The Perso-Islamic Garden: a reclassification of Iranian Garden Design after the Arab Invasion
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The Perso-Islamic Garden: A Reclassification of Iranian Garden Design after the Arab Invasion
Senior Thesis Completed
In Fulfillment of
The Honors Program in Art History
April 11, 2014
Table of Contents
Art history is, in part, a discipline of classification. Scholars are only able to comprehend
the nebulous, never ending undulations of style and influence by breaking the continuous flow of
time and talent into periods, movements, or other classifications. Some are more specific than
others, but often these names (Baroque, Surrealism, Post-Modernism) cause scholars difficulty
due to their overuse or their vague nature. One such classification, Islamic, is particularly
problematic when one considers all that it is used to describe. Any work, from the mid-seventh
century to the present day and located in any one of dozens of countries can have this
classification. The widespread use of the “Islamic” classification in regards to art becomes
particularly problematic when certain countries have their own traditions which, despite the
legitimate influence of Islam, have a strong cultural presence. Iran’s thousands of years of
cultural history prior to the introduction of Islam, for example, have in some ways been eclipsed
by emphasis on the Islamic ideology brought by the Arabs into the region.
It is unusual, if not impossible, to encounter more than a handful of books or articles
about Iranian art in Western scholarship. There are, however, hundreds of publications dealing
with Islamic art, which list the arts of Iran as a subcategory. These works begin with descriptions
of Islam, its history and symbolism, and then take a tour of the art of Muslim countries, including
Iran. It is uncommon, today, then, to hear about “Iranian art” as a field; most exhibitions title
works from Iran as “Islamic”, displaying them with the works of other Middle Eastern countries,
and effectively identifying the works as “Islamic” first before specifying their Iranian origin.
literature this phenomenon is repeated, for example, in survey books that place Iranian works
Any museum or gallery can be used as an example here, but perhaps the most obvious use of this generalization
is at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.
into the “Islamic Art” section, even when the works themselves are not directly influenced by
the Middle East, and it will be argued here that it is insufficient and moreover misleading in
many cases, particularly in that of the Iranian garden.
Similar to the aforementioned arts of Iran, gardens in Iran are commonly classified as
The classification stems from the view that they reflect the tenets of Islam in
their design and are imbued with Islamic symbolism. In books detailing the gardens of Islam,
such as Fairchild Ruggles’ Islamic Gardens and Landscapes (2008), gardens in Grenada, Agra,
and Isfahan are all listed as equally “Islamic” in origin and execution.
While these cities were
all once under the rule of Islamic civilizations and their gardens were built by Muslims, it is my
contention that it is remiss to group them together in this way under the banner of Islam. Of the
three cities mentioned, as this paper will discuss, only Grenada’s gardens appear largely
In Emma Clark’s The Art of the Islamic Garden (2011), Clark groups Iranian gardens
together with gardens in Morocco, Syria, India and Spain without addressing regional or cultural
Though Penelope Hobhouse devotes an entire book to distinctly Persian gardens, in
her earlier work The Story of Gardening (2001), she introduces the gardens of the Alhambra
Fred Kleiner, Gardner’s Art through the Ages (Wadsworth, BA: Cengage Learning, 2008), 153.
Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden (Wiltshire, England: The Crowood Press Ltd., 2011). ; D. Fairchild
Ruggles, Islamic Gardens and Landscapes (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). ; Luigi
Zangheri, Il Giardino Islamico, translation from Italian to Farsi by Majid Rasekhi and Farhad Tehrani (Tehran, Iran:
Cultural Research Bureau, 2006).
Even then, as this paper will posit, there remain elements that don’t appear to be derived from Islam.
alongside those of Isfahan.
It will be the aim of this paper to present such comparisons as
The generalized use of the term “Islamic” is not unique to Western scholarship. Though
less common, books classifying Iranian gardens as Islamic can also be found in Iran. Azadeh
Shahcheranghi focuses on the Islamic symbolism of gardens in the Middle East and especially
However, for every one of these works, there are several that introduce Iranian gardens as
their own field. For example, this can be evidenced in Gholam Reza Naima’s Iranian Gardens
(2011), Mehdi Khansari, Mohammad Moghtader and Menush Yavari’s Iranian Gardens: A
reflection of Paradise (2004), and Faryar Javahiran’s Iranian Gardens: Ancient Philosophy, New
These works focus on the gardens of Iran not as simply a product of
Islamic ideology, but rather as an ancient tradition continuing to the present day.
In contrast to
Western scholarship, they put relatively little emphasis on the Islamic influence present in the
gardens, effectively opposing the Western view.
One can perhaps account for this difference in
scholarship by arguing that Iranians are naturally more likely to treat their country’s gardens as
an independent subject due to national bias and more readily available resources on the subject.
However, one might also say that the treatment of Iranian gardens as an independent subject, free
Penelope Hobhouse, The Story of Gardening (New York, NY: Dorling Kindersley Publishers Ltd., 2001), 57.
