“Oases were the first gardens. They are the sign and the memory of these epics, of the difficult process of adaptation and also of the catastrophes, of the fall and the coveted rebirth. Precisely for this reason the garden is so present in imagination and poetry. From the great Persian literature, to the Stories of the Thousand and One Nights, to Mughal miniatures, all Arab-Muslim culture, whether lyrical, scientific or mystical, is permeated”1
The clock goes back in time, so much as to lose sense and enter the myth.
The garden is already there, dozing and sprouting, the water gurgling as it appears, as if by magic, in the middle of the desert.
A mirage, a vision, protected and concluded simply inside four walls.
Already in such an ancient past, the garden had an incomparable symbolic and seductive significance.
It is a unique place, which lives between magic, seduction and wonder.
An aesthetic of a world far from ours, immersed in fairy tales and exoticism, “where everything is hyperbolic and precious“2.
It comes from poetry and mythology, not the opposite, and reproduces an archetype on earth.
The Persian garden, of which so little remains, but which has left so much, will lay the foundations for the development of all Islamic gardens, sung by poets and represented in the microcosms of the Arab garden lawns, heir to the oasis and bearer of a dream come true.
Who are the Persians?
In 550 BC with the victory over the Medes, Cyrus the Great, of the Achaemenid dynasty, gathered a plethora of clans from the area and, conquering the Babylonian and Lydian kingdoms, created a unified kingdom. The Persian empire was born:
“(…) the deserts of Libya, Egypt and the Anatolian plateau, east to the Indus beyond which lies the Thar desert in Indian Rajastan. To the north it reached the Caucasus Mountains, the Caspian Sea and the Scythia which is the key to the great Uralic steppes, from Mongolia to China with the Tklamacan and Gobi deserts. Scythia, home of great nomads and excellent caravan drivers, includes the deserts of Karakum and Kizilqum between the Amu Darya river (Oxus) and Syr Daya (Issarte), which played a role in history comparable to that of other large rivers, home to the most ancient civilizations such as the Tiger and the Euphrates, the Nile, the Indus and the Yellow River. Extended on the banks are the Khwarezm, famous for its jade and turquoise, the Bactria, place of origin of the camel, and the Sogdia, whose capital is Afrasiab, later called Samarkand. In the most eastern part opens the Fergana valley, where the Chinese placed the mythical seat of the celestial horses, renowned for its saddles and armours.
To the south the empire extends along the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, including Mesopotamia in the western part, where the first cities developed (…)”3
With Darius I, son of Istaspe (522-485 BC), the kingdom reached wealth, prosperity and unheard-of width. There was freedom of religion and a splendid road network.
However, in his massive geographical expansion, the king found himself face to face with the Greeks: Darius was beaten in Marathon and his son Xerxes I, the same who faced Leonidas and his 300 Spartians, was defeated in the battle of Salamis (480 BC).
The Persian empire lasted until the conquest by Alexander the Great.
Stop. Close your eyes and imagine the grandeur of a palace in a world far, far away, enclosed by the mists of myth.
Stop. Imagine the apadāna of the Palace of Darius the Great, the immense hypostyle hall, with a flat roof and gigantic columns with zoomorphic capitals supporting the sky.
The palace challenges the sky and the gods. Power is expressed everywhere, in the sizes, in superhuman measures.
Despite the lack of historical documents, it is possible to define the more or less typical structure of the Persian garden and the cultural substrate on which its symbology germinates.
A definition of extreme value, because it seems that the entire tradition of the Islamic garden develops precisely according to this model and the influences of other cultures, stratified over the centuries and in encounters.
The Persian culture of the garden flourishes and is thus determined under the Achaemenid dynasty.
Descending directly from the oases and with a strong nomadic heritage, this vision of nature and the garden is imbued with a symbolism based on the comparison with the ferocious desert, a place of spirits and demons, of emptiness. This is how the garden is, and symbolizes, the green and fertile space torn from sand and thirst.
The geographical heart of a civilization in harsh climatic conditions: Iran and the deserts, whether the cold ones from Central Asia or the warm ones from Arabia and Sahara. Among arid and semi-arid areas, very little rains, torrid summers and cold winters. Hit by angry winds, the culture of the oasis is forged by the power and arrogance of an aggressive nature, laying the foundations for something that is neither western nor eastern.
And so, in such a landscape, poetry and lyric continually praise the beauty of the gardens. It would be natural to think that poetry followed the garden. Instead, unexpectedly, it is just the opposite: the Persian garden was born trying to make the fabulous and mythical places praised by poets real. The symbolism and the ideas underlying this vision come from an ancient poem that sings the long process of adaptation and work to make the lands fertile.
In a way, the dream is their true origin.
