The gardens of Persia

Posted on March 9th, 2011 by Charles Boot

23 April to 6 May 2010; a report by Alix Wilkinson:

The ‘land of roses and nightingales’ has been filled with gardens at least since Cyrus the Great made a garden at Pasargadae in about 550 BC. Here he had a hunting park, at the heart of which was a pleasure garden, surrounded by water channels and small basins, which he could view from pavilions around it. A pool was nearby, and a columned bridge on the axis of the grand gateway. Further north was the citadel. The residential palace has not been located. South of Cyrus’s tomb, another park, which contained a pavilion, has been identified.The excavators of Darius’ Persepolis (515 BC) were not so attuned to garden archaeology, but the surrounding vegetation, of pine and palm trees, is represented on the grand stairways decorated with tribute-bearers.

Many centuries pass, their gardens largely undiscovered by modern explorers. But gardening was not dead. Local dignitaries made gardens in the courtyards of their houses. At Na’in, one such house, dating from 1560, has upper and lower gardens. We saw an orchard of pistachio trees in the upper garden. In the lower, gardening tools from past times were on display.

At the end of the 16th century, in Isfahan, Shah Abbas laid out a vast garden city, beside a new meidan, with gardens at the corners, mosques and an avenue, two miles long, lined with gardens and pavilions, which the shah’s courtiers were ordered to build, along the khiyaban chahar-bagh. It started south of the river with the Shah’s orchard, called the Hezar Jarib, (or Bagh-i-Abbasabad), several times larger than the new meidan, with pigeon towers at its corners. We may have visited one of them.

The Allahverdi Khan bridge links the south and north sides of the river on the route of the khiyaban chahar-bagh. Photo by Alix Wilkinson

The Allahverdi Khan bridge links the south and north sides of the river on the route of the khiyaban chahar-bagh. Photo by Alix Wilkinson

The Allahverdi Khan bridge linked the south and north sides of the river on the route of the khiyaban chahar-bagh.The palace was on the north bank of the river. Little remains from the garden city: only the gateway into it from the meidan, the Ali Kapu, and two garden pavilions, the Chihil Sutun and the Hasht Behesht. Both are close to the meidan. Chihil Sutun is nearer the meidan and the Ali Kapu gateway. This gateway was a royal viewing stand for displays in the meidan, and led into Shah Abbas’s garden city. The Chihil Sutun pavilion (completed 1647) was used for formal entertaining, and reception of foreigners. Europeans are illustrated on the outer walls, and inside, are paintings of the Shah receiving rulers from the east. Nineteenth century paintings record the Shah’s victories.

The Shah receiving rulers from the east. All photos by the author

The Shah receiving rulers from the east, wall painting in the Chihil Sutun pavilion. Photos by Alix Wilkinson

The layout of the garden close to the pavilion has survived: the original garden was seven hectares (just under twenty acres).The columns of the porch reflected in the pool at the front, gave the pavilion the name ‘Forty Columns’. Their bases are rather squat lions, reminiscent of the pottery lion from Susa in the archaeological museum, and possibly a deliberate harking back to ancient emblems. There was another pool at
the back, and a channel of water at the side. In the 17th century the garden was probably planted in the same manner as the courtiers’ gardens: with fruit trees. But it may have been more like the Hezar Jarib which contained many varieties of flowering plants, including lilies, roses, tulips and poppies. The saucy girls in short skirts near the entrance to the garden are from the bases of the columns of a pavilion which has disappeared, called the Sar Pushideh. It was seen by Pascal Coste on his journey through Iran in the mid- nineteenth century.

Hasht Behesht was built by Shah Suleyman in 1684, as a summer residence for some of his favourites, in the Garden of Nightingales. One wall of the Hasht Behesht (Eight Paradises) is parallel with the street now called Chahar Bagh.The building is octagonal in shape, with a pool in the central domed area, and verandahs on each side.The side rooms are small, and decorated with paintings of growing flowering plants, giving the impression of being in an orchard or gardens. Rooms on the second storey have cutouts in the style of the ‘music room’ in the Ali Kapu. Restoration work has brought it back to its Safavid style, with the removal, or suppression, of nineteenth-century, Qajar, additions, and twentieth-century alterations. It is at the centre of a crossing of canals. One of these canals stretches out into a public park which is part of a proposed area of ‘archaeological park’. Mosque gardens were not in evidence, apart from two small courtyards on the south side of the Masjid-i-Imam.

