Paradise, Persian Style

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2004

The desolate plains of Iran seem an unlikely refuge for an English garden doyenne such as Penelope Hobhouse. Yet the desert and mountains north of Tehran, far from her own green and misty garden in Dorset, linger in her mind in late career. "I simply long to be back," she says.

As the garden designer and writer who nurtured flowers at a country house named Tintinhull, Hobhouse became a guiding light to American gardeners in the 1980s. Today, at 74 and gardening in a neighboring county, she has been drawn irresistibly to a region that is ancient, eternally troubled and, from a gardening standpoint, both intriguing and challenging.

In Iran, Persia as it once was, the garden was born as a retreat from the desert as early as 4000 B.C. Little of that history exists on the ground, but the idea of carving out a paradise persists wherever a garden is made.

The word paradise derives from the ancient Persian word for an enclosed garden, Hobhouse reminds readers in her 16th and newest book, "Gardens of Persia" (Kales Press, 191 pp., $49.95). In Hobhouse's Middle Eastern travels, she could find, for the most part, only ghosts of what once existed through the centuries. She counts 10 or so functioning historic public gardens in all of Iran.

Even in its vestigial state, the Persian garden continues to evoke the image of an enchanted place where walls shut out the desert and cradle narrow canals -- rills -- and groves of flowering almonds and pomegranates and damask roses. "The whole thing for me has become an incredible passion," said Hobhouse, speaking to a sell-out audience at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond on Jan. 31.

The Persian style became widely copied with the spread of Islam, from the Moorish gardens of Spain to the Moghul gardens of India. Even in the West, the sensibilities of using architecture and plants and water to create oases have carried over.

"When I moved house" from Tintinhull House, Somerset, to Dorset in southern England, "I looked until I found a ruin with a walled garden behind it," she said in an interview. "I feel safe in a walled garden."

Her sojourns to a troubled part of the world may seem hard to mesh with this need for cradling (she says she is next going to war-torn Kashmir to see Moghul gardens, come what may), but she is gripped by a passion. Certainly, it is thrilling to ride along from one's armchair, especially since the book has photos by Jerry Harpur, one of the best landscape photographers in the business.

The ruins of the earliest surviving garden, dating to 550 B.C. and built by Cyrus the Great, are found on the plain of Marvdasht in southern Iran. "Incorporating both architecture and planting, water rills and shade-giving pavilions, Cyrus's garden seems to offer the background to all later garden developments," Hobhouse writes.

Another key feature was the idea of four rills emanating from a central point and dividing the garden into quarters. When Islam came to Persia, this model -- always walled and inward-looking -- was embraced, and the little canals came to signify the four rivers of paradise: of water, wine, and milk and honey.

When Western Europe was in the Dark Ages, nobles in Persia and Iraq built lavish gardens; one featured a lake contained by tin, 20 meters by 30 meters, and another was more than a mile square with fruits that "gleamed yellow and red, bright as the stars of heaven in a dusky night," writes Hobhouse. In Europe during that same era gardens consisted of modest herb plantings around monasteries.

Hobhouse notes that the Mongol hordes brought their own dark age to Persia in the 13th century, but within a few generations the meticulously designed gardens were back, different and more worldly but no less fabulous. They included enclosed landscapes featuring tented pavilions and orchards set in fields of clover. Elaborate irrigation systems delivered water, the lifeblood of the desert garden.

These inspired poets to create verse set in gardens of perfumed plants and warbling nightingales, and painters to create miniatures "of walled gardens with sumptuous carpets laid on flower-studded grass, shaded by trees, pavilions and canopies."

In the 17th century, Western travelers and merchants discovered the beauty of Persian gardens, including native bulbs. One was called the tulip.

One of the few remaining Persian gardens is the Prince's Garden, Bagh-e Shahzadeh, not far from the earthquake-devastated ancient city of Bam. In her lecture, Hobhouse showed an aerial picture of this garden; it looks like an oil tanker in a sea of sand. But on the ground it is unbelievable in its greenery and size, with an imposing long axis of terraces where high trees focus the eye to far pavilions and to the mountains beyond, snow capped even in summer. It was built in the 1880s by a regional governor and restored, crudely, in the time of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. It still works its magic, showing that the power of the Persian garden doesn't come from itself alone but its contrast to so hostile an environment. And yet, these plains and mountains are in themselves extraordinarily beautiful and spellbinding, says Hobhouse. "I think I'm more moved by the landscape," she said. "I had no idea that the deserts with the mountains, often with a bit of snow on them, and the changing light could be so beautiful."

She is not the first Western gardener to be so taken by these endless vistas, renowned for their capacity to play with light and color. English writer and gardener Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson, found Iran to be just as spellbinding in the 1920s. Jane Brown, another British landscape historian, quotes Nicolson writing to Sackville-West before she joined him in Tehran: "One seems to crawl like some tiny insect across this vastness. And over it all is a pink light of sunset even in blazing noon."

The Nicolsons went on to create the garden at Sissinghurst, sustained as a pinnacle of horticulture. Hobhouse has moved in the opposite direction, away from horticulture alone and toward garden history. In the austerity of the Persian landscape she sees lessons to minimize the demands of her own garden, and perhaps distill the essence of a garden as a place to seek refuge and find one's soul.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company