Friday, November 5, 2010

Magic Carpet Ride : Persian Gardens

Now we turn our thoughts to ancient Iran or Persia. The history of Persia is one of a country invaded many times over. In the 7th century the Arabs invaded and conquered the Persian people. The Moguls with leader Genghiz Khan invaded in the 13th century and again in the 16th century by Tamerlane. Each conqueror brought something to the existing culture and yet the traditions and culture of Persian garden design remained and was absorbed and integrated into the cultures of each occupying force.

As Egypt was a leading influence on garden style and design in the Mediterranean region, (in particular the Romans who brought it to the lands they vanquished) Persian gardens became the ideal from Spain to India. The earliest gardens were most probably influenced by the  Egyptians, with walled enclosed gardens, primarily rectangular in shape, and shallow crossing water channels. Within this formal arrangement would be fragrant flowers such as rose, narcissus, tulip, lilac, jasmine and orange tree, some of which were brought in from China in exchange for grapes and horses as early as the second century. However the greatest influences on Persian gardens were climate and  geography, religion and the love of beauty; their culture.

The majority of the country is high above sea level and is arid desert or steppe. High temperatures with searing sun in the summer, cold temperatures and blizzards in the winter, strong winds, fierce sandstorms and a lack of fresh water created a need for protected areas with ample shade. Enclosed gardens protected against wind, trees for shade and wind barriers, and where possible water was channeled in. Within this difficult terrain are green valleys and lush forests. Recreating this paradise in the more inhospitable areas became a goal.

On the small scale the garden was attached to the house with perhaps a portico as the link. On a grander scale, beyond the palace there were pavilions connecting gardens along with channels of water. Outside of the walls were parks. Parks were just as important, if not more so, than gardens. Persians revered trees and had cults dedicated to trees (as did the Egyptians). Part of every young boys education was to learn to plant and care for trees. Tree planting was a sacred occupation. Parks were planted formally, in rows. The initial intention of the park was a hunting ground but also served as an area for feasts and audiences for great princes to take place.

Court of the Lions, Spain

The gardens were designed in the classic arrangement of the chahar bagh. The chahar bagh, or four gardens, has a fountain in the centre where two channels of water intersect. Channels of water may also follow the perimeter of the garden, along with paths of stone. It is thought that the chahar bagh may represent the four quadrants of the Persian empire. This basic form became the ideal for all Islamic gardens.

To the Persians gardens were like heaven, filled with birdsong, fruit to eat, fragrant flowers, water and cool shade. The Persian word for garden is pairi-daeza; pairi (all around) and daeza or diz (shape) or wall enclosed. They followed the teachings of Zoroaster who spoke of a heaven with paths of gold and pavilions that glittered like diamonds, filled with fruit and fragrant flowers. To the Arabs that arrived later, the gardens looked like the gardens promised in the Koran, with the chahar bagh symbolizing the Four Rivers of Paradise that flowed to the north, east, south and west.  “This is the Paradise which the righteous have been promised. There shall flow in it rivers of unpolluted water, and rivers  of milk forever fresh; rivers of delectable wine and rivers of clearest honey. They shall eat therein of every fruit and receive forgiveness from their lord.”

Persian "Wagner" Garden Carpet

Almost all of the original gardens are gone, in ruins or built upon by later civilizations. It is by the sheer force of the Persian love of beauty that we can know today something of their gardens. It is from their poetry, paintings or miniatures and carpets they we weave together this information. Miniatures give us some examples of how the garden may have looked, what flowers and trees they grew. We know that they built platforms into trees to enjoy the flowering spring time. On the platforms they laid pillows and carpets for comfort. Carpets were also placed on the grass and under trees. The designs on carpets were filled with gardens. Explosions of flowers, birds and other animals filled the interior. Borders of colour or borders with swimming fish may have represented the channels of water typical in gardens. Bare tree branches may symbolize the four rivers of paradise and squares of colour may be the garden beds.

One of the earliest extant accounts of a Persian carpet belonged to the Sassanid prince 
Persian Carpet
Chosroes 1 (531-579). The carpet was woven of the finest materials with coloured stones and threads of gold and silver. It was 60 yards square. It “represented a pleasure- garden,  with streams and paths, trees and beautiful spring flowers.” Unfortunately when the Arabs found the carpet they had it cut up and sold, but not before recording it by their historians.

The Persian garden became the ideal for all Islamic gardens and were taken eastwards to the Taj Mahal in India and westwards to the Alhambra in Spain where wonderful examples live on.


  1. Wonderful post Patty. I love how young Persian boys were taught to revere trees and learned to plant and care for them. I too feel tree planting is sacred . . . or at least it should always be. When I think of all the forests that are being cleared for really thoughtless reasons, it makes me very sad. Our gardens can be heavenly. ;>)

  2. Thank you Carol for your comment. I am a tree hugger too. I try to envisage what one of their parks would have looked like but find it difficult. Rows and rows of trees, of all varieties, for acres...

  3. To Islamic eyes the four rivers of Paradise, to Christian eyes a cross. How strange that we can look at the same thing, and see something quite different out of our cultural heritage. My 'Persian garden' makes me think of - I lift my eyes to the quiet hills ... Wonderful how you pull together so much information and make it sparkle with interest!

  4. Have just tucked a link back here into my Persian garden post. Mine is about the plants in my interpretation.

  5. So much symbolism was inherent in ancient gardens and architecture. So much of antiquity has been lost to senseless destruction. Thank goodness for all the artisans and story tellers.

    You have extensive knowledge of this history, and it seems a great understanding of the culture too.

  6. I wish a respect and love of nature were as revered as it was by the Persians. I have students who have never been to the woods or experienced nature first hand. It's incredibly sad. I like what Elephant's Eye had to say about perspective: we see what we want to see, whether it's a cross or four rivers. So true!!

  7. Such a wonderful blog! We love the garden carpet mention, keep up the beautiful work

  8. Hello
    As a Persian architect it is very interesting to me that you are interested in the subject. Thank you for this post. I would like to add something if I may. You mentioned that none of the original gardens exist today. May I ask by original to which historical period you are refering to?
    Because a lot of these original gardens today exist inside and outside ( Taj Mahal) Iran. Some of inside ones are : Fin garden (Kashan- Qajar period), Shahzade Garden (Kerman), And a large amount of gardens in Shiraz from Zandie Period.

    1. Thank you Pooyan for commenting. You are right of course, there are original gardens remaining of Persian design. Re-reading this post I believe I was referring to ancient times in a general sense. I looked up the Fin garden which is a historical Persian garden completed in 1590, the Shahzade garden built in the 1890's and Shiraz gardens of which the original gardens are gone but were replaced in the 19th century.

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  10. Lovely entry, we really enjoyed. Keep up the great work!

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