Monty Don travels the Islamic world and beyond, from Morocco to India and Iran, in search of paradise gardens, and uncovers the influence they have had back home.
In this series, Monty travels across the Islamic world and beyond in search of paradise gardens. The Koran, the holy book of Islam, tells of these magical places – green spaces filled with flowers and fruit where shade and water provide a safe haven from the harsh climate that dominates the Arab world. For Muslims, these gardens are an earthly vision of the real paradise awaiting believers in heaven.
Monty starts in Spain, a country synonymous with Christian traditions but which, for 800 years, was actually Islamic. At the Alhambra, he discovers the basic building blocks of paradise gardens – green spaces divided into four by channels of water that meet at a central fountain. In Seville, Monty explores their symbolic significance. Water is the key feature of these gardens. In the desert, rain was a mercy from heaven. The channels of water that divide the garden are representative of the four rivers of heaven: water, milk, honey and wine. The repeated geometric shapes seen in the fountains and rills are symbolic of heaven and earth and the flowers and fruit provided heady scent that beguiled the weary desert traveller.
In Morocco, Monty discovers the wide variety of paradise gardens. He begins just outside the city of Marrakesh in an enormous royal walled meadow, The Agdal. From there, he moves to the heart of the town, where he comes upon a tiny garden where huge banana plants jostle with palms to create a secret paradise garden, a shelter from the busy world outside. And in another part of the city, a rundown old palace has been turned into a stunning contemporary garden with a twist.
But it is Monty’s final stop that sheds the most light on the origins of these incredible gardens. In Iran, he explores the huge influence emanating from the gardens of old Persia. In the cultural centres of Isfahan, Kashan and Shiraz, Monty visits some of the most exquisite gardens in the world and then in the middle of the desert, comes across the secret to their creation. At Pasargadae lie the ruins of the 6th-century palace of Cyrus the Great, and as recent excavations show, at its heart there was a garden. The garden was divided into four, representing the sacred Zoroastrian elements of water, wind, fire and earth. When the Arabs invaded Persia in the 6th century, it was these Zoroastrian gardens that influenced their ideas not only of what a garden should be, but of paradise itself.
Monty Don continues his quest to uncover the secrets of paradise gardens. Having mastered their basic building blocks in Spain, Morocco and Iran, Monty sets out to explore the wide variety of gardens offering a slightly different vision of Paradise.
In Turkey Monty is dazzled by an extraordinary display of the Ottoman Empire’s favourite flower – the tulip – and learns of its sacred significance. At Topkapi palace, the heart of this vast Eastern empire he learns how this sacred value was extended to all plants, landscapes and even panoramic views in a way that created gardens that rejoiced in nature. Travelling further east to India, Monty encounters a new type of spirituality in the tomb gardens of the Mughal Empire. Stunning mausoleums were set in vast gardens as places where an earthly king could enter a divine paradise. But unlike our quiet courtyards and cemeteries these were places filled with life – tented cities where people lived as well as prayed. As favoured spots for yoga and exercise, they still retain this lively spirituality today.
In Agra, Monty visits the most famous tomb of them all, the Taj Mahal, and learns about the recent excavations that have challenged our understanding of the way it was used and exposes the impact the British raj had on this grand vista. In Jaipur, he rides an elephant up to a spectacular Hindu fort and visits a Mughal pleasure garden, a place where the royal family relaxed and watched the world below from the secret confines of their palace.
Returning to the UK, Monty sets out to see how the concept of paradise gardens have fared in some very different places. At Highgrove, the home of the Prince of Wales, a door in a wall leads to the carpet garden, one of the first interpretations of a paradise garden in the UK. Its high walls give it the feel of a secret courtyard garden in Morocco. But in other more public places, Monty discovers how the influence of these gardens has shaped our own. In Bradford, a water garden inspired by India provides a setting for different communities to come together while at Hestercombe, Somerset, Monty uncovers the inspiration behind what appears to be the most English of gardens.