The gardens in the Middle East

Persian banquet scene in the 15th century.

Few people know how ancient the word paradise is, that it has been traced to the Achaemenid dynasty that ruled the Middle East from the 8th century to the 4th century BC over an area that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus River Valley. The word is found in the Avestan and Median languages as pairidaēza – and means “walled garden.” This is hardly surprising because when nomadic groups settled down and began raising crops, it would be practical to erect fences to keep wild animals out and prevent them from eating the crops. Only later would these gardens taken on the aspect of a place in which to spend one’s leisure time.

Legends abound about the gardens of the Middle East, including the description of the Garden of Eden in the Jewish Old Testament, which has been speculatively located in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers (present day Iraq). Persian gardens are known to have existed as long ago as 4,000 BC. The Egyptians had gardens, especially around their temples, and probably these included herbs used for healing purposes. They also had private gardens. The ancient Greeks in contrast don’t seem to have been very interested in gardens, although they counted the Hanging Gardens of Babylon among the seven wonders of the ancient world. That is, the Greeks became interested in gardens after Alexander the Great conquered Persia, although we know Greek medical practitioners and physicians were keenly investigating the properties of herbs and other plants.

The Romans, on the other hand, became fascinated with gardens after they had mounted a number of successful campaigns to conquer the Middle East. Many of these gardens, which included pools and bird cages, were built within the grounds of large villas. The...

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