Though Hobhouse does, in her subsequent book The Gardens of Persia, examine Iranian gardens much more
closely, even referencing ancient Iran as a potential influence for Iranian gardens in the Medieval Islamic period.
Azadeh Shahcheraghi, Paradigms of Paradise, 3
edition (Tehran, Iran: Jahad Daneshgahi, 2012) 1-10.
Gholam Reza Naima, Iranian Gardens (Tehran, Iran: Payam Publishing, 2011), 168-9. Medi Khansari, Mohammad
Reza Moghtader, Menush Yavari, Iranian Gardens: A Reflection of Paradise (Tehran, Iran: Hemayesh Int’l, 2004).
Faryar Javahiran, Iranian Gardens: Ancient Philosophy, New Perspectives (Tehran, Iran: The Museum of
Contemporary Iranian Art, 2004), 16.
These works provide the first steps toward tracing the ancient origins of the Iranian garden by mentioning pre-
Islamic gardens and offering potential cultural, rather than Islamic, interpretations for later gardens. This paper
differs by providing, with specific examples, several components that are not only inconsistent with Islamic
thought, but also clearly linked to pre-Islamic practices. Certain motifs are explored and revisited over the course
of millennia of history, supporting the argument for the strength of their pre-Islamic character.
There are, of course, exceptions to this. Penelope Hobhouse’s The Gardens of Persia adopts a view which in
many ways reflects that of Iranian scholars, though it does not reach the same level of detailed analysis.
of the overarching label of “Islamic” gardens, indicates that Iranians acknowledge distinctions
between gardens in Iran and the rest of the Islamic world.
Part of the difference between Iranian and Islamic gardens might be related to the
theology that predates Islam in the region. Most Western scholars discussing the Iranian
gardening tradition do not mention Zoroastrianism, the faith tradition that was prevalent in Iran
for millennia before the Arab Invasion introduced Islam. Eastern scholars occasionally point to
Zoroastrian elements in gardens, though do not make any claims about its wider role in the
Iranian gardening tradition. This paper will use Zoroastrianism’s presence in ancient Iran right
up until the coming of Islam to present certain iconographical motifs which are found even after
the fall of the Zoroastrian empires.
If one examines both western and eastern scholarship on this matter, while also visiting
the gardens of Iran, and considering the ancient faith tradition of the region, the widely argued
position that Iranian gardens are simply emblematic of Islamic gardens comes into question.
While scholars such as Ruggles, Clark, and Porter explain the Iranian garden as a manifestation
of Islamic ideology, I intend to argue the opposite. It is my contention that the gardens in Iran
possess certain features that, while commonly attributed to Islamic origins, actually originated
long before the Arab invasion and the introduction of Islam to the area. Therefore, I will argue
that many garden characteristics that are widely believed to reflect Islamic symbolism actually
predate Islam and the Islamic significance they are considered to be imbued with was assigned to
them later. I will contend that Muslims, finding the gardens in Iran to reflect in many ways their
conception of Paradise, assimilated the past traditions into their own gardens but assigned it new
significance. Though this Islamic significance was not present when the gardens in Iran
originated, it is now a part of the gardens’ identity, and therefore should not be dismissed. It is
for these reasons that I wish to introduce the term “Perso-Islamic” to describe the gardens in
Iran, in acknowledgement of their ancient Persian origins as well as their, albeit later, Islamic
symbolism. The idea of a Perso-Islamic hybrid represents a break from previous scholarship,
which, for the most part, either labels the gardens as Islamic or Persian without accounting for
the duality of their nature.
The purpose of this paper, then, is to suggest the ways in which the
Islamic garden in Iran appropriated the forms of ancient gardens without preserving their original
pre-Islamic content. The tradition of hybridity continues to the present day, and its perpetual
existence will be used as further evidence for the strength of its ancient origins. The following
discussion is divided into three sections. The first will begin by introducing the pre-Islamic
Iranian gardening tradition in order to establish a clear picture of the elements of Iranian gardens
that can be considered purely Iranian. I will then, in the second section, examine the Arab
Invasion and the reaction of the Muslim Arabs to the Iranian gardening tradition, appropriating
certain forms but assigning them new theological meaning. Finally, in the third section, I will
examine gardens in Iran from the Safavid period to the present day and suggest how I believe
those gardens should be described as “Perso-Islamic”.
It is important to note here, that the purpose of this paper is not to completely reject Islamic influence in the
Iranian gardening tradition. Rather, it is to acknowledge a dual nature, though emphasis has been placed on the
Iranian or Persian elements as, up until this point, they have been largely overlooked. Since most scholarship
already acknowledges the Islamic elements of the gardens, the Persian elements are emphasized here to establish
the concept of hybridity.
