The Perso-Islamic Garden: a reclassification of Iranian Garden Design after the Arab Invasion - bet 3
The lion is not the only symbol used at Chihil Sutun. Rudimentary, unadorned flowerdesigns are repeated on the paving stones of the garden and serve as water spouts into pools. The
flower design, repeated again and again is anachronistic in nature. It appears out of place among
the graceful arabesques decorating the palace pavilion. Interestingly, this flower does not
originate at this garden. It appears to have a much longer history. Surrounding the reliefs of lions
and bulls at Persepolis, bands of decoration form borders to the action within. On these bands, a
single image, a flower with twelve petals, is repeated hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. It is
a straightforward rendering of the flower, merely a small circle surrounded by twelve oval petals,
resembling a water lily or lotus (Fig. 18). But this repeated pattern, seen over and over again on
all Achaemenid monuments reflects how deeply nature as a whole (and perhaps gardens) had
insinuated itself in the psyche of the Persian people. In fact, the symbolism of the lotus seen here
reflects the continuous narrative of Iranian gardens with its representation of rebirth and
It is a prime example of how pre-Islamic motifs were repeated in Islamic societies,
allowing the new Islamic culture and the ancient Iranian tradition to coexist in the garden. The
lotus is repeated at Persepolis and other Achaemenid monuments as though the builders simply
stamped it over and over again into the stone. The flower can be traced to Egypt and India
through its resemblance to the lotus, a common motif in both ancient Egyptian and Buddhist
iconography. The same flower is seen on later Sassanian monuments and is usually associated
with the Zoroastrian god Mithra, the guardian of The Waters.
The symbol can be associatedwith Zoroastrianism, as a representation of one of its four holy elements, water. Interestingly,
this exact flower, in this peculiarly simplistic style, is prevalent in gardens in Iran after the
introduction of Islam.
The Waters represent sacred primordial water as well as the source of all life in the Avesta, the Zoroastrian holytext. Duchensne-Guillemin, 106.
The flowers previously described at Chihil Sutun can be identified as the Achaemenidlotus (Fig. 19). It is repeated over and over again, on floor tiles, stairs, moldings, and paving
stones. The symbol is still widely used in Iran today and can be seen on the gates of gardens, on
the sides of overpasses, and on curbs. While the Islamic depiction of flowers is gracefully
calligraphic in nature, with curving arabesques and delicate lines, this clumsy, rudimentary
flower is the antithesis of Islamic decoration and rather a continuation of ancient tradition.
The stark contrast between the style of this rudimentary flower and that of Islamic,
calligraphic designs is worth examination. The prominence of the art of calligraphy in the
Islamic faith is universally recognized. Islam, as a faith tradition that generally avoids figural
representation, emphasizes vegetal and calligraphic images. Its depictions of flowers, when
compared to the Achaemenid flower, are far more refined. The primary example of this can be
seen in illuminated manuscripts from the Safavid period, which frequently include illustrations
of various varieties of flower. Painted tiles also depict floral designs. They are depicted
elegantly, with curving stems, delicate petals, and twisting vines (Fig. 20).
When compared tothis level of detail and care, the Achaemenid flower appears rudimentary and simplistic, almost
childish. Why then, would a society which is clearly capable of sophisticated rendering of plants,
as evidenced by decorated tiles, choose to instead depict a simplistic, millennia-old flower?
While the artists living after the introduction of Islam into Iran could have depicted
flowers on the walls, tiles, and paintings of gardens in the Islamic fashion alone, they chose to
continue to use the Achaemenid flower, knowing all too well its significance as a symbol of the
might of the ancient Iranians.
It is significant for many reasons, but at its most basic level, the76
use of this design suggests that later dynasties were knowledgeable about the origins of theircivilization and recognized its enduring importance by appropriating one of its symbols. The
allusion to pre-Islamic Iran in the use of this flower is perhaps the most overlooked of the
potential evidences against the “Islamic” quality of Iranian gardens. While a foreign visitor to a
garden decorated with this design, like Chihil Sutun, would not see anything remiss or un-
Islamic about it, anyone familiar with pre-Islamic Iranian iconography would recognize the
ancient Persian source of this anachronistic flower.
