BlogCulturePersian gardens. Yes, you read right. What are they and where to find them

Persian gardens. Yes, you read right. What are they and where to find them

Think of one thing that perfectly defines the notion of paradise. To many of us, one of those thoughts evokes the idea of a tranquil, well kept garden. It might be new for you to hear that the reason you see paradise through the prism of a garden could be because of the Persians.

Although Babylonian mythologies are full of allusions to a garden, the Persians took this idea to a whole new level given that their legacy endures to this day in popular imagination one way or another. Persian gardens (in Persian باغ های ایرانی) refer to a tradition and style of garden design that has its origins in Persia (currently Iran). Indeed, Greek historian Herodotus noted that; the Persian kings liked gardening.

What makes a Persian garden a Persian garden?

High walls, trees for shade, streams and fountains set apart Persian gardens from the rest.

It is important to reiterate this point that Persian gardens are walled in which is a huge departure from Chinese, French, Zen or English gardens. The Iranian plateau being an arid region, Persian gardens offered respite from the hot climate by creating shady areas within the gardens.

Although all these gardens may share formal landscaping features, there are a three divergent criteria that makes Persian gardens unique. These are;

  • The need to hear and see water flowing which explains the use of fountains and canals. For most gardens, water fountains are mainly employed for their visual appeal.  But the creators of Persian garden wanted to go further than that, they wanted to replicate both the dropping and trickling sound of water in a stream.
  • The gardens are normally divided into four large squares by means of causeways and water channels.
  • Finally, is the clever integration of the indoor and outdoor elements with the use of high walled enclosures. As a matter of fact, when you are in a Persian garden for the first time, it is very hard to isolate these two elements.

The Persian word for this “enclosed space” was referred to as “pairidaēza” which was transmitted and adopted by the Judeo-Christian mythology, when the Jews were under Persian exile.

Experts believe that it is here the Jewish scribes and religious leaders further relied on the notion of “paradise” to describe and refine the theological implications of the garden of Eden. It is an idea that was reiterated and continued to evolve even when the region fell under Muslim rule. Even if the Arab invasion led to the death of Zoroastrian religion in Persia, the idea of paradise still remained in Islamic orthodoxy.

To this extent, the Persian garden’s atmosphere eventually evolved to mirror the image that the Quran had represented about paradise. This is expressed in the philosophy of the Char bagh gardens which were quickly adopted by neighbouring civilisations particularly in present day India and Pakistan.

Where to find an original Persian garden today?

95% of the remaining Persian gardens are in Iran, but as we will see, there are Persian inspired gardens outside Iran, particularly in India and Pakistan. As a matter of fact, the national symbol of India, the Taj Mahal, borrows heavily from the  philosophy of Persian gardening.

The second one is the Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi. Designed by a Persian architect named Mirak Mirza Ghiyas in the 16th Century, it was built in honour of the Mughal Emperor Humayun on a 25 acre piece of land.

The rest of the Persian gardens which are world heritage sites, are found in Iran, these are;

  • Pahlavanpour Garden in the city of Mehriz in Yazd province
  • Abbas Abad Garden in Behshahr in Mazandaran province
  • Akbarieh Garden in South Khorasan province
  • Fin Garden in Kashan,  Isfahan province
  • Chehel Sotoun in  Isfahan province
  • Shazdeh Garden in  Kerman province
  • Eram Garden in Shiraz District
  • Pasargadae in Fars province
  • Dowlat Abad Garden‌ in Yazd province

But why is their legacy so important to world history that they have been designated as world heritage sites?

According to UNESCO, they note that, 

“Natural elements combine with man-made components in the Persian Garden to create a unique artistic achievement that reflects the ideals of art, philosophical, symbolic and religious concepts. The Persian Garden materialises the concept of Eden or Paradise on Earth”.

The architectural spirit behind the gardens

First at the height of Persian power in 6th Century BC, these gardens grew every sort of plant and flower from the places they had conquered. Irrigated by running water although water was a rare commodity for the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau. As we will see water is at the heart of a Persian garden;

The role of water in the formation of the first human habitats is a response to a biological need. But when above a need, home building and constructing residential complexes have a cultural meaning, architecture is emerged and water in human life has an artistic place and it is originated from the creativity of the artists and architects…Water is a paradoxical metaphor and along with soil, fire and air, consists of the four comprising elements of the universe.

— Sadeghi HabibAbad, Ali & Mahdi Nejad, Jamal-e-Din & Azemati, Hamidreza & Zarghami, Esmaeil. (2017). The Role of Water in Persian Gardens

This should not be surprising at all for a keen student of history since it was agricultural activities that stimulated the initial growth of Persia. To this end, they had already mastered the art of building well-engineered irrigation systems.

On to the second original archaeological spirit we note that far from their similar geometrical shape, they are based and inspired from the four gardens of Paradise full of lush and beauty as mentioned in Islamic religious texts.

Thanks to this philosophy, it inspired the Mughals dynasties in the Indian Sub continent, to construct the Mughal gardens design as presently constituted today in the Taj Mahal.

A striking feature of medieval Persian poetry is the abundance of nature imagery that permeates every poetic genre, and especially imagery relating to gardens…The royal gardens and parks evoked in the descriptive exordia of the qasīda, the luxuriant gardens of romance that provide settings for tales of love, the spiritual gardens of mystical writings, the flowery haunts of rose and nightingale in the courtly ghazal — all provide eloquent testimony to the importance of the garden in Persian culture

— Meisami, J. (1985). Allegorical Gardens in the Persian Poetic Tradition: Nezami, Rumi, Hafez

What are the literal and symbolic meanings of a Persian Garden?

According to the publication on Iranian studies, by Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, (A Review of the “Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1998). The garden was based on the Zoroastrian division of the universe into four parts, four seasons or the four elements; water, wind, soil and fire.

Other geopolitical symbolisms have been interrogated particularly by Bruce Lincoln, one of the great scholars of the history of religions. He postulates that the Persian obsession with gardening was closely tied to notions of creating paradise on Earth. It brings into focus an idealistic hegemonic vision and an imperial desire for creating enduring peace and unity in a cruel and unpredictable world.

“The Persians essentially meant to conquer the entire known world in the name of establishing paradise on earth”.

Mohammad Gharipour notes in his book “Persian Gardens and Pavilions: Reflections in History, Poetry and the Arts” that while some Persians eventually came to grow fruits and vegetables for domestic use, the principal inspiration behind these gardens was not only limited to providing green spaces for the inhabitants, but also creating the opportunity for further interaction between man and nature.

Besides citing the spiritual, symbolic and religious aspects of Persian gardens as chronicled in numerous religious texts of the time, he places Persian gardening at the heart of social and economic functions in what he describes as “ a micro-paradise…an independent retreat separated from the outside world”. For this reason, these gardens hosted religious events like pilgrims, political meetings and parties.

By Charles Njoroge

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