The Perso-Islamic Garden: a reclassification of Iranian Garden Design after the Arab Invasion - bet 2
Their customary central pavilions and raisedplatforms were perfect locations for poets to recite their poems, and for students of theology to
recite the Qur’an. These gardens found themselves in the center of theological schools, alongside
mosques, and in public squares, providing ease of access to everyone and cementing them as
staples of daily life. Because they were viewed as terrestrial manifestations of heaven,
commissioning gardens was considered an act of charity, one of the main tenets of Islam, and
their numbers increased.
Miriam Hoexter, The Public Sphere in Muslim Societies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2002),119-122.
Section ThreeThough Iranian culture draws much from its ancient dynasties and interactions with other
cultures through invasion and conquest, the current Iranian identity owes the most to the Safavid
It is with an examination of Safavid gardens therefore that this exploration ofthe evidence for the label “Perso-Islamic” when discussing the gardens of Persia begins. The
Safavid gardens represent, in many ways, the culmination of two overlapping narratives in
Iranian history, the ancient Persian Empire and the Muslim empires that flourished in Iran after
the Arab Invasion. These gardens combine both, and are easily studied due to the care with
which they have been preserved.
The story of the Safavid Empire begins with a Kurdish Sufi, Sheikh Safi-al-Din, who
founded a Sufi order in Ardabil in 1301.
The Safavids, or Safaviyya, take their name from Safi-al-Din.
Though the story of Safavid Iran is a long and fascinating tale, it was not until the reignof its greatest king, Shah Abbas I, that garden patronage increased in popularity. Of the eleven
Safavid Shahs, Shah Abbas I (1588- 1629) is universally considered the most important, and his
rule is considered the apogee of Safavid power.
In fact, some consider Iran under Shah Abbasto represent the climax of all of Iranian history. It is no wonder, then, that it is his gardens that
achieved the highest acclaim during this period. Shah Abbas is essential to this discussion
because through his patronage and example the gardening tradition not only reached its height,
Peter Jackson, The Timurid and Safavid Periods , vol. 6 of The Cambridge History of Iran ( Cambridge, UK:Cambridge University Press, 1986), 130. ; Vreeland, 21.
The Qajar period saw increased contact with the West, and as a result, their gardens are not as exclusively“Iranian” in nature as those of the Safavids.
Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism.57
This tomb would later see the patronage of many Safavid shahs, who would provide it with gardens, and the
most famous Persian carpet in history. Daniel, 83.
The eleven Safavid Shahs were Ismail (1501-1524), Tahmasp (1524-1576), Ismail II (1576-1578), MuhammadKhudabandah (1578-1588), Abbas I (1588-1629), Safi I (1629-1642), Abbas II (1642-1666), Sulaiman I (1666-1694),
Sultan Husain (1694-1722), Tahmasp II (1722-1732), and Abbas III (1732-1749).
but continued to express Persian cultural influence in the midst of a Muslim empire. AlthoughShah Abbas was a Muslim, he was also of Iranian descent. He belonged to the same tradition as
the Achaemenids and Sassanians before him. He was referred to, like Cyrus, as “King of kings”,
tying him to every Iranian ruler before him. Considering these points, it is unsurprising that his
gardens, and all gardens that came after, looked far more like Cyrus’ garden than that of the
Abbas was, above all else, a great patron of the arts. As an amateur painter, heenthusiastically patronized manuscript illumination and painting, but his greatest achievements
were architectural. The capital was moved to Isfahan in 1597, and even today, evidence of his
patronage there remains.
He built a park at the center of the city, the Maidan, and encircled itwith a bazaar and three significant buildings (Fig. 10). The first was the Masjid-e Shah, or Royal
Mosque, one of the most famous mosques in all of Iran. The second was a palace, Ali Qapu,
meaning “high gate”, with a balcony that allowed Abbas to survey his subjects. Last was the
private mosque, Masjid-I Sheikh Lotf-Allah, dedicated to Abbas’s father-in-law. He also built
the Chahar Bagh Boulevard, or Four Gardens Boulevard, which linked his Maidan to the suburbs
of Isfahan. While its name, “Chahar Bagh” refers to the design of Iranian gardens previously
discussed, the Chahar Bagh here is the literal name of a boulevard in Safavid Isfahan. It was
lined with trees and water channels crisscrossed its gardens.
