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The best places to see true courtyards are in Middle Eastern and Chinese cities, the very places where civilization developed. The ancient Persians built many of their courtyards as miniature representations of Paradise. Each contained a water element-a fountain, well, or pool--central to the courtyard design-that provided a soothing contrast to the parched lands beyond the courtyard's walls. Some of the earliest written references to courtyards are found in the Bible. In the book of Exodus, plagues of frogs, gnats and flies invaded the usually serene Egyptian courtyards. The book of Esther contains a reference to a royal courtyard. A courtyard is used as shelter at night in both the books of Tobit and Nehemiah, and Moses instructs the Israelites to build booths in their courtyards during the feast days of the seventh month. In all, courtyards are mentioned over a dozen times in the Bible and always in the context of walled enclosures.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79 buried the Italian city of Pompeii and its hapless citizens in volcanic ash, making Pompeii the best place to study perfectly preserved examples of Roman courtyards. In the ancient Roman world, courtyard houses were referred to as atrium houses. Usually lined up shoulder to shoulder on the street, these homes usually had no windows, resulting in a rather uninteresting and tedious streetscape that belied the splendor beyond the high walls. Upon entering the home, a visitor might encounter an open-roofed room that contained an impluvium, a central pool that collected rainwater from the inward-slanted roof. This small courtyard-like room served as the entrance to the main house. In back of the main house, a formal courtyard often surrounded by Greek-style colonnades would form a peristyle. These peristyle courtyards were the templates for church courtyards, called cloisters, which developed centuries later.