'Dream come true': Aga Khan inaugurates University of Alberta garden

Visit caps first season for cultural and architectural masterpiece, the world's northernmost Islamic garden.

A visit from the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary imam of the world's roughly 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, highlighted the official inauguration ceremony today of the Aga Khan Garden, Alberta. The garden, located 15 minutes southwest of Edmonton at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden, is a gift from the Aga Khan to the university.

"It seemed like an unlikely dream to many," the Aga Khan told guests at the ceremony, held next to the garden's central courtyard, known as the chahar bagh. "After all, the great tradition of Islamic gardens has its roots in very different times and places."

The garden was almost a decade in the making, with the Aga Khan announcing his gift in 2009 during his convocation address upon receiving an honorary degree from the U of A for his lifelong contributions to humanity.

"It's a beautiful gift to Alberta, to its people and its economy," said Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who was joined at the inauguration by Lt.-Gov. Lois Mitchell and U of A president David Turpin.

"Now we have one of the most elegant and beautiful gardens in Canada, and I would suggest maybe the world," Notley added. "Anyone considering a trip to the region just got yet another reason to come here."

The Aga Khan, who toured the garden with other dignitaries before the ceremony, told inauguration guests that seeing his vision come to life was a "dream come true."

Construction on the garden, which the university named after the Aga Khan, started in 2016. After 18 months of work, the garden opened to the public in June of this year.

The 4.8-hectare garden, which closed to the public for the season Oct. 8 and will reopen May 1, 2019, has already been a big draw. Since it opened, attendance at the U of A Botanic Garden doubled in July and August compared with the same time last year. Botanic garden staff expect that trend to continue, leading to an anticipated annual visitor count of 160,000 people, up from 75,000.

The garden was designed as a unique space for contemplation and education, and to foster understanding among people of different cultures, Turpin said at the inauguration.

"Everyone who interacts with it feels the effect of this magnificent, transformative space," Turpin said.

The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta joins a network of 11 gardens around the world built or restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, an agency that focuses on physical, social, cultural and economic revitalization of communities. The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta is unique for being the northernmost Islamic garden in the world.

"This garden is a fitting and beautiful representation of the ongoing partnership between the University of Alberta and the Aga Khan University and our shared commitment to education, research and cultural understanding," Turpin said.

The U of A and Aga Khan University have been working together for decades on projects to promote global engagement and social development around the world.

The U.S.-based architects of the garden, Nelson Byrd Woltz, travelled the world to study other Islamic gardens, returning to produce a design that complements Alberta's climate and landscape. The Aga Khan Garden, Alberta includes still pools that reflect the prairie sky, a central courtyard with patterns that, in the winter, are emphasized by snow, and more than 25,000 trees, shrubs and other plants suited to a northern climate.

Future plans for the garden include an indoor pavilion known as the Diwan, also dedicated today, and a public grand opening in summer 2019.