Issue 97 / January - February 2014
Gardens: Past and Present
A garden is not a substitute for nature, but it is a link to nature. It is a place where you can reflect on the beauties of the natural world.
Gardens are an everyday part of our lives. They come in a variety of shapes and designs, and many people have their own. In this article, I would like to highlight the importance of gardens and horticulture from a historical, cultural, ecological, and psychological perspective.
A garden is much more than just a place where fruits and vegetables are cultivated. In the past, many cultures and civilizations have paid special attention to horticulture. In Islamic civilization, for example, gardens and gardening are of great importance, not least because they are inspired by the primary written sources: the Qur'an and the Hadiths. Their descriptions and ideas of paradise were taken as a model in horticulture, and so gardens take on an important role in the history of the East.
Traces of the old Islamic garden culture can be traced down to the present day. From Granada to Cairo, and from Istanbul to Samarkand and Kashmir, it developed in interplay with the different geographical features and conditions. A well-known example of this is the palace-garden of the Alhambra, which was built in the 13th Century in Granada, present-day Spain, by the rulers of the Nasrid dynasty. Despite all the destructions and changes the palace has undergone, today, the Alhambra is one of the most visited tourist sites in Europe. One reason for this is the harmony between the building's architecture and its gardens. The parts of the garden that still exist in the east and west of the palace bear witness to its former splendor. They provide a classic example of Islamic garden art. In pursuance to descriptions of the paradise in the Qur'an ÔÇô it mentions four streams in paradise ÔÇô this garden was divided by four intersecting waterways into four different sections. Around these waterways there were fruit trees, and colorful flowers and shrubs. There were also several pavilions, surrounded by various plants.
It shouldn't be surprising that the term paradise is derived from the Persian word Firdevs, meaning garden.
Gardens in the traditional Muslim city
In the traditional Muslim city, which played a key role in Islamic civilization, a great garden culture developed. The city of Medina is holy to Muslims, while the word Medina also symbolizes city and civilization in general. Medina is the first spot where Islam spread geographically. Here, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once worked and acted, and here, also, his grave is located. As the Turkish sociologist Ali Bulac puts it, "Human relationships, social life, law, economics, politics, ethics and all kinds of human and social behaviors took shape and were lived out in Medina according to the new religious message and its basic principles" (Bulac 2007, 126).
Two features were critical for garden culture in the context of the traditional Muslim city. On the one hand, large city areas have been designated for gardens. On the other hand, garden culture was not limited to particular social groups or places, such as palaces and homes of the upper class. Most houses hosted their own garden in the courtyard. But even if there was no courtyard, beds were created in which a variety of plants were grown.
The city of Algiers provides an example of this. During the reign of the Ottomans, it was famous for its terrific gardens that were tended by rich and poor alike, regardless of social status.
The famous Ottoman traveler, Evliya Celebi, who lived in the 17th century, reported that the city of Istanbul hosted public gardens and parks, accessible to the public. Here also, common people were allowed to relax and stroll around. On certain days of the year, the gardens of the wealthy population of Istanbul were made accessible to the public as well. Another traveler, during the 17th century, described Istanbul as a garden city dotted with cypresses. Le Corbusier, the famous architect and urban planner, visited Istanbul in 1911. He wrote, "Istanbul is an orchard, while our own cities are quarries. In Istanbul, the houses are surrounded by trees; man and nature enrich each other" (Ayvazoglu 2011, 25).
There are also traces of Islamic garden culture in Palermo, Sicily. Under Muslim rule, about 800 years ago, the island flourished. In addition to their irrigation technology, Muslims brought with them plants such as lemons, oranges, and dates. In and around Palermo, magnificent gardens were built. And even 100 years after the conquest of Sicily by the Normans, this tradition continued, especially under the Norman ruler Roger II. He appreciated the lifestyle of his predecessors and also spoke Arabic. He invited great Muslim scholars and artists to his court, one of them being the famous traveler and cartographer, Al-Idrisi, who described Palermo as traversed by irrigation canals. The city distinguished itself through countless gardens and the most beautiful buildings; fruit was available in huge quantities. Parts of the large gardens that Roger II had built in Palermo can still be visited today, in the former residences La Zisa and Porto Vecchio. The complex of La Zisa hosts a museum of Islamic art.
