Garden Retreats V: Turkish Delight; The Romance of the Levant in European Gardens


Le harem dans le Kiosque  Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1870
In the vast estates and gardens of the European nobility, “follies” of Turkish tents and pavilions studded the landscape. Bal masques and tableaux vivants with Europeans in “Tatar” costume were among the lavish garden entertainments. Academic painters of the 19th century found a fascinated public who reveled in scenes of the seraglio, the exotic genre scene, the Odalisque.

Today such attitudes may seem incomprehensible.  Terrorism and jihad, the conflict between Sunni and Shia, the Iraq war and our own uncertain place in these events is deeply troubling. Compounded with this is an evolution in our own psychology that the “Orientalists” are guilty of the worst kind of colonialism and are in fact quite distasteful.

I would suggest that in examining the past in art and garden design we need to adjust our perspective from our own present view, and attempt to ”place ourselves in the shoes” of the artists and great thinkers of the time at question. What I have found is that the proponents of the “Orientalist” movement of the 18th-19th century were in fact attempting to expand the arts and knowledge of their time. It was an artistic movement of visual delight and indeed, respect for the culture of the Near East.


The defeat of the Ottoman empire in the battle of Vienna in 1683 presaged European primacy in the Balkans and the rise of the Hapsburg empire. The spoils of war, tents, textiles, musical instruments and especially, coffee, created a sensation among the Europeans eager for new products. In 1704 Antoine Galland published the first french translation of The Arabian, or “One Thousand and One Nights ”Les Mille et Une Nuits, contes arabes traduits en français and the passion for the Turquerie in art and fashion began. The piquancy of the style soon found a venue in European gardens.


In the Mysterious and almost surreal garden of Desert de Retz, a Turkish tent resides on “The Island of Happiness” amidst rampant verdure. Located west of Paris, the garden was designed between 1774 and 1789 by Francois Racine de Monville. A garden in the English manner, the property once had nearly twenty follies  such as pyramid, a temple to Pan, and a column house.


Designed in 1971 as guest quarters by the French design firm, Jansen, for the Shah of Iran, luxurious tents were placed near the ruins of Persepolis. Ostensibly to celebrate the the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of Persia, the whole affair populated by world leaders and the super rich was so over the top in extravagance that it is considered the precipitating incident which eventually led to the overthrow of the Shah and a causa belli for the Islamic revolution.

Turquerie and all its forms may seem out of date today, yet it is worthwhile considering examples from the past not only for their aesthetic appeal, but for understanding how social conditions, commerce and events shape the arts, and indeed our own gardens today.