The Landscape Guide

Persian Gardens

The inheritors of Mesopotamian civilisation, the Medes and Persians, continued to develop the garden, like everything else, on similar lines. They brought with them their love and their veneration for trees. In their religion the cult of trees plays an important part, and with them, as with the Assyrians, the symbol of eternal life was a tree with a stream at its roots. Another object of veneration was the sacred miracle tree, which within itself contained the seeds of all. Among the Persians tree-planting was a sacred occupation, and, as Strabo says, was part of their education: boys received instruction in this art in the evenings. And so it came about that this reverence was seated deep in the souls of even the lowest stratum of the people, the common soldiers.

A story is told by Plutarch of Artaxerxes, on his campaign against the Cadusii, once halting in a barren treeless plain close to a royal estate, where there were gardens, very extensive and well kept. 

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As it was mid-winter, and terribly cold, the king gave per mission for the soldiers to cut down wood from the park, and not even to spare the best trees, cedars or cypresses. But the soldiers could not make up their minds to fell trees the size and beauty of which they admired so much. Thereupon the king himself seized an axe, and began to cut down the tree that he thought the largest and loveliest, and then the soldiers were no longer afraid to fell the trunks they needed, and to kindle fires there with so that they might endure the cold.

What true reverence and awe for trees on the part of a whole army speaks to us in this simple Greek story! It indicates, too, the size and extent of a park which could thus receive great bodies of troops and accommodate them for a night. Moreover, we here have no exception; on the contrary, we continually hear of the mustering of armies in parks, where in all probability the necessary protection and shade are both supplied. In the same way the younger Cyrus owned a great park at Celaenae, which extended above the town on both banks of the Maeander, and there he used to hunt on horseback for the sake of exercise. The place was so full of wild creatures, and so large, that he was able to hold his review there of the 130,000 Greeks. Great public festivities were also held by the kings in the same parks. We read in the Book of Esther how King Ahasuerus kept a great feast in the garden of his palace for the nobles and for all the people, and that it lasted 180 days.

In countries such as these, where the same manners and customs may last for thousands of years, the old parks even now maintain their size and importance. As recently as 1908 the Shah of Persia mustered troops in his park near Teheran against the revolutionaries, just as Artaxerxes and Cyrus had done before him. In a castle that was built for pleasure in the middle of a great park, the insurrectionary parliament passed the day and held their tumultuous meetings.

The joy and pride that the Persians felt for their parks, they took for granted in other nations. When the satrap Tissaphernes wanted to pay special honour to Alcibiades, he bestowed his friend’s name on a park of royal splendour, which he had set out with fountains and beautiful lawns. All the races oppressed by Persian tyrants knew very well that, when a rebellion was at hand, they could not do a greater hurt or better express their desire for revenge than by laying waste his park. The Phoenicians began their hostile attack (which proved fatal to themselves) on the Persian oppressor by laying waste the park that the Persian king had made for a retreat at Sidon, and cutting down its trees.

The Greeks found fine parks all over Media and Persia, and their size and beauty gave them such a romantic appearance that there was a fancy for saying they had been founded by Semiramis. One of these was the great park in the Valley of Baghistan, under the rocky wall adorned with inscriptions about Darius; and again another park in Chaucon round a cliff, on which stood a pleasure-castle so high up that it commanded a view of the whole country round. To the mind of the owners these parks were so distinctly the leading feature that the house proper, or palace, faded before them.

Xenophon in his progress through Asia saw many of these, and admired them greatly. “Everywhere,” he makes Socrates say to his pupils, “the Persian king is zealously cared for, so that he may find gardens wherever he goes; their name is Paradise, and they are full of all things fair and good that the earth can bring forth. It is here that he spends the greatest part of his time, except when the season forbids.” Xenophon is the first writer to use the appellation “paradise” in a Greek narrative in the sense of a Persian garden, and in the Persian inscriptions the word does not appear, but only in the Avesta in the form Pairadaeza. In Hellenistic times the Greek word also appears in the Bible.

