Monty Don explores paradise gardens in grand Spanish palaces and secret Moroccan courtyards. And in the Iranian desert, Monty unravels the mystery to their creation.
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The desert is beautiful,
but it is a harsh and relentless place,
and the people that live here, above all, dream of an oasis,
green and with abundant water.
And that water is not just to make the crops grow
with fruits and grains, but it is life itself.
We speak of our gardens being a little piece of paradise,
but for desert people, a garden -
green and filled with water - is heaven on earth.
It is paradise.
I'm setting out to explore these Islamic paradise gardens
that are born from the desert.
I shall visit gardens as symbols of power,
gardens that are set around magnificent tombs,
as well as those made purely for delight.
I'll be discovering secret gardens in Morocco...
Ooh, this is very different. Very different indeed.
..be dazzled by Turkish tulips.
I've never seen anything like it,
and I'm really not sure how to react.
I will travel to Iran to visit the gardens of ancient Persia,
and uncover the origins of a style of garden
that swept right across the world.
I've long been fascinated by paradise gardens,
but confess that my knowledge of them is very limited.
So, in this series, I'm setting out to discover
as much as I can about their history and what makes them so special.
The Koran, the holy book of Islam,
has many descriptions of wonderful gardens
filled with fragrant flowers, fruit, and, above all, water.
And so I'm beginning my journey in Andalusia, in Southern Spain.
For centuries, Spain has been inextricably bound
with European culture...
..but it also has a long and rich Islamic history.
I'm starting here, at the Alhambra,
and this spread out below me is the great palace
with a whole series of gardens,
all of them made during the Islamic rule of Spain,
which lasted for over 800 years.
In fact, Southern Spain was Islamic
for almost as long as it's been Christian,
and under the Moors, it was known as Al-Andalus.
The Alhambra can seem an unlikely garden -
it looks like a fortress, a palace -
but the gardens are an integral and key element of the place,
and they can't be separated from it.
The Alhambra, which means red fort in Arabic,
is, in fact, a series of connecting palaces and gardens
that have been added to over the centuries.
Sitting across a small valley,
and above the main complex of buildings,
is the summer palace of the Generalife.
It dates back to the 13th century, and its 800-year-old inner courtyard
has become one of the most iconic gardens in the world.
This courtyard of the Generalife
is the jewel in the crown of the Alhambra,
and millions have come here and been captivated by it.
It does feel like a piece of paradise.
But the elements that make it up - the sunken beds, the water,
the planting - have meaning, and I want to uncover that meaning.
The Alhambra was conquered by the Christians
at the end of the 15th century.
The Moors were driven out,
and the palace occupied by Castilian monarchs.
But the Islamic elements that made this
one of the great paradise gardens are still clearly visible.
I've visited the Alhambra a number of times.
To help me understand more about the essential building blocks
of a paradise garden, I'm meeting up with Jesus Moraime,
who's an expert on the Alhambra.
He takes me first to the Courtyard of the Myrtles.
What were the key features of these Islamic gardens?
What did they have to have?
Well, water is the main feature for every Islamic garden.
Water will form the garden everywhere.
Here, we are in a courtyard garden, and the water,
we have this huge water tank that acts as a mirror,
reflecting the stars and also reflecting the architecture.
Now, it was a mirror,
but also it was talking about the power of the sultan.
In northern Europe, we walked in our gardens.
-Gardens were somewhere where you walk.
-How would they have used them?
-Yeah. Well, the galleries...
As you see, there are galleries on both sides of the courtyard.
The galleries were also a main element in Islamic gardens.
Galleries, pavilions, arbours, shaded places
to look onto the garden from there.
The importance of water is echoed in the adjoining palace,
the Courtyard of the Lions,
which was the heart of the sultan's private dwellings.
Tell me what we're looking at here, and the significance of it.
We have, again, the water as a main element forming the garden.
-So, we have a main basin...
That is a very huge piece that is supposed to be put here
before the construction of the rest of the palace,
because we cannot put in through any of the doors.
So, the basin was first, and they built the palace around it?
Yeah. Of course, yeah.
And when they built the palace,
they filled it with references to the desert.
So, the 124 stone columns around the outside of the open courtyard
are suggestive of palm trees fringing an oasis.
