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Some of the world’s most beautiful gardens

January 4, 2019

Islamic extremism, fundamentalism and militarism are forces all too familiar in our time. Islamic Romanticism, on the other hand, is a tradition that has largely faded — or withered — from view. The new coffee-table book, “Paradise Gardens,” by one of Britain’s most eminent horticulturalists, Monty Don, offers a lavish corrective. From the fountains of the Alhambra to the riverbanks along the Taj Mahal, the book is a celebration of the history and enduring romance of Islamic gardens.

The photographs and accompanying essays explore how Muslim gardeners created a vocabulary to reflect the Quran’s vision of paradise. Gardens became the extension of spiritual practice. They grew as a literal heaven on Earth, featuring running streams of water, fresh fruits and fragrances described in sacred text. As these photographs prove, they were also gorgeous.

“Paradise Gardens” is being published in conjunction with a BBC documentary in which the author traveled across the Islamic world to explore what inspires and distinguishes Islamic gardens from the English variety. Most of the sites featured in the book originated in the medieval age of Islamic empires, as the faith spread from the harsh Arabian desert into new landscapes and climates. It was the age of migration and creative fusion.

For India’s Muslim rulers and their tomb gardens, native Hindu motifs were merged with Arabesque geometry and the floral patterns of local temples transposed with Quranic calligraphy. This tradition found its greatest expression in the Taj Mahal and its surrounding gardens. In the case of Spain’s Alhambra palace, designers merged the memory of their native North African courtyards and tropical vegetation with the harsher climate of the Sierra Nevada. These imaginative mergers required feats of structural engineering and horticultural ingenuity. It was the Muslims who successfully introduced oranges and pomegranates to Spain. To this day, visitors meandering through the shaded orchards and marble pools of Granada, Spanish for pomegranate, are visiting functioning, enduring Islamic gardens.

The new book spans six countries, showcasing the unifying principles of garden design across the Islamic world and even into the author’s native England. From expansive royal gardens in Istanbul to secret gardens in the residential courtyards of Marrakech, this is a comprehensive volume. Fortunately, the book is not an academic-museum catalog or a blueprint for gardeners. It is alive with documentary images of families, joggers and loiterers living in the present with ancient gardens. My favorite images in the book are from Iran — the stunning courtyards and pavilions of the country’s former royal capital Isfahan as the setting for family picnics and lounging teenagers. It is rare and refreshing to see large-scale images of Iranian life as it unfolds against the beauty of its buildings and landscape — a stark visual contrast to the images of protesters and politicians that have become all too familiar.

For two years, I lived in New Delhi near two of the paradise gardens featured in the book. For a moment’s reprieve from the pollution and chaos of the street, there was nothing better than walking through the gates into the quiet remove of Humayun’s Tomb or Lodi Gardens. I felt alone, even though I was almost never actually alone. Young lovers were interlocked beneath leafy canopies, yogis were practicing sun salutations and meandering peacocks were strolling through arched doorways. In the spirit of soul music or soul food, I thought of these as soul spaces, where nature, refuge and contemplation meet. As the book showcases, perhaps that is the guiding spirit and essence of a paradise garden. As Monty Don writes, “... these glimpses into paradise have certainly made me a better gardener, and perhaps even a better person.”

Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist.

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