Jurjen van der Tas describes the history of Islamic gardens, how they are being adapted for modern use, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s 20-year journey of creating and restoring paradise gardens across the Islamic world.
Gardens of Paradise take their name from the old Persian pairi dez, meaning “surrounded by a wall”. Transliterated into the Greek as paradeisos and henceforth known to us as Gardens of Paradise, they are in essence self-contained refuges for flora and fauna, with humans as their keepers and end users. The dry conditions that are prevalent in the Middle East and Southern Europe, make it essential for such gardens to have access to a permanent source of water.
The presence of running water, therefore, has always been closely associated with Gardens of Paradise. That the concept of such gardens was already wide-spread in the classic world, is evident from the patios with water features of Roman luxury villas, built more than 2000 years ago. Gardens of Paradise have historically always been seen as somewhat exclusive, offering at best only limited access to the public at large.
Apart from the change of concept that came with the transliteration from the Persian into the Greek, the association that these walled, secluded gardens have with our notion of paradise is also a direct result of the rise of Islam from the 7th century onward. There are numerous verses in the Qur’an referring to paradise as a collection of gardens with fruit-bearing trees and rivers running with water, milk, wine and honey. The four gardens and rivers mentioned in the Qur’an gave rise to the Persian concept of Chahar Bagh, or Four Gardens, which spread further eastward during the Mughal empire. The gardens of the Taj Mahal and Humayun’s Tomb in India, Babur’s Gardens in Kabul and the major Mughal monuments of Lahore are prime examples of this.
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