Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses


The Great all the districts he resides in and visits...takes care that there are ‘paradises’........full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will produce.”

Greek historian, soldier and writer, Xenophon, (c 431 –c 352BC), on Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 539BC, and who took the Persian Empire to its greatest extent.

My sense of impending danger, as I prepared to leave Sydney for Iran, in March 2007, was heightened by the kidnapping, that month, of 15 British navy personnel, by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, from the waters of the Persian Gulf. I had long wanted to go to Iran, ancient Persia, as the closest country to Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This was the birthplace of civilisation, in the form of cultivation, some 10,000 years ago – about where the city of Basra, in Iraq, stands today, and once the site of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

As I could hardly travel to Iraq, with a war still raging there, and sectarian violence continuing, I was keen to experience Iran. And gardens form an integral part of Iranian culture, depicted in the decorative arts and represented in literature over many thousands of years.

This was the land where that great general, Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty (550 – 330BC) created his capital at Pasargadae, in the centre of Iran, along with the earliest garden for which records, and relics, remain. Persian gardens are often referred to as ‘Paradise Gardens.’ The word paradise is derived from the Persian word pairidaeza, a royal hunting park or enclosure containing fruit trees. Paradise, with its four rivers, is central to Judeo-Christian and to Islamic traditions – and is revealed in both the Bible and the Quran (also spelled as the Koran). The word conjures up images of an idealised and ordered world, where streams of milk and honey flow constantly: a benign and secure environment, a place of abundance and safety. At the heart of the idea of Paradise is a bountiful, ordered, enclosed space in which water is directed in four ways, emanating from, and returning to, a central source.

From the earliest times, Persian gardens were created as the earthly representations, or reflections, of Paradise, an idea that became central to many cultures and religions throughout later centuries. Water, earth and trees are all considered sacred in pre-Islamic and Islamic culture; beauty, reflecting light, deflects evil.

Persia was a favourite destination for several English gentry-class women in the early 20th century. Among them the writer and garden maker, Vita Sackville West, travelled there to visit her husband Harold Nicolson, a counsellor at the British embassy in Tehran. In her slim book, Passenger to Teheran she eulogised, “Persia had been left as it was before man’s advent……nothing but brown plains and the blue or white mountains, and the sense of space."[1]She later added, “A savage, desolating country, but one that filled me with extraordinary elation.”[2]

I was so nervous before I arrived, however, that I left ‘Iran Awakening,’ Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi’s book, on the plane, for fear of retribution if it was found on me as I went through customs at Ayatollah Khomeini international airport. The Iranians I met, however, were courteous, gracious, and with a dignified sense of their great history.

Iran is a country of extremes, from the flat brown desert of the high central plateau – almost a moonscape – to the soaring, jagged, snow-covered mountains which tower above, on either side. Across the top of the country, from east to west, are the Alborz Mountains; the Zagros Mountains run from north to south on the western side of the country, flanking the desert plateau, and, in pre-history, protected the empire from invasion from Mesopotamia. Fertile, parallel north-south valleys cut through the mountains, but the southern part of the high plateau is a salt desert.

The Iranian love of agriculture and of verdant, green landscapes is evident across the country thanks, in part, to the ancient qanat system of wells, some of which reach down 200 metres. These dome-topped pits are connected by thousands of kilometres of underground galleries that capture the melting snows from the mountains, and then provide the irrigation that allows crops of rape and corn, and orchards of pomegranate, almonds and quince to flourish. The qanats once provided oases for travellers, who gathered around them, in caravanserai.

Vividly described by European travellers over several centuries, Persian gardens also enchanted kings and emperors from surrounding regions. The Central Asian prince, Timur (1335-1405), upon returning to his own Samarkand, in 1387, (in modern day Uzbekistan) ordered the four best gardens of Shiraz to be copied for his city.

Spring is the time to see wildflowers in Iran, from endemic species of foxtail lily (Eremurus spp.) to carpets of red poppies, to tiny species tulips, brightening the rocky terrain. I looked for the species rose native to Iran, Rosa foetida, from which so many of our yellow roses have been bred, but did not see any in the wild, although the yellow banksian rose was scrambling over trees, and shady pergolas, throughout the gardens.

