The Landscape Guide

Islamic gardens in Persia (Iran)

Isfahan gardens
Shah’s garden in Ashraf

No country has suffered so badly as Persia. After the Arabs, host after host of barbarians raided the land; but though in the first fury of their attack they spared nothing, they yielded in the end to gentler customs, and the culture of the conquered never entirely perished. The most surprising thing is that such storms only raged above the tops of the mountains, and the regions that were sheltered and beyond their reach could continue to flourish, so that the “ home “ arts made progress—as Ibn Chaldun reports in the fourteenth century.

Persian ways and thoughts are liable to run into extravagances, and thus we find mystical sects, sometimes dreadful, such as the Assassins. Their name comes from the Arabic for hashish-eater. Marco Polo, who travelled through Persia, did not himself penetrate into the secrets of the “ Old Man of the Mountains,” but he tells the wonderful story of the "Paradise" wherein he had his disciples carried in drunken sleep, though this is only on hearsay. The Paradise is an Islamic garden type we know. The chief had laid out a most handsome place between two hills, and in this valley grew the sweetest flowers and the costliest fruits that one can possibly imagine. There were pavilions and palaces of every size and shape on terraces set one above the other and adorned with gold, paintings, and silken stuffs. Within were many fountains of fresh, clear water, and here there were streams flowing with wine, milk, and honey. Mandeville adds, though he admits he has it only from report, a characteristic that is purely Asiatic: "Over the head of Prester John there is arched," he says, "a bower of vines with growing grapes, white and red; the fruit is made of precious stones, the foliage of gold."

When, a hundred years later, Timur Tamerlane (1336-1405) the Mongol fell upon the whole of Asia, he destroyed many nations with the sword; but even this bloodthirsty tyrant was a great patron of the arts, and tried to immortalise every fine feat of arms and every other joyful event by raising an architectural monument. The land of his fathers, Bokhara and Samarkand, flourished once more under his rule. Bokhara had in the ninth century under the Emir Ismael enjoyed a time when it was encircled with villas and palaces, whose orchards were praised by Arabian travellers. Tamerlane had eleven large canals made round the town, and it is said that on the banks of one of these there were two thousand pleasure-houses. Without neglecting the other towns, Tamerlane made Samarkand his capital. The gardens were one and a half to two square miles in area, and on the east side was the Bagh-i-Dilkusha, “the garden that cheers the heart,” joined on to the town by a long avenue. But the favourite place of all, which its owner called his hermitage, was Bagh-i-Bhisht, “the Paradise Garden.” Sheref-ed-Din, Tamerlane’s biographer, describes it as made entirely of the famous white marble of Tabriz, built on a terrace having a deep trench round it, with two bridges leading over into the gardens, and a park for wild animals at the side. Another palace was famed for its mighty poplar avenues, and was called the Poplar Garden. Of all the Asiatic races who were then in eternal conflict for the leadership of that part of the world, none is without descriptions of particular gardens, though no particular one is conspicuous by its individuality.

The Turks, moreover, have wonderful places to tell of, and the advanced state of civilisation enjoyed under the rule of the Sultan Bayezid II., Tamerlane’s great opponent, may be gauged by what we hear of the erection of a madhouse at Adrianople. In the midst of a garden, or paradise, the historian tells us, there was a very lofty and solid domed building, the top open like the dressing-room of a bath-house. Under the open roof was a cistern with streams and fountains splashing. Under the dome were winter 2nd summer apartments, eight of each, and the winter ones seem to have been at the top. Their windows look alternately towards the cistern and towards the garden. The summer rooms were open, with marble walls on three sides. The garden had long avenues of roses, vines, and fruit-trees, with many fountains, and in spring an abundance of flowers—jonquils, Greek musk, narcissus, wallflower, pinks, basil, tulips, hyacinths, and others. These flowers were especially valued for their fragrance, a healing property in sickness, particularly love-sickness.