This central court is divided into four equal sections.
How important is that division into four?
Well, this is one of the main typology of the gardens -
an Islamic garden.
Talking about the four elements, the four seasons of the year,
in some ways, a representation of paradise.
The four quadrants are separated by stone-lined water channels,
each symbolic of the rivers of Paradise
as described in the Koran.
The Koran makes those rivers a bit magical,
and one of the rivers was milk, another was of honey,
another was of water, and another was of wine.
So, wow, it was really a paradise.
Although the Court of Lions is now floored entirely in white marble,
originally, each of the four quarters
would have been filled with plants.
With flowers, very colourful and scented.
As all the decoration, all of these are made as decorations...
So, the plaster would all have been painted?
Yeah, it was all painted.
So, the water, the division into four parts,
flowering meadows, and colour.
Yeah. Stunning. Amazing!
Despite over 500 years of Christian occupation,
the footprint of Islam can still clearly be seen
in the gardens of the Alhambra.
From Granada, I'm now going west to Seville,
which is another Andalusian city with an enduring Islamic heritage.
And of all the gifts the Arabs brought to Europe,
one is more closely associated with Seville than anywhere else,
and that is the orange.
We think of oranges as being archetypally Spanish,
but they were brought to Spain,
along with a mass of other fruits, by the Arabs,
because fruitfulness was one of the key features of their gardens.
There are said to be over 40,000 orange trees in Seville,
and when they're in flower, the fragrance is stunning.
Certainly this particular garden, right in the centre of the city,
is full of them.
The Real Alcazar is the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.
It was originally built by the Moors in the 10th century,
but was rebuilt in the 1360s by King Pedro the Cruel,
who, despite earning his title by being despotic and unpredictable,
was devoutly Catholic.
And his palace retained, or reinstated,
much of the original Islamic architecture
and detail of the earlier building.
And the result is a classic example of the Mudejar style -
a symbiosis of Islam and Christianity.
A feature of the Alcazar, which I've not seen anywhere else,
is the way that citrus is used en masse.
So, you've got citrus grown up against walls clipped tight,
citrus grown as clipped hedges,
and the net effect of that is cool green,
providing shade and calm
beneath what can be an unbearably hot sun.
The bitter orange, Citrus aurantium,
was brought to Spain by the Moors around the 10th century.
It's too tart to enjoy raw,
but it was prized by them for its highly fragrant oil,
and is still one of the principal ingredients in many modern perfumes.
The love of citrus is evident in the way
that some of the palace buildings were used.
The Courtyard of the Maidens was designed
as a place to entertain guests,
who would be greeted by the heady scent of orange blossom.
It is in this courtyard that you really see the Islamic influence
on the way that the citrus are grown,
because the trees are planted in deeply sunken beds,
so I'm standing here looking down on them.
The fragrance is reaching me direct.
And the fruit, as they ripen and appear,
are there for me just to reach out and pluck.
So, the whole experience is immersive,
it's direct, it's immediate,
and that is one of the really important essences
of the paradise garden.
It was to be another 500 years before our familiar sweet orange,
Citrus sinensis, arrived in Spain.
But the bitter species proved perfect
for making a particular kind of jam.
There is a direct family connection with these oranges from Seville,
because my great-great-great-grandmother,
Annie Keiller, from Dundee,
bought a load of Seville oranges that were in ship,
which were going to rot, and she made them into marmalade.
And from that, the Keiller marmalade business grew,
which went on to make really quite a substantial fortune,
none of which, I hasten to add, has reached me.
But it was all based on oranges from here,
introduced by the Arabs.
As well as oranges, the Arabs introduced a wide variety
of plants and fruits to Spain,
including date palms, pomegranates,
rosemary and bay,
and all of these came from the Islamic East.
Now, many of these plants are mentioned in the Koran,
and Emma Clark is an expert on Islamic gardens,
so I talked to her at the Alcazar about the influence of Islam
and the Koran on garden design and planting.
What is often mentioned in the Koranic descriptions
is fruits of all kind.
Fruits and herbs - everything with a scent.
Scent is incredibly important.
Well, one of the things - you walk into this garden here,
and, immediately, the fragrance is astonishing.
