The Paradise Gardens of Persia

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Hedieh Ghavidel 

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For the ancient Persians the symbol of eternal life was a tree with a stream at its roots. The sacred miracle tree contained the seeds of all within itself.

Tree planting was a sacred occupation and this reverence was deeply seated in the souls of the Persians.

Historical accounts tell us about gardens named Paradise filled with all things fair and good that the earth can bring forth.

The Persian Paradise garden gets its name from the old Persian word pairadaeza, meaning an enclosed area. The Achaemenid idea of an earthly paradise eventually infiltrated other cultures and was later translated into Latin as hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden, which came to symbolize the Garden of Eden.

Subsequently the English word paradise has its roots in the old Persian word pairadaeza.

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The first writer to make reference to a Persian garden using the word "paradise" was the Greek narrator Xenophon. The word appears in Avestan text only in the form of Pairadaeza.

The Old Testament describes Pleasure gardens as sacred enclosures rising in terraces planted with trees and shrubs, forming an artificial hill such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Not only were palaces and temples enclosed within gardens, but every city had private and sometimes public gardens which were opened to all during Persian New Year celebrations.

Persian gardens were places where shade and cool water could be privately enjoyed. They were places of spiritual solace, meeting places for friends and formal adjuncts to the houses or palaces they surrounded.

For more than three thousand years, the Persian garden has been the focus of Iranian imagination, influencing the country's art as well as literature.

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Persian garden carpet

The lavish use of flowers in such gardens inspired the weaving of floral designs into what are known as garden-carpets.

Persian gardens influenced garden design around the world and became the foundation of Islamic and later European garden traditions, an example of which can be seen in the Mughal gardens of India namely the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The paved and tiled Andalusian courtyards with arcades, pools and fountains testify to their Persian roots.

It is reputed that the main design for the Versailles Gardens has replicated the outlines of the paradise gardens of Pasargadae and provided inspiration for the gardens of the Louvre.

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The remains of a garden pavilion, Pasargadae

According to historical accounts, paradise gardens were primarily hunting-parks with fruit-trees grown for food. The bronze works datable to 1000 BCE unearthed in Luristan province are adorned with trees next to streams.

The first excavations at the ruins of the palaces in Persepolis ignored the question of gardens and neglected Garden Archaeology, the scientific study of the physical evidence of gardens recovered through excavation.

However, palaces scattered according to no rule and raised above three terraces with large open stairways brought to the mind of Garden archaeologists the simplest form of Persian garden; a rectangle of water, with enough of a flow to give it life and movement, and a raised platform to view it from.

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An example of a Chahar Bagh water channel, Pasargadae

Further excavation in Pasargadae led to the discovery of the first monumental garden, at least in western Asia, securing a place for Persian gardens in the history of garden design.

Archaeologists discovered that the four-fold garden accords with the traditional Persian garden plan known today as Chahar Bagh.

Considering the fact that the Achaemenid monarch Cyrus was known as the "King of the Four Quarters", it can be asserted that later-day Persian gardens owed their origins to the novel garden plan of Cyrus.

The Chahar Bagh plan is a quadrangular/rectangular canal pattern in which waterways or pathways are used to quarter the garden, a layout intended to bring to mind the four rivers of the Garden of Eden.

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All Persian gardens have vertical lines in their design, a central structure built on the highest point of the garden, a main waterway, a large pool in front of the structure to reflect the building, and a close relationship with nature.

Earth, water, vegetation and atmosphere are the most important elements in paradise gardens. Underground water canals called Qanat irrigated the gardens which were often built on slopes to facilitate the natural flow of water or create artificial waterfalls.

Trees and flowers are planted in gardens based on their usefulness; therefore, a Persian garden has more fruit trees, then shade trees and finally flowers.

Achaemenid inscriptions bear witness to the importance of symmetrical designs in Persian gardens. The Chahar Bagh School stresses the necessity of planting trees and flowers in regular rows.

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Fruit trees bring to mind rebirth and spring; strictly aligned sycamore trees, the symbol of eternal life, provide shade while roses, jasmines and other flowers intoxicate with their heavenly scent.

The most basic feature of a Persian garden is the enclosure of the cultivated area, which excludes the wildness of nature, includes the tended greenery of the garden and makes elaborate use of water in canals, ponds, rills and sometimes fountains.

A recurring theme in many paradise gardens is the contrast between the formal garden layout and the informality provided by free-growing plants.

Persians placed great importance on having their tombs surrounded by woodlands and gardens. According to historical accounts, the tomb of Cyrus the Great was enclosed by four gardens and a grove.

This tradition has continued to the present time and can be seen at the graves of prominent Iranian figures such as the poets Hafez and Sa'di in Shiraz.

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The resting place of Hafiz, Shiraz, Iran

The resting place of Hafiz, a famous tourism hub, pleases the eyes of visitors with its cypresses, poplars, cedars flowering shrubs and rose bushes.

Persian gardens are pleasances of water, meadow, trees and flowers in which buildings take a subordinate position.

To this day, the size and beauty of these gardens continues to amaze visitors sitting under the shade of cypress trees to enjoy looking at the sky reflected in the central pool while taking in the sweet aroma of beautiful flowers.