A time of fine flowering came to Persia itself after many storms had been weathered, when in the sixteenth century the whole kingdom was united in the Sufi Dynasty. We have reached a time when our hunger need no longer be appeased with vague if boastful accounts. At this period Persia was much admired and much visited, and the wonders of the buildings were not only written about by travellers but actually surveyed, and thereby a great deal has been saved for our inspection which must otherwise have been lost for ever. This period of the final greatness of Persia brings to an end our inquiry into the story of West Asian gardens. The greatest among the rulers, Shah Abbas the Great, who reigned from 1587 to 1629, removed his residence to Isfahan (Fig. 114).

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He gave the town its first form, now much blurred. The chief thing in the town (and everything else was grouped round it) was called the Maidan, and it clearly shows how firmly established was this playing-ground, even if it had never been converted into the town market-place. It is rectangular, 386 by 140 metres, with avenues round, and an encircling ring of a two-storied colonnade. The lower floor was used for magazines, and the upper as open boxes for looking on at games and feasts in the square. On the west, Abbas made the great street called the Tshehar-Bagh, the “ Street of the Four Gardens” (Fig. 114 and Fig. 115), 
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more than three kilometres long, and crossed by a bridge of two stories. The Street mounts up by low wide terraces, with a canal in the middle, which on the level of each terrace widens into a cistern, Chardin, the French traveller of the seventeenth century, describes the whole place minutely: the cisterns and the canal are bordered with stone paving, so wide that two men could ride side by side. The tanks are of different sizes and shapes, but each has its own spring, and the water falls in cascades from terrace to terrace, giving a succession of pictures for anyone who is walking up. At each end of the avenue there are two pavilions put crossways to the street to form its end. Similar ones serve as entrance gates to the gardens, which lie along the sides of the street. Each of these gardens has a second pavilion in the middle, nearly all gilded over, and of the same size, though of different shapes. " Between the Maidan and the Tshehar-Bagh is the wide square of the palace precincts, embracing various pavilions with gardens round them, among which the most noteworthy is the Tshihil-sutun with its forty pillars (Fig. 116). 

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The original building was raised anew by Abbas the Great after a fire at the end of the seventeenth century. But the garden kept to its old ground-plan: inside a rectangular wall stands the pavilion, almost in the middle; at its narrow side in front is a fore-hall with a heavy wooden roof supported on three rows of pillars, six to a row.” A narrow canal flows round the whole of the pavilion, cutting it at both ends; issuing from the terrace of buildings, a very wide canal passes through the whole garden, which is mapped out in regular beds, with avenues between. One of the rooms inside has an alcove adorned with decorations that recall the Byzantine Golden Triclinium. “ Over the whole field of ornamentation there is a smooth raised surface, kept in place by strongly-rooted trees, on which are leaves and bunches of flowers. In the branches sit bright birds of many colours and curious appearance.” Very likely most of the pavilions were the same.

Chardin also describes the palace precincts outside the town, the pavilions, and the great quantity of water, saying that “ so much water flowing in these grand palaces makes one feel it is fairyland.” The gardens are arranged in long avenues, and have beds filled with flowers. He considers an eight-sided pavilion of two stories very wonderful, for water falls down from it over the terraces, “ and if one stretches a hand out of the window, it is at once covered with water.” The pavilion of the caliph at Toledo was much the same as this.

The large rectangular water cisterns on whose glittering mirrors the Persian looked down with such delight, were called by him Deriatcheh, that is, little sea.

Fortunately there has been preserved, far from the town, still recognisable in its ruins, the site of a real villa urbana. This is at Ashraf, a few kilometres from Astrabad, on the slope of the Elbruz mountains, and dating from the time of Abbas the Great. "There are seven perfectly regular, rectangular gardens, not arranged to correspond to one another according to any main design, but simply placed side by side as would be most convenient on the land they occupied.” So does Sarre describe this place (Fig. 117),

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and the travellers of the seventeenth century have complained, just as he did, of the want of unity in the plan, and this without reflecting that it was the late Italian Renaissance which first conceived the notion of that unity which they desire here.

