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Shades of Green: An investigation into the Gardening tradition of Turkey

We took turns to drive and to doze as we travelled south through the dark to make an appointment in Kusadasi. We had just one introduction which could open the doors to a series of Kusadasi gardens that had been enthusiastically described by a friend. They might offer us a useful insight into the future of the Turkish garden.

The Aegean coastal resort of Kusadasi, might at first seem an odd choice for horticultural experiment but we had been well briefed. All three gardens have been composed by individuals who have both a knowledge of western forms, a deep respect for the Ottoman past and a natives awareness of the possibilities of the indigenous flora. There was also the neighbourly influence of Rosemary Baldwin to consider who was a passionate gardener, conservationist and Turcophile.

Through the frame of our open windows the warm spring night poured a rich confusion of scents which was now and then punctuated by the diesel exhaust of a truck or a cacophony of frogs. The sweep of headlights cut through innumerable roadside orchards, fields and woods to briefly illuminate banks of wild flowers with their heads bowed and their petals modestly closed for the night. Here in the undisturbed interior of the country it seemed an impossible task for a man-made garden to even approach the splendours of the Turkish landscape.

On the coast it is another story. In the last two decades a rush of profitable development has thrown up a mass of hotels and villa complexes. Here there is enormous scope for imaginative garden design. Not just to dress the scars of building but to help give a recognizable identity to a prevailing taste for the international apartment blocks.

Anatolia has a rich, fascinating legacy to draw upon. Somewhere below the surface of Sardes lies the garden palace built by Cyrus III for the Satrap of Lydia. It, was affectionately modelled on Pasargadea, the archetypal Persian garden that had been personally designed and planted by Cyrus the Great. The garden, with its neat tree lined avenues and its rigid geometrical grid of stone water channels, basins and fountains imposed an order upon the scattered apartments of the palace. Regimented lines of cedar, palm and imported fruit trees provided shade while porticoed pavilions were placed to catch the aromatic breeze, scented by fragrant shrubs and grasses. Lilies, jasmine, crocuses and tulips were planted amongst the shaded meadows that were broken by haphazard clumps of pomegranate, sour cherry, vine and wild roses. It was conceived not so much as a place for a stroll but to be viewed from some favourable shaded place where friends could forget the outside world and entertain each other with music, poetry and conversation. They also, some centuries before Aristotle’s Lyceum and some millenia before Kew, acted as botanical research centres. The twenty Satraps, provincial governors, of the Persian Empire, exchanged potentially useful seeds and cuttings. Thus was the sesame seed brought to Egypt, rice to Mesopotamia, alfalfa to Greece and pistachios to Syria.

The Parthians brought apricots and peaches from China which greatly enriched the gardens of Byzantine Anatolia. The Byzantine period blended Roman innovations with the grand Persian tradition to create a different style. There was a much greater stress on movement and variety within the garden and false hills, sunken gardens, hidden pools and intriguing vistas were constructed to entertain the casual stroller. They also began to create rectilinear beds along the pathways where varied ranks of flowers could be planted out to keep the garden colourful throughout the year. Great emphasis was also directed on birds whose exotic plumage and song was a central attraction. It was evidently a shared taste, for in the 9th century the Emperor and the Caliph attempted to outdo each other with extravagant gifts of mechanical trees which boasted flocks of brilliant warbling birds. In the same period the founder of the Tulunid dynasty of Egypt began the practice of precise planting and seems to have been the first to have created figures and letters from neatly clipped plants.

The initial Turkic approach to gardens was negative as could be expected from a nomadic people, who loved unadorned pasture and an open sky, more than any contrivance of man. The first gardens created by Turkic Sultans were almost in the nature of walled marching camps. Useful orchards would enclose a prime meadow of clover which served as an arena for camping, feasting and horseplay. Long avenues of willows and poplars would line the approach road. Water was the vital element in a Turkish garden and they tended to create dramatic waterfalls, cascades and bubbling fountains in preference to the calm water courses of the Persians. There was another even great change in attitude. While the Persian taste dwelt lovingly over the interior of the garden, a Turkish kiosk, if it could not look over a busy polo field, was primarily built to frame a distant view. Turkish kiosks tended to as tent like as possible and were orientated to turn their back on the garden and to face out over the untouched beauty of nature, be it mountain, river or plain.

Even the walled gardens themselves were often more concerned to preserve a look of unadorned woodland than of horticulture, though within this Arcadia there might be a number of discreetly sited grottoes or pavilions suitable for a picnic and a casual scattering of flowering shrubs such as Magnolia, Lilac and the Judas tree. Trees were all important, casting a green shade by day while by night they could used as frames for the gaily coloured illuminations that so delighted the Ottoman soul. This taste also held true on a more modest level. Traditional Ottoman townhouses continually strove for a fine view from their first floor reception rooms while the open verandahs at the back of the house enclosed a walled courtyard. Here beneath the shade of a great tree and a number of lower fruit trees was the working area of the house where most of the washing and cooking is performed. In the old days the ground floor was reserved for horses and servants but now the flagstones will be partly covered with some odd terracotta pots filled with herbs and flowers. On one wall a tap will be set to create some version of a fountain. It may just splash against a whitewashed wall, an alcove of tiles or perhaps an old carved marble panel.

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