To Xenophon also we owe the best account of the absolutely regular arrangement of the parks in the Orient. In a further conversation Socrates says that, when Lysander brought gifts from the allies, Cyrus himself showed him the paradise of his palace at Sardis. Lysander marvelled at the beauty of the trees, at the evenness of their plantation, at the regular rows, at the neat way the corners were made, at the prettiness of it all, and moreover at the many sweet odours which followed their footsteps. “All these things,” he said, "do I admire; I admire the beauty of the whole, but far more, 0 Cyrus, do I praise the mind that has designed and ordered it.” Cyrus was much flattered by his praise, and informed Lysander that he himself had been the only artist, and had even planted some of the trees with his own hand. This story becomes all the more vivid, if we bear in mind that as part of their education the young boys were instructed in horticulture, being told off in line, and headed by some royal prince or satrap.

We find from all accounts and from monuments also that these paradises were first and foremost hunting-parks, with fruit-trees grown for food, just as in the Babylonian-Assyrian sites. There is one rock-crystal, very finely cut, which represents King Darius in a grove of palms where he is hunting, the trees being made all exactly alike, as in the Assyrian carvings (Fig. 39). The Persians were also familiar with the chase in the open country. A grand hunting-ground was given to the young Cyrus by his grandfather, in the hope that it would keep him at home, but he despised it, and, fired with longing, summoned his companions and went off, for in this park there were so many animals that he felt as though he was only shooting captive creatures.

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Just as in the case of the Assyrians, monuments are wanting by which to judge the garden, which perhaps formed the part immediately adjoining the house. The mighty ruins of the palaces, built in the age of Darius in the very heart of the nation at Persepolis, certainly cry aloud for impressive garden surroundings; but when excavations were being made, the question of gardens was carelessly ignored, though the palaces were raised above three immense terraces. A careful eye can detect a certain intention in the large open stairway that leads to the first terrace, and then (turning at right angles) to the second. Still, the separate palaces are scattered apparently according to no rule, so that it is not an easy matter to reconstruct (as in a measure it was possible to do in the Egyptian temple at Deir-el-Bakhari) the great regular garden-terraces. But in any case the terraces with large garden sites were indubitably here.
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The approaches in Egyptian temples cut through the walls in a very gradual sloping path, but here—and in antiquity this example is of some importance—there is a great open stairway bordered by high walls. The decoration of the steps themselves shows that we may assume regular garden sites both at the side and above; on the uppermost tier there is a strip of earth with cypresses rising at regular intervals (Fig. 40), so that we may imagine the same thing in front as well. It is only at a much later time that we can get a real view of the evolution of the Persian garden, when poetry is able to tell us of the wonderful love felt by this people for their flowers and their rose-gardens.

The groves about their tombs were very important to the ancient Persians, The grave of Cyrus was enclosed by a grove, and his son Cambyses entrusted the care of it as a hereditary office to a family of Magi; when Alexander the Great saw it, it had grown high but had been neglected. The spot is now identified, and is an erection similar to a temple, raised very high on steps, in the neighbourhood of Pasargadae (Fig. 41). Herodotus gives an account of the tomb of Alyattes, the father of Croesus, saying that it is the greatest in the world with the exception of Egyptian and Babylonian buildings; but as he gives the circumference as 6 stadia, 2 plethra, that is about 1.1 kilometres, he must be including the whole estate with a large park on it, and this is further suggested by the presence of the lake that is near the monument, called the lake of Gyges, and supposed to be inexhaustible, The tomb had a foundation of freestone blocks piled up with earth - a structure which by analogy with Roman custom would mean plantation.

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The successors of Cyrus, the Achaemenides, are buried in strong rock-tombs near Persepolis, where they lived, and it is only in modern days that we have been able to see the tombs with our own eyes. The graves of Hafiz and Saadi, the two great poets of the Middle Ages, are at Shiraz, the latter alone in a valley. Within the marble enclosure stands the cenotaph in the middle of a garden of cypresses, poplars, flowering shrubs, and rose trees (Fig. 42). The grave of Hafiz, nearer to the city, is still a favourite retreat for the townsmen, and the cheerful poet does not rest there alone even in death, for a number of other graves are within the precincts, and it is considered a great honour to find one’s resting-place there.
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see



Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Pasargadae, plan based on archaeological evidence. This is
 the earliest example of the quadripartite plan. See more details
on CD