Gardens have long been a place for reflection and contemplation, for seeking inspiration. In her Morrab Miscellany, Julia Grigg considers classic examples of a tranquil space, the Paradise Gardens, from their origins in ancient Persia to their adoption throughout the Islamic world and beyond.
I is for INSPIRATION.
In this post I’m writing about the enduring influence of IRAN on garden design. Sometimes referred to as ISLAMIC, today we more commonly call the style a ‘Paradise Garden.’
The great classical gardens in this style remain magnets for garden enthusiasts.
The earliest Paradise Garden dates from 540 BC, built by Cyrus the Great, founder of the first Persian Empire. Cyrus’ vision was of humans co-existing harmoniously in nature alongside peacocks and animals such as gazelles. Amid a harsh landscape, the enclosed garden represented a haven, luxuriantly planted with trees and flowers, divided into four parts irrigated by rills of flowing water.
Paradise Garden drawing on references to the Garden of Eden
Over a thousand years after Cyrus’ time, when Persia was conquered by the Arabs, the basic Paradise Garden structure was revived, drawing on references in the Book of Genesis to the Garden of Eden.
Four being the holiest number in Islam, the watercourses were symbolic of the Prophet Mohammed’s rivers of water, milk, honey and wine, the squared-off planted areas symbolic of the earth, the centrally-placed circular fountains of heaven.
Fragrant from aromatic plants
The structure is very controlled but the garden experience is entirely sensual: fragrant from abundant aromatic plants and fruit trees: pomegranates, dates, figs and olives (symbolizing life), shaded as a calm green respite from the glaring midday sun, enlivened by the constant tinkling sound of cool water and birdsong.
Islam spread the garden style to north Africa and Spain by the 1200’s. At Taroudant, an ancient Berber market city in southern Morocco whose soaring apricot-hued walls are set against a backdrop of snow-topped Atlas Mountains, I encountered my first Paradise Garden at the Palais Oumensour, where I wandered entranced under palms, orange trees and tumbling bougainvillea, water flowing beside me along shallow turquoise-tiled channels.
Reaching INDIA as the Mughal Empire took hold in C16th, the Charbagh (‘four gardens’) style, of which the Taj Mahal at Agra is the most celebrated, was derived from the Central Asian Timurid tradition of placing a tomb at the garden’s centre.
Shimmering in its beauty, the Taj Mahal sits in a garden of four parts designed to contain sixteen flower beds. Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan’s tombs today preside serenely over the cypress trees, symbolizing death, which dot its grassed areas, these lawns a legacy of British Colonial taste.
While working in Pakistan, I visited Shah Jahan’s Shalimar Gardens in Lahore. Dating from 1641, these demonstrate once again the Mughal Emperor’s architectural pre-eminence. I strolled in my yellow shalwar kameez along the Gardens’ formal terraces whose cascading waters were impressively engineered by channelling mountain water 100 miles via a canal.
At the edge of the Cholistan desert in flat, dry southern Punjab’s searing heat I stayed at the farmhouse of friends where we ate all our meals outside, their Paradise Garden’s mudbrick walls shielding us from the sandblasting winds. It was July, mango season, the orchard’s trees so laden we could pick the fruit at knee level. And at the end of every day refresh ourselves with a cooling pint of mango smoothie.
Paradise is not lost to us in the UK.
You can visit Highgrove’s Royal Gardens to discover HRH the Prince of Wales’ exquisite ‘Carpet Garden.’ Designed by Emma Clark to mimic the pattern of a Turkish carpet, its cypress trees, roses, mosaic tiles and a bubbling fountain resound with Islamic influences.
Or in London you can climb to the rooftop at the ISMAILI Centre’s elegant building in South Kensington to enjoy its Charbagh. A cultural and social as well as religious space, described as ‘radiating peace and humility’, the Centre was inaugurated by His Highness the Aga Khan in 1985. The water channels dividing the Charbagh’s four paved areas of mature trees and climbing white roses flow together into the pool around its striking hexagonal fountain.
From the Centre it’s only a few steps across Cromwell Road to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Here in the Jameel Gallery you’ll find laid out a Paradise Garden that’s portable: the vast, immensely intricate, flower-strewn carpet known as the Ardabil which dates from 1539, one of the world’s oldest and largest Persian carpets.
Lush gardens depicted in design of Persian carpets
Depictions in carpet design of lush gardens full of trees and animals were a speciality of the Safavid dynasty. Searching the V&A Collections for ‘Persian Garden Carpets’ takes you to an C18th example of a ‘bird’s eye view’ carpet.
Rugs like these, aerial perspectives portraying an orderly quartered orchard, animals and birds reposing amid the flowers and trees, stylized fish swimming in the streams, were made for taking along on military campaigns. Rolled out in his tent for a noble to recline on, the warrior could allow himself to be briefly transported from the battlefield’s chaos, reminded of calmer times in a more congenial setting.
Let the last words on the Paradise Garden be from the inimitable Monty Don who writes, ‘Any lover of gardens sooner or later discovers these wonderful, almost mythical places and longs to see them…’