Was that always an important part of the garden?
Yes, I would say always.
This idea of the zahir and the batin,
which is the outward and the inward.
You open the doors of this high wall,
and, inside, you're hit by this beautiful bath of scent,
and water and greenery. You know, that's what you're longing for
when you've been tramping across the desert.
What is meant by a paradise garden, in terms of Islam?
It's a symbol, or a representation,
of the archetypal eternal heavenly garden.
It's attempting to give you a taste of this beautiful paradise
that you may, inshallah, go to.
Repetition of geometric shapes in all paradise gardens
helps to emphasise this heavenly link.
Quite often, in an Islamic garden, you will have circular fountains.
A circle is always a symbol of heaven.
The square is always a symbol of Earth.
-So, this beautiful conjunction
often takes place in a garden to remind ourselves
this is a meeting place between heaven and Earth.
The paradise garden is mentioned many, many times
throughout the Koran.
Jannat-ul-Firdous - gardens of paradise.
But the chapter where the descriptions are fullest
and most beautiful are in what's called Surat ar-Rahman,
Chapter of the All Merciful - chapter 55.
And the phrase most often used throughout the Koran,
"Jannat tajri min tahtiha al-anhar" -
"Gardens underneath which rivers flow."
Clearly, water's important. What's the symbolism of it?
-Many-layered symbolism in water.
-We have to have water to live.
It is the most important element in an Islamic garden
because, of course, the Islamic garden was born in a hot climate.
When rain came, it was a blessing, it was a mercy from heaven.
But on another level also, it's symbolic of the soul.
It seems to me you're saying you cannot have
an Islamic paradise garden without water.
-It's an essential.
What's the significance of four?
The Islamic garden is divided into four.
-It's the "charbagh", which means four gardens in Persian,
and there are also the four rivers of Paradise.
It's an order and a proportion
and a harmony which underlies everything.
That is taking gardening to a level which the average person
probably doesn't touch upon.
But it is clear the gardens of the Alhambra and the Alcazar
represent an enriching blend of cultures, religions and styles,
with the influence of Islam still powerfully present.
It's not just gardens and architecture that combines.
Anybody who visits Spain thinks of paella
as the classic Spanish dish,
but it was the Arabs that introduced rice to the country.
But the relationship between the Spanish and the Moors
wasn't always harmonious.
On the 2nd of January 1492, the Alhambra fell to the Christians,
and Moorish rule in Spain came to an end.
Within ten years, most of the huge Muslim population
were expelled across the Straits of Gibraltar,
back to Morocco.
I think that is where I need to go next.
I now want to learn more about the origins
of these Spanish gardens,
so I'm travelling across the desert and back in time
to a garden in Marrakech that is 1,000 years old.
It gets blisteringly, unimaginably hot here,
and on top of that, you've got winds that whip up sandstorms.
I think they have less than two weeks' rain in the entire year,
so you can hardly think of a less promising place to make a garden.
But garden, they do.
Marrakech was founded in 1062 by the Almoravid dynasty
that went on to take over much of Spain
from the original Umayyad Arabs, who were also from Morocco.
And from its inception,
Marrakech was known as a city of gardens.
Marrakech has now become a busy holiday destination,
but I want to revisit a garden that's huge, ancient,
and ignored by most tourists.
I've brought you here to the Agdal, near the city centre.
It's a royal palace, and it was restored and repaired a little bit
in the 19th century, but almost everything you're going to see
is pretty much as it was when it was built in the 12th century.
The Agdal was made about 100 years after the creation of Marrakech
by the Almohads, who conquered the whole of North Africa,
from Egypt to the Atlantic.
And the name Agdal comes from the Berber language,
and means a walled meadow.
And believe me, this meadow is enormous.
I last came here ten years ago...
..and it doesn't seem to have changed much,
but then it doesn't seem to have changed much in the last 900 years.
And the first impression always for the visitor
is that it really doesn't seem like a garden at all.
But it is, and in many ways, it's very similar
to the gardens that I've been visiting in Spain.
The key elements of water and fruit and the layout
share all those characteristics of much smaller gardens.
It's just, here, the scale is increased hugely.
The Agdal extends to around 400 hectares.
