Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Turkish gardens

In my last blog on wildflowers in Turkey (before the all important break for the Chelsea Flower Show), I mentioned that the country is not known for its gardens. While this may be true today, it is not to say that there is a lack of gardening tradition. Turkey was the meeting point for the ancient world’s great cultures, and this cross-pollination gave rise to an incredibly rich and diverse cultural landscape. Both the Greeks and Romans from the East, and the Persians from the West, brought with them celebrated gardening traditions. Combined with Turkey’s fantastic climate and inspiring natural landscape, one can easily guess that impressive gardens were built during the great Ottoman Empire. Unfortunately, many of them do not survive today, and what has remained is not well preserved or restored.

The majority of traditional Turkish gardens are courtyards. Almost all buildings, from grand mosques and palaces to private homes, feature a courtyard. I’ve always loved courtyards – they create a feeling of peace and protection not found in any other outdoor spaces.

Most courtyards were paved, either in part or fully. I spotted many beautiful paving patterns, including the one below from an historic palace courtyard.

A crucial element of Turkish courtyards is water. Fountains, pools or some source of water is almost always present in a courtyard. In one example in the magnificent Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, a small channel system was designed to gently carry water from a central fountain to all corners of the courtyard and finally into the elaborate pattern shown below. The water would then flow into a large, deep pool one level below. A further level down, a boxwood garden was designed to provide a green backdrop to the whole composition. Unfortunately, today the fountain is dry, the pool empty and the box garden merely rough grass, so it’s left to the imagination to conjure up the intended image. (If this sounds slightly negative, I should mention that the palace itself is exceptionally well preserved and maintained).

Since most courtyards are paved, courtyard plantings often come in the form of potted plants. We did, however, see some examples in private homes and some restaurants of extravagantly planted courtyards. Lush green foliage plants dominated, with flowers added primarily for fragrance.

In terms of outdoor decoration, ceramic tiles are a highlight of Turkish aesthetics. One can marvel for hours at the craftsmanship and artistic quality of these tiles, which are used to cover almost any surface. In outdoor courtyards, they formed the perfect complement to the otherwise simple and understated spaces.


  1. Thanks for this glimpse into a gardening tradition I know nothing about. Having read Penelope Hobhouse's books on Paradise gardens and Persian gardens helps me place these Turkish spaces into that larger tradition.

  2. Thanks James. I've also heard about Penelope Hobhouse's interest in Persian gardens and would love to read her books on the subject - she sounds quite captivated by them.

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