Gardening and urban ecology
Unfortunately, this traditional garden culture has been partially lost in present times, which are characterized by extreme population growth and fast urbanization. Air and noise pollution, floods, and monotonous cityscapes are part of everyday life now, especially in big cities. Yet, just like in the past, gardens and parks still play an important role. They not only serve as recreational areas, but are also important for the ecology of cities. Their benefits include:
- Gardens and parks provide for a better climate. They reduce wind speed and mitigate heat.
- They produce oxygen and filter dust particles from the air. It is known that indoor houseplants positively influence the air inside rooms. There's a real reason parks are referred to as "the green lungs of the city."
- They reduce noise pollution. Trees and shrubs can break noise waves more effectively than concrete.
- Green spaces absorb rainwater, thereby reducing the risk of flooding.
- Gardens offer a habitat to birds and animals, which are the natural enemies of harmful insects.
Psychological and therapeutic benefits of gardens
Gardens and green areas not only have ecological, but psychological and therapeutic benefits. Just imagine that you stroll through some blooming cherry tree gardens on a beautiful spring day, or through a forest whose leaves shine in a variety of colors on a sunny autumn day, accompanied by singing birds and colorful butterflies. This very idea evokes pleasant and soothing feelings. Just the look of a garden can trigger positive medical effects. The U.S. scientist, Roger S. Ulrich, has proven with his research in hospital rooms that patients who see gardens or green spaces when they look out of the window recover faster than patients who need to stare at bare walls. They take fewer painkillers, are more relaxed and sociable, and are released faster from the hospital.
Plant's scents are a healing source, too. Even the physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina) pointed to the calming and relaxing effects of fragrances. In the past, for example, the scents of roses were used against headaches, and the scents of violets against melancholy and depression.
In addition, gardens can be used for preventive and rehabilitation therapy. One can be physically active and sharpen the senses in them, especially those senses that often go unchallenged in everyday life, smell and taste. Also, motor skills can be stimulated or strengthened by activities in the garden, which is very important, especially for elderly and disabled people, and for children. Besides, caring for plants strengthens a sense of social responsibility. Nancy Well, a scientist working at the State College of Human Ecology in New York, has proved with her research that children who spend a lot of time in nature can concentrate and adapt better. But of course, gardens are also of interest to adults, especially working professionals; physical activity is a good balance to academic work, and relaxes the mind.
A garden is not a substitute for nature, but it is a link to nature. And it is a place where you can reflect well, as pointed out in the following verse from the Qur'an "Look at their fruit, when they begin to fruit and as they ripen. Surely in that there are signs for those who will believe and who will deepen in faith (as they see new signs)" (6:99).
Much of what you have read here, you might already have known. Nevertheless, people should be reminded that a garden is actually much more than merely a place where different things are grown and cultivated. Gardens formerly had great value in Muslim culture. In my opinion, the Paradise descriptions of revelation texts could be used in modern city planning as well. A look at them is worthwhile, anyway. If the city planners of the past sought inspiration in these descriptions, why shouldn't they also be taken as a model in the present? In such an inspired environment, any person would find peace of mind more easily. On your next visit to a park or garden, take your time and leisure, and observe the wonders of creation in detail.
Bulac, Ali. 2007. Tarih, Toplum ve Gelenek, Istanbul.
Leser, Hartmut, 2008. Stadtokologie in Stichworten, Berlin, Stuttgart.
Petruccioli, Attilio. 1995. Der islamische Garten, Stuttgart.
Schimmel, Annemarie. 2001. Kleine Paradiese: Blumen und Garten im Islam, Freiburg im Breisgau.
Schneiter-Ulmann, Renata. 2010. Lehrbuch Gartentherapie, Bern.
Schmidt, Walter. 2009. "Das ist aber schon hier!" in Psychologie Heute, No. 10.
Wirth, Eugen. 2000. Die orientalische Stadt im islamischen Vorderasien und Nordafrika, Mainz.