BYZANTINE GARDENS AND THE COUNTRIES OF ISLAM
The Romans attempted to preserve their spiritual existence in a nursery of Greek culture in the East, on the threshold of Europe and Asia, hoping that their own traditions as masters of the world might be grafted on another stem. When Constantine, after his decisive battle with Maxentius, removed his palace and garden to the Bosphorus, and called it Constantinople, he found Byzantium a small but prosperous town. It had certainly never played an independent part, but its position and natural advantages had often made it a bone of contention for warring nations. Even in antiquity Byzantium had had the reputation of being a sacred city, by reason of its many temples and shrines. Both inside and outside the city there were stadia, gymnasiums, and racecourses near the Temple of Poseidon, called new by Dion. It was a Greek-Hellenistic town, such as we are now quite familiar with.
Constantine extended the boundaries of the Residence, which was already of commanding size, and in the year 330 laid the foundation of his imperial palace and garden, the size and magnificence of which developed to such a point in the course of eight hundred years that travellers in the Middle Ages marvelled at it even in its decline. Unfortunately the accounts in literature are not yet confirmed by excavations, and the information about Byzantine gardens is very scanty. The picture which we have shows what is found in all Byzantine civilisation —a combination of Græco-Roman and Asiatic elements. Thus, if ground-plan and site, courts and gardens, do not appear to differ much from those of the palaces we know as Roman, we must never forget that in Roman villas, at any rate, the Hellenistic style had a great influence. The imperial palace at Byzantium may have shown more variety than the Palatine, due to its long architectural history and the influence of the Church, but it was more shut in than Hadrian’s Villa, and necessarily so, because of the restricted area of a town.
The palace reached on one side to the sea, and on the other to the great hippodrome made by the Emperor Severus. But even a palace built so late as the Triconchos, the work of Theophilus in the first half of the ninth century, is in some parts reminiscent of Hadrian’s Villa, though it of course betrays Asiatic influence as well. This Triconchos is like a triple shell, as its name implies, a hail with three large alcoves; the front room is entered by three doors, and is called Sigma ( S) from the shape of the Greek letter. It is oblong, and open in front, the fore part supported on fifteen pillars. The Sigma was a kind of theatre-box for spectators, from which they looked down on the court below when dances and games were going on.
The emperor’s own box, with his throne, was a baldachin of an unusual kind, supported on four pillars; from it there were steps leading to the court, and these were used as extra seats for the imperial retinue. On the middle of these steps was a kind of arbour on pillars, which was probably a favourite seat. Perhaps we may see in the steps a late development of the commanding staircases which produce so great an effect in the Cretan palaces at Knossos and Phæstos.
The peculiar way that a palace theatre changes its style is noticeable, as the theatre in a town remains the same as ever. The staircase leads down to the court, which is really a peristyle, having a shell fountain in the middle made of brass, with a border of silver, and at the top a golden pineapple. This basin was filled at specially festive occasions with all procurable fruits, including pistachios and almonds, and the sweet juice of the pine- apple ran out. This was called the Mystic Fountain of the Triconchos—a name which has never been explained, but which perhaps arose from some custom at the feast.
On the east side of the Sigma there were two brass lions, which spouted out water, and filled the whole empty part of the room with it, "which caused no little pleasure." But as the lower room, a hail with mysterious echoes, was also called Sigma, this may be the one meant: it is on the same level as the peristyle, which has an apse, or a hemicyclium, on the far side. Nothing is said of plants in this court, but Theophilus was very fond of the place, doing his ordinary business and taking daily walks there, and he had five gardens put round it in the style of the palace, but what this means is unfortunately never explained.
The remains of Palace, if any survive, are now buried under the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) in Instanbul. This mosque was built by the famous architect Mehmet Aga for the sultan Ahmet I, between 1609-1616. It is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles which dominate the interior. Since it is one of the greatest buildings in the Islamic world, it is unlikely that the remains of the Byzantine Emperor's Palace will ever be excavated. The Mosque has a courtyard and fountain. The origins of this arrangement are to be found in (1) classical peristyle courts of the type which the Byzantine Emperors had on this site - one of them has been excavated since the time Gothein wrote (2) the first place of worship in the history of Islam was Muhammad's own garden in Medina. Garden-making has a close association with Islam and there are in fact more references to gardens in the Koran than in the Bible. This is because gardens became a symbol of paradise (in the sense of the place where the righteous go after death). Byzantium occupies a fascinating place in the history of garden design for the following reasons (1) the Greek and Roman tradition of garden design survived here for almost a thousand years after the fall of Rome (2) for most of this period Constantinople was the largest and richest city in Christendom (3) the city was always a point of interchange between the eastern and western garden design traditions (4) there is a lack of information about the pre-Islamic gardens of the city (5) the city had a great number of Christian monasteries which, since they were visited by monks from Europe in the early centuries of western monasticism, may well have had an important influence on Christian gardens in France, Italy, England and other parts of Western Europe. Christianity was an Eastern Religion and, in the early centuries, the Christians were determined to avoid the pagan images of the Roman world. The search for new artistic and architectural forms naturally turned their eyes to Constantinople, Turkey (its modern name) and Syria. (7) Islamic culture developed rapidly after the seventh century and, in doing so, drew upon the art and architecture of the civilisations of Greece, Rome and Persia (modern Iran). For all these reasons, Constantinople can be regarded as the great missing link in the histories of both Christian and Islamic gardens.]]