Ok, so this is going to be a departure from my usual subject matter on ‘Gardens I like’, as a couple of months ago I spent 2 weeks visiting Iran. We had a fantastic trip with Intrepid Travel, travelling from Shiraz in the south up to Tehran in the north. I found the landscape and gardens fascinating.
Between towns and cities we drove for hours through dry, brown, desert. Mountains that had weathered away to nothing but rock jutted out of vast river plains, but the rivers have long since gone. It wasn’t hot, but the air was so dry we swigged water constantly from our water bottles. A bag of small sweet oranges bought from a streetside seller was shared around on the bus, and is one of my favourite food memories.
I saw a flock of sheep being driven through a carpark next to the 2450 year old tomb of Xerxes, and in true Kiwi style wondered just what they were off to eat, as I couldn’t see a blade of grass anywhere!
I have emphasised the bare landscape because it was crucial to how I came to understand the Persian garden. Travelling through a monochromatic palette of browns with no evidence of water makes you crave the colour green. Finally seeing water and green foliage comes as an almost physical relief. It means shelter, shade, and food. It means life.
In a barren landscape, even a single tree can have a powerful presence. Here is a photo of an autumnal tree which was the only one for miles around. Talk about creating a focal point.
Echoing this, at a mosque in Esfahan, the impact of this golden tree combined with the blue and gold tile work was just exquisite.
The season was very late autumn/early winter, which meant that in many places leaves had fallen and flowers were well finished. But one could still imagine the fierce heat of summer and see how the courtyard gardens are such a secluded haven from the harsh environment without. The Persian courtyard doesn’t embrace the surrounding landscape, it retreats from it to make a private and comfortable space. In a place where water is precious, it is honoured with the central position in the design.
In the restaurant courtyard above, there was everything you could wish for. A pool with a fountain, flowers, fruit trees, comfortable seating. A large overhang to give shade in summer, but also areas to sit out in the sun in the cooler months.
In the courtyards I often saw roses, pomegranate trees, and figs. Pots are used extensively, always beautifully arranged, although the Iranians are tough on their potted plants. Potting mix is clearly considered completely unnecessary – with disbelief I saw roses growing quite happily out of solid clay inside the pots.
It was lovely to see these pansies growing in old crates, in the setting of another courtyard garden. You can glimpse the pool and Persian carpets in the background, both key ingredients.
I’m not proposing that we should all start re-creating Persian gardens and courtyards down here in New Zealand. But I was struck by how, having had several thousand years to think about it, Iranians have developed a style that is entirely appropriate to their climate, culture, and lifestyle. Their gardens protect you from the heat and dust of the wider landscape, and provide peace, shade and privacy. There are symbolic meanings attached to many of the elements, but the gardens also work so well on a practical level.
Here we often have the luxury of beautiful outlooks and views which we seek to maximise. But any good garden will also have an area on an intimate scale where you can sit outside and feel sheltered and private. We can give more thought to developing our own genuine vernacular, to how our gardens sit in the landscape, how they function, and hopefully we can, given time, develop a distinct New Zealand style with solutions as beautiful and recognisable as these.