The Beauty of Persian and Islamic Gardens

We first hear about the Persians in the ninth century B.C. when they lived in the mountains of Kurdistan. The Medes were already in the plains and invaded the land which is now Iran, establishing the Median Empire in 708-655 B.C. A century later the Persians, led by King Cyrus gained pre-eminence in the region, seizing Babylon in 538 B.C.

In this process many tribes and traditions were assimilated. From their own ancient traditions these peoples brought with them a love and veneration of trees and the planting of trees was taught to young men in the evenings as it was seen as a sacred occupation. The tree with a stream at its roots was symbolic of eternal life. In this parched and hot environment water is valued because without it there is no life, so this too is sacred.

It seems that gardens became an important part of life early on in ancient Persia. At first Iran seems to be a hostile terrain in which to find such wonders. One can imagine how exhausting the hot, arid countryside must have felt to its inhabitants, and how much a cool, shady place would have been appreciated. The landscape is brown, but turns red when the light from the setting sun is reflected on it.

It is not surprising that as a reaction to living in the hostile near desert of the region the idea of being able to sit in an ordered tranquil garden, which is enclosed so that the outside world is kept at bay, and where flowers and fruit abound in the fertile soil, must have been felt to be barely short of paradise on earth. Yet again we find that gardens are full of symbolism for these people and are linked to ideas of immortality. ‘Pairidaeza’ is a Persian word that means having ‘a wall around’. For example, this word eventually became used to describe the Garden of Eden, and led to the name Paradise garden.

The earliest remnants of a garden in this region are those found north east of Shiraz in Iran. Built by Cyrus the Great in 550 BC at the place where he defeated the Medes, it was divided into four by water channels and was surrounded by shady pavilions. Not only was such a garden a refuge from the harshness of the surroundings but also a tangible expression of the power of the empire. It seemed that the water for this was obtained by trenches being dug down to the water table which was maintained by the absorption of melting snow coming from the mountains.

We know that there were gardens long before this in the delta region of the Tigris and Euphrates from records found on tablets. The story was that the Sumerian God of water provided fresh water and so the Sumerians dug irrigation channels and the resulting agriculture led to the establishment of the cities of Ur and Uruk.

By 2250 BC records show that the Sumerian capital of Babylon had hunting parks, and the much fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon seem to have been a garden structure, based on a number of terraces which were symbolic of mountains that linked heaven and earth.

Persian gardens have been the inspiration of the Islamic garden. Persia became a Muslim country in 637 A.D. when the Arabs took over. As they also conquered Egypt, the North African coast, Syria and later Turkey and Spain, the teachings of the Koran and religious and cultural links survived even when the political scene changed.

There are a number of references to the garden in the Koran. After death the faithful go to the gardens. The garden Paradise is enclosed with gates and gatekeepers. ‘The righteous shall return to a blessed retreat: the gardens of Eden, whose gates shall open wide to receive them. Reclining there with bashful virgins for companions, they will call for abundant fruit and drink. All this shall be yours on the Day of Reckoning; Our gifts can have no end’. Koran 38:44.

In other references there are trees for shade, soft couches to recline on, beautiful and immortal boys as well as maidens. There are fountains that never fail, and mention of rivers.

Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan describes a dream garden in which there is a fourfold division of the garden by running water. This is also a is a common feature of these gardens. It is especially common if there is a tomb at the centre of the garden as the rivers are symbolic of the life in paradise of the person who is buried. For example, the tomb of Akbar at Sikandra.

Interestingly, Persian carpets (so beautiful and much admired) often show the same symbolism. One such example hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is a garden carpet woven circa 1700.

This carpet shows the design of a garden. Round the borders are flowers and leaves then inside a wider border of trees to resemble cypresses, and fruit bushes. The garden is divided into four by rivers and fish are depicted in these. The four quarters are divided into six beds with alternate flowerbeds and plane trees. These trees are to give shade and the cypresses denote ‘eternity’. In the middle is a square and circle design which is symbolic of ‘perfection’.

Marco Polo wrote of a garden which was set out by a sheik who was the ruler of the fortress of Alamut near Teheran in the thirteenth century. He said that the garden was planted with the finest fruits and that the four conduits contained wine, milk, honey and water. Women were also present and he is supposed to have told his men that this was ‘Paradise’.

The Persian influence extended into Turkey though with a notable difference. Turkey has a coastline and, whereas in Persian gardens the pavilion was centred over streams, in Istanbul in particular it was possible to have a pavilion that looked over the sea and the coastline. These Kiosks were built on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. They no longer exist but such a pavilion appears in the ‘Arabian Nights’ story of The Prince Camaralzaman and the Princess Badoura. Interestingly Prince Camaralzaman spends some time apart from his bride and works as a gardener. His faithfulness in this role eventually leads to them being reunited.

The Dutch artist Cornelius Loos, in 1710, depicted a causeway jutting out into the sea which enclosed a lagoon in which the kiosk was positioned. The Turks enjoyed sitting in these gardens, and the kiosks often also contained fountains or other water features to promote coolness.

The Arabs ruled Spain from 711 until 1492. Around the city of Cordoba there were said to have been about 50,000 gardens which no longer exist. However two notable examples can be seen in the Alhambra and Generalife palaces in Granada. Unlike the Christians who came later to the region the Muslims loved the sensual enjoyment of the garden, seeing it as a foretaste of the pleasures to come.

Persian influence also shows in Mughal Gardens. By AD 800 Baghdad was a centre of scholarship with disciplines such as mathematics and medicine originating here. When Prince Babur, the first Mogul Emperor, invaded the Punjab in the sixteenth century he carried the Persian ideas of gardens with him. This was shown in mosques where ablution pools symbolised the oasis in the desert, and trees and water were depicted in mosaics.

However, perhaps the most beautiful, famous tomb and garden is that of the Taj Mahal which was built for the wife of the ruler Shah Jahan. He had married Mumtaz Mahal in1612. She was from Persia. It took twenty two years to complete this huge monument. Unlike the Persian model the tomb is set at the end of the gardens. It is raised on a terrace and overlooks both the gardens and the river Jumna. In this case the garden is used to approach the tomb rather than being an entity on it’s own. Nevertheless the garden was still laid out in quadrants which were divided by water channels.

It seems that gardens are an integral part of our experience and that they are intricately bound up with ideas of life and death and man’s understanding of his place in the world.

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