The strongest evidence for the presence of Persian elements in these gardens is expressed
monumentally. Shah Abbas chose to build raised platforms or palaces from which to view his
gardens, echoing the same practice maintained from the Achaemenid through the Sassanian
Isfahan is famous for its Safavid architecture, but it is first and foremost a city of gardens, into which architecturewas incorporated.
periods. Every one of the gardens in Isfahan remaining today from the Safavid period includes amultistoried palace or pavilion with a terrace or porch from which the king could view his
garden. In fact, the first “sky scraper” to be built in Iran was built by Shah Abbas in 1609. It was
the palace of Ali Qapu (Fig. 11), and on its sixth floor is a talar (a porch with tall, slender
columns unique to Iran), from which one can view one of the largest public squares in the world,
Maidan-I Naqsh-I Jahan.
A water channel lined the four sides of the rectangular space withtrees planted on either side, and some accounts describe a central pool.
At the time of itscompletion, the square was immense (623 x 194 yards), rivaling any equivalent complex in
Europe. Though not in itself a great garden, the Maidan reflects the chahar bagh theme with its
four aivans, and is today planted with flowers. Its “pavilion” is Ali Qapu, or the “Lofty Gate”,
and is perhaps the most unique Safavid palace ever constructed.
Ali Qapu, built in 1609, is five stories high, with a talar on its upper levels that has
become an iconic image in Iran. It is supported by slender timber columns and looks out onto the
square. Through yet another feat of Safavid ingenuity, a pool was installed on the roof, so the
Shah might have a private recreational space of his own as he surveyed his subjects below.
Although not strictly a garden itself, Ali Qapu reflects just how un-Islamic art and architecture inthis Muslim dynasty could be. Much like Cyrus or Darius surveying their domains from
Pasargadae and Persepolis, here in Isfahan the same aims of power and hierarchical status are
Of interest to the musical history of Iran, there is a chamber, deemed “the music room”, which exhibits excellentacoustics thanks to niches which take up most of the walls’ surface. These niches are in the shape of various
musical instruments, providing both a pleasant aesthetic and functioning to amplify sound.
echoed. This emphasis on hierarchy is in direct opposition with the Islamic tenet of equality,humility and submission.
The palace described here was the gateway into Shah Abbas’s legendary Chahar Bagh
Boulevard, composed of several gardens and palaces, most of which are no longer extant. The
Chahar Bagh Boulevard is a clear manifestation of the impact the monarchy had on the city of
Isfahan, and on a larger scale, the entire empire. Expressions of regal power and benevolence
like gardens, boulevards and parks existed in stark contrast with the much more modest Muslim
ideology of the time. Ali Qapu is on the western side of the Maidan, and from its western portal
extended gardens that lead to the Chahar Bagh Boulevard (Fig. 12). Besides its status as the
largest concentration of gardens in Iran, the Chahar Bagh Boulevard includes two gardens, still
extant today, that exhibit several of the pre-Islamic attributes previously presented during the
discussion of the Achaemenid period.
Garden gates opened on the Boulevard, and though all appeared identical from the street,they each possessed enchanting flora and unique names. The Mulberry garden, Garden of
Barberries, Garden of the Vineyard, and Octagonal Garden all indicated their features with their
While very different in content, the gardens all contained an entrance pavilion as well
as a larger central pavilion. The gardens were viewed by their owners from the balconies of these
pavilions, breaking the Islamic tenet of equality to exercise their superiority over those around
them. The walls were lattice, teasingly allowing visitors to view the beauty within, ranging from
thick carpets to fragrant pools with cut flowers floating within them. Exclusivity reigned
Islam, in Arabic, literally means submission to the will of God.64
Begun in 1596, this straight avenue, fifty yards in width, ran from the center of the city to the Zayandeh River,
which it traversed with the Allahvardi Khan Bridge. The street was bisected by a channel which was joined by
smaller rills that passed over platforms called chadors in a stair-like configuration. The avenue was bordered on
both sides by several palaces, gardens, a bestiary and an aviary. Ruggles, 186.
Mulberry trees were grown to feed the silkworms which provided silk for the carpet and textile industries.
supreme in these gardens, again breaking with Islamic ideals of equality. Of the many wondersthe Chahar Bagh afforded its visitors, only two gardens remain today. Hasht Behest and Chihil
Sutun were both constructed after Shah Abbas’s death.