But despite its size, it is completely enclosed by a wall,
which is about 15km long.
The Moroccan royal family still own and use the gardens,
but when they're away, it is open to the public two days a week.
Of course, the orchards here contain the same familiar fruit trees
that are central to all paradise gardens.
You've got citrus, pomegranate, date,
fig and olive.
And the whole point about these trees
is that the shade is cool and delicious under the hot sun,
the fruit is nourishing and refreshing,
and that applies however big the garden is.
It is still paradise, which, after all, is limitless.
As with all paradise gardens, water is the key element.
For all the cultivation,
the underlying spirit of the desert is never far away,
and the water here is piped all the way
from the distant Atlas Mountains.
This is an extraordinary feat of engineering
that is over 900 years old,
and this basin was Marrakesh's main supply of water
right up to the 20th century.
The reservoir is over 200 metres square
and can hold up to 200,000 cubic metres of water,
which is more than 80 Olympic swimming pools.
I spoke to the local historian Jaafar Kansoussi,
who explained the basin's significance.
There are around 3,000km of these pipes in the Marrakech region.
The irrigation system - was it an innovation at the time?
And systems like this allowed Islamic engineers to create oases
at convenient spots along their caravan routes.
The garden was used by the sultan to assemble his army,
who would camp under the trees.
And the basin was also useful in this desert region
to teach his troops to swim.
In fact, in 1873, one king, Mohammed IV,
drowned here when his boat capsized.
But the only swimmers in the basin nowadays
are some very hungry carp.
The Agdal Gardens deliver their vision of paradise
on a truly vast scale,
and I'm beginning to realise that the gardens of Islam
have more diversity than I had previously thought.
So, I'm heading back now to the chaotic city streets
to find more variations of gardens that mirror paradise.
Despite much modernisation in Marrakech
over the last decade or so,
the heart of the old city, known as the Medina,
is still a tangle of streets crammed with a crazy, untrammelled energy.
All the gardens I've seen so far have been palatial and huge,
but behind this door, off a busy street,
is a garden which is very different.
The exterior of Islamic houses
are always deliberately modest and inward-looking,
so all displays of finery and ostentation are hidden
from the public gaze.
This is a garden that has none of the sort of spacious,
balanced elegance that we've seen so far.
It's as though all the plants have been oversized,
and in order to make them fit, they've been crammed into the garden
like too many flowers in a vase.
The Palais Lamrani is now a hotel,
but was formerly a large house, built about 100 years ago,
by a family of Moroccan officials,
on the site of a much older building.
And like all Moroccan riads,
everything is based around its central courtyard.
And what you have is a real sense of a green haven
in the middle of, at times, what are chaotic streets.
There are all the essential elements here
of the traditional charbagh, or four-quartered garden.
There is water bubbling from a central fountain,
lots of shade, and abundant green.
The planting in this enclosed city space
includes a luxurious jumble of citrus and bananas
beneath enormous palms, soaring up to the Moroccan sky.
But there is one very earthly element
that tethers and unites all this voluptuous planting.
The paths, the floors, the walls, the pillars
are all clad in tiles,
and they subvert this sense of disorder
and of over-spilling foliage anarchy.
They restore order.
They are rhythmic and balanced and geometrical,
and those things are absolutely essential
to paradise gardens.
These brightly coloured tiles and mosaics,
with their geometrical progression and symmetry,
embody the Islamic idea of mathematical order
underlying all creation.
These tiles, which are ubiquitous in Morocco,
are still produced in small workshops all over Marrakech,
and I'm taken to visit one just outside the Medina
by Aziz, a local guide.
-Every piece of these mosaics is chipped by hand?
-Just by hands.
So, because each piece is cut by hand,
each piece is unique...
-..and alive with the skill of the maker.
The process of making them has been unchanged since the 8th century.
It always starts with a design drawn on paper.
The individual, hand-carved pieces are then assembled facedown...
..and a layer of plaster is applied to the underside.
Once set, a finished tile is revealed.
It must take millions of these, if you look around Marrakech.
Oh, definitely, definitely.
For example, this is 400 per square metre.
Because these are all handmade, no two will be exactly alike.
How does that fit in with the Islamic idea
that there must be some imperfection in man's work,
because only God can create perfection?
