Articles | Classic Art
Echoes from Paradise

Tavoos Quarterly,No.7
Reza Moqtader

Each year the municipality of Paris, along with the Association for the Friends of the Bagatelle, holds an exhibition to present the relationship between man and his environment, especially his garden. This relationship takes on a various forms in different cultures, climates and artistic milieus. Among the successful exhibitions of previous years were “Gardens of the World”, “Gardens of Japan” and “Flowers and Gardens in Ottoman

Art”, as well as an exhibition of the works of Henry Moore.

This year was devoted to a journey to one of the most fertile sources in the history of gardens: the Persian garden. An exhibition entitled “Echoes of Paradise; Persian Gardens and their Influence” opened its doors to the public on March 29, 2001, thru July 1, 2001.

The exhibition was comprised of two distinct sections: The first took place at the “Trianon” building, and displayed objects and works related to gardens. Books, paintings, miniatures, etchings, tiles, textiles and other objects had been loaned by various French institutions: the Louvre Museum, the Guimet Museum, the Historic Textiles Museum of Lyon, the Paris Museum of Decorative Arts, the National Museum of Ceramics in Sèvres, the Municipal Library of Ville du Blanc, and private collections. Ms. Maguy Charritat and Ms. Christine Gayraud of the Islamic Section of the Louvre Museum supervised this section, and the interior design of the Trianon had been entrusted to Jacques Garcia. The entrance to the exhibition was framed by two tall cypresses set against bowls brimming with hyacinths.

The second part of this exhibition, held at the “Gallery” facing the Trianon, featured he history of the Persian garden, its qanat and irrigation systems, and its influences throughout history. These elements were shown in approximately sixty photographs of celebrated Iranian and Mughal gardens and descriptive plates of various phases of the Iranian garden. The photographic exhibition was organized by Mehdi Khonsari, Reza Moqtader and Minoush Yavari.

Some of the highlights of the first section were:

·                     The Chahar-baghi Carpet from Iran. Woven in the latter part of the 17th century and measuring 262 x 130 cm, this piece is one of the rarest and best known of the garden carpets preserved in modern museums. The design contains three axes, one spanning the length and two moving across the width of the carpet, dividing

it into ten karts, filled with tree, flower and bird motifs.

·                     Chahar-baghi Carpet, from Iran, 232 x 162 cm, with a crimson field and a navy border, covered with plant, bird and animal designs surrounding a pool in the center of the carpet.

·                     An illustrated copy of the Qor’an with Persian translation, dating from the 17th century (India). It refers to verse 45 of the Hajar Surah, where the Lord describes “the Paradise promised to devoted Muslims.”

·                     Plates from the 13th century made of silicate ceramic with various glazes.

·                     The miniature, The Prince Seated among his Courtiers in the Garden, dating from 13th century Fars.

·                     The famous painting Homay and Homayoun in a Garden from Herat. Executed in ink, gouache and gold on paper and dating to 1430.

·                     A number of precious miniatures from the Teymur and Mughal periods, showing the garden from the 15th to 18th centuries.

·                     Safavid textiles of silk, with gold and silver thread.

·                     Gol-o-Bolbol (flower and bird), Gol-o-Parvaneh (flower and butterfly) and Gol-o-Botteh (flower and shrub) paintings on wood, qalamdans, mirrors, book covers, qalians, etc.

In the second part of the exhibition, held in the gallery space, the history of Persian garden construction was traced through photographs. These were of the remains of the streams and stone pools of Pasargad (6th century AD), of carved images of palm trees, fir trees and flowers in the palaces of Persepolis, of Sassanid gardens, the tree of life at the Taq-e Bostan and of the renovation of the Khosrow mansion garden in Qasr-e Shirin. Also in this section were descriptions of the “invisible waters”, qanats and the spread of this Iranian system East to China, and West to Arabia, North Africa, Spain, and South America, accompanied by dates.

The images of extant gardens in Iran began with the Fin Garden in Kashan, followed by gardens in Esfahan, Shiraz, Yazd, Mahan, Damghan and the remains of the Safavid gardens of Ashraf and the Golestan Palace. Each section carried descriptions for non-Iranians unfamiliar with the structure of the Persian garden, and a smaller section described the Persian garden structures utilized in the palaces of Arab caliphs and Mughal gardens in India and Pakistan. At the end of the hall, set between two fir trees was a comparative study of Iranian gardens, each displaying imaginative art of Iranian landscape designers.

