set off with my photographer companion Derry Moore, met up with an Iranian crew and spent four fascinating and exhilarating days filming as much as possible.
The ancient Persian word for a walled garden is paradeiza – which gives us “paradise” – and gardens have been a central element of Persian life for thousands of years.
I was intrigued to see, as dusk fell, dozens of families go out into the main Maidan square in Isfahan, lay down carpets on the grass or paving and sit eating their evening meal.
In this country, people of all kinds still adore their gardens as places to sit, talk and eat, exactly as families have been doing in gardens for the past two thousand years. To see both the gardens of ancient Persia and the gardening world of modern Iran was one of the great experiences of my life.
My abiding memory of the Real Alcázar in Seville will not be the glorious Mudéjar architecture in the stunning Court of the Maidens – one of the best examples of a palatial paradise garden you will ever see – but the exquisite fragrance of a hundred orange trees in full blossom as we walked into the Palace yard.
I have been to the Taj Mahal in Agra before and thought that I had exhausted all possible reactions to it. Not so. Seeing that shimmering building at dawn is a profoundly moving experience.
But how many of its millions of visitors posing for selfies in front of the marble tomb realise that this great iconic building is merely the centrepiece of a huge garden?
I loved the fact that one of our best-known British garden designers, Tom Stuart-Smith, has created a beautiful paradise garden hidden away in the back streets of the medina in Marrakech. It was only completed last year and combines modernity with a sensitive and truthful adherence to the essence of the Islamic garden – such as the charbagh [fourquartered Persian-style layout], the rills and gentle fountains of water and the fruit trees planted in sunken beds.
In Britain there are very few gardens that celebrate the influence of Islam, but we filmed the Prince of Wales’s carpet garden that was made originally for the Chelsea Flower Show in 2001 and then transferred to Highgrove, where it is now a beautifully mature garden, exotic and richly inspired by Islam but comfortably at home in the heart of the English countryside.
Above all, these programmes celebrate the richness of Islamic culture as expressed through gardens and, in an age of mistrust, are a celebration of our shared heritage.
Visiting all these gardens was not just hugely enjoyable but has expanded my gardening knowledge and awareness in a way that no other series of gardens has done before. These glimpses into Paradise have certainly made me a better gardener – and perhaps a better person.
By Monty Don
Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens is on Friday 9.00pm BBC2