Iran’s history is a long and turbulent one. The region has endured numerous invasions,
wars and revolutions. Yet its starting point, the beginning of Iranian civilization, was a time of
prosperity, thriving trade, and stable dynastic rule. The “Perso” prefix of “Perso-Islamic”
originates here, and an understanding of the ancient empires of Iran is the foundation upon which
the remainder of this paper is built. Exploring this period’s gardens necessitates analyzing its
governance, religion, and values to arrive at a true understanding of the meaning behind the ruins
it left behind.
While most Western civilizations have histories that can only be traced back one or two
thousand years, the region known today as “Iran” has several thousand years of traceable history.
From the Elamites (2700 BCE) to the Sassanians (651 CE), Iran was home to several flourishing
pre-Islamic civilizations. In the tenth century BCE, Persia was a part of the Mede empire, until
one of its kings married a Median princess who gave birth to Cyrus II (the Great), one of the
most famous Iranians in history. He eventually joined the two kingdoms of the Persians and the
Medes and founded the Achaemenid Empire, becoming “great king, king of kings, king of the
strength of his lineage from previous kings like the legendary Achaemenes.
or Persians, emerged in Fars (in south eastern Iran) under the rule of Cyrus in 700 BCE and
allied with the neighboring civilization, the Elamites, in 670 BCE. During his reign, Cyrus
conquered several kingdoms, including those of the Lydians and Babylonians, expanding the
The title of “shahanshah” or “king of kings” applied to the earliest Achaemenid kings, but also to any Persian
King from that point up to the last king of Iran, Reza Pahlavi. The importance of lineage in Persian society evolved
from a fixation with history, and a desire to connect with past eras.
Elton Daniel, The History of Iran (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 36-38. The emphasis on royal genealogy
is pivotal in the Iranian concept of monarchy.
empire significantly. He allowed his new subjects to worship their own gods (though
Zoroastrianism was the official religion of the empire), and ruled them according to their
Cyrus was the first truly “great” Iranian ruler; his policies won him the favor of his
subjects, and set the precedent for the long procession of powerful monarchs in Iran. Cyrus’
empire, that of the Achaemenids (or Persians), is considered the apogee of ancient Iran, and it is
from this era that the word “Persian” derives.
Cyrus is a widely known historical figure, yet few realize that he made an impact on
more than just the realm of politics and trade. He is credited, based on the limited information we
have today, with building the first major imperial garden in Iran. This garden was located in the
southern region of the Iranian plateau, an area known today as Fars. It was first described
twenty-five hundred years ago by visitors to the region, such as the historian, Xenophon and the
Spartan admiral, Lysander, and the remains of its foundations and hardscapes can still be seen
Under the Achaemenid Emperor Cyrus, this garden was built on the site of the royal
palaces at Pasargadae.
Today, the garden is little more than a dry patch of earth, but the
sophisticated irrigation system that made its existence possible in the harsh heat of the desert is
still largely intact (Fig. 1). It is from these pieces of rock, arranged in straight canals around the
perimeter of the rectangular plot of land and through the center of the long rectangle that one
finds the first solid evidence of the Iranian garden’s origins.
plain of the desert with balconies from which the ruler could survey the rest of the complex, and
Gene Garthwaite, The Persians (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 60.
Yves Porter, Palaces and Gardens of Persia (Paris, France: Flammarion, 2003), 79.
Gholam Reza Naima, Iranian Gardens (Tehran, Iran: Payam Publishing, 2011), 5.
Penelope Hobhouse, Gardens of Persia (New York, NY: Kales Press, 2004), 7.
most importantly for this discussion, his garden. The second story terrace of his palace allowed
Cyrus an aerial view of his entire garden. At first, the terrace appears to be an insignificant detail
and perhaps a logical design decision. However, in the larger context of the gardening tradition
in Iran, the terrace marks the early development of an important architectural practice which I
will argue carries a great deal of symbolism. Before examining the possible significance of the
aerial view, however, it is important to note other instances during this period when the aerial
perspective was replicated.
Cyrus’s legacy was continued in 522 BCE by Darius, an equally revered ruler, who
spread his reign from Egypt to India, conquering a large portion of the known world at the time.
Darius is significant to this discussion because he built ancient Iran’s most famous and loftiest
monument, in many ways taking Cyrus’ aerial view, replicating it, and magnifying it.
built a great terrace and a series of monumental palaces to celebrate and illustrate his military
successes and acquisitions. He built this testament to his own splendor at Persepolis, a site
chosen by Cyrus which was only a hundred kilometers from Pasargadae. This site, today known
by Iranians as Takht-I Jamshid, is one of Iran’s oldest remaining monuments. It stands in ruins,
but one may still ascend the stairs of the raised terrace and view twenty-foot columns, reliefs,
and crumbling gateways (Fig. 2). The most striking aspect of the complex is its lofty terrace.