The majority of the photographs in this exhibition were by Mehdi Khonsari, and the exhibition catalogue had been published by L’Oeil magazine for the municipality of Paris.

Stemming from an ancient heritage, the Persian garden offers a terrestrial image of paradise to the sight of seventh century Arab conquerors. From Tamerlane to the Great Mughals, from the Safavids to the Qajars, this unceasingly reinvented model survives the vicissitudes of history in terms of its forms as well as its customs.

Before Islam

In Iran, the history of gardens begins at Pasargad, in mid-sixth century BC, in the palace of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenian dynasty. There, an architectural layout involving porticos overlooked long water alleys interrupted by square pools of carved stone. Cyrus’ successors and their satraps shared the same taste for regular gardens, planted with rows of trees and scented shrubs, which was to become a component of Persian culture.

The Greeks have referred to these gardens as paradeisos, an adaptation of the Persian word pairidaeza, which means “wall-enclosed area.” The ancient image in the Near East of an ideal garden, an abode for the Gods, gradually materializes in the royal gardens, terrestrial paradises that are to be echoes of the eternal garden. The vast parks were utilized mainly as hunting preserves in which pavilions were erected and the gardens were integrated into the architecture of palaces. These enclosements both shared the notion of protection against the exterior, as well as the presence of water—source of all life. Alleys and clumps of trees equally adorned the space with a symbolic aura. The idea of dividing a square or rectangular plot of land into four flower beds by means of two perpendicular axes, alleys or water channels is probably linked with the ancient belief that the universe is divided into four parts by four rivers. Thus, the principle of the chahar-bagh (Four Gardens), which later undergoes brilliant developments, manifests itself centuries before Islam.

Paradise in the Qor’an

The Holy Qor’an describes the abode promised to true believers as an enclosed garden planted with trees dispensing dense shade and delicious fruits, in which run “streams of incorruptible water, streams of a milk with unalterable taste, streams of delicious wine, streams of pure honey” (Holy Qor’an, XLVII, 15). Pomegranate, grapevine and date-bearing palm trees are repeatedly invoked. Naturally linked to the theme of the oasis, this image, this asylum filled with freshness and sensual pleasures in arid regions in which the Muslim culture develops, is materialized in Iran for the seventh century Arab conquerors.

The chahar-bagh principle allows numerous layouts. Sometimes limited to a simple planted courtyard, it may extend as far as desired by adding secondary alleys and water streams and adopting different designs. Its permanence in the course of centuries is attested to in miniature drawings and painting.

Timurid Gardens

The nomadic people who invade Iran successively, the Turks and the Mughals, adapt the model of the garden to the arrangement of the royal camp, a mobile palace as it were. Timur Lang “Tamerlane” (1370-14-5) and his descendants enlarge this camp, which is thereafter established by its designers and water-works “engineers”, from Central Asia to Afghanistan, following a precise plan: vast square or rectangular protected spaces, monumental porticos, sumptuous canopies set up in lush meadows, thrones installed on pedestals and carpets, make up an ideal environment for royal audiences, formal receptions and feasts… as well as a marvelous subject for painters. Some miniature paintings offer us a dazzling vision of an eternal spring, in which the trees and shrubs are literally covered with blossoms. Fruit trees and vine mingle with ornamental species, pine trees, cypresses, poplars, willow and plane trees, and with flowerbeds.

A garland of gardens with evocative names, which have, alas, disappeared, surrounds Samarqand: Ornament of the World, Garden of the Northern Wind, Garden of Paradise, of Bliss… Some were dedicated to women; others were created to commemorate a historic event.

The Gardens of the Great Mughals’

In 1526, now master of part of northern India, the emperor Babur founds the dynasty of the Great Mughals, the main Muslim empire on the subcontinent until the beginning of the 18th century. Born in Central Asia, Babur remains nostalgic of the gardens of Samarkand and Herat, and devotes efforts at introducing a new aesthetic order in this conquered territory. “Thus, in this India with no charm or regularity, ordered and symmetrical gardens appeared. At every corner, I made beautiful flower beds planted with roses and narcissuses, all in perfect alignment.”

Babur’s nomad ancestry and his unceasing military campaigns make him prefer the open spaces of strictly structured vast chahar-baghs to the confined atmosphere of palaces. As he had done in Kabul for the famous Garden of Fidelity, in India he channels water streams, sets up terraces, pools, fountains and shaded temporary halt areas, and plants fruit trees. In Agra, his first gardens line the Jamna, opposite the Fort of the Vanquished, a disposition that is later emulated in the interior architecture of palaces.

