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Gardening: Divine Elements

Biblical and Islamic gardens bring the scriptures to life and offer a way to connect with the creator.


It is easy to forget that the religions that are in such conflict these days all grew out of the same soil so long ago. Though the dedication to historical accuracy of the Jewish and Christian "Bible gardens" of the West differs from the geometry and grace of "Islamic gardens," they have the same roots. And everybody loves figs.

Jewish temples and Christian churches have been sprouting Bible gardens in their side yards ever since green-thumbed scholars went through the texts and figured out exactly what plants were being mentioned. A Bible garden is dedicated entirely to growing trees, flowers and plants mentioned specifically in the Bible, or in some way symbolic of a personage or event. Juniper, aloe, flax, olive, grape, dandelion, Star of Bethlehem and wheat all crop up somewhere in the texts, and these Bible gardens are designed as a tribute, allowing the visitors to immerse themselves in the world of the teachings.

There are also Mary gardens, which contain plants associated with the Virgin, like Lady's bedstraw, rosemary and marigold. Costmary leaf was popular as a Bible bookmark, though church goers also relied upon its potent taste and scent to revive them during droning sermons. In Catholic gardens, a grotto often serves as a centerpiece, containing a statue of Mary and child. The Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, S.C., is reputed to be one of the finest Bible gardens in the country. [Read more about Charleston in Travel, page 9.]

When the Moors came into Spain in A.D. 711, they brought a concept of the garden as a reflection of a Divine order. The Islamic garden reflects the clean lines and mosaic sensibilities of a mosque. It was designed as a means of providing shade in the arid climate while allowing the visitor to pray and contemplate Mohammed. The garden was walled all around, enclosing the visitor in this oasis.

This "paradis" was designed to promote a feeling of tranquility through "chahar bagh," the separation of the garden into four quarters of trees and plant life connected by canals to a central fountain. The cypress, poplar, grape, rose and olive were arranged with the main concept of water in mind. The trickling and splashing created a calm space within the walls, allowing the visitor to contemplate the order of the space against the chaos of the city outside. The Islamic garden's focus is inward, toward the fountain, a metaphor for the tranquility of the spirit. The modern concept of outdoor botanical "rooms" was born with the Islamic garden.

And maybe therein lies the problem, the whole religious muddle. Where the Islamic garden praises the closed space and the interplay of elements within this introverted system, the Western garden, including the Bible gardens, values wide-open spaces. Bible gardens are for display, for showing the world a message. Behind the walls, the Islamic garden's elements are secret, personal. The Bible garden is a tribute to something that brings people closer to an understanding of God. The Islamic garden is designed to introduce a person to the Divine directly, through an appreciation of its elements and its whole. Either way, the garden is your vehicle: grotto or fountain?

Which brings us back to roots. Whether a walled-in oasis in the desert or a sprawling landscape in the South, certain elements of that shared Fertile Crescent soil are like weeds. Figs and pomegranates can be found in gardens from Boston to Baghdad. What can we learn from the noble fig? "They shall beat their swords into plowshares … neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and their own fig trees and no one shall make them afraid." — Micah 4:3-4.


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