The entire complex rises high above the surrounding area, well over twenty feet in the
air, potentially symbolizing Darius and his successors’ might and omnipotence. The palaces were
easily defended from such heights, and all those who approached were made to ascend a double-
Darius’s son, Xerxes describes his father’s military successes on a tablet found in one of his palaces, “These are
the Countries of which I was king outside Persia…: Media, Elam, Aracchosia, Armenia, Drangiana, Parthia, Aria,
Bactria, Sogdiana, Chorasmia, Babylonia, Assyria ….Libyans, Carians, and Nubians.” Stone tablet, 5
Iranian Museum of Antiquities, Tehran, Iran.
tiered stairway with shallow stairs, forcing a leisurely and regal pace. Approaching Persepolis
today, the awe and trepidation felt by the subjects of the Achaemenid kings’ rule can still be felt.
The raised terrace is topped by only a few ruined columns and lintels, but what remains is
enough to suggest the heights to which the grand palaces once rose atop their lofty perch.
Though the complex itself is not a garden, it contained several. The winter palace at Persepolis,
Tachara, included a central garden which Darius viewed from a raised platform much like Cyrus
in his own garden.
The viewing of a garden from above might be regarded as a simple desire to see it in its entirety,
but if one considers the religious and cultural atmosphere of the time, the elevated position from
which gardens were viewed becomes more complex and significant.
Even more importantly, however, the physical hierarchy differentiating ruler from subject
might, it could be argued, mirror a contemporaneous religious tradition. The Achaemenids were
officially Zoroastrians, a faith centered on a primary deity, Ahura Mazda, who ruled over a
pantheon of immortals. Zoroastrianism predates even the ancient Achaemenid Empire by at least
a thousand years, and the common ancient belief was that the king of the Achaemenids served as
Ahura Mazda’s “representative on earth” and was held to great regard in a religious context,
mirroring similar divine rights of kingship in the West.
In fact, the coronation of Achaemenid
kings was considered symbolic of sunrise, linking the king to the divine life giving force of the
Despite the fact that it too is not a garden, Darius’s mausoleum represents the continuation of the same concept.
It, along with subsequent imperial tombs, is set into a cliff face, with the door so high up a smooth wall that it is
inaccessible except with modern scaffolding (Fig. 3). Even in death, the great Acaemenid emperor wished to look
down on his people from above. Hobhouse, 52.
Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians (London, UK: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1979), 58.
The ascension of the king to power, through coronation, was likened to the sun rising in
the sky. As a representative or symbol of the divine, the Achaemenid ruler reflected not only
terrestrial might, but otherworldly power, which was perhaps best expressed by elevating him to
the heavens literally with raised platforms and palaces. The raised position reflects the pre-
Achaemenid compulsion of humanity to consider mountains and pyramids as homes of the
But why, then, did Ahura Mazda’s representative on earth, Cyrus, and later Darius
choose to build a garden in their palace complexes? It is generally agreed that humanity has
always been drawn out of deserts and wastelands into lush fields and oases, as water and fertile
soil are the very basis of human survival. The creation of gardens can be speculated to have been
a result of the desire for an oasis in the harsh, arid Iranian plateau. On the most basic level, Cyrus
undoubtedly built his garden because he wished for a green, lush space to beautify the sandy, dry
palace complex he commissioned. But beyond this basic appreciation for water, shade and fertile
soil I believe there is also a theological explanation for the great lengths Cyrus went to in order
to build his gardens.
From the very earliest periods of human civilization, gardens have been compared to
paradise, and parallels between the garden and a celestial paradise are common in many
Jacques Duchensne-Guillemin, Symbols and Values in Zoroastrianism (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1966),
The desire to survey one’s domain and sit high above the land in a position of exaltation is not unique to Cyrus’
garden or Darius’ palace complex. Since the dawn of civilization, individuals have tried to reach the heavens,
whether by building pyramids, ziggurats or towers. Mountains and volcanoes have for millennia been considered
homes of the gods. On stamps dating to the third millennia BCE from Susa, one can clearly see depictions of
mountains with cypress trees growing from their peaks. These heights marked the place where the heavens and
the earth met, and in humanity’s constant toil to reach the mysteries of the heavens, they ascended to the sky in
pursuit of nearness to their Gods. Javahiran, 16.
civilizations. Almost all early faith traditions reflect a similar concept. The Sumerian god, Enki,
for example, was frequently depicted as a gardener in the second millennium BCE. Centuries
later, the Old Testament describes the Garden of Eden. In some way, then, the garden became
related, through religious practice and holy texts, to the afterlife. By building gardens,
individuals created terrestrial versions of the paradise their faiths predicted for them after death.
More relevant to the discussion of Cyrus, the Zoroastrian concept of heaven is that of a garden.
The Zoroastrian interpretation of the garden as a representation of heaven can be said to play a
crucial role in the garden’s significance in Iran. By building a garden below the lofty balconies
of his palace, Cyrus, believing himself to be a representative of the Gods, could look down upon
a simulation of the paradise he would inhabit eternally following his death.
Thus far the decision to build the garden and its relative position below a raised viewing
point has been posited here to be tied to the Zoroastrian tradition, but even more importantly, the
very layout of the garden itself can also be seen to follow in the same vein. Cyrus’ garden has
been virtually reconstructed by many scholars to exhibit a quadripartite plan. Reconstruction is
done with the aid of archaeological surveys and computer imaging of the ruins to recreate the
layout of the garden as it would have been thousands of years ago (Fig. 4).