Yeah, exactly. So, there's always something, like,
you know, deliberately left.
This is a kind of example of an imperfection. You can see.
So, the join is not like this one here.
We say that's salt in the pot.
It doesn't belong to us to make something perfect.
Allah is perfect.
So far, the gardens that I've visited
have all been historical, albeit still living and growing.
But contemporary paradise gardens are still being created,
and there is one, only completed a year or so ago,
that I want to visit before I leave Morocco.
This is extraordinary.
Extraordinary sense of calm in the middle of this...
..teeming place. But not just that,
because all the things you would expect - the water,
the sound of it bubbling in the basin, birds -
they're familiar. They're charbagh. We've seen that.
We've seen that in Spain and would expect it.
But what I hadn't expected is the planting.
The planting is breathtakingly simple...
..and it's based upon the Persian idea
of a fragrant meadow.
It's called bustan.
And so the grasses are everywhere.
This is a stipa - Stipa tenuissima - which, in my garden,
and, I suspect, yours, just flops in a delightfully soft way.
But here, it's clipped and it's growing upright,
because baking hot sun, you've got sand -
it's much sturdier.
And then dotted in amongst them,
you've got this cape garlic - tulbaghia -
and then the odd lavender - lavender palmatum -
but just every now and then,
as though they're just naturally growing in the meadow,
yet within this courtyard.
And that's both brilliant, I think -
it's fantastically inspired planting -
but completely embracing the idea of a paradise garden.
Le Jardin Secret, the Secret Garden, was once an important palace,
but by the mid-1930s, it had fallen into disrepair
and was abandoned. But in 2008,
the plan to restore it as a public space began,
and eight years later, the garden,
designed by the English garden designer Tom Stuart-Smith,
and built by local Moroccan craftsmen, was opened.
The traditional sunken beds are edged by clipped hedges.
Now, the eye - the Western eye -
immediately thinks of box or whatever.
But this, the charbagh and the hedges, are fragrant.
This is clipped rosemary.
And it feels slightly oily to touch and...
HE SNIFFS ..is beautifully richly scented.
And you can see, when the sun hits that,
the whole garden will be filled with its fragrance.
The head gardener is Rashid.
Now, Rashid, there was a huge amount of work creating the garden,
but what is involved in maintaining it?
I love the way that the steeper grasses have been cut.
How often do you do this? Do you keep them cut,
or is it a seasonal thing?
What is your favourite aspect of the garden?
What do you enjoy most about it?
This contemporary take on the traditional Islamic garden
is, in fact, only one half of the Jardin Secret.
A doorway in one corner connects to another separate area,
and one that brings a modern Christian twist
to the nations of a paradise garden.
Now, Lauro, whoo! This is very different.
Very different indeed.
The Exotic Garden was also designed by Tom Stuart-Smith.
And the man who conceived and financed
the whole ambitious project is the Italian
and long-time Marrakech resident Lauro Milan.
Tell me about this space. What was it like when you came here?
When I started, this land was with small houses, no garden.
The surrounding walls existed, and no buildings, practically -
The only historical part was these two basins with this channel.
-This is historically...
-So, this is original?
This is original, yes, and I kept it.
And then, you see it different, as you say,
because you see that we just were in the Islamic garden -
geometric, pure -
and here, the choice was to have an Eden garden
with plants of all over the world.
-So, a Garden of Eden?
-Garden of Eden.
Here, a Garden of Eden. There, an Islamic garden.
It's a special garden because it's something that you don't expect.
You walk outside in these small, narrow streets,
full of people, noise,
and you arrive here and it's really peaceful.
Colours - every season, different. Nice plants.
There is a spiritual part,
a level that is difficult to explain in English for me.
I like the way that a garden done as the Garden of Eden
counterbalances the more conventional paradise garden
with its Islamic influences.
So, this part is filled with plants from all over the world,
the underlying idea being that it's all God's creations pulled together,
whereas the Islamic garden is purer
and truer to its source and its roots,
and yet the two are connected.
And so this is a development, an enlargement
on the conventions of a paradise garden.
I think this is a really interesting juxtaposition
between the very modern and the very traditional.
