A Look at Some Famous Gardens
THE human experience with Paradise began in a garden located in an area called Eden, possibly near Lake Van, of modern Turkey. A river that branched into four rivers watered the garden for Adam and Eve, who were “to cultivate it and to take care of it.” What a delight it would be to manage a garden in which “every tree desirable to one’s sight and good for food” abounded!—Genesis 2:8-15.
Eden was a perfect home. Adam and Eve and their descendants were to extend its boundaries, no doubt using God’s exquisite original design as their model. In time, the entire earth would become a paradise comfortably filled with people. But the willful disobedience of our first parents resulted in their being evicted from this sanctuary. Sadly, all others of the human family were born outside this home in Eden.
Nevertheless, mankind was designed by the Creator to live in Paradise. So it was natural that future generations would try to surround themselves with imitations of it.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon have been hailed as one of the wonders of the ancient world. They were built by King Nebuchadnezzar more than 2,500 years ago for his Median wife who yearned for the forests and hills of her homeland. This 75-foot-high [22-m] stepped structure of arched vaults, all richly planted, contained enough soil to nurture large trees. The homesick queen was likely comforted as she strolled through this terraced Edenlike area.
Landscape gardening was prominent in Egypt’s fertile Nile Valley. “Egypt,” says The Oxford Companion to Gardens, “is the source of the world’s oldest pictures of gardens and the location of an exceptionally long . . . tradition of gardening.” A landscape plan of a garden belonging to an Egyptian official at Thebes, dating from about 1400 B.C.E., shows ponds, tree-lined avenues, and pavilions. Next to royal gardens, temple gardens were the most luxuriant, with their groves, flowers, and herbs irrigated by canals from ponds and lakes teeming with waterfowl, fish, and lotus lilies.—Compare Exodus 7:19.
The Persians too made an early mark on the world of gardens. So captivating were the gardens of Persia and Egypt that when Alexander the Great’s conquering armies returned to Greece in the fourth century B.C.E., they came well stocked with seeds, plants, and ideas. In Athens, Aristotle and his pupil Theophrastus assembled the growing inventory of flora and established a botanical garden, to study and classify plants. Many wealthy Greeks, like Egyptians and Persians before them, had lavish gardens.
Roman city dwellers blended house and garden in the confined space of the city. The wealthy created spectacular pleasure parks at their country villas. Even the tyrant Nero wanted his Eden, so he ruthlessly evicted hundreds of families, demolished their homes, and created a private park of over 125 acres [50 ha] around his palace. Later, about 138 C.E., at Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, Roman landscaping reached its zenith. The villa had 600 acres [243 ha] of parks, pools, lakes, and fountains.
The ancient Israelites also had gardens and parks. Jewish historian Josephus writes of delightful parks abounding with streams at a place called Etam, some eight to ten miles [13-16 km] from Jerusalem. Etam’s parks may have been among the ‘gardens, parks, pools, and forest’ that the Bible says Solomon ‘made for himself.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:5, 6) Just outside Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives was the Garden of Gethsemane, made famous by Jesus Christ. Here, Jesus found a refuge where he could quietly teach his disciples.—Matthew 26:36; John 18:1, 2.
From Arab Gardens to English Gardens
When Arab armies spread east and west in the seventh century C.E., they, like Alexander, came across the gardens of Persia. (Compare Esther 1:5.) “The Arabs,” writes Howard Loxton, “found the Persian gardens very similar to the paradise which was promised to the faithful in the Koran.” Like its Persian model, the typical Arab garden, from Moorish Spain to Kashmir, was divided into four sections by four streams united at the center by a pool or a fountain, reminiscent of the four rivers of Eden.
In northern India, by Lake Dal in the beautiful Vale of Kashmir, 17th-century Mogul rulers planted more than 700 paradisaic gardens. These formed a dazzling palette of colors punctuated by hundreds of fountains, terraces, and cascades. The black marble pavilion built on Lake Dal’s shore by Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) still carries the inscription: “If there is a paradise on the face of the earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”
A few centuries earlier, Europe had passed from the Middle Ages into the 14th-century Renaissance. The gardening tradition of Rome, trampled under when the Middle Ages began in the fifth century C.E., started to bloom once again—this time under the rule of the church. Christendom saw the garden as a ‘provisional paradise.’ A ninth-century plan of a monastery shows two gardens labeled “Paradise.” Christendom’s gardens soon became bigger and grander, but instead of reflecting spiritual ideals, many became symbols of power and wealth.
When Charles VIII of France conquered Naples, Italy, in 1495, he wrote home: “You would not believe the beautiful gardens I have in this city . . . It seems that only Adam and Eve are lacking to make it a terrestrial paradise.” But if Charles had lived into the 17th century, he would have seen on French soil the vast gardens of King Louis XIV. The book The Garden asserts that the gardens at the Palace of Versailles “can still lay claim to being the world’s largest and grandest.”
The Renaissance, however, had a new definition of paradise: nature is to be subservient to enlightened man who is to impose order on the garden by purging it of all wildness. Trees and flowers were all set out in precise geometric configurations. Thus, early Roman topiary—the art of shaping trees and shrubs by clipping and training them—enjoyed a prodigious revival.
Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, maritime exploration and trade revealed new plants and gardening concepts to the western world. England took its turn at garden designing. “In 18th-century England,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “man became increasingly aware of the natural world of which he was a part. Rather than imposing his man-made geometric order on the natural world, he began to consider adjusting his own life to it.” Men like William Kent and Lancelot Brown excelled in landscaping. Brown laid out more than two hundred estates in England. Two men who became presidents of the United States, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, toured England in 1786 to study English gardens.
Landscapes of the East
China’s gardening tradition is to Eastern civilization what the traditions of Egypt, Greece, and Rome are to Western. The Chinese originally practiced an animist religion, in which rivers, rocks, and mountains were all seen as materialized spirits and so were to be respected. Thereafter, Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism swept through the land and produced their own forms of the garden.
On the other side of the Sea of Japan, Japanese gardens developed their own style, where form takes precedence over color and every item has its precise place. In an attempt to capture, in a limited area, nature’s aesthetics and diversity, the gardener places his rocks with care and plants and trains his garden meticulously. This is evident in bonsai (meaning “potted plant”), the art of training a miniature tree or perhaps a grove of trees into precise form and proportion.
Though its style may vary from its Western counterpart, the Eastern garden also reflects a yearning for Paradise. For example, during the Heian period in Japan (794-1185), writes Japanese garden historian Wybe Kuitert, gardeners attempted to evoke the atmosphere of a “paradise on earth.”
A Universal Love
Including even hunter-gatherer tribes, who lived in “natural” gardens—jungles, forests, and grasslands—the love of the garden is universal. Regarding “the Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru,” says the Britannica, “the conquistadors reported elaborate gardens with terraced hills, groves, fountains, and ornamental ponds . . . not unlike contemporary gardens in the West.”
Yes, ancient groves astride the Nile, landscapes of the East, modern city parks, and botanical gardens—what do these reveal? Mankind’s yearning for Paradise. In noting this enduring “nostalgia for Paradise,” writer Terry Comito stated: “Gardens are places in which men come home again.” And what human would not delight in saying, ‘My home is like the Garden of Eden’? But is a global Eden—and not only for the wealthy—just a dream? Or is it a future certainty?
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Artist’s conception of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
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A classical garden in Japan
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Down through history, humans have longed for Paradise
French Government Tourist Office/Rosine Mazin