Due to the limited capabilities of archaeological reconstructions of Cyrus’ garden,
however, there is some debate as to the legitimacy of its suggested quadripartite design. Despite
the various sources that introduce Cyrus’ garden as quadripartite, upon visiting the site, one finds
that the garden today is missing its second axis. The remains found there today suggest a
rectangular garden with a single dividing axis down the center, with no remaining evidence of a
The later rulers of the Sassian period would take this Zoroastrian concept further to declare themselves gods in
their own right.
second axis. It can be speculated, though, that some sort of secondary axis might have existed
due to the use of a four part square design contemporaneous with the Achaemenid period, and
even, in some cases, predating it. It is from this very common ancient motif that scholars have
reconstructed Cyrus’ garden with a second horizontal axis, making it the earliest quadripartite
design of its kind of which we have any record. If the second axis did exist, the quadripartite
design can be considered to date back to at least the Achaemenid period, if not earlier.
Though it is interesting to speculate about Cyrus’ garden, it is not necessary for this
discussion for his garden to exhibit the quadripartite design. Regardless of this particular
garden’s design, the four part garden plays a central role in Iranian gardens. It is accepted by
scholars, including Hobhouse, Wilbur, and Eshrati, as a part of ancient Iranian garden design
from the time of the Achaemenids to the last great ancient empire, the Sassanians. I believe, in
fact, that there is no doubt about the existence of the quadripartite gardens of the Sassanians
upon the invasion of the Arabs in the seventh century. Its existence then is enough to establish
with certainty that it was indeed a Persian convention. There are four reasons to support the
belief that the gardens of the Sassanians were definitely quadripartite.
Though no Sassanian quadripartite gardens will be examined here, it is certain that the
design was widely used during the period. The first reason to support this claim is related to
practicality. In Iran’s often harsh, dry climate, use of the quadripartite design would have made
gardens easier to maintain. Upon visiting Iran, one is struck by the arid nature of the climate.
How could a civilization turn such a harsh desert into a heavenly paradise? The answer lies in the
mountains that border the Iranian Plateau. The Achaemenids are credited with the invention of
the qanat, which utilizes subterranean tunnel systems to provide water to dry areas.
In order to
obtain water through the use of a qanat, a vertical shaft is dug into the side of a mountain,
terminating once the subterranean water table is reached. Then a horizontal tunnel is dug from
there outwards away from the base of the mountain at a slight downward slope so the water
flows towards the desired destination (Fig. 5).
be kept cool and clean before it was used for drinking water or run through gardens in stone or
tile rills, like the ones at Pasargadae.
For the sake of practicality and the ease of construction,
these rills were always linear, and water was usually channeled in a square or rectangle around
the perimeter of the garden. Then, axial rills cut through the body of the garden, forming a four
part design. These rills were flooded in order to water the garden, whose geometric and
symmetrical plan allowed for equal amounts of water to reach the plant life. The flowerbeds that
lined the rills were sunken, meaning that the earth was several inches below ground level so that
the flowers could easily be watered by the flooding rills. The sunken beds created the illusion
that one was walking on a carpet of flowers, as the paths and rills were raised so that the flower
blooms were below ones’ feet.
In the extremely harsh climate, and in light of the labors taken
to bring water from miles away to the garden, its irrigation had to preserve the greatest amount of
Open air aqueducts, like those used later by the Romans, would never have worked in the hot Iranian plateau
where water evaporates quickly. The raising of groundwater was also a major difficulty. The Achaemenids were
forced to seek other means, and the qanat system was the most obvious solution. Donald Wilbur, Persian Gardens
and Garden Pavilions (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 1979), 4.
The digging of these tunnels, which were often hundreds of feet below ground, was very treacherous, and even
today one can see the many shaft holes that were dug along the way to provide air to the diggers and to remove
soil and rock. They toiled in the hot, dark tunnels, carefully calculating the angle of their work by the shadow of a
candle. Sometimes these lines extended for up to forty miles until they emerge on the surface. Wilbur, 4.
The use of sunken flowerbeds explains why the garden is so prevalent in carpet designs in Iran; the gardens
already closely resembled carpets, making their depiction on carpets both naturalistic and logical.
water. The quadripartite design, then, was one of the easiest ways to water plants in the arid
Beyond this practical purpose of the four part garden design, there is a second reason to
suggest that such a design was central to gardens during the Sassanian period. The use of the
quadripartite design was prevalent during the Achaemenid through Sassanian periods; it
appeared again and again in ancient artifacts of varying sorts. Many were fashioned long before
the Sassanian period, which could indicate that the design predated even the Achaemenids.
Several buttons and other artifacts from the Achaemenid period reflect this quadripartite design
Pieces of pottery were painted with circular or square depictions of the world
subdivided, again, in four parts (Fig. 7).
