I realize that featuring a cemetery on this blog might seem a bit a morbid but in many cultures cemeteries have long evolved into true gardens in their own right, complete with their own unique design and plant vocabulary. During my stay in Istanbul this summer I came across quite a few old cemeteries from Ottoman times in the older parts of the city. Most where attached to a mosque complex - most of these pictures where taken in the graveyard next to the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque whose interior was unfortunately closed for renovations - but there were also some plots that did not seem to be connected to any mosque, or were perhaps once connected to a religious complex but now stood alone due to subsequent urban development.
What struck me about these old cemeteries was their elegant, understated beauty, beginning with the slender headstones cut from very light stone and adorned with very delicate carvings. Most were decorated mainly with bands of intricate calligraphy and while I could read very little of what the inscriptions said many, if not most, featured the word جنّت jannat meaning "garden", "paradise", or "heaven". Originally جنّة jannah in Arabic, this same word has incarnated with that very meaning as cennet in modern Turkish and as جنّت jannat in Urdu and जन्नत jannat in Hindi. Of those few tombstones that were not covered with calligraphy, quite many had simple yet beautiful carvings which continued with this theme of the paradise garden, such as the stylized cypress pictured above.
However, the most interesting aspect of these cemeteries from a horticultural perspective is the manner in which they incorporate live ornamental plants. Cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens), Oriental plane trees (Platanus orientalis), and poplars (Populus sp.) are planted in between the grave to provide shade and hybrid tea roses provide color and fragrance.
The roses, as well as occasional specimens of other flowers such as bearded iris (Iris germanica), are only occasionally planted directly in the lawn between the graves. Most of the time, they are planted in special holes in the middle of the large stone slaps that cover most of the graves. There is usually a headstone at each end of the slap so that the flowers end up growing between the thin columns of the tombstones, set off beautifully by the light-colored stone.
I do not know if contemporary Turkish cemeteries follow similar designs but the fact that urban graveyards centuries old continue to be lovingly replanted with new roses and trees makes me hope that they are of similar beauty.
On a side note, Istanbul is also one of Europe's Capitals of Culture (http://www.en.istanbul2010.org/index.htm) this year, so the coming months should be a great time to visit this amazing city. Finally, if you want to see some more of the Süleymaniye Mosque, there is a pretty and informative virtual tour at http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200605/#.