This is a really inspiring garden,
because as well as enlarging one's experience
of the paradise garden in its familiar form,
it does add layers of modernity,
and a sense of building something for a future
rather than looking at its origins in the past.
And it's also sown a seed that is nagging away at me,
and it's that Persian, fragrant meadow.
The gardens of Persia, now modern Iran,
are essential to our story
because gardens have been a fundamental part
of the culture here for over 2,000 years.
When the Arabs invaded Persia in the 7th century,
they discovered a level of horticultural sophistication
that far surpassed anything they had seen before,
and it inspired and shaped the gardens
right across the Islamic world ever after.
Put simply, Iran is the home of the paradise garden.
You really cannot understand Islamic gardens
unless you know about Persian gardens.
The Persian influence was huge.
The golden age of Persian gardens came in the Safavid dynasty
that lasted for over 200 years from its inception in 1501.
The Safavid shahs oversaw an empire
that controlled much of the Middle East,
and restored the economic might of Persia.
So, I'm starting my visit to Iran in the city of Isfahan,
which was the capital of one of that dynasty's greatest rulers.
When Shah Abbas moved the centre of his government to Isfahan,
he set about creating one of the great cities of the world,
and it is based around this huge square.
Naqsh-e Jahan Square is essentially an enormous garden
with an open space in the middle, which, in fact,
was used for playing polo, and there were bazaars,
trees growing at either end,
and where now there are roadways, were large canals surrounding it.
The square is one of the largest in the world,
and Shah Abbas used it to unite
the central components of Persian culture.
So, you have the mercantile presence here in the bazaar
still very much as it was -
people making things, selling things -
the same skills that have come down through the centuries.
You have him looking down from his dais,
the centre and representation of all-powerful government.
And the third element, which, in its own way,
was just as important, was that of the mosque and religion.
The Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah was the private place of worship
for the shah's household,
and is named after the father of one of his wives.
This is amazing.
I've never seen such tile work. It's exquisite.
Calligraphic inscriptions from the Koran,
embellished by intricate floral motifs,
glow and dance in the last shafts of light...
..while outside, in the square, the autumnal evening falls fast.
The next morning, I visit the first of these great Safavid gardens,
which is in the centre of the city,
not far from the Naqsh-e Jahan Square.
It is called Chehel Sotoun.
Built in the middle of the 17th century
as part of this great expansion of Isfahan,
Chehel Sotoun was always, from its inception,
intended as a pleasure garden -
a place where parties and receptions were held.
It was never a domestic palace.
One must imagine it in its heyday,
with water flowing and fruit trees surrounding it,
and somewhere where you could sit in the cool,
enjoying all the earthly delights,
and yet in tune with the spiritual ideals of paradise.
It would have really impressed visitors.
It wasn't just about the retreats and pleasures of paradise.
It was also to show the power of the people who made it.
The building was always intended to dazzle its guests,
and the walls and ceilings were covered
with hugely expensive mirrors made in Venice.
The name means 40 Columns,
because the 20 columns in the front of the palace
are reflected in the pool below.
It was a place of magic and delight, and as recently as 1933,
the travel writer Robert Byron described it as
"spread with carpets, lit with pyramids of lamps."
Professor Javad Rahmati is an expert on the gardens of Isfahan.
Let's put this garden into context.
Why was this garden built, and when?
The palace has pools at its front and back,
and at one time, both were used for swimming and water games,
but are now reservoirs for irrigation.
The planting - what sort of plants might one have expected to see?
I like the idea of the gardens being opened to the public
to celebrate a great victory.
It's this idea of sharing the splendour of a garden,
and it shows that the building, in all its magnificence -
the water, the gardens - were one.
They were all part of the same idea of paradise on Earth.
Next door is a public garden that embodies the shape and symbols
of paradise even in the construction of its central pavilion.
It is known as the Hasht Behesht, which means Eight Paradises,
and was built around 1670 by Shah Suleiman.
It was in the centre of the much larger Garden of the Nightingale,
and is now the sole survivor of the dozens of palaces
that once lined Isfahan's central Chahar Bagh avenue.
The Palace of Hasht Behesht is important structurally
because it's built on two floors, each with four rooms,
one in each corner,
making a total of eight rooms, which is a holy number.