Chihil Sutun and other gardens of this period reflect considerable pre-Islamic influence.
They are classified as Islamic by most garden historians, though, because they were
commissioned by Muslim rulers and are ascribed certain Islamic symbolism. The way to
reconcile this opposition, as posited here, is to label them “Perso-Islamic” in recognition of their
dual nature. These gardens represent the height of the gardening tradition in Isfahan, but the
“Perso-Islamic” garden is not limited to this city alone.
Several gardens outside the Safavid capital of Isfahan also followed a hierarchical,
terraced design during the Safavid period.
Built into hills, they featured a large palace, lookingdown onto a several-stepped or leveled garden (Fig. 21). The terraced garden is an excellent
example of the need to view the garden from above and its subsequent hierarchical
interpretation, and is best evidenced at Bagh-i Takht, a seventeenth century garden in Shiraz. It
was a seven terraced garden with a large palace at the top, whose talar looked out over the lower
terraces. A water channel spilled down the various levels from the palace and was collected at
the lowest level by a large pool.
78Unfortunately, none of these gardens are extant today.
The presence of Persian and Zoroastrian elements in Safavid gardens might have beendismissed as a peculiarity of that particular empire. But the presence of the same motifs in the
later Qajar period suggests that the Perso-Islamic garden is not unique to one period, but rather a
continuing tradition. In Shiraz during the later Qajar period, several extant gardens remain which
exhibit a Perso-Islamic quality. The most famous is Bagh-I Eram, built in 1795. It is a multi-
leveled garden, though not traditionally terraced, with a large, several storied palace at the
On the second floor of the palace is a monumental porch from which the entirety of the
garden can be seen (Fig. 22). In keeping with the “Perso” quality of this “Perso-Islamic” garden,
the monumental porch is decorated with images of kings, dignitaries, and lions. Furthermore, the
Achaemenid lotus marks almost every surface of the garden, from the rills to the paving stones.
Even gardens built in Iran today exhibit the same conventions and combination of Islamic
and pre-Islamic ideology. Certainly, there can be no stronger evidence than a contemporary,
twenty first century garden exhibiting the same elements seen at Persepolis. The Iranian Garden,
or Bagh-I Irani, is a recently built public garden in Tehran (Fig. 23). Completed in 2010, it is a chahar bagh, terraced garden with an empty palace pavilion at the top of its slope. The pavilion
serves no current purpose, and is ornamental. The pavilion, rills, and paving stones are marked
with the Achaemenid lotus. This garden is currently used by the public for a variety of activities,
but one can at any given time find theologians discussing the Qur’an in the shade of its
monumental pavilion (Fig. 24). The pavilion reflects here all that is permanent and preexisting,
and the theologians reflect the new Islamic uses that these pre-existing elements have been
ConclusionFor years, the gardens of Iran have been placed under the vague label of “Islamic”,
without consideration for the various contributions of their pre-Islamic heritage. It is only
through acknowledging this pre-Islamic heritage that their hybridity becomes apparent. They
can, if one proscribes to the arguments put forth here, be called Perso-Islamic. Their Islamic
nature cannot be denied, but it should not be exaggerated, and they are distinct from gardens that
lack the Persian influence they exhibit. Because of the assimilative nature of Islam’s introduction
to Iranian gardens, there can be no clear segregation between Islamic and Persian gardens in Iran
after the Invasion. The duality and hybridity posited here, then, requires a combination of these
Upon visiting a Perso-Islamic garden, one feels more than the presence of Islamicmysticism in its geometric architecture and design. This tradition, this form, this paradise has
been and still remains one of the strongest and oldest footprints of Iranian culture. As a result,
the most celebrated gardens in Iran combine the country’s long and ancient history with a newer
theology. While Islam represents the modern Iranian identity in many ways, it did not erase all
that came before it. In light of the strength of Islam’s influence in the Middle East today, it is
important to remember that the traditions in Iran before its arrival are still present, and in many
cases, just as important as they were thousands of years ago. If Cyrus visited one of the Safavid
gardens, he would likely marvel at its similarity to his own garden. If a Muslim ruler was able to
visit Pasargadae in its original splendor, he would likely find it very familiar. “Islamic” does not
seem, therefore, to suffice to describe these gardens. They deserve a term that spans their
thousands of years of history. They deserve to be called “Perso-Islamic”.