The four part design is preserved, not just on buttons
and pottery, but also in ancient carpet designs. The Achaemenid period saw a great deal of
interest in carpet weaving and based on contemporaneous descriptions, scholars have
reconstructed what ancient carpets (now lost to decay) looked like. Several were quadripartite.
The Sassanian period too was rich with quadripartite carpet designs, some actually depicting
gardens with flora and fauna and four water courses subdividing them from a central medallion.
One example, the “Baharestan” carpet depicts this motif and dates to the mid Sassanian period
Thus, since the design appeared in so many different media one can assume that
gardens divided into four parts division also existed during the Sassanian period.
There must have been a reason for the repeated use of the four part motif. Thus enters the
third support for the quadripartite design’s existence in Sassanian gardens. It is probable that its
Ernst Herzfeld, Iran in the Ancient East: Archaeological Studies Presented in the Lowell Lectures at Boston (New
York: NY, 1988), 23.
Ceramic Bowl, 5
millennium BCE, Iranian Museum of Antiquities, Tehran, Iran.
Eraj Afshar, Iranian Carpets ( Tehran, Iran: Jamal Honar Publishing, 2013), 86.
Javad Nassiri, The Persian Carpet (Tehran, Iran: Mirdashti Publication, 2010), 16.
frequent use might indicate devotional or religious significance. Zoroastrianism is a complex and
ancient faith tradition with a pantheon of “immortals” and a detailed creation story. But among
the most clearly understood aspects of the religion is the emphasis on the four basic elements.
Earth, air, water and fire hold sacred significance to the Zoroastrians. It seems probable that the
division of space into fourths and partitioning of the world into four sections as seen in the
quadripartite design could very well represent the four elements as the four building blocks of
the terrestrial realm. In this way, the four parts come to represent the four elements and could
explain its widespread use in buttons, pottery, carpets and, as I would contend, in gardens.
The Zoroastrian significance of the four part design is supported by the strength of the
religious tradition in ancient Iran, particularly under the Sassanians. They continued the tradition
of divine kingship and hierarchy which originated in with the Achaemenids. The Sassanians took
the ideals of the Achaemenid monarchs still further. The Sassanian rulers continued the
Achaemenid idea of divine kingship, but instead of the representatives of Ahura Mazda, the
Sassanian kings actually declared themselves to be gods. They imitated gods in their dress and
called themselves “brothers to the sun and moon”.
In this and many other ways, the Sassanians
represented not only a continuation and but a strengthening of ancient Iranian tradition. The
prevalence of the four part design both in gardens and artifacts during this period of religious
zeal is logical if one accepts the potential Zoroastrian significance of the design.
Many Iranian scholars explain this ancient desire to divide the world into four sections as
an attempt to make the vastness of space more manageable.
Dividing a vast space into sections
allows one to experience it sequentially, introducing a certain degree of organization.
Eshrati, Parastoo. Interview by author. Personal Interview. Tehran, Iran. July 6, 2013.
Subdivision of space becomes especially relevant in a discussion of landscape design. Specialists
suggest that rulers subdivided their gardens in order to better view them, and to make it possible
for one to visually process the vast space.
Additionally, by dividing the garden, rulers could
symbolically recreate the realms over which they ruled within the garden.
The Sassanian kings
likely used not only their literal and figurative position of superiority to look down upon their
four part gardens not simply as rulers, but as gods. The name of the Sassanian king during the
prophet Muhammad’s life, Khusrau Anushiravan, literally translated means “Khusrau of the
Immortal Soul” suggesting his diving kingship. Khusrau looked down upon the four sections of
his garden, representing the four sacred elements he believed were the very building blocks of
the universe. In this way he simulated his god-like control over the Zoroastrian cosmos.
Whether the four part garden served practical or religious purposes, there is no question
of its Iranian origins. The fourth and final reason to support the existence of the design in
Sassanian Iran lies in its etymology. While this design has been vaguely referred to here as the
“quadripartite” design its actual name is the chahar bagh design. Chahar bagh is a Farsi term
which literally translated means “four gardens”. The term is widely used, even today to refer to
this design. It is not translated, but left in the original Farsi. The lack of any other name for the
design, and the use of Farsi in its terminology cement the existence of the chahar bagh prior to
the Arab invasion. Thus, though we may never be sure of the exact date the quadripartite garden
was first used, we can be absolutely certain that at the very least the chahar bagh is a uniquely
Iranian convention, and given the strong religious tradition of ancient Iran, reflects Zoroastrian
Hanachi, Pirooz. Interview by author. Personal Interview. Tehran, Iran. June 18, 2013.
Maureen Carroll, Earthly Paradises (London, UK: The British Museum Press, 2003), 49.
While the Sassanian kings ruled the Iranian plateau, nomadic tribes from the deserts of
modern day Saudi Arabia began to invade neighboring lands. These nomads were united by a
common religion, Islam, and began to set their sights on building an Islamic empire over which
they might rule.