Just like the pre-Islamic palaces of Persepolis with their lofty position on the terrace, the
Safavids clearly valued the view from above. Walking past Ali Qapu palace, one encounters
several gardens which further illustrate the use of elevation in Persian gardens.
An excellentexample of the posited Perso-Islamic garden is Chihil Sutun. Completed in 1647 by Shah Abbas
II, it consists of a palace and garden (Fig. 15). The palace served as a reception hall for foreign
dignitaries. In fact, murals within the palace depict various important historical events in Safavid
history, and one is devoted to the reception of the Mughal emperor, Humayun, into the Safavid
court, not unlike the relief sculptures at Persepolis of Darius receiving dignitaries and subjects in
his palaces. Figural representation is uncommon in Islamic art, which generally bans it, and has
much stronger roots in the pre-Islamic tradition.
The garden derives its name from the twenty66
Hasht Behesht, or Eight Paradises, is one such garden, and has a large central palace pavilion (Fig. 13). Hasht
Behesht’s pavilion and garden were commissioned in 1670 by Sultan Sulaiman I. The pavilion itself is octagonal in
shape. Some ascribe Islamic cosmological significance to the shape of the pavilion, citing that by having eight sides,
it mirrors heaven (supposed to have eight levels) and surpasses hell with its seven stories, thus glorifying the mercy
of God over his displeasure. The cosmological interpretation is further supported by the garden’s name, “Eight
Paradises” which reflects the belief in the eight levels of heaven. Some Muslims believe that eight angels support
the throne of God, and either of these interpretations can be considered when regarding Hasht Behesht. Here one
finds the first possible evidence of a purely Islamic characteristic. The octagon can be assumed to truly hold Islamic
significance especially because there is no known special significance to the number eight in the Zoroastrian
tradition. Furthermore, octagonal structures and pools are common in the Islamic world. The Dome of the Rock, in
Jerusalem, for example, is octagonal in shape and is considered by many to be the first work of Islamic
architecture. (John D. Hoag, Islamic Architecture (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1977), 16.) Although the
number eight carries cosmological Islamic significance, there are also several pre-Islamic elements present at Hasht
Behest that would support my contention that the garden should be interpreted as Perso-Islamic. The use of raised
platforms and balconies to view the garden is the first. A second element, the chahar bagh, is itself, I believe,
Perso-Islamic. Furthermore, Hasht Behesht breaks with pure Islamic tradition because its pavilion was covered in
polychrome tiles, with fantastical figures and beasts depicted alongside floral motifs (Fig. 14). Brookes, 87.
While almost nonexistent in Islamic gardens, figural representation can on rare occasion be found in early desertpalaces in the Islamic world, like the Khirbat al -Mafjar. Built in 739 its bath contains a mosaic including a lion and
gazelles. However this most likely reflects the fact that the castles were built early in Islam’s history and before the
interpretations of the Qur’an which characterized figural representation as un-Islamic. Therefore, by the time of
columns on its talar. “Chihil” means forty in Farsi, and the long cedar columns are doubled by along rectangular reflecting pool that extends the length of the garden. Effectively, “Chihil Sutun”
means forty columns, referencing the reflection of the columns in the water.
The garden itself is a chahar bagh with each compartment subdivided into four sections.The chahar bagh plays a prominent part in this discussion. I have proposed theories for its
origins, and explained the Islamic appropriation of its design. In this greater discussion of the
Perso-Islamic garden, the chahar bagh is not just an element of the garden. It is Perso-Islamic in
and of itself. This classification is derived from its Persian form which is imbued with Islamic
content. However, it is important to establish a distinction between the chahar bagh seen at
Alhambra and those seen at Iranian gardens like Chihil Sutun. The chahar bagh at the Alhambra
was designed by Arab Muslims to reflect the Qur’anic conception of heaven. The chahar bagh at
Chihil Sutun is Perso-Islamic because it was built by Iranian Muslims, individuals sharing the
geography, climate, culture, and language of the pre-Islamic civilizations that first created the chahar bagh design. Though the design is utilized in Safavid gardens like this one as an Islamic
symbol, its location prevents it from being interpreted as solely Islamic. Zoroastrians living in
Safavid Iran would experience the design very differently than their Muslim counterparts. To a
Zoroastrian, the design would likely maintain its Persian interpretation. Thus, the chahar bagh,
though assimilated into Islam, does not completely lose its Persian significance in Iran.
the Safavids the presence of these figures would certainly have been frowned upon by many members the Islamic
tradition. Interestingly, this particular mosaic is said to exhibit Sassanian features and is posited to be done in the
Persian style, furthering the argument against its Islamic origin. Hoag, 30.
