Sacred Spaces

Sacred Spaces
Photo by Niklas Weiss / Unsplash

The earliest gardens in the history of Western civilisations were in ‘sacred spaces’, these were places of worship and restoration. The oldest known landscaped site is Göbekli Tepe, located in Modern Turkey. This was built 12,000 years ago when our ancient ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers. The layout of the area was divided into multiple circular spaces lined with stonewalls and decorated with stone plinths with deities and natural objects carved into their faces. There is no evidence of any soft materials used and this site predates farming. A minimalist hardscape was our first known attempt at landscaping.

Pausanias description of Greece

The circles at Göbekli Tepe can be described as “temenos”. A temenos is a greek word for a piece of land marked off from common use and dedicated to a monarch, god, a sanctuary, or holy precinct. The most famous and ancient tenemos is the Sacred Grove of Oak Trees at Dodona, dating back to the 4th century BCE. In Ancient Greek culture there were three different landscapes: the natural, the human and the imagined. The natural temenos were created by selecting a remarkable tree or large shrub that occured there naturally. A well-known example of a human tenemos is Stonehenge. An imagined tenemos is the Garden of Eden.

Modern Chahar Bagh By Michal Klajban - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

While the Europeans were either showcasing nature as natural tenemos, shaping it to their own desires as human tenemos, or writing poetry about imagined tenemos, the Persians were busy combining all three types in the form of the Paradise Garden. Paradise Gardens were manicured landscapes, enclosed in courtyards with artificial waterways, and drew its style from the Garden of Eden.The most common form of a Paradise Garden is the “chahar bagh” (four gardens) style that consists of a rectangular layout split into 4 quarters by waterways with a pond or fountain in the middle. In both the Bible and Quran, Eden is described as having constantly flowing water. Many of the Islamic garden traditions and later European traditions derive from that of the paradise garden. It directly influenced the layout of the Gardens surrounding the Taj Mahal.

By Sudeepacharya076 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Lake shore Cairn in Colorado, USA

Another important element of the early history of landscaping is the cairn. A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. In ancient times, these were used as decorative landmarks but also had other ceremonious use. In Scotland a tradition remains to this day to carry a stone up a hill to place on a cairn when you reach the peak. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is “Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn” (I'll put a stone on your stone). Just like the chahar bagh, this is another style that continues to influence and be borrowed from in modern garden design.