Gardens – Early Developments

It is interesting to consider that in the development of individual human beings, growth and development is precipitated by the need to deal with the arousal of anxieties, and to find a way of re-establishing a sense of internal equilibrium. Likewise mankind has sought to manage collective anxieties and examples of this may be traced in the way that gardens of varying kinds have developed, and taken shape over the centuries.

In Gardens in Myth and Legend I mentioned that initially gardens were found, not made, as they were beautiful naturally occurring spaces which impressed people because of their location and/or the atmosphere created by the geography of the particular area. These were considered to be either the home of the Gods or the gardens of those favored by them.

We can all recall finding such places (glades ) when exploring the countryside, but these tend to be sensitive sites which do not survive human intervention and, while inspiring delight, are not ‘useful’ in a utilitarian sense.

Other gardens developed which fitted these criteria better. For instance in the Old Testament we read of groves dedicated to the god Baal. This ‘sacred grove’ garden evolved as a place set apart either consecrated to a god, some sort of spirit or indeed to the memory of someone such as a hero. Another such garden which has gained a unique place in the Jewish/Christian tradition is the Garden of Gethsemane. This was in a place set apart, outside the walls of Jerusalem, and was the garden where Jesus went to pray. Similar gardens such as the groves of the Academy outside Athens were enclosures containing tombs and shrines.

In Italy there was another similar garden which existed around 490 BC. The legend is that it was dedicated to the goddess of fertility, a goat nymph called Amaltheia. This grove was supposed to be well supplied with streams and to contain the Horn of Amaltheia i.e.the horn of plenty—Cornucopia.

These early groves seem to have been simple gardens, and to have been used in different cultures. There is some evidence that the Druids, in England, also had similar gardens which were in existence when the Romans invaded Britain.

Gardens have followed trends in two directions. One of these being that of natural, more private gardens of which the sacred grove is seen to be a forerunner, and the other being the more formal, classical and public gardens with which we are familiar. Both are beautiful in their own unique ways.

However some of the sacred groves do seem to have been tended and even used for sacrificing to the gods. Christopher Thacker writes that in AD. 363 at Batnae, which is near Antioch, the Emperor Julian sacrificed in a garden described as’ a small grove full of cypresses and along the wall many trees of this sort have been planted in a row one after the other. Then in the middle were beds, and in these vegetables and trees bearing fruits of all sorts’

Most of the original groves have been lost over the centuries but there is a place that is sacred to Muslims in Cypress, near the town of Larnaca. Here in the grounds of the Mosque of Umm Haran, which contains the tomb of the aunt of the prophet Mohammed, are groves which have existed for centuries. This spot has been sacred for this time even before Muslim and Christian times as the tomb is protected by ancient rocks. These primitive megaliths originate in the early history of Cypress.

It seems that these groves were associated with commemoration, prayer and contemplation of one sort or another. The presence of tombs and the indication that water was important may indicate that these were inspired by the need to mourn those who had died, possibly to atone associated feelings of guilt ( the inclusion of sacrifice ) and a hope for some sort of continuation or regeneration of life.

Some of the oldest pictures of gardens are found in Egyptian records. Although these seem to contain agricultural elements they seem to be combined in such a way that the provision of pleasure is also included. For example, there is a painting from around 1400 BC. which shows an ornamental fish pond in a garden. The pond has also has flowers and wildfowl as well as fish and reeds. Fruit trees are placed symmetrically around the pond and the servants are carrying baskets of fruit and a wine jar. This picture is in the British Museum. From this it is believed that market gardening was part of the Egyptian economy even at these early times and that probably this was also the case in other settled Mediterranean economies.

Generally the utilitarian type of garden grew out of necessity. In Britain often the people had to put all their energy into growing the crops which they hoped would sustain them through the winter. Nevertheless in a poor season it was quite likely that if the family were not able to cultivate a few vegetables and herbs by their hovels there was a real risk of starvation. So this small important garden became established and I suppose it was a forerunner of modern allotment gardens.

The Persian word for paradise comes from the word ‘pairidaeza‘ which means ‘an enclosure’. This was applied to the hunting park of the king. Even today there are areas of the New Forest, in Hampshire in the UK, called enclosures which may carry similar overtones. This ‘Paradise Garden’ came to mean an extravagant park. This then influenced the Hebrew use of the term which had been less ostentatious, and led to both the original garden of Eden, and the idea of the spiritual garden where the saints live being termed as paradise. This evocative word now implies a Heaven of beautiful surroundings where time can be spent in tranquility with no threat from outside, and a state of eternal bliss.

The earthly paradise garden seems to have originated around 401 BC with King Cyrus of Persia. It seems that the King was personally responsible for a great deal of the work and it was described as being laid out carefully with the trees being in straight rows and there being lots of sweet scents. Alexander took over these gardens when he conquered the Persian Empire.

Another garden which might come into this category are the Hanging Gardens of Babylon which were built by King Nebuchadnezzar in 605-562 B.C. for one of his wives who was homesick for the mountains of her home. Much work has been done to find out not only about the manner of the construction used, but also how they were irrigated.

Such gardens were linked with great wealth and extravagance and over time were lost.

Extravagance in gardens was not confined to the Persian Kings. In Greece and Rome private pleasure gardens emerged such as the gardens of Epicurus which rightly or wrongly have gained a reputation for extravagance. It seems that wealthy Hellenistic men adopted this attitude to gardening.

Later Roman villa gardens appear to have derived from these and were designed almost exclusively for pleasure.

We can still recognize these early gardens in those around us now and in the manner in which we use and enjoy gardens today.

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