From Punjab to Kashmir to the Deccan, three main types of not entirely unrelated gardens flourish throughout the Mughal territory: vast suburban chahar-baghs, funerary gardens, that are often best preserved, and gardens inside forts and palaces. On carefully chosen sites, with the presence of water as a priority, exterior gardens were surrounded by tall walls that protected them from the invading jungle or from sand and dust. Laid out as far as possible to the image of the gardens of Shalimar in Lahore and in Srinagar, in a succession of terraces traversed by water streams cascading between the different levels, the Mughals’ chahar-baghs acquire pools, fountains and open pavilions, often located on a stone platform at the intersection of two perpendicular alleys.

“Tomb-Gardens”, i.e. imperial mausoleums, illustrate the grandiose funerary architecture of Mughal India. Of diverse styles,they are all integrated into enclosed chahar-baghs. They are set either at the center of the garden, as the emperor Homayun’s mausoleum in Delhi or Akbar’s in Sikandra, or at one of its extremities, as the Taj Mahal in Agra, the mausoleum of Shah Jahan (1628-1657) and his beloved wife Momtaz Mahall. In this case, the axial plan offers an elongated perspective between the entrance and the marble mausoleum standing on an elevated terrace strewn with minarets.

Architecture having penetrated the garden, the garden in turn makes its place at the heart of architecture. In Lahore, Delhi and Agra, flowers become predominant in the water and stone gardens of the zenanas (harems) and public spaces. In the chahar-baghs, alleys replace the bridges connecting the central platform to the sides. Shah Jahan’s builders of the Red Fort at Delhi display the ultimate development of this process. The entire palace is designed as a garden: high terraces lining the river, a lush chahar-bagh, and pavilions with columns shaped as cypress trees and walls encrusted with flowers of hard stone. The abode of the ideal sovereign, the palace garden has been qualified by a panegyrist as “The Spring of a garden flowered with justice and generosity.” At the time of the decline of the Mughal Empire, the rajahs and nawabs of the Hindu and Muslim states of northern India built several palaces and gardens. Still impregnated with the “Mughal style”, they nevertheless open themselves to other influences. But in the miniature paintings executed in these diverse courts, the chahar-bagh combined to the architecture and waterside terraces remains the ideal environment in which the subjects are set.

Inside the Zenana

The zenana, where the women of the princely household dwell, occupies an important space in the most private part of forts and palaces. Reserved to the sovereign, access to the apartments sheltering the queen mother, the consorts, the concubines, the servants and the young children is strictly controlled. Armed door guards, eunuchs and female matrons and guardians assure that the purdah, the ancient custom of the reclusion of the court’s female population, is respected. Whether Hindu or Muslim, these women, who play no official role, spend the better part of their existence confined in the zenana. They seldom step outside,

only to accompany the sovereign on some trips. The story of the Emperor Jahangir’s favorite spouse, Noor Jahan, who leaves the palace to go horse-riding and hunting with her face unveiled, remains exceptional. On the other hand, many feasts, animated by female dancers and musicians, are held in the zenana. Invisible and uncrowned, often cultivated, the spouses nevertheless play a role in the state’s affairs. Being influential as long as they remain in their master’s favor, their intervention is solicited.

Architecture, with its pavilions opening on inner yards and gardens, brings a breath, an illusion of freedom, to this closed world. Nature is present: a faraway hilly panorama, a river seen from atop a high terrace protected from onlookers, a pool and flowerbeds. A weeping willow, a cypress tree, a patch of cloudy sky are sometimes enough to invoke it.

By the end of Akbar’s reign, women captured in the intimacy of the zenana appear in miniatures. Obviously, the painters are not allowed into this closed world and these women’s faces are unknown to them. Nonetheless, one of their favorite subjects is the representation of the princely couple standing, sitting or reclining, leaning against soft cushions, in a pavilion opening on the garden or a terrace overlooking a river or a pool. A female servant wields a fly-swap, musicians play various instruments, beverages, foods and the hookah are prepared. The daily life of the zenana’s women, the object of every fantasy, is illustrated in its most prosaic details, the makeup, the usage of the hookah or the preparation of bedclothes. Untiringly repeated, these scenes, particularly that of the hairdo, take place in enthralling surroundings where floral carpets merge with flowerbeds. Some painters, impregnated with iconographic themes of Indian origins, have privileged a few rare instants of feminine solitude: the anxious heroine awaiting her lover is represented in diverse, strictly codified, poses reflecting her feelings.