Post ScriptThis discussion has examined Perso-Islamic gardens in Iran, but it is important to note
that Perso-Islamic gardens exist outside of the Iranian Peninsula as well. Persian culture
permeated the kingdoms surrounding Iran. Perhaps the most illustrious example of a Perso-
Islamic garden outside Iran is the Taj Mahal (Fig. 25). The Safavids and the neighboring
Mughals in India had strong diplomatic relations, and the Mughals were greatly influenced
artistically by their Iranian counterparts. The Edict of Sincere Repentance during the Safavid
period in Iran caused most artists and craftsmen to relocate to the neighboring empire of Mughal
India (which provided modern day India with some of Iran’s greatest artistic traditions). The
Edict represented a desire of the Safavids to return to more traditional forms of Islam, with less
emphasis on the visual arts. The Mughals were descended from both the Turks and the Mongols,
as the first Mughal emperor, Babur, was descended from both Timurlane and Ghengis Khan.
They chose Farsi as their court language and Mughal emperors intermarried with Persian
princesses. One such emperor, Humayun, even spent years in Safavid Iran during a period of
exile. As a result of this blending of cultures, much of Mughal art and architecture exhibits direct
Persian influence. The Taj Mahal was built according to Persian garden standards, with added
elements of native Indian architectural design.
Built in 1648 by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, the monumental tomb of the Taj
Mahal sits at the end of an enormous chahar bagh garden.
Although the garden is no longer inits original condition, the massive, multi-storied monument rises up from a platform, with
fenestration that allows one to view the entirety of the garden from its proud heights.
Barbara Brend, Islamic Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 201.
other Mughal tomb gardens, like that of Jahangir in Lahore replicate this pattern of a raisedplatform topped by a monumental tomb in the midst of a chahar bagh garden.
It is important tonote that the Mughals were, like the Safavids, Muslim, but one cannot classify their gardens as
purely Islamic. The Taj Mahal, and many other similar Mughal gardens, can join the gardens of
Iran in their classification as Perso-Islamic.
Figure 1. Ruins of stone rills, Cyrus’ garden at Pasargadae, 7
century BCE, Pasargadae, Fars, Iran.
Figure 2. View approaching raised terrace of Persepolis, 6
century BCE, Persepolis, Fars, Iran.
Figure 3. Tomb of Darius, 6
century BCE, Persepolis, Fars, Iran.
Figure 4. Simulation of Cyrus’ garden at Pasargadae exhibiting quadripartite division.
Figure 5. Diagram of qanat system
Figure 6. Painted Vessel, 1000 BCE, Isfahan, Museum of Iranian Antiquities, Tehran, Iran.
Figure 7. Painted Bowl, 7
century BCE, Azerbaijan, Museum of Iranian Antiquities, Tehran, Iran.
Figure 8. Chahar bagh garden design.
Figure 9. Court of the Lions, the Alhambra, 1362-1391, Granada, Spain.
Figure 10. Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, 16
century, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 11. Ali Qapu Palace, 1609, Maidan-i Naqsh-i Jahan, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 12. Plan of Chahar Bagh Boulevard, 17
century, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 13. Hasht Behesht, 1670, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 14. Detail of wall painting, Hasht Behesht pavilion interior, 1670, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 15. Chihil Sutun, 1647, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 16. Lion carving on base of column, 1647, Chihil Sutun, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 17. Relief carving of lion attacking bull, 6
century BCE, Persepolis, Fars, Iran.
Figure 18. Relief carvings of Achaemenid flower, 6
century BCE, Persepolis, Iran.
Figure 19. Achaemenid flower spout, 1647, Chihil Sutun, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 20. Detail of painted tile work, 1629, Masjid-i Shah, Isfahan, Iran.
Figure 21. Plan of Bagh-i Takht, 17
century, Shiraz, Iran.
Figure 22. Bagh-i Eram, 1795, Shiraz, Iran.
Figure 23. Bagh-i Irani, 2010, Tehran, Iran.
Figure 24. Scholars and theologians meeting at Bagh-i Irani, 2013, Tehran, Iran.
Figure 25. Taj Mahal, 1648 CE, Agra, India.
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