The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 3: European Gardens (500AD-1850)

Topkapi Palace garden design Istanbul

Previous - Next

523. The gardens of the sultan, at Constantinople, acquired a degree of celebrity through the letters of Lady M. W. Montagu, to which, it appears from subsequent authors who have examined them, they are by no means entitled. These gardens were visited by Dr. Pouqueville in 1798; and it is generally allowed that he has described them with as little imagination, and as much accuracy, as any writer. The grand signior's gardener was then a German, who conducted Dr. Pouqueville and his companion between the first and second ramparts of the town, which form the natural fortifications of the seraglio on the side to the sea. We conversed with this gardener in 1828; and he confirmed to us the statements made in Pouqueville's book. The palace is, properly speaking, a town within itself, having its walls crowned with battlements; and its bastions and its gates, like an old fortified place. Dr. Clarke says that the seraglio occupies the whole site of the ancient Byzantium; and Pouqueville, that the present manege is placed where there was a hippodrome at the time of the lower empire; so that the destination of the place has not been much altered for the last fifteen hundred years. The first garden seen by Dr. Pouqueville and his companion was enclosed on three sides with a palisade, the fourth side being formed by the rampart. It was filled with shrubs; such as early roses, heliotropes, and others, distributed in clumps, with several beams, and a great deal of rubbish lying about. At last they arrived at the entrance of the sultan's garden. The gateway to this garden is of white marble, about fifteen feet high by four wide, decorated with columns, in a very bad taste. A treillage, twenty-five feet high and fifteen wide, extremely massy, forms a cross, running each way, from one side to the other of the garden, separating it into four equal divisions. In the centre of the cross, it forms a dome over a small basin of white marble, in which is a jet d'eau. Jacques ordered some of the men to make it play; but the water did not rise above six feet. It was, indeed, an exhibition much below mediocrity. The four squares formed by this cross are planted with flowers, and in the middle of each are basins again, with jets d'eau quite in miniature. That to the left, as we entered, says Dr. Pouqueville, 'appeared the most singular of them. After the water has risen to the height of about four feet, it divides like a parasol, and each stream falls upon a shell, on the circuit of the basin, which again divides it into still smaller streams, scarcely bigger than threads. We contemplated this chef d'ï¾µuvre for some minutes, and thought it very pretty for amusing children.' The treillage, 'a work truly German, seems, from its solidity, calculated to brave the injuries of time for a long series of years. It is covered with jasmine, which perfumes the whole garden; and, to say the truth, it has no difficult task to perform; for the enclosure is so small, that there can hardly be said to be sufficient space for the air to circulate freely. To the right, which is the side towards the sea, the treillage leads to the kiosque of the grand signior, called Jeni-kiosque, the new pavilion. Three circular steps lead up to it, which occupy, in the semicircle they form, the portion of the kiosque that projects into the garden.' A number of cages, with canary birds, 'were hanging about: these little creatures sang charmingly, and had been taught to draw water. About fifteen paces from this kiosque, running along the same rampart, is a terrace of about fifty feet in length, and twelve in breadth, adorned with flowers, which has lately been turned into a conservatory.' The largest garden, to which the doctor descended from the terrace, was a hundred and twenty paces long, and fifty broad. At the eastern extremity was a hothouse, where Jacques was cultivating a number of foreign plants and flowers with great care. The hothouse was little better than a shed; under it were a number of benches, rising in a stage One above the other, with the flower-pots ranged upon them. Among the plants, some from Abyssinia and the Cape held a distinguished rank for their superior fragrance. Another garden, or rather a terrace, raised five and twenty feet high, which looked down upon the garden below, contained nothing but a red and parched soil, with a few withered plants. An aviary had been made by order of the Sultana Valide; and this; according to the ideas of the Turks, is the most curious thing upon the terrace. 'I quitted this dismal garden,' says Dr. Pouqueville, 'this kiosque of Hassan Pacha, perfectly free from the chimeras with which my imagination had been previously filled. I had formerly read the letters of Lady Montagu, and I seriously believed that I was to find walls incrusted with emeralds and sapphires; parterres enamelled with flowers; in short, the voluptuous palace of Armida: but her account is drawn from the sources furnished by her own brilliant imagination. We quitted the burning garden to visit the haram; the haram of the sultan; the promised paradise. Lady Montagu was now about to triumph.' The garden of the haram is a square very ill kept; it is divided from east to west by a terrace. It was here that the feast of tulips was formerly held; but this has been long abolished. According to all appearance it must have been a very poor thing; but the pens of romance-writers can embellish objects the most ordinary, and make them appear of prodigious importance. Some clumps of lilacs and jasmine, some weeping willows hanging over a basin, and some silk trees, are the only ornaments of this imaginary Eden; and these the women take a pleasure in destroying as soon as the flowers appear, by which their curiosity is excited. A plan of these gardens is given by Kraft (fig. 169.), from which little can be gathered but that they abound in trees and buildings, and are surrounded by a formidable wall. Various opinions have existed as to the sultan's garden. Thornton, the author of a late work on Turkey, arraigns Dr. Pouqueville for not being more dazzled with the magnificence of the haram, and for thinking that Lady Mary Wortley Montagu has; rather, in her descriptions of Eastern luxury and splendour, painted from a model formed by her own brilliant imagination, than from reality. But it is certain, H. M. Williams observes, that Dr. Clarke's testimony is a strong confirmation of Dr. Pouqueville's. Indeed, there is so striking a similarity in the accounts given by the two doctors, that each strongly supports the truth of the other, and both lessen extremely the ideas we have hitherto been led to entertain of the luxury and magnificence that reigns in the grand signior's seraglio. (Pouqueville's Travels, translated by Anne Plumptre.) It has not been at all times impossible to penetrate into the gardens of the seraglio, by the assistance of a foreigner employed in their superintendence; but the time chosen for the enterprise must be when the khaduns and odalisques have been removed to their summer palaces; and even the adventurous Pouqueville beheld only an empty dormitory. When any of the ladies walk in the gardens with the sultan, or move from the different dwellings of the seraglio, the black eunuchs precede them; and at the redoubtable cry of 'Heloet!' any gardeners who may be within the walls abandon their work, and flee to the gates; even the white eunuchs are excluded. A loiterer would at once be cut in pieces by the sabres of the blacks. 'Qui est ce qui voudrait mourir pour un coup d'£il si mal employe?' (Tournefort, Voyage du Levant, lettre xiii. vol. iii. p. 20. edit. Paris, 1717. Hobhouse's Travels in Albania, &c., vol. ii. p. 856.)