Outside Kashan, in the Bagh-i-Fin, the central pavilion, entrance portal, exterior wall and a small bath-house date from the time of Shahs Abbas I and II, although they were altered by the Qajar Fath Ali Shah.The water in the garden originates in the aquifers of the Karkas mountains to the south, and is carried by an underground aquaduct to a reservoir about 1.5 kilometers from the garden. From there, the water enters the garden where there is now a cafe. Other buildings are of Qajar date.

By the mid-eighteenth century the Zand were the rulers, and in a corner of the Golestan palace is a throne on a terrace, once part of Karim Khan Zand’s palace, probably built in 1759. In Shiraz, the Bagh-i-Dalgoushe pavilion, being restored, has a long, newly tiled canal in front of it. Karim Khan Zand’s reception pavilion is in the Bagh-i-Nazar, now a small garden with a water channel, near the citadel. In Yazd, the Bagh-i Dawlatabad, was built as the residence of the governor, Mohammad Tagi Khan-e Yazdi. and dates from about 1712–50. It has an octagonal pavilion which has been recently restored, and a fine example of a wind tower, which cools the room beneath it. In front of the pavilion is a long canal leading to another pavilion.

And then came the Qajars, whose order to their architects must have been ‘let everything sparkle’! The Golestan palace in Tehran was their official residence.The palace was rebuilt in its present style in 1865, but two areas remain from the time of Fath Ali Shah (1797–1834), one of which, the audience chamber contains his extraordinary marble throne, supported by comely maidens and long-toothed demons. In front of the throne hall was a pool and a large garden.

Naranjestan-i Qavam, Shiraz: the Qavam orange grove, a nineteenth-century garden with a central canal, its length interrupted by various shaped pools, the two storey house and terrace at the far end. Photo by Erica Huningher

Naranjestan-i Qavam, Shiraz: the Qavam orange grove, a nineteenth-century garden with a central canal, its length interrupted by various shaped pools, the two storey house and terrace at the far end. Photo by Erica Huningher

Houses and pavilions from the Qajar period survive in various parts of the country. Two houses in Shiraz date from about 1875: the Naranjestan and the Bagh-i-Eram, the garden of which is now the botanical garden of the University. Their facades are decorated with brightly coloured tiles, and inside, the walls and ceilings are decorated with glass inlaid into stucco patterns. The house in Yazd, in which the Water Museum has been created, dates from 1891. Khaneh Lariha in Yazd, with a double divan over a pool in the centre of a courtyard, is also Qajar .

Khaneh Lariha in Yazd, with a double divan over a pool in the centre of a courtyard. Photo by Alix Wilkinson

Khaneh Lariha in Yazd, with a double divan over a pool in the centre of a courtyard. Photo by Alix Wilkinson

The houses of two nineteenth-century merchants in Kashan feature courtyards with pools and elaborate stucco decoration. Judging from the paintings on the tiles decorating many of the rooms in the Tabatabai and Borujerdi houses, the owners liked to go hunting.

During the twentieth century shrines to two medieval poets, Hafiz and Saadi, were made in their home town of Shiraz. Both shrines are popular with the locals, not only on account of their spacious gardens, but also the mystical qualities attributed to the tomb-stones.

What impression do we get of Persian gardens? Of course, their main purpose was growing fruit and other neccessities, but Pleasure with a capital P was indicated by the paintings on the walls: a lot of ‘flasks of wine and thou’ were in evidence. The gardens were also for Display, to impress foreigners, and also locals, of the power of the ruler, who could command such space and luxury. The gardens brought economic benefit to the rulers, attracting trade, and the taxes which could be levied on merchants bringing their goods to prosperous centres. But the gardens which have survived were not the exclusive property of the rulers: local worthies enjoyed the same delights as the rulers in the more restricted space of their own gardens and courtyards.


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