As a nomadic people accustomed to the harsh deserts of Arabia, the Muslims
were unfamiliar with many of the conventions they encountered upon their many military
campaigns and invasions. They had no concept of governmental administration or organization.
When the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad, died in 632, he had not named a successor. It
was only through bitter dispute and often, murder, that the succession of Arab Muslim leaders
was determined. It is important to mention the turmoil of the Arab leadership because while
many scholars introduce the Arab Invasion as a powerful, unified force under the banner of
Islam, this is not completely accurate. They were certainly unified by their faith, and motivated
by their desire to spread it, but the many Arab caliphates were marked by instability and
corruption. They often relied on the countries they invaded for administration of their conquered
lands and adopted many of their customs in the hope of stabilizing their own empire.
In 636 CE, when the Arabs finally reached the Iranian plateau and overthrew the
Sassanians, they became exposed to the millennia old governmental structures of the Sassanians.
The Arabs, unaccustomed to ruling a centralized empire and battling disorganization within their
The prophet Mohammad was born in 572 CE during the reign (in Iran) of the Sassanian king Khusrau Anushirvan.
While Mohammad’s earliest followers began to spread his message of Islam, or humble submission to God, the
Sassanians ruled their people as Gods themselves and lived in splendor. Mohammad was Arab and born in Mecca
(in present day Saudi Arabia), his birth would forever change the course of Iranian history, culture and art. It
would, however, take several decades for his impact to reach Iran. In the next few years, though, the Sassanians
became weary from Khusrau’s several military campaigns, and when the Arabs finally launched an offensive attack,
the Sassanian Empire fell.
own ranks, placed Persians in the highest governmental offices and allowed the administration of
the empire to mirror ancient Persian customs.
Despite this lenience, Islam was still incorporated into all aspects of life, with Islamic law
or Shari’ah informing civic and political decisions. The Persian Empire was encouraged to
embrace Islam, but other religions were not persecuted.
This tolerance means, of course, that
Zoroastrianism, which was still the predominant religion at the time of the Arab Invasion, was
not outlawed but simply taxed, allowing its practitioners to continue their worship.
Zoroastrianism continued under Arab rule, slightly weakened, but still very much intact. Slowly,
Islam was adopted by the Persian people, and Zoroastrianism declined. However the latter never
completely disappeared, and as Iran’s most ancient religion, it is still practiced by many today.
The Arabs introduced their religion to the Iranian people without force, and eventually
Iran became Muslim. It is important to note, though, that as Vreeland states, “Persia became
Muslim, but not Arabic.”
Tracing the impact of Islam in Iran is fairly straightforward, but
finding evidence of Arab culture there is not. Despite the strength of the Islamic religious
tradition as it entered Iran, the secular administration, language, and culture of Iran remained
intact thanks to the tendency of the nomadic Arabs to assimilate old customs rather than
generating their own.
As the Muslim Arabs began to enter the weakened Sassanian capitals they had
conquered, they were greeted by the lush green gardens the Iranians had so painstakingly
maintained for a thousand years. While the Arabs likely had encountered gardens before, they
While Persians were willing to convert to Islam, they did not lose their very strong cultural identity, and
eventually, religion and politics separated and when they staged revolts, they did so for political reasons rather
than as an attempt to reject Islam. Herbert Vreeland, Iran, (New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files, 1957), 19.
had no gardening tradition of their own; as desert nomads they would have had little use for such
practices. Despite this, while experiencing the gardens of Iran they must have felt certain echoes
of significance and familiarity. The gardens seemed to speak to the invading Arabs. As Muslims,
the Arabs accepted the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. The book of genesis speaks
of four rivers in the Garden of Eden. Every Muslim is familiar with this heavenly garden, and in
fact, it is mentioned over a hundred times in the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an (which Muslims
believe to be the literal word of God).
The Qur’an describes paradise, or heaven, as “gardens
underneath which rivers flow” in Sura II, verse 23, a phrase that is repeated over thirty times in
the text. If read literally, the Qur’an uses the word “garden” in place of “heaven”.
heavenly counterpart in the Islamic interpretation. The chahar bagh plan of the garden reflects
the divisions of heaven, the water features reflect the rivers of paradise, and even the flowerbeds
have allegorical significance. Within this paradise the Qur’an speaks of four rivers in heaven,
each flowing with a different substance, honey, milk, wine or water.
Muslim scholars, when
regarding the typical Iranian design of four quadrants, subdivided by four rills with easily
irrigated sunken flowerbeds, found this garden to be a beautiful manifestation of paradise as
Muslims believe that the angel Gabriel descended to earth and shared God’s divine revelation (in the form of the
words of the Qur’an) to the prophet Muhammad. As such, the simplest interpretation of Islam derives from belief
in the words of the Qur’an and modelling one’s life after the life of the prophet Muhammad. Muslims consider him
to be the “seal of the prophets”, which means that they recognize all the prophets of Judaism and Christianity from
Abraham to Jesus Christ to be legitimate messengers of God, but that Muhammad is the final prophet. Annemarie
Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction (New York, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992), 14.