As always in the East, these Persian gardens are separately walled in, each with its chief buildings arranged as terraces, dropping towards the north and north-west. Through a large fore-court one arrives at the head garden, called Bagh-i-Shah, the Shah’s garden. This is the largest, just short of 450 by 200 metres, and it rises in ten terraces. A wide canal between walls cuts through from one terrace to another, falling down the middle in cascades, and streaming through the pavilion (Fig. 118) which overlooks the open pillared

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hail on the fifth terrace, On this, wider than the others, the canal broadens out into a rectangular pond (Fig. 119), 
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enclosed by four flower-beds, with an arm of the canal separating them crosswise. Most of the other gardens are laid out in the same way, including the one at the top with its domed pavilion, and the Bagh-i-Sahib-Zeman, ¡.e. the “ Garden of the Lord of Age,” whose grand pavilion is built like a palace. The harem has its own “ Home Garden,” with an unusually high wall round it. Further there are high terraces to the east of the main garden, approachable from this place by steps, and serving as a temporary abode or reception-rooms for the ladies. One striking ornament of this garden—which has now become a sort of romantic overgrown wilderness —is still to be seen in the cypresses, bordering the pond and canals with their magnificent old trunks.

The ancient garden traditions of Asia have remained unbroken to this day, and what the Sufi Dynasty did for Ispahan, the shahs of the Kahar Dynasty did for Shiraz, when at the end of the eighteenth century they moved their residence to its fortunate fields. Its gardens of great beauty earned incomparable fame from the earliest times, and even now all travellers who make the difficult journey hither from the north take great delight in them. Shiraz seems to be much the same even in a period of revival: not only is the grave of the poet Firdousi cared for—it was neglected for a long time—but late years have seen the restoration of the wonderful steep terrace-gardens, which the first shah of the Kahars, Agha Mohamed, set up about the year 1789 m place of an older garden. This bears the significant name Bagh-i-Takht, the “ Garden of the Throne,” or the “ Throne of the Kahar-Shah.” In many narrow terraces, getting smaller as they ascend, it mounts to a wide pond, whose enclosing walls are faced with marble, and adorned with alternate pillars and arches; there are covered stairs within the walls that have no architectural connection, and there is a group of pavilions at the top; in the restoration there is also a corner pavilion on the lowest terrace. Each of these was, no doubt, planted with trees and flower-beds, and outside them is a high garden behind the pavilion on the side of the mountain.

The picture of the restored place (see Fig. 33, Chapter 2,) gives a better impression of the garden than the later one. It was described by Jackson in 1906 as having terrace above terrace, fountains, canal, a stream flowing in cascades over marble slabs into cisterns edged with stone, walls to enclose the watercourses, cypresses and orange-trees by the side of the paths. The similarity of the whole scheme to the hanging gardens described by Diodorus has been observed already, although this garden leans slightly towards the steep hill on one side, and so loses something in symmetry of design. The gardens on the plain show, however, the simple lines that are familiar from earlier times; no garden is without a canal cutting through its middle (Fig. 120)  or small bright cascades inter rupted by basins ; very often there are cypresses in avenues, with simple beds between.

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 In the axial line the pavilion generally starts with an open pillared hall or veranda, very often with a fountain basin on it. And in Persia, wherever fertilising water is found, there appears an oasis with its fine gardens, such as Fin-nahë at Kashan, where the springs come down from the neighbouring hills (Fig. 121).

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Though flowers and many kinds of trees and shrubs have in the course of centuries given a different aspect to these gardens of Western Asia, there is but little change in the general scheme of the picture. The civilisation of other races seems only like a new graft on an old stem, and the scion has grown in obedience to the impulse communicated by the old sap.

An entirely different picture opens before us when we now turn our eyes to the West. The old civilised nations were far more fundamentally demolished by German hordes than ever before by Asiatic marauders. Yet one advantage has been gained from this utter destruction—the roots of the new development are more open to investigation, in so far as they draw their nourishment from ground that had been fertilised by the valuable legacies of former civilisations. The awakening of the new world was now in the hands of a religion likewise new, in which lay the seeds, still unseen, of all that culture which the lands of the West were to unfold. Christian monks were destined to prove the guardians and promoters of the art of gardening in the West.