And, of course, the division of four on each floor
is related to the quadrants of the garden, the charbagh.
And so, therefore, the structure of the garden,
the structure of the building are umbilically connected
both visually and symbolically.
There are descriptions of the pavilions
filled with glorious carpets
and framing views of the garden that was set with pools,
fountains and broadwalks lined with trees,
leading down to a square or maidan.
Like Chehel Sotoun,
it was intended primarily for courtly entertainments
and reflected the fashion for conducting both pleasure
and business outdoors.
And as you look round the garden,
that desire to live life in the open still seems strong.
I talked to Hussein, a local resident, about this.
How important are gardens in Iranian life?
I have to tell you, garden is the most important part of Iranian life.
-Wherever they see a green, river or water,
they put their carpet down, they sit, they make tea,
and they enjoy the time.
In many places, you know, like in the gardens and parks,
the people are sitting with their family, chatting and, you know...
This shows how people are attached to nature
and how people love to make the gardens.
So, that's why, during the whole history of Iran,
the garden becomes very important for their daily lives.
What you're saying is that's always been the case,
-and it goes right back...
-..right, right back...
There is one particular plant in this garden
that took me right back to the very English landscape of my childhood.
I haven't held a leaf of this type in my hands for over 40 years
because it's an elm leaf,
and practically all the elms in the British Isles
were wiped out in 1975 and 1976 by Dutch elm disease.
But elms were planted here from the very beginning of Hasht Behesht,
and they remain.
And what that gives you
is a real feel for what the garden was like
300, 400 years ago.
And it is a complete flashback into my childhood
to walk beneath an avenue of elms - a lovely thing.
The golden age of Safavid gardens in 17th-century Isfahan,
most of which are now lost,
indicate just how important gardens were to the Persian civilisation.
But the origins of the paradise garden
lie still deeper in the past.
So, now I'm travelling south through the desert landscape
to an ancient archaeological site
that holds the key to their creation.
In the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great,
founder of an empire that stretched from Europe to the Indus Valley,
built his capital here in Pasargadae on the site of his greatest victory.
Cyrus reigned over a period of affluence and luxury,
and there is hard evidence
that gardens were an important expression of this.
Very little of Cyrus's palace remains,
but you have to imagine,
on the plain below this hilltop fort,
a glorious, magnificent palace.
And in the 1960s, excavation showed that,
at its heart, was a garden.
This garden was defined by over a kilometre
of stone-lined channels that were interspersed
with rectangular basins, all fed by a central pond,
and the garden itself was divided into four equal sections.
This was the charbagh - the four-quartered Persian garden.
At this pre-Islamic time,
the four quarters represented the essential elements
of the ancient Persian Zoroastrian religion,
namely fire, water, earth and air.
Now, this was 1,000 years before the Arab invasion,
but it became the foundation for all future Islamic gardens.
This is the oldest surviving paradise garden in the world,
its submerged limestone rills
marking out its delineations of delight.
So far, only a small section of these channels have been restored.
There's another kilometre to do.
But it does seem staggering
that when Britain was in the Bronze Ages,
before the Roman Empire,
this great garden was the centrepiece of the palace.
Walking through the 2,500-year-old remains of Cyrus's garden
made me realise to what extent he had created a blueprint
for all future paradise gardens.
And my next destination is perhaps the best-known
Persian paradise garden of all.
Kashan is an oasis town three hours' north of Isfahan,
and it's the burial site of the great Shah Abbas.
The town is renowned for its carpets, silks and gardens,
and one garden in particular,
and it is this that I've come to see - Bagh-e Fin.
Bagh-e Fin draws the crowds like no other garden in Iran,
because not only is it the oldest surviving garden,
but also it is the idealised paradise garden.
A garden has existed on this site since 1504,
but in the late 16th century, Shah Abbas added the pavilion,
and he used it as a temporary centre of government
to stay when travelling through his domain,
and it has remained a symbol of high Persian culture ever since.
It has water flowing abundantly in beautiful channels
lined with turquoise tiles
and studded like diamonds with fountains.
It has variable trees, giving you shade.
There are gardens spreading out to either side
that were filled with fruit and flowers.