Safavid Feasts

When, at the very beginning of the 16th century, the Safavids (1501-1732) succeed the Timurids, the structures and amenities of the garden, the material expression of paradise, remain unchanged for a while. Miniatures and artifacts acquaint us with an ideal microcosm in which the flowers of spring mingle with the fruits of summer. Every public or private activity connected to sojourns in the garden is represented. Scenes of receptions given in honor of notables, feasts held on the occasion of a circumcision, a marriage or a return from a hunting expedition, are associated with sumptuous banquets, generally accompanied by music and dance.

The prince presides over a more or less numerous assembly, sitting on a throne or a carpet, at the entrance of his pavilion or in a pleasant corner of the garden, sometimes in the orchard. Whether as a grass-lined water stream, a pool fed by two small channels or a large liquid mirror, water is ever present. Servants carry narrow-edged plates holding portions of mutton and venison, whole broiled poultry and brochettes. In the foreground of the Princely Reception (Musée du Louvre), a cook is turning a spit loaded with small birds. The same plates, topped by ceramic or golden conical covers, could contain pilau, i.e. cooked rice with meat and broth, served plain or tinted with saffron or pomegranate juice. Fruit appear often in miniatures, presented on plates. Sweets, particularly appreciated in Iran, notably candy bars and “liquid jams”, were served at any time of the day. Barnabas, the archbishop of Esfahan, was thus offered coffee and “a large tray of bonbons and sweets” before the meal.

Persian music is governed by a given mode that may be modified, botin its melody and rhythm, during improvisations in which singers and instrument players deploy all their talent. A book cover from the French national library shows us three musicians at work: one is playing the duff, a tambourine with small cymbals, the second the harp and the third the ‘ud, a kind of short-necked lute.

Pure water, scented with flowers or spices, fruit syrups, milk, tea and coffee are commonplace beverages. Although falling under the religious prohibition of fermented beverages, wine was ever consumed in princely banquets. That of Shiraz, the most appreciated in Iran, was reserved in priority to the king’s table. One currently finds representations of cupbearers carrying a long-necked bottle and a small cup on Safavid ceramic vessels, fabrics and albums. The wine celebrated by the artists—“pour this wine tinted like tulips and rubies”—bears a particular meaning for certain Sufis. When Jalal-ed-Din Rumi writes: “The wine of union, O thou! Pour that I may shatter, as a sot, the fetters of the eternal prison”, drunkenness becomes a metaphor of mystical union with the divine.

The Garden of Pleasures

Closed unto itself, the garden in which the harmony of divine order reigns is, for a Persian, a place of enjoyment rather than action. Having inherited in this regard a very ancient conception, he does not walk around in his garden; he chooses a place in the fresh shade near the water to sit down. He is under the sky, the “turquoise arch”, amid the pine and planes, the cypresses interspersed by blooming fruit trees, fragrant lentisk and myrtle, basilisk and thyme. Birds are perched on tree branches and roses, tulips and peonies from China grow in clumps. There is no need for him to move about in this place that has become the receptacle of all delicate sensations—the perfume of plants, the murmur of water, the songs of the birds, the caress of the breeze. Mohammad-Yusef elegantly translates this state in his portrait of a Young Man Leaning against a Willow Tree (Musée du Louvre): “Silence! Spring has come, the rose has come… the beauties have sprung out of the hidden reality to voice their call.” Omnipresent in art, the rose (gol), whether from Damascus or “musk-scented”, is, for the Iranian soul, the most perfect manifestation of divine beauty on earth. Under the influence of European botanical plates or Mughal works reaching Iran, the artists have drawn simple sweetbriers or fluffy roses, slightly in the manner of Redouté. They appear in naturalistic watercolors that display great refinement of lines and extreme sensibility. The iconographic theme of the rose and the nightingale (bolbol) comes from Persian poetry, which,under this form, sings of the beloved and her lover. Nezami compares them to the unfortunate lovers Layla and Majnun: “On the highest branch the nightingale is perched, sighing as Majnun, while below the rose reaches with its corolla for the bird, as Layla.” Very soon, the couple “rose and nightingale” takes on a mystical dimension in Sufi Iranian poetry, which expresses itself in passionate terms: “Mine is the inebriation of the rose garden as it is the nightingale’s, and as the nightingale I am assassinated by separation” wrote Jalal-ed-Din Rumi as early as the 13th century.

