The Landscape Guide


Persian gardens  [See also Travellers Tales of Persian Gardens and note on Garden of Eden]

The Persian word 'paradise' simply meant a 'walled enclosure'. It may derive from the Avestan roots  pairi (around) and diz (shape). The word Paradise was subsequently used for the Garden of Eden, the abode of God and the place where the virtuous live after death. The dream of a perfect place is very ancient and appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh:

With crystal branches in the golden sands,
In this immortal garden stands the Tree,
With trunk of gold and beautiful to see.

It was thought of as the 'garden of  the gods' and described as a 'paradise'. Earthly gardens were made as representations of  paradise. Water symbolised life, as it was believed to be the source of life. Irrigation canals made cultivation possible. Parts of the Iranian plateau were under cultivation by 3,000 BC. Plants and trees symbolised dieties. Ceramic representations of the world divided into four quarters with a pool of life at the centre date to 4,000 BC.  An  Akkadian king proclaimed himself King of the Four Quarters. The chahar bagh (quadripartite garden, from chahar, four + bagh, garden) idea dates to at least 2000 BC but it is not known when the first gardens were laid out on this pattern. Mehdi Khansari et al suggest they date from Achaemenid times but there is no physical evidence of this. Your editor's guess (equally unsupported) is that the first 'four square' gardens date from over 1,000 years later (600 AD).

The Persians made three types of garden, as did the Egyptians:

  • palace gardens
  • tomb gardens
  • domestic pleasure gardens
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
A reconstruction of Cyrus (or Cambyses) the Great's  palace garden at Pasargadae c550 BC.  The paths are conjuctural. Water channels define the space between two palaces. There are two small pavilions. This is the earliest known remnant of  what became the classical Persian garden. It is likely to have been planted with cypress, pomegranate and cherry. The plan is based on David Stronach's Pasargadae: a report on the excavations, (Oxford, 1978).

The oldest Persian garden of which there are records belonged to Cyrus the Great c546 BC, in his capital, at Pasargadae in the province of  Fars, from which Persia takes its name, to the north of Shiraz. The garden had a geometrical plan and stone watercourses. Cyrus the Great  destroyed the Babylonian empire and established the Achaemenid Empire. It was an empire of great gardeners but it is thought that the gardens were used as places to admire from a raised platform (or window or roof), or to take an occasional walk. Eating and other social activities would take place in the garden pavilions, catching the breeze but protected from the sun. Gardens contained fruit trees and flowers, including the lily and rose. In 330 BC Alexander the Great saw the tomb of Cyrus the Great and recorded that it stood in an irrigated grove of trees.

Chahar Bagh (pronounced' ch-haar-bah') describes the 'four square' plan of a Persian paradise garden. The oldest example of a rectangular canal pattern is at Passargadae. The path shown crossing the canal is however conjectural and the oldest plan of a square divided into quadrants was made some 1,000 years after Passargadae.

Darius I (521-485 BC) built a ceremonial  capital at Persepolis and an administrative capital at Susa. The later was a walled and moated city, a Paridaeza, a city in a garden and a garden city.

When Cyrus the Younger showed his palace garden at Sardis to a Greek in 407 BC, he called it a pairidaeza and explained; 'All these things, Lysander, I measured out and ordered myself, and there are some of them that I even planted myself'. Precise geometrical regularity was the outstanding characteristic of Persian gardens. It was combined with mystical a love of flowers, trees and, above all, water. Water was used in channels and trees were planted in rows. 

Persia was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century and deeply influenced by Islam thereafter. But Islamic gardens were deeply influenced by the Persian tradition of garden making. The Balkuwara Palace (or Bulkawara Palace) in Samara is very much part of the Persian tradition and had a quadripartite garden flanked by pavilions.

See diagram of Paradise garden (though the word 'paradise' was originally used for a hunting park)

Persia was sacked by the Mongols, including Genghis Khan after 1219 and Timur Tamerlane after 1381. The country was ruined and the people massacred. But the Mongols adopted the language and culture of their victims. Timur Tamerlane transported craftsmen to his capital at Samerkand, now in Uzbekistan. A Spanish ambassador, Clavijo,  visited the city in 1403-6 and left a vivid account of its gardens.

Vita Sackville West visited Persia in 1927 contributed a chapter on Persian Gardens to Arberry's The Legacy of Persia in 1953.  She summarised their characteristics as follows :

       All Persian  gardens are walled in. It is part of their character... Sometimes in the past these walls were elaborated with battlements and with round pigeon-towers at the angles...  It would be churlish to complain of monotony in so graceful a sanctuary. But we may safely say that the layout was always more or less the same: the long avenues, the straight walks, the summer-house or pavilion at the end of the walk, the narrow canals running like ribbons over blue tiles, widening out into pools which oddly enough were seldom circular, but more likely to be rectangular, square, octagonal, cross-shaped, or with trilobed or shamrock-like ends. Sometimes these pools were reproduced inside the pavilion itself: a mirror of water beneath a domed roof, fantastically reflecting all the honeycomb elaboration of the ceiling.  pp 267-8

She was unable to resist adding that:

        I remember in particular one such pool with a kind of central throne on which some nineteenth-century Shah might sit, attired in the minimum of clothing, while the ladies of his harem, similarly attired or unattired, slithered down chutes from an upper gallery straight into the embracing arms of their imperial master. pp 269

Vita's sexual romanticising is typical both of  her and of the way in which nineteenth century Europe viewed The East. Nor can one say she was entirely wrong, remembering the erotic scenes depicted in Persian miniatures. Yet Vita gave a better account of the classical role of the Persian garden with the following anecdote and comment:

       At the Rashk-i Bihisht (meaning Envy of Paradise), some two miles out of Shiraz, where he was taken for a picnic by some Persian friends, it was raining, and Browne the Englishman expressed regret that the weather should be so bad, as they sat in a pavilion watching the dripping trees.

‘Bad?’ exclaimed his host. ‘Why, it is beautiful weather! Just the day one would wish: a real spring day.’

There is nothing, he adds, which a Persian enjoys more than to sit sipping his wine from the shelter of a summer-house while he gazes on the falling rain-drops and sniffs up the moist, soft air laden with the grateful scent of the reviving flowers. This little anecdote gives us the whole meaning of his garden to a Persian. It is not a place where he wants to stroll; it is a place where he wants to sit and entertain his friends with conversation, music, philosophical discourse, and poetry; and if he can watch the spring rain pouring down, so much the better, for he knows it will not come again for months and months and months. pp 287

As she says, the Persian garden was essentially  'a place where he wants to sit and entertain his friends with conversation, music, philosophical discourse, and poetry'. This pattern of use is closer to that of a Temple Garden than a Domestic Garden.


Books on Persian Gardens

A J Arberry The Legacy of Persia (Oxford University Press 1953) Chapter 10 'Persian Gardens' (pp 259-291) by Vita Sackville-West.

Elizabeth B Moynihan Paradise as a garden: in Persia and Mughal India (Scolar Press, London, 1980)

Mehdi Khansari, M. Reza Moghtader, Minouch Yavari The Persian garden: echoes of Paradise (Mage Publishers, Washington DC, 1998) This is an excellent book, with specially drawn plans and good photographs - see book jacket below.

Sylvia Crowe and Sheila Haywood The gardens of Mughul India (Thames and Hudson, 1972). See book jacket below.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see