The word “paradise” comes from the Avestan (an ancient Persian dialect) “pairi-daeza” which refers to royal
This word was translated into Greek to mean “garden”. Even in modern Farsi, the word for
garden “ferdous” can also mean “paradise” Hobhouse, 8.
described in the Qur’an (Fig. 8).
Each rill reflected one of the four rivers in heaven. The sunken
flower beds flanking the rills came to represent “gardens under which rivers flow”.
There is no record of the first garden the Muslim Arabs built, however we do know that
by 1370 with the construction of the Alhambra in Granada, the Muslims had begun and
developed their own gardening tradition. Having established their own stable empires, the Arabs
had finally created their own Islamic gardens. A cursory examination of the Alhambra reveals
that the Arabs appropriated the chahar bagh design of the Iranians (Fig. 9).
The previously un-
Islamic Zoroastrian origins of the chahar bagh were forgotten and it was imbued with Islamic
significance. It was borrowed from pre-Islamic gardens, but became a representation of Qur’anic
verses and was assimilated into Islamic theology. Though the form of the chahar bagh was
adopted by the Muslims and widely used in their later gardens (both in and outside of Iran), its
name was never translated. Islam, unlike some faith traditions, has an official language, Arabic.
The Qur’an, for example, is considered to be direct revelation only when it is read in the original
Arabic. Any translation changes the text from sacred to commentary on the sacred.
and all terms related to Islam are in Arabic. Conspicuously, chahar bagh is not an Arabic term. It
was never given a widely used Arabic name, and the design is still to this day referred to by its
Farsi name, even at the Islamic garden of the Alhambra. So, while some ancient conventions
were neatly overlaid with Islam, the chahar bagh kept, if not its meaning, its name.
The Alhambra’s use of the chahar bagh is Islamic. Its four rills represented the four
rivers in heaven, and its sunken beds simulated the Qur’anic “gardens under which rivers flow”.
The architecture of the structures reflects Islamic use of calligraphy and floral decoration. The
gardens of the Alhambra are Islamic in both design and origin.
There is one major difference,
however, between the Alhambra’s gardens and the gardens of ancient Iran. Whereas there were
many features of the Persian garden that could be “baptized” into Islam and used in Islamic
gardens, one feature certainly could not. The hierarchical elevation found in Zoroastrian gardens
could not be given Islamic significance. Islam emphasizes equality.
While the Achaemenids
reveled in their almost divine kingship (and the Sassanians rulers declared themselves to be
actual gods), Islam condemns such ideals. It emphasizes, both in the Qur’an and the words of the
Prophet, living modestly and not maintaining any position of power that might lead to abuse of
said power. Slavery, though widely practiced in the medieval Islamic world is frowned upon in
A famous saying of the Prophet’s brother-in-law, Ali, says, “A man approached Ali and
asked, ‘I want to be the governor of my province, can you help me achieve this goal?’ And Ali
replied, ‘If you have any desire to be governor, you must never be governor.’” In this way
ostentation, greed and pride are illustrated as sinful qualities in the Islamic faith. Imam Abu
Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazali, a well-known medieval Islamic theologian, warns
against the dangers of ostentation and pride, saying “The reality of ostentation is seeking a high
status in the hearts of the people….it is the most dominant of blameworthy character traits…”
equalizes Muslims as they all prostrate themselves in worship in the same mosque, no man or
woman receiving special treatment. These ideas are in direct opposition to the Achaemenid view
This classification admittedly overlooks the possibility that the garden reflects certain Iranian traditions which
were assimilated into Islamic architecture after the Invasion of Iran. The implications of this possibility are beyond
the scope of this discussion.
Al-Ghazali, Ghazali on the Principles of Islamic Spirituality, trans. Aaron Spevack, (Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths
Publishing, 2012), 190-1.
of hierarchy, elevation and kingship, and therefore can be seen reflected in purely Islamic
gardens like the Alhambra in Grenada. The Alhambra does not exhibit raised viewing platforms
designed with the purpose of exalting the owner of the garden. The garden is only viewed from
the ground, equalizing viewers.
It is intriguing that the gardens in Iran after the Arab Invasion and the introduction of
Islam do not reflect the basic Islamic tenet of equality, nor do they resemble the Alhambra.
Rather, they follow the earlier tradition and this surprising phenomenon will, in the next section,
provide evidence for labeling these gardens as “Perso-Islamic”.
It is important, nonetheless, not to trivialize the role of Islam in the process of explaining
and demystifying the gardens of Iran. Islamic ideology is responsible for the majority of the
gardens commissioned during the medieval period and later in Iran. Iranian gardens have always
been places of reflection, music, poetry and conversation (as evidenced by pre-Islamic depictions
and accounts), but with the arrival of the Muslims, they became the backdrop for religious
discussion, scientific inquiry
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