By Heidi Noroozy
|Fin Garden in Kashan|
Picture yourself strolling through a lovely garden. In the center, water tumbles from a fountain and bubbles merrily through clear, blue channels. At one end stands a raised pavilion built around a tranquil pool. You pluck a juicy orange from a nearby tree, bend to smell fragrant roses, or rest on a bench in the leafy shade of a sycamore. Sound like paradise? Not quite. What I’ve just described is a traditional Persian garden.
Or maybe the two are really the same thing. The ancient Persians, who invented these oases of nature in a desert landscape, called them paradaeza (walled space), from which our word, paradise, is derived. And it is even said that the descriptions of Eden in the Koran and Bible are based on these pieces of heaven on earth.
The earliest known Persian garden is in Pasargadae, the Persian capital founded by Cyrus the Great, who ruled Persia in the sixth century B.C. The stone walls that once enclosed it are long gone, but with a bit of imagination you can still make out the places where a central pool and four water channels divided the space into geometric quadrants, symbolizing the Zoroastrian elements of sky, earth, water, and plants. Another interpretation is that this layout represents the ancient Persian view of the universe as four fields divided by four rivers.
This design is typical of modern Persian gardens, and today it’s a style known as chahar bagh (four gardens). Some of the most beautiful examples are the Hasht Behesht (Eight Heavens) in Isfahan and the Fin Garden in Kashan. These gardens are works of art, combining nature and architecture into a harmonious whole. The landscape designers made good use of light and shadow to create tranquil environments that encourage contemplation, perhaps a much needed thing in Iran’s turbulent and often violent history. Water is always present in the form of running streams and still pools, not only as nourishment for the living plants but also as a Zoroastrian symbol of life.
These patches of green in the brown desert are well adapted to Iran’s arid climate. Irrigation comes from a system of qanats, or underground aqueducts, that channel water from natural springs or distant mountains. The walls protect the garden from desert winds and help retain moisture, while leafy trees provide shade from the burning sun. When you pass through the gate and into the garden, the air inside is fresher and cooler than the dry desert heat outside.
Persian gardens are a central element in Iranian culture. They feature prominently in music, art, literature, and carpet design. As symbols of the Zoroastrian belief that civilization and nature are intertwined, they also form part of holiday rituals. On the thirteenth day of the Persian New Year, which takes place in March, people leave their homes and share picnics in nearby parks and gardens. Many city dwellers maintain a bagh on the outskirts of town—a private, walled garden used for quiet contemplation, socializing, and growing fruit, which is harvested and brought back to town for sharing with family and friends.
|Garden carpet from Isfahan|
Last year, UNESCO added the Persian Garden to its World Heritage list as a collective property that includes nine gardens selected from all over Iran. They range from the Eram Garden in Shiraz to Abbasabad in Mazandaran Province. One of the criteria for inclusion on the list is that these gardens represent an interchange of human values, since they have served as a model for garden designs all over the world, from India to Europe.
You may have visited a Persian garden yourself, especially if you’ve ever been to one of these places: the TajMahal, the Alhambra, or Versailles. There may even be one near where you live. So the next time you wander through a public garden, stop for a moment in the shade of a leafy tree near a bubbling fountain and remember the Zoroastrians who first created a piece of paradise on earth.