The garden has a special place in the Islamic world. In the dry, desert climate of Arabia, where Islam originated, a lush, green, shady garden with flowing water is like paradise on Earth. Tradition dictates that the garden is rectangular with a geometrical layout that creates a sense of harmonious symmetry. The use of greenery to provide shade and privacy, as well as water features, are other essentials that define the Islamic garden.
Water is the heart of the Islamic garden. A fountain at the center of a pool or flowing water refreshes the eyes, cools the body in high temperatures and provides a space for spiritual contemplation. Emma Clark, an expert on Islamic art and architecture, says that the idea of a paradise garden goes back to the Babylonian civilization, where a garden surrounding a fountain is described in the Epic of Gilgamesh. She also points out that water has much more value to people who live in arid countries and that desert dwellers traditionally viewed water as symbolic of God's mercy. This idea is evident in numerous suras of the Quran, where water and mercy are inseparable. An Islamic garden typically has a fountain at its center from which radiate four paths. These are sometimes water courses, or may be paths for walking. Water courses are often lined with dark blue or green tiles that interact colorfully with the water and light.
The Number Four
Sura 55 of the Quran, "The All Merciful," contains the most detailed description of the Islamic spiritual concept of the garden. Four gardens are described, and the number four plays an important role in the geometrical layout of an Islamic garden, as it is typically laid out within a rectangle. As Emma Clark points out, the number four is not only the basis of an artistically harmonious layout, it also has a profound and complex spiritual meaning. Four represents the order of the universe with its four directions and four elements. Moreover, in Islam, four rivers of water, milk, honey and wine are mentioned in Sura Muhammad. The garden divided into four quarters is traditionally called a "chahar-bagh," which comes from Persian and means "four gardens."
Geometry and the Number Eight
Four paths lead from the fountain at the center of the garden, but frequently the fountain is placed within an octagonal-shaped pool. The domes of mosques are also supported on an octagon. Emma Clark states that an octagon represents a geometrical link between a circle -- symbolizing heaven in Islam -- and a square, which represents Earth. The number eight is associated with paradise. Consequently, you'll usually find that each quarter of an Islamic garden is further divided into another four parts to create the number eight. Each section uses geometric designs based on the numbers four or eight, such as an eight-pointed, star-shaped flower bed.
Greenery softens the geometric lines of the Islamic garden. Traditionally, plane trees were planted to create all-important shade. Cyprus trees are frequently a feature, as are fruit trees such as the fig, peach, orange and almond, which give both scent and fruit. The cyprus tree represents the male principle and the fruit trees symbolize the female, according to documents from both the Persian and Mughal cultures. The Islamic gardener prefers highly-scented flowers as well, with jasmine, lilies, violets and roses being typical choices.
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