In Search of Real Gardens: A Novelist’s Onsite Research

By Elizabeth Cunningham

“A fairytale is an imaginary garden with real toads in it.”

I don’t know the source of this quotation, but I take it as my starting point for this account, because the opposite definition applies to my novels about the Celtic Mary Magdalen. Maeve is an imaginary character, with no claim to historicity, but she lives in this world, and I want my depiction of it to be as vivid and accurate as possible—a real garden, or brothel, temple, sacred grove, city. For each of the three novels, I have done onsite research, as well as extensive reading, and in every case my encounter with the land itself has helped to inform the story.

For The Passion of Mary Magdalen, I made trips to Italy and to Israel. In Rome I wandered around the Forum, finding the places I had read about, the site of the College of Vestal Virgins, the corner where Maeve might have been sold as a slave, Sacra Via where devotees to various gods or civic causes made ritual processions. One guidebook, (later stolen so I can’t cite it), even told me how to find a shrine to Cloacina, the goddess of the sewer—a particularly Roman deity, given their genius for plumbing. I climbed Palatine hill and walked down to Circus Maximus, site of all chariot races and gladiatorial games, for in Maeve’s time the Coliseum had yet to be built. And I walked along the Tiber absorbing the sight and sound of the river, visiting the place where Maeve’s stolen boat would be overturned.

Rome is a modern city, and The Forum is a ruin. It was exploring Pompeii that gave me the strongest sense of what it might have felt like to Maeve to live in Rome. The free British Celts lived in small clusters of round wattle and daub huts. They had a very sophisticated oral tradition and system of law—preserved and taught by druids whose classrooms were sacred groves. If you look at Celtic art, you will see no straight lines, only circles, spirals, complex knot work. Even their crops were planted in curving rows. They lived very much outdoors, herding (and raiding) cattle, roving in warrior bands, traveling in tribal groups to different festival gatherings.

Pompeii, by contrast, is enclosed. Oddly enough, it made me think of a shopping mall. Inside it you could be completely oblivious of the world outside—in Pompeii’s case the sea and a huge, smoking volcano that would bury the town in 79AD. I sensed that the Romans wanted it that way. Everything scaled down to human size, including nature, depicted in pastoral frescos in the houses of the wealthy. These people liked framing things, containing things. To someone from a land without cities, where everything is round, first century Roman life would have felt claustrophobic and suffocating.

Of course I visited Pompeii’s brothel, which was so small it was hard to imagine it even while I was right there—a narrow room with stone beds built into the wall. There was some graffiti about a whore named Succula, source for the name of one Maeve’s sister-whores. The Vine and the Fig Tree is not as cramped, because Domitia Tertia comes from the aristocracy. But even the wealthy inhabited smaller spaces than we might imagine, and frescoes were used, I believe, to make the rooms seem larger, the way we might use mirrors.

Many Romans of the senatorial class did have country estates, worked by slave labor, where they retreated now and then. Paulina’s estate overlooks Nemi—a crater lake set in the side of a mountain. I chose the site because of the still extant remains of a temple to Diana, and because the sacred grove at Nemi is the setting for the legend of the Golden Bough as recounted by James Fraser. I became fascinated by the story of the escaped slave who rules as King of the Grove—as long as he can defeat any challengers. When I visited Nemi the steep forbidding mountain and the dark lake took hold of my imagination.

I arrived in Jerusalem during Ramadan. Muslim pilgrims from all over poured into the city to visit the Dome of the Rock, one of the most holy places in Islam, second only to the Kaaba stone in Mecca. While the festival crowds, mostly in traditional Arab dress, thronged the Temple Mount, armed Israeli soldiers stood guard along the walls, ready to react swiftly at the slightest hint of a disturbance—just as Roman soldiers must have stood two thousand years ago scanning crowds of Jewish pilgrims during Passover. In that tense atmosphere, almost no imagination was required to time travel. The crossroads between east and west, Israel has always been the home of diverse peoples who sometimes clash violently. The modern Jews who have returned to Israel are largely European in background, while the Palestinians, by custom and way of life, are probably more similar to the ancient Jews than their modern counterparts. A tragic irony.