In this perspective, the importance of effective delimitation, of the fence, of such a fragile and unique space is very clear: it seems natural that Xenophon tells us how the word Pairidaeza means, in the first instance, “fence”, but at the same time identifies all the gardens of the Achaemenid rulers.
So the first fundamental element in the model of the Persian garden is the walled perimeter defining and protecting the fertile microcosm.
There are however other features as important as the fence.
The shadow and the water.
The shadow is declined through the love for the rows of plane trees and cypresses and of “sylvan inspiration”, as Grimal defines it: monumental doors and entrances with reception porches, contemplation and representation, together with cryptoporticus and caves. Here the Magi, the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the official Achaemenid religion, often held lessons in a garden, as taught by their prophet
The water is omnipresent, both because of aesthetics and necessity.
Omnipresent for its visual beauty, both firm and clear, and moving in waterfalls and fountains: pipes in the walls, an intricate system of underground canals, water basins and complex mechanisms made it rise to the surface as if by magic. A wonderful example of this incredible underground and water world, which out of nowhere makes lakes appear in the desert, is the city of Sushtar.
Omnipresent for its bubbling song, pleasure for the ears and fresh delicacy. The more or less accentuated differences in level let it flow continuously, so that the “staging of the water” is physically visible in the infinity of basins, distributors, descents and surface channels crossing the pavilions.
Omnipresent because it is a key element for the survival of the dream of the garden itself. That is when the underground space sees the flourishing of underground reservoirs, often also connected to the wind capture and air conditioning towers.
Observation points from above and structures that continuously communicate with the outside.
To maintain this fluid border between inside and outside, structures opening to all four directions become essential, like the pavilions, which in fact are nothing more than tents for more sedentary uses, as the depictions of the gardens testify. The ‘imarat itself consists of a large full-height loggia and is the most important place for the king’s audiences, opening on three sides.
The interior decorations look to the garden and outside, recalling it with plant and animal motifs and with precise references to the meaning of colours and numbers.
The views, together with loggias, verandas, balconies practically everywhere, create elevated points of view.
The Persian garden is a scenic space, but not a perspective one.
The architectural supports – the famous muqqarnas – seem to rest on nothing, but descend from the sky, weightless, while the ability to create semi-open spaces in relation to the prospects of canals and basins often has the king’s architecture and palace as its background.
Finally, the geometry of everything, structured in repetitive flat modules or terraces and rows of trees, together with the leitmotiv par excellence, the quadripartition.
The čahārbāgh: the word means “four lots”, at the centre of which stands the king.
The water divides the sections and at the intersections there is a takht or kursī, that is an esplanade or a terrace. Here, one of the pavilions often stands or a ḥawż opens, that is a pool, in the immense celebration of water.
The quadripartite structure has a specific religious meaning: it symbolically celebrates the foundations of the Zoroastrian religion.
Four is the number of the modular structure and four are the key elements: earth, visible in soil and nourishment, water, expressed in the vegetation, air, developing in the wind and the sky and fire, being basically light and plants.
“it corresponded to a cosmogonic idea of the universe divided into four parts by four large rivers, or in a mental reworking of the imago mundi mazdeo”.4
The Zoroastrian garden is divided into four different houses: the Domain of good thoughts, good words, good actions and infinite light. A structure, therefore, which recalls this archetypal image.
Furthermore the word paradise is already certified in the sacred book of the Zoroastrian religion (1st millennium – 6th century BC) with the meaning of “planting flowers and trees around the building”, while the art of making gardens is a gift existing in the myth of creation. The story, so similar to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, tells of the departure from the garden of the solar divinity Ahrua Mazda, and wanted by the god himself, of a couple of men and the subsequent decision to teach them to make gardens.
Finally, there was a specific and symbolic choice of plants to be included: a “sacred botany, which brought the cultivation of flowers and the floral art to the liturgy.”5
In this perspective, the garden is not only the place of pleasure par excellence, that is “a garden of pleasure” for the importance of the sensation and seductiveness of nature on man, but it also has a religious value.
But that’s not all. The will to manifest the power is added: the garden is also the magic space of the prince, the way to declare his power. By giving shape to a plant world full of sap, the sovereign brings and gives life. Thus in the Achaemenid royal tent, whose quilted brocades of stars were to reproduce the astronomical ceiling, the sovereign sits on the throne like a cosmocrator.
“in every country where he resides, he takes care to have excellent gardens, the so-called paradises, full of every thing beautiful and good that the earth can produce”6 Xenophon tells about Cyrus the Younger.
Pasargardae and Persepolis
The oldest Persian gardens are those of Pasargardae and Persepolis.
The first was the kingdom of Cyrus the Great, buried here in a large stone tomb placed on a high pedestal, still well preserved.