In April, Iran’s national tree, Cercis siliquastrum, (also known as the Judas tree as it is thought that it is the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself), flowers bright pink against a clear blue sky. Fields of golden crops, copses of poplars reaching for the sky, and clouds of fruit and nut blossom, which spill over ancient mud walls, are among the verdant sights of spring.

Our little group of horticulturalists was looking for wildflowers native to the high plateau: fritillaries, tulips and the giant fennel (Ferula assafoetida). My favourite memory from this trip is provided by a photograph of this fennel. We had just descended the Zagros mountains, and were travelling across the arid plains. Suddenly, as the light was fading, and it seemed we would not find the fennel that day, the botany professor from Tehran University, who was travelling with us, shouted: he had spotted a marvellous specimen. We piled out, to lie on our stomachs to capture the best aspect to photograph of this strange-looking plant. My picture (below, right) could be a scene from James Michener’s Caravans that had been so much part of the adventuring psyche of young Australian travellers of the 1970’s.

The loveliest city in Iran is surely Isfahan, built as a new capital by Shah Abbas I (ruled 1587-1629) after he defeated the Central Asian warlords. Adjacent to the site of an ancient Achaemenid city, this garden city is set on the Zaindeh River - along which you will see families picnicking on beautiful Persian carpets. Isfahan reached the height of its splendour during the second half of the 17th century, but the city’s main square remains the glorious Maydan-e-shah, or Imperial, or Imam Square (pictured below), with its arcades of shops, its cavernous bazaar, and its magnificent mosques. From the great platform of the royal palace, on the western side, the Shah and his retinue would watch polo games, which are native to the Middle East, would review the army and would consult with his subjects. It is easy to see why the eight-hectare Square   – five times the size of Venice’s St Mark’s Square - has long been regarded as an unparalleled architectural marvel, and helped earn the city the accolade, ‘Isfahan is half the world.’

The Imam Mosque, or Shah Mosque, on the south end of this great square, was built between 1616 and 1629. The greatest of all the Safavid mosques, it was severely damaged in an earthquake in the 1830’s, but was repaired in 1845 and again in 1921. The majestic gateway to the Mosque faces into the square, while the Mosque itself - with its brilliant, intricately patterned tiles that cover interior walls as well as the interior of the large dome - is turned 45 degrees toward Mecca, birthplace, in 632, of the Prophet Mohammad.

The beauty and grace of so much of Iran lulled us, perhaps, into complacency. One of our group, a lanky orthopaedic surgeon from Melbourne, and a marathon runner, went out early one morning for a run, dressed in his usual running shorts and t-shirt. He was brought back to our hotel in the polite, but firm, company of the modesty police.

And in Isfahan, excited about exploring these beautiful and serene spaces, one day I wandered through a series of cool, tree-lined courtyards, toward another mosque. As I was about to enter, through a portal of exquisite stalactite (moqarna) tiles a tall, thin cleric rushed toward me, his black robes flapping in fury. Above his head, held aloft on a long stick, he was brandishing, furiously, a rainbow coloured nylon duster!

On our last day in Tehran our small group of garden devotees was hosted at lunch by the British Ambassador and his wife. Our leader, a British gardening writer, had been to Cambridge with the Ambassador’s father; hence our rather special invitation. The garden had been designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the house had input from the architect Edwin Lutyens. It was a relief to enter the embassy compound – it is now closed, after it was attacked in 2011 - and throw off our headscarfs, with a sense of elation and freedom, although I had been perfectly content wearing the headscarf each day and, of course, adhering to Iranian dress codes in other ways. At lunch I was seated next to the Ambassador, an amusing and extremely good looking young man with a cut glass accent.

Among several anecdotes with which he entertained us during the meal was that the Iranians had intended to capture Australian navy personnel, but at the last moment had decided that we were not valuable enough!

Ferrula assafoetida on the road to Yaszd1

Iran  Imperial Square or Maidan-e Shah with the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah1

Sackville-West, Vita, Passenger to Teheran, p49

Ibid p51