The dry winds scour the sun-kissed lands of Iran until they reach a walled enclosure. Within the wall is a garden, where fountains twinkle and shed sparkles of light in the shade of the fruit trees. Flowers blossom in luxuriant colours and shades, while the trees are heavy with fruit. People lounge in the shade, sipping drink and savouring the peaches that droop from the trees heavy in abundance. This is paradise. Paradise is a Persian word for a garden that encapsulates a dream, the reverie of the ideal existence, where humans rest and enjoy plenty under the benevolent eye of God. The word has travelled through Judaism and Christianity, having settled in Islam to give that religion its distinct vision of heaven, the garden where the blessed enjoy the presence and the blessings of God.
This is not the only Iranian term to enter our mythology, for Eden is Iranian, though the area, now known as Edin, is near the border of Iran and Iraq. The Hebrews who produced the Bible cherished a folk memory of a time when their ancestors dwelt in a fertile valley in Eden, which they described as a garden, whence they were driven out by unknown pressures. This fertile valley, which has become synonymous with an idyllic state of existence, has entered Western mythology as both a myth of origin and the ideal state of life, a place where humans dwell in peace and plenty and enjoy harmony and friendship with God. We note, though, that while the Earth was abundant in fruit, the vision of Eden is that it was somehow something more, a special place where human life came to fulfillment. While the wild was good, the garden was better and represented the divine ideal for the world.
While we are accustomed to having great temples and churches as sacred sites, we sometimes forget that there is a rich variety of sacred sites to be found across all religions, ranging from stone edifices to groves and gardens.
Why should we think a garden is sacred? I suggest that the answer lies in liminality. Ancient religions thought that liminal places, those on the threshold of different spheres of life, were where the sacred was encountered. Water's edge, mountain tops, caves, springs and wells, headlands, all were edge places where the sacred is met. Gardens have a liminal character, for they are places where nature and culture meet, nature is present, but in cultivated form. For the Hebrews the wilderness was the place where they encountered the majestic theophany of Sinai, but they passed through the wilderness to the promised land and never wanted to return to it. They were a fundamentally civilized people who found the sacred in cultural products, such as cities and gardens.
For some reason lying deep in the human psyche humans have desired to replicate their sense of the sacred in the way that they garden, and according to their different ways of conceiving the sacred they design their gardens. It is a taste of this rich variety of conceptions of the sacred that I want to give in this article.