I did all the things a tourist is supposed to do in Jerusalem. I viewed from above a section of two thousand year-old-pavement. I walked the Via Dolorosa, a tradition that dates only to the time of the Crusaders, and according to some Biblical scholars is not the route Jesus would have taken to the cross. I went inside the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulcher, presided over by five (I believe) different denominations. I stood in line and touched the place where Jesus was supposed to have been crucified, and walked through his alleged tomb, or one of them anyway. The Anglicans have a rival theory about the site of the crucifixion and locate it outside the medieval walls of the old city. They have a rival tomb also, a real one that dates to the 1st century and is big enough to have housed a small family. Outside it is a real garden where one can imagine Jesus pruning the trees on Resurrection morning, waiting for Mary Magdalen to recognize him. Because it was outdoors and less crowded—or maybe because of all my Anglican ancestors—this site held more appeal than the traditional one. On the Mount of Olives I felt closest to the story. I sat among the lap-like roots of a huge olive tree so old it might have been young when Jesus—and Maeve—walked back and forth between Jerusalem and Bethany.

On the way to Nazareth we stopped at the Roman town of Caesarea where some plumbing genius (in the novel Paulina’s second husband) came up with the idea of cleaning the sewers with the tides. The stop in Nazareth was brief, so I did not get a chance to walk to the cliff over which the irate villagers tried to throw Jesus, but it was clear that such precipitous drops abound and also clear why stoning would have been a popular form of execution. Though Galilee is much more lush and agricultural than the south, stones are never out of reach.

We arrived at the Sea of Galilee at night and stayed in a kibbutz—which I discovered the next day was only a short walk from the site of the 1st century town of Magdala. I wish I could have stayed for days by this inland sea, watching the changing light and weather, witnessing one of the storms that can spring up out of nowhere. I have had to imagine the lake’s different aspects, as we had only one gray day allotted to us. But I still remember the thrill of the boat ride we took to Capernaum and the realization of how lake travel made all the towns so close to each other. Peter’s hometown Capernaum and Magdala are only about twenty minutes apart by water. I have always thought of Mary of Bethany and Mary of Magdala as two distinct people, unlike many who insist on merging their identities. Out on the lake, gazing back at the shore of Magdala with the cliffs of Mount Arbel towering above over it, I felt vindicated by the geography.

Places can call up emotions that are more than our own. In Jerusalem I remember wandering away from the rest of the tour and sitting down on the ground. As I looked out over the Kedron Valley, I picked up a handful of dirt and felt overwhelmed by the grief this city has known. Galilee seemed an easier place—more water, more vegetation, the wideness of water and sky. After reading and re-reading the Gospels, it has often struck me how drastically Jesus’ mood changes in the course of the brief narratives. Galilee, where he often preached from a boat, is the setting for the Sermon on the Mount, his poetic evocations of The Kingdom of Heaven, his miraculous feasts. Later in Jerusalem, his own holy, pilgrimage city, Jesus is plagued by a sense of doom—foreseeing not only his own death but the disasters to come, the sorrows that continue to this day.

We returned to Jerusalem by way of the Jordan River Valley and the Dead Sea. What I remember most of this wild terrain, where John the Baptist preached and plunged his followers into the muddy water, are the stark hills, pock-marked with caves, the kind of caves that hid and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls for millennia. Driving up from the Dead Sea (where I swam on New Year’s Day, 1999) on the Jerusalem-Jericho road, we passed families of Bedouins herding sheep that grazed on the few tufts of anything living. It was easy to imagine Jesus wandering the wilderness in an altered state, taking shelter in one of those caves. Easy to imagine how bandits could hide behind rock outcroppings and prey on travelers like the one the Good Samaritan rescued. A desert wilderness doesn’t change much. The starkness of the land, the sharpness of shadows, the depth of the sky, linger in my imagination and become part of its landscape.

Deserts are as real as gardens. When I returned home from these pilgrimages and continued to write, my vision was enlivened by the deserts, pavements, gardens, and lakes, mountains, and brothels my Magdalen might have seen with her own eyes.