These huge cypresses that flank all the paths are 400 years old,
which means that they were planted
when the garden was in its 17th-century heyday.
The apparent abundance of water is not an easy thing to supply
in this arid desert region.
It relies on a piece of brilliant Persian hydro-engineering.
It's an ancient system called qanat,
and it takes water from the mountains and brings it down
in underground channels, which keeps it cool.
Small shafts are sunk at intervals along the way,
and gravity pushes water up to irrigate gardens and fields
while the rest of the stream continues its journey underground.
This ingenious qanat system has been successfully bringing water
to the parched land of Iran for around 1,000 years.
My visit to Bagh-e Fin has added essential context
to what I've learned about Persian paradise gardens
and their huge influence,
not least on the language we use to describe them.
The English word paradise
actually comes from an old Persian word pairidaeza,
which described an enclosed space or a garden.
So, when we describe a paradise garden,
we're really referring to two things.
One is the ancient Persian gardens,
and two, this idea of a garden having all the elements of paradise
and being a reflection of what awaits us in the world beyond.
Sadly, my all-too-brief trip to Iran is almost up.
But before I leave, there is one last piece
of the Persian jigsaw puzzle that I want to see.
Shiraz is one of the great cities of culture,
famous for its wine, its poetry, its nightingales, and its gardens.
In the 13th century, Shiraz became a major centre for the arts.
Iran's two most famous poets, Hafez and Saadi,
are both buried here, and in modern Iran,
their tombs have become the city's cultural mascots.
And at one time, there were many wonderful gardens here,
but the one that is best preserved and the most famous,
one of the great gardens, is Bagh-e Eram.
It takes its name from a fabled Arabian garden
cited in the Koran as Eram, which means heaven.
In spring, roses dominate the garden.
These are one of the national flowers of Iran,
and Persian roses are the forefathers
of many of our own garden varieties.
I asked a local guide, Amin Riasati, to tell me more about them.
So, I know that roses, of course, are so important to the place.
Is that still the case? Do people still grow lots of roses?
Yes. People here love roses, and they still grow roses.
Even here, in this garden, we have an area with roses.
How does the garden, and gardens in general,
locally, relate to culture? Because I always think of Shiraz
-as somewhere where poetry is really important.
-Do they link up?
When we look at Persian poets, especially Hafez,
he talked a lot about the beautiful gardens of Shiraz,
and he says himself that he spent a lot of time
in one of the famous gardens of Shiraz.
Do people in the 21st century
-in Shiraz still read those poems?
So, the culture of poetry and the culture of enjoying gardens
-is still alive?
Is this garden based upon a traditional garden?
Still, we can see some traditional elements in this garden,
such as the cypress trees,
such as the pavilion that we have here.
But after the 1960s,
the University of Shiraz took this garden.
They changed it to a botanical garden.
So, I can say that, now, it's a mix.
Are there any plants that you feel are particular to Shiraz?
Yes. The sour orange trees that we have in Shiraz,
that we call naranj.
The oranges are very sour
to the extent that we usually don't eat them.
We just squeeze them on food.
But in April, they give a very, very lovely, beautiful blossom,
that the whole city smells fabulous because of those blossoms.
It's the reason they call Shiraz the paradise of Iran.
As this is a botanical garden,
there are a wide mix of plants from around the world
that are all completely at home in this climate,
like marigolds and chillies, and, unlike the traditional charbaghs,
mean that the garden blooms freely throughout the summer.
It's time to leave Bagh-e Eram, and, in fact, Iran itself,
and it's been a frustratingly brief visit.
But it's good to finish here,
because Bagh-e Eram combines all the elements.
You have the traditional charbagh with its four quarters.
You have the waterways, paths, tall, shady trees, roses,
which are so important to this city.
Now, the influence of Persian gardens
spreads right across the world of Islam,
but there is one area that I have yet to see,
and that is to the east, which is where I'm going next.
So far, I have visited gardens in Spain, Morocco and Iran,
but next time, my journey will take me to India, Turkey,
and back to the British Isles.
I'll visit one of the greatest paradise gardens of them all -
and in Istanbul, I will be amazed
at the obsession for tulips and brilliant colour,
and return to discover the influence of paradise gardens 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.