Some contest this, arguing that “chihil” simply takes on a hyperbolic meaning here to indicate “many” and thatthe Safavids were incapable of intending the twenty columns to be multiplied within the pool to equal forty. The
argument is weakened when one considers the marvels the Safavids engineered at Isfahan; illusionistic wordplay
was surely not beyond their grasp.
The remaining features of the palace pavilion of Chihil Sutun are simpler to classify. Theelegant pool within the palace flows out into the garden through fountains on the talar. The base
of the palace’s famous pillars, which serve as water spouts that feed the rills of the garden and
the central pool, are in the shape of seated lions (Fig. 16).
As the visitor ascends the steps ofpavilion the lions appear at the top of the stairs at eye level.
The lion motif, as seen here at Chihil Sutun, carries Achaemenid significance. More than
half of the reliefs and sculptures of Persepolis extant today depict a lion attacking a bull. The lion
rears up on its hind legs and sinks its claws into the bull’s hind quarters (Fig. 17). The lion’s
front legs grip the bull’s rear, and resemble human arms, with muscled biceps and paws with
elongated toes, almost resembling the fingers of a large man. The image is repeated again and
again in all the palaces of the complex. Some say the relief reflects the strength of the
Achaemenid kings (the lion) and their ability to conquer their enemies (the bull). Others argue
that the lion represents the New Year, and the bull represents the previous year that is devoured
by the New Year. The basis for this interpretation lies in the importance of the Iranian New Year,
which occurs on the vernal equinox and was an important Zoroastrian celebration.
On theappointed day, each year, all the subject nations of the empire would send emissaries to
Persepolis with gifts, an event that is depicted frequently in the reliefs there.
Occasionally, thelion is associated with fire, one of the four Zoroastrian holy elements.
A connection to holy firewould fit well with the interpretation of the lion as related to the celebration of the New Year
because one of the rituals associated with the celebration is leaping over an open bonfire. The
repeated depictions of the Zoroastrian New Year celebration on the walls and capitals of
Farzin Rezaeian, Iran: Seven Faces of a Civilization (Toronto, Canada: Sunrise Visual Innovations Ltd, 2007), 117.72
Persepolis, then, reinforce the close ties between Zoroastrianism and monarchy in theAchaemenid period. The lion motif is seen on the walls of Achaemenid tombs as well.
The lion motif, introduced in this discussion as an Achaemenid convention, can be seen
at the base of Safavid pillars and painted on the walls of pavilions. While there are mentions of
its existence amongst other beasts in the wall decorations at the garden of Hasht Behesht, the
symbol also reappears in the garden of Zeynat al-Mulk House in Shiraz. The garden was built in
1879 during the Qajar period, and the base of the walls of the house, surrounding the central
garden, is decorated with reliefs of seated lions. It is also seen in the garden of Narengestan-I
Qavam, a garden and house also built in Shiraz during the Qajar period, which is decorated with
painted tile decorations of a lion pouncing on a bull.
Though the style in which the lion is rendered in medieval Iranian gardens, as well as the
medium chosen, differs from its pre-Islamic origins, the desire to show the power (represented
by the lion) of the owner of the garden remains. That desire could possibly derive from the
Zoroastrian belief in divine rule and acceptance of hierarchy. This symbol, which cannot be tied
to Islam, appears, then, to originate in pre-Islamic Persian culture.
If the gardens in Iran werepurely Islamic, surely they would not contain a symbol with a history longer than the religion
itself. In fact, its very presence in “Islamic” gardens challenges their Islamic origins, since no
such symbol is commonly associated with Islam as it is delineated in the Qur’an and life of the
It is worth mention that this motif is present at the Alhambra, which was previously described by this paper aspurely Islamic. The court of the lions, at the Alhambra, with a fountain at the center flanked by twelve lions can be
explained, however, without ascribing Persian heritage to it. The fountain originally belonged to a jewish vizier,
and the twelve lions are believed to represent the twelve tribes of Israel or, alternatively, the twelve lions
supporting the throne of the Queen of Sheba. While this is not a case of pure Islamic significance, it is also free of
Persian heritage. John Brookes, Gardens of Paradise: The History and Design of the Great Islamic Gardens (New
York, NY: The Meredith Press, 1987), 60.
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