But the example par excellence is the beautiful, and once secret, Persepolis. In fact, it remained unknown to the western world until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 330 BC, who burned it, frightened by the fact that its beauty could survive with greater force than that of the Greek world.
Located at the foot of a steep mountain wall, in the middle of nowhere, born only to “impress subjects and enemies”7, it is created from an artificial stone terrace of 440 x 300 metres – an enormity – carved out of the rock and levelled. The measures of the structures, sphinxes and capitals are impressive. The terrace rises on four levels where the Apadana, the Palace of the Hundred Columns and the Tachana meet.
The staircase leads to the gigantic and wonderful Gate of All Nations.
A wall leans on the rock where the tombs of the kings have been excavated.
A separate underground world consists of wastewater tunnels and a large reservoir. The gardens and waterways marked the progress of the delegates of the other powers, dividing and colouring the gigantic terraces, among pavilions, lotus plants, palms, pines and cypresses. Something unique.
“Persepolis is not a bureaucratic capital, it is an image city made to show; it does not reject with fortifications and walls, it presents itself on a podium; it does not close, it welcomes to celebrate. It is a paradise garden, harmony of the elements, ascent to heaven.“8
In the Persian world there are different words that indicate the garden based on the aspect you want to emphasize or on some differences.
Among the many …
Pairidaeza means exactly “fence”, but as Xenophon tells us it is the same term that was used to define the gardens of the Achaemenid kings.
Cyrus the Great, in Pasargadae, builds a pairidaeza.
Bāgh or “plot of land”. Today it means “orchard”. In the essays of agriculture and gardening and in the foundation poems of the palaces, it indicates the garden together with the royal palace. It is fenced, with geometric tree-lined avenues and water channels, divided into various areas planted with fruit trees.
Būstān or “place of smells”. It is an almost unique word in the poetic language of the Arab writers to indicate a garden inside a courtyard and its water. Today it is the perfume garden in Iran.
More specific words are gulistān/golist i.e. “rose garden”, nakhlistān i.e. “palm grove”, nārinjistāan i.e. “orange grove”, raz or angūristān i.e. “vineyard”.
From the seductive beauty of the Persian tradition, in the Hellenistic world, gardens of experimentation and adaptation of plants and animals were formed, reaching as far as Alexandria in Egypt, which will inherit from čahārbāgh the vision of the garden as a place of contemplation, inspiration and knowledge.
The pleasure garden, with its mystical and aesthetic sensuality, will be the basis of the same Muslim gardens that will expand and tale root everywhere: in the farthest western world, in post-Alexandrian Greece, in the peripatetic teaching of Theophrastus, the creator of botany, in the Roman and Byzantine world.
All the symbolic and seductive scope of a garden of meat, shadow and water took a long time to take root in the eyes of the observers, but once installed, it would never go away.
“It is very likely that Greek travellers, when admiring the gardens of Persia so naively, did not understand their profound meaning. (…)
One cannot help but think of the representation of the Universe, so frequent in Asia, of the division of the Cosmos into four zones by means of four divergent rivers. It is very likely that the Cyrus park expressed in its own way a similar idea: in the centre the King, Lord and Magician, represented on his domain the fertilizing and creative power that presides over Nature”9
1 “Tra Persia e Europa. Struttura e simbolica delle oasi e dei giardini” Pietro Laureano page 143
2 “Il giardino islamico. Architettura, Natura, Paesaggio” by Attilio Petruccioli, page 7
3 “Tra Persia e Europa. Struttura e simbolica delle oasi e dei giardini” Pietro Laureano page 149
4 “Il giardino islamico” Luigi Zangheri, Brunella Lorenzi, Nausikaa M. Rahmati, page 19
6 “Il giardino islamico” Luigi Zangheri, Brunella Lorenzi, Nausikaa M. Rahmati, page 18
7 “Tra Persia e Europa. Struttura e simbolica delle oasi e dei giardini” Pietro Laureano, page 160
8 “L’arte dei giardini. Una breve storia” Pierre Grimal, page 15
“L’arte dei giardini. Una breve storia” Pierre Grimal (Feltrinelli, 1974)
“Il giardino islamico. Architettura, Natura, Paesaggio” by Attilio Petruccioli (Electa, 1994)
“Il giardino islamico” Luigi Zangheri, Brunella Lorenzi, Nausikaa M. Rahmati (Leo S. Olschki, 2006)
“Tra Persia e Europa. Struttura e simbolica delle oasi e dei giardini” Pietro Laureano from “Tra le spade e le alcove Tradizioni e letterature a confronto: dalla origini a Sa‘di e Petrarca” a cura di Carlo Saccone e Nahid Norozi (Centro Essad Bey, 2019)