The Persian chahar-bagh gardens reflected the unity and harmony of the cosmos

The concept of Paradise as a garden is an ancient one pre-dating the Abrahamic faiths by centuries. Paradise – from the ancient Persian paradesionpairi meaning ‘around,’ and daeza meaning ‘to make’ or ‘form’ (a wall) – entered into Greek as paradeisos and into Latin as paradisus.

In ancient Persia, Prophet Zoroaster (d. ca. 551 BCE) taught to live in harmony with nature, “to contemplate or mediate upon nature, to observe its beauty, the order and regularity of the natural cycles, and the harmony and interdependence of its manifestations” (Bekhrandnia).

It was during the Achaemenid period – the first empire of Persia (648–330 BCE) –  that Zoroastrianism spread and came to be accepted by the rulers and through them became a defining element of Persian culture. Cyrus the Great (r. 559-530 BCE) commissioned the city of Pasargade in Pars, where the earliest form of what is today known as the chahar bagh (‘four gardens’) is believed to have been designed.

The early gardens were based on the Zoroastrian division of the universe into fours: four cardinal points, four seasons, and four elements: earth, wind, water, fire. Hence, the square or rectangular garden was divided into four by narrow water canals which crossed at right angles defining the north-south and east-west axes, with the source of the water – a pool or fountain – at the centre of the intersecting axes. The garden was walled to create a boundary separating the hot dry outside from the cool shady inner area, or paradise. Symmetry and geometry were the hallmark of Persian gardens which were a metaphor of the unity and harmony of the cosmos. The basic plan of the four-part gardens in Pasargadae were widely imitated and with more complexity in subsequent Persian and thereafter in Islamic gardens.

Charbagh at the Tomb of Jahangir in Lahore, Pakistan. Image: Muhammad Atique Alam/Wikipedia

References to the garden can be found in literature, poetry, music, calligraphy, and carpet design.

Chahar-bagh garden carpet, second half of 18th century, Iran. Image: the Met Museum

Islamic gardens are also a reflection of Paradise said to await the faithful. The reward for good deeds, according to the Qur’an, is a place of shaded trees, flowing water, gardens with sweet fruits (bustan) and fragrant flowers (gulistan).T he Qur’an offers several references to the idea of jannat al-firdaus or gardens of Paradise, ranging from blissful retreat to secure refuge, although it does not give precise guidelines for the creation of one. These images have fed centuries of Muslim art, narrative, and design, as well as spiritual inspiration. Perhaps the concept of Paradise was formed by Arabia’s desert dwellers who had heard of the Persian paradeison. As Muslim rule spread, the diversity of climates and landscapes influenced the built environment.

In the hot dry desert region, irrigation was a challenge for agriculture as well as for the gardens. The Persian qanat system, based on complex calculations, transported water from rivers and lakes in underground channels to prevent evaporation. Access points were built at regular intervals to carry out maintenance work. While enabling settlement and agriculture, the qanat system also inspired the creation of desert-specific landscape and architecture including not only the qanat themselves but also associated structures such as water reservoirs, mills, and irrigation systems. The qanats are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The Persian Qanat: Aerial View, Jupar, Bagh-e Shahzadeh (Mahan). Image: S.H. Rashedi/ UNESCO

A wide variety of garden styles existed in Islamic regions: from the agdal (meaning ‘enclosed by a stone wall’ in Berber language), which were common from Morocco to Spain to India, to the buhaira (from the Arabic bahr, meaning ‘sea’). The widely used Persian term chahar bagh is believed to be based on Sura 55 of the sacred text which refers to rivers flowing under two gardens besides which lie another two different gardens.

“And for him, who fears to stand before his Lord, are two gardens” (55:46)
“And beside them are two other gardens” (55:62)
“And as for those who believe and do good works, We shall make them enter Gardens underneath which rivers flow – to dwell therein for ever; there for them are pure companions – and We shall make them enter plenteous shade” (5:57)

Describing the four gardens, Clark states that “the lowest pair are the Garden of the Soul and the Garden of the Heart (reserved for the Righteous) and the higher pair are the Garden of the Spirit and the Garden of the Essence (reserved for the “Foremost”).” She adds that “on one level this evokes the literal image of water flowing under the pathways in order to irrigate the flowerbeds, but on a more profound level it suggests the nurturing of the ‘garden within’ by the soul. Indeed water is symbolic of the soul in many sacred traditions, reflecting the soul’s ability to renew itself while remaining true to its source” (The Symbolism of the Islamic Garden).

The development of formal gardens became an art form in Persia from at least the fourteenth century under the Timurids (r.1370-1507 CE).

Gardens also served as final resting places for the dead. The Mughals of India acquired their interest in gardens from the Timurids and developed the concept of a memorial garden surrounding a tomb, the most famous being Emperor Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum complex built by Shah Jahan (r.1628-1658) in memory of his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begam (d.1631), better known by her title “Mumtaz Mahal,” or “the exalted one of the palace.” These garden tombs were metaphors of paradisal imagery and came to symbolise the architectural achievements of the dynasty.

Emperor Humayun’s tomb, one of the earliest existing example of the Mughal garden tomb, commissioned by his son Akbar (r.1556-1605), was begun in 1562 under the supervision of his mother, and completed in 1571. The mausoleum is set on a high platform analogous to a throne (takht) in the centre of the garden which was a remarkable design innovation also adopted for the Taj Mahal and subsequent royal Mughal tombs. The garden of Humayun’s tomb was designed to form a chahar bagh with the mausoleum at the centre, and with broad walkways and water channels recalling the rivers of Paradise.

Humayun Tomb Complex. Image: Archnet

The restoration of Emperor Humayun’s garden tomb, along with several adjoining monuments, was completed in 2013 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in partnership with the Archaeological Survey of India.

At the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum overlooks the river rather than being in the centre; perhaps its reflection in the water channel “enhances the mystical metaphor of reflection and veils of reality” (Vaughan, Islam Art and Architecture, p. 480).

Taj Mahal. Image: MIT Library
Image: Philippa Vaughan, Islam: Art and Architecture

Islamic gardens represent cultivated spaces across diverse Muslim history and geography designed to enhance the built environment, ornate the landscape, and symbolise religious values. Along with the arts and architecture, gardens are the most enduring expressions of the relationship between nature and humans as well as an expression of the Islamic ethic of environmental stewardship. Like all sacred art, the gardens, centred on a spiritual vision of the cosmos, mirror their Heavenly counterparts, aiming to draw the visitor closer to God.

Chahar Bagh, Aga Khan Garden Edmonton, Canada. Image: Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architecture/Archnet

“The chahar-bagh was more than a pleasure garden. In the discipline and order of its landscaped geometry, its octagonal or rectangular pools, its selection of favourite plants and trees, it was an attempt to create transcendent perfection – a glimpse of paradise on earth.”
His Highness Aga Khan IV, New Delhi, India, April 15, 2003
Speech 

Sources:
Ambrin Hayat, Building Heaven on Earth, The Friday Times
Emma Clark, The Art of the Islamic Garden, Crowood Press, 2010
Marianne Barrucand. “The Garden as a Reflection of Paradise,” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Konemann, 2000
Patrick Hunt, Persian Paradise Gardens: Eden and Beyond as Chahar Bagh, Electrum Magazine
Philippa Vaughan, “Architecture of the Great Mughals,” Islam Art and Architecture, Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius. Konemann, 2000
Shahin Bekhradnia, Zoroastrianism and the Environment
Humayun’s Tomb Complex RestorationArchnet
Pasargadae, UNESCO World Heritage List
The Persian Garden, UNESCO World Heritage List

Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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