The city of Shiraz was famous for its roses and its distillery arts. Oils were obtained in the form of a brown jelly, and waters were more or less concentrated. Decent hospitality was inconceivable without a sprinkling of rosewater, considered indispensable after the meal, after hand-washing. Numerous sprinklers were made in Shiraz, then famous for its glass industry. Their elegant forms, their elongated bodies, coiling necks and diverse spouts persist well after the Safavid period.

Esfahan, the City-garden

When, in 1598, Shah ‘Abbas I transfers his capital to Esfahan, an entire city becomes a garden. The urban plan of the new city integrates nature into grandiose architectural spaces, mostly located between the ancient city and the river. One of the royal gardens, the Hezar-Jarib, however, extends far beyond this river, in the alignment of a large tree-planted avenue, the Chahar-Bagh. The three-kilometer-long Chahar-Bagh begins at the royal pavilion, the Chehel-Sotun (Forty Columns). Two rows of plane trees, bushes and flowerbeds grow on both sides of a central canal interrupted by pools bordered with onyx. “The avenue is the most beautiful thing in Esfahan and in all Persia,” writes Tavernier, the French jeweler who repeatedly stayed in this city between 1632 and 1668. It was a promenade where, come nightfall, “all the pride of Esfahan came to stroll,” take some fresh air and have a coffee.

On both sides of the Chahar-Bagh lie luxuriant gardens with such poetic names as the Nightingales, the Mulberry Trees, the Soul. They are accessed through a portico topped by a small reception hall. An outwardly open architecture is nested amid the decorative and fruit trees and the trefoil-covered grass-beds.

A succession of kiosks (of Mirrors, of the Eight Paradises) sometimes housing a pool with waterworks is scattered in the royal gardens. Widely opening on grassy perspectives shaded by elm and ash trees, these pavilions are decorated with vividly colored ceramic panels depicting genre scenes located, again and always, in gardens. It was blissful to sit among the hosts on the talar—a vast terrace with wooden columns—of the Chehel-Sotun, by the fresh pool, and to follow the plays of shadow and light.

The gardens of the Chehel-Sotun adjoin those of the ‘Ali Qapu (Sublime Door) royal palace. The facade of this palace opens, by an elevated talar, on the Royal Square, the focal point of the empire, six times larger than the Place des Vosges, its contemporary in Paris. Three other prestigious buildings, the Mosque of the Shah, the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah and the monumental entrance of the Royal Bazaar, surround the square, where a multitude of daily activities are carried out. Their mantles of ceramic tiles adorned with floral arabesques echo the nearby gardens.

Shah ‘Abbas has created other relationships between the garden and the city, yet Iran does not forgo its tradition of enclosed gardens. It develops new ones on the shores of the Caspian Sea or in such cities as Shiraz and Kashan, including the ever-famous Bagh-e Fin. One also finds interior gardens in mosques, madrasas (theological schools) and caravansaries.

Three decades after its creation, Esfahan was known, under the epithet of “Half of the World”, in all European capitals. Shah ‘Abbas’ successors perpetuated his work, but with the downfall of the Safavid dynasty, the city lost its prestige as a capital. Mostly abandoned, its gardens offer a melancholy image in later lithographs.

Iran under the Zand and the Qajar

The Zand and Qajar dynasties succeeded to the Safavid, under which the country had opened itself to Europeans, merchants and missionaries. Iranian artists had begun becoming interested in certain aspects of Western art, notably the vegetal representations which they have come to know through engravings. The floral theme later becomes one of the dominant themes of Persian painting. There were “flower painters”, such as Mohammad-Hadi, “the most esteemed artist in Persia”.

The lacquer technique, i.e. painting on varnished papier maché, reaches the peak of its development on boxes, mirror-cases, pen-boxes and book covers. Thus, the Book Cover with Narcissuses displays a bunch of these flowers, which are highly appreciated in poetry, where, as here, they are associated with yellow and red.

In the 19th century, more contacts are established with the West. The monarch Nasser-ed-Din Shah (1848-1896) travels repeatedly to Paris and Frenchmen travel across Iran. A book by Jules Laurens, Le Jardin de la mission française à Téhéran (Ziai-Gharagozlu collection), shows a private garden of the Qajar capital, one among the many others created or restored in that period.•