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Sacred Gardens

The Old Testament of The Bible has many references to gardens and the Song of Solomon is perhaps the most influential poem in garden literature. But, because of the diaspora, there is little to be see of old Jewish gardens and little which can be identified as Jewish from the years of wandering.

[Note: the following text is from Gothein's History of Garden Art]

The Jews took as the beginning of all things the creation of the Garden of Eden; and this garden of Genesis is exactly like the oriental tree-park. For Jehovah makes all kinds of trees to grow forth from the earth, the fruit good to eat and fair to look upon, and in the middle of the garden the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. Later accounts have added the water that would be needed, the stream which had its source in Eden, and from which four other rivers flowed. In this garden the beasts lived together, just as in the pictures of an Assyrian park the lions lie peacefully under the palm-trees and have their place among the lilies. This garden gave much refreshment both with its fruits and with its cooling shade; and God Himself, says the naïve anthropomorphic narrative, walked in the garden in the cool of the evening. [Editor's note: 'when read on a literal level' might be a better expression of Gothein's idea than 'says the naïve anthropomorphic narrative'].

The Jews, who from patriarchal times had found a home in these parks, set up many sanctuaries and altars as well as graves, and it seems as though they adopted the custom from the heathen people around them. Abraham certainly planted a park, in which he sacrificed to God, but later on there was much opposition to the practice, especially by the zealous prophets,for it was feared that the Jews might be led further into superstition by the heathenish custom of sacrifices in the open air.

The sessions of justice were held out of doors, in rich men’s parks.Joakim, the man of property, whose wife was the lovely and chaste Susannah, lived at Babylon, at the time of the Dispersion, and owned a fine park beside his house, and there the two justices held their court. Every day after the people left, they saw the fair woman walking in the garden and were inflamed with love for her, There was a large bath out in the open, just as in the Babylonian royal park where Alexander died, an ornament to the garden. Oaks and mastic-trees grew there, for the false judges betrayed themselves when they said they had witnessed wrong-doing, since each mentioned a different tree, one the oak and the other the mastic. [The mastic-tree of Southern Europe is Pistacia Lentiscus, anevergreen.]

Strabo talks about a palm grove in the plain of Jericho, saying it was well watered and contained many buildings, and also of a royal palace as well as a famous garden of balsams, from which precious spices were extracted. Josephus describes Solomon’s palace elaborately enough, but says little about his gardens, except that they were fair to look upon. One of the chambers was decorated as a garden-room. The ornament was all regularly set out, the first three rooms in priceless stonework. In the’ fourth was a wondrous show: here one beheld trees and many kinds of plants, their branches and leaves hanging down and throwing their shade below. The trees and plants covered the stone, which was below, and their leaves were delineated with such marvellous delicacy that they almost seemed to be moving. It was clearly plastic art with naturalistic painting most impressively carried out, with the trees overhanging the walls and casting their shadow. The scheme of decoration must have arisen from the same desire that prompted Sennofri in Egypt to make his grave like a vine arbour. What they wanted was to enjoy the beauty of a garden in a private room.

At Jerusalem itself there were great gardens round the walls outside, both for trees and for vegetables, but they could not be put inside the holy city, for no manure, nothing unclean, might be brought within her sacred walls, and only rose-gardens were permitted. We may assume that the Jews loved and tended flowers, because their poetry, e.g., the Song of Solomon so often used flowers in similes. There has been very little change in the main either in their religious or their daily use. The gardens outside the town were enclosed by walls with small turrets, in which guards were placed. From all we can learn of them, it seems that Jews’gardens were very like those of their neighbours.

Medium jerusalem original

Perhaps the strongest impact of the Jewish people on garden design results from their influence on Christianity and Islam. Jerusalem is a holy city for each of the 3 religions and the Dome of the Rock was formative for Islamic design.