Islamic Gardens and Ultimate Politics

Did anyone see Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens on BBC 2? If you haven’t, it’s a two part series (late January 2018) exploring the symbolism and artistry of Islamic gardens from Spain to India.  In the first part, Monty Don introduced a British audience to classic gardens such as the Alhambra in Granada and the main square in Isfahan, Iran. It was delightful. Aside from the lush scenery (you could nearly smell the fragrances), the warm sunshine was a welcome tonic from the bitter winter cold. While there were a few private gardens featured, the majority were public works commissioned by some of the major dynasties of Islamic history like the Persian Safavids or Moroccan Almoravids. Gardens were not the only public works  featured; mosques, markets, castles, and reservoirs, also augmented the plantations, and made their way into the programme.

Alhambra, Granada, Spain

Symbolism of the urban oases as they related to the Quran and Islamic theology was a major theme explored. Another aspect struck me, however. In political terms, the gardens would have been powerful statements of authority as well as aesthetic masterpieces. The ruling dynasty would have been declaring to the world that they were able to perform quasi-miracles and could bring the dead earth to life. In other words, the sultanates were making an image of paradise on earth.

Having watched the programme it became clear that while we often discuss types of government, be they democracies, monarchies, despotisms, etc … the telos of political power is often forgotten. Governments, if they truly seek to govern, want to create a paradise on earth. Even the Communists; what did they intend other than to build a ‘workers’ paradise’? Although liberalism might seem an exception (liberals say we are free to make our own heaven on earth), we have to remember that liberalism started as a form of resistance to government, largely led by aristocrats who wanted to protect their palatial manors from the chaos of political conflict. So the essential point still holds.

Naghshe Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran

Islamic gardens are a good example of the fact that the purpose of sovereign rule is to direct those under the administration to ever more complex and subtle forms of civilization, until everyone feels as if they are living an absolute dream that will never end. Fine landmarks and monuments are one way of achieving this but the means also involve less salutary methods. It’s a paradox that peace and security always involve violence and government intervention, and often entail criminal and fraudulent actions. Civilization co-exists with bestiality. The ends do not reflect the means. High arts require patrons of the lower arts.

It is perhaps a kind of revenge on the part of beauty that such artistic masterpieces have outlasted the turmoil of conflict they were born into. I remember another excellent programme commissioned by Channel 4 where a Syrian man (now deceased) made a small garden within the crumbling ruins of Aleppo. Whether as a form of escape or a political language that creates an image of heaven on earth, the lesson is that exhibitions of beauty can be more powerful and permanent than the ugliness that often brings them into being.

I am currently working on three books that should be released in 2018. Information on my published books are here.

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