Friday, November 8, 2013

Earthly Paradises

The Summer House, Khansarai, Bakhchisarai
© 2007 Chapultepec. The photographer has released
this picture into the public domain.
I read with great interest Lisa Yarde’s post at Unusual Historicals, “Plants and Their Properties: Moorish Perspectives,” which inspired me this week (thank you, Lisa!). Her discussion of the importance of plants and fountains in palaces like the Alhambra reminds me of the reaction that Nasan, my heroine in The Golden Lynx, has when she first sees her new home in Moscow. In brief, she looks around and thinks, “Where are the fountains? Where are the courtyards and the plants?”

Nasan has spent the last two years in the khan’s palace at Kasimov. Even though that building has not survived, we know a bit about it from descriptions and reconstructions. We can assume, based on similar complexes in Bakhchisarai in Crimea and elsewhere, that it was built according to the same principles Yarde describes as having been used in Moorish Spain.

Nasan herself later summarizes these principles, again in contrast to what she sees before her in the Russian court: “Although richly decorated, the palace lacked the harmony of Muslim architecture—its lightness, its grace, its perfect proportions. Here no opaline swirls of marble refracted with lunar subtlety the rays that pierced filigreed walls, no turquoise tiles glowed more intensely blue than the sky above them, no looping black-dotted calligraphy captioned brilliant miniatures of everyday life” (392). The buildings she has in mind consist of interlocking courtyards edged with rooms and terraced passageways, each with its pools, fountains, and elaborately planned, mathematically precise gardens—a style that characterized the Tatar khanates of Central Asia and the Mughal palaces of India just as much as those of al-Andalus and Istanbul. The founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur the Tiger—himself a Tatar prince of Central Asia—was so devoted to his gardens that he decreed his own burial in his favorite, located near Kabul. And there he lies to this day.

Babur Supervising His Gardens
From the Baburnama

Russians had gardens, of course. Every urban estate had a place to grow vegetables and herbs for cooking, a pond for ducks and geese, an orchard. The Russian use of space was so extensive that foreign visitors assumed the population of Moscow to be ten times as high as it was in reality (although the tendency of medieval and early modern people to grossly overestimate numbers may also play a role here). But until the Europeanization of the eighteenth century, Russian gardens tended to serve a practical purpose. Tatar gardens existed for pleasure, for spiritual nourishment, for repose, and as reminders of the blessed gardens of Paradise. Islam, a religion born in the deserts of Arabia, had (and has) great respect for the power of water to bring life from the earth.

The irony here is that the Tatars were people not of the desert but of the steppe, nomadic pastoralists who for centuries had subsisted mostly on meat and milk products. The herds fed on grass; people fed on the herds. The vast expanses of the Eurasian grasslands discouraged the intensive cultivation required to maintain gardens, restricting these earthly paradises to the few cities large enough to attract the attentions of a descendant of Genghis bent on self-aggrandizement. 

Then again, nature on the steppe has its own wild beauty. Perhaps the flowers and fountains of Paradise spoke with a special power to former nomads wooed into settling down yet still yearning in their hearts for the untrammeled life they had abandoned. We can’t know, but we can imagine. That’s the fun of writing fiction.

Tent on the Steppe in Kazakhstan
© 2012 Konstantin Kikvidze/

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