Eastern Landscape Architecture Tradition: Part II
This is the second part of a two-part series about the varied landscape architectural traditions of the Middle East and the West and the impacts of their differing climates on design. The first part analyzed the relationship that Western landscape architecture had with wet and cold climates. This second part looks at Middle Eastern traditions, grounded in arid and hot climates.
In the field of Architecture, landscape architects often feel like orphans; but they should take heart. They can justifiably claim that their field of interest was created even before the creation of Adam: mankind’s first place of residence was “Paradise”. The myth of Paradise, rooted in the arid climate of Mesopotamia, was first recorded by the Sumerians. The word paradise is a transliteration of the word pairidaeza which is a combination of pairi (around) and daeza (wall). In Old Persian paradise simply meant a walled garden.
Eastern landscaping tradition grew out of the harsh climate of the desert, where water and greenery were scarce resources, and often worshiped as life-sustaining deities. In the thousand-year long tradition of Persian poetry, garden and flowers are the most common metaphors and were extensively used by the likes of Omar Khayam, Hafez, and Rumi. In that geographical and cultural context, garden was the most prized possession, enjoyed by rich and poor alike. In the eastern tradition of landscaping and gardening, water and greenery have a more symbiotic relationship with humans and a home than in the West.
The Persian garden was rectangular in shape with four walls to keep out the encroaching sand and sun of the desert clime. The gardens were planted with fruit trees, herbs and rose bushes. Shallow water channels were laid across the length and breadth of the garden for their cooling and soothing effect. These gardens were not meant to be walked in but were enjoyed from a pavilion built at the edge of the garden. In the evening, after the sun had gone down, people sat in the shaded pavilion and enjoyed the cool fragrant breeze wafting over the scented herbs and flower beds as they looked over the beautifully laid out garden.
Furthermore, Persian gardens have a more utilitarian aspect to them than their western counterparts. In Western Europe, the weather is often cold and wet for a good part of the year and gardens were not easily accessible for outings and extended visits. While in the east, the weather is dry and hot most of the year. In that hot and dry climate, homes become uncomfortable in early and late evening hours, and people, rich and poor, come out of interior rooms into their courtyards or gardens to spend the evening. In Persian, Mughal, and Spanish gardens, a pavilion at each end of the garden is a common feature where people sat on carpets and cushions and enjoyed the cool breeze and the pitter patter of water drops falling from fountains.
Eastern gardening tradition was primarily influenced by its climate and geographical conditions, and its status further enhanced by the cultural context in which gardens were held as the best of this world and hereafter.
With the help of pictures I will show how ancient Persian gardens were emulated by many other cultures including Arabs and Central Asian Turcoman tribesman, who came into contact with the Persian Civilization in the seventh and eleventh centuries respectively.
An Oasis in Iran:
As one can see in this harsh environment, water and greenery are quite scarce. One sees a yearning and idealization of the two landscaping elements, water and greenery, in the broader culture and in the gardening tradition.
Plan of Cyrus’s Garden, Iran. (500 BC)
The plan of the Cyrus’s Royal Garden was rectilinear with water channels. The garden was planted with aromatic herbs and fruit trees such as citrus and pomegranate. Several pavilions around the edges suggests that these buildings were used by the members of the royal household, who sat there in the evenings and enjoyed the view of the garden from these pavilions.
Safavid gardens of Isfahan, Iran: Maidan (1598-1606)
Shah Abbas is credited for building one of the greatest cities, Isfahan in Persia. The square was built to serve many purposes and events. The 20-acre open space in the middle served as a polo ground, parade ground, market place and the space for temporary performances by jugglers and acrobats. The two-story arcade surrounding the square at that time housed, tobacco shops, coffee houses, restaurants, stores selling everything from carpets to knick knacks brought from Venice and Nuremberg.
Though Maidan was not a garden, it is laid out in a rectilinear shape, with water channels surrounding the square and a large reflecting pool in the middle. It has changed substantially over the past few centuries but its shape and the presence of water pools reminds one of Persian gardens.
Miniature Painting, Isfahan 1620-25
This miniature painting shows a gathering of officials from Shah Abbas’s court in a garden. Gardens, flowers , and water always served as major themes in eastern poetry, painting, carpet weaving, ceramics and surface decorations of buildings.
Shalimar Garden, Lahore Pakistan (1641):
Mughals came to India in 1526 and brought with them the passion for gardens. They were long acquainted with Persian gardens built by their forefathers in Herat and Samarkand. The Shalimar garden was built-in Lahore by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal. The garden is 2,158 feet by 846 feet, and is laid out in three descending terraces with large water pools and more than 400 water fountains. The entire complex is surrounded by a high wall.
It was a personal garden for the royal family. There are several buildings including a grand hall of audience, royal sleeping quarters, royal baths, and two gateways. The Mughals liked to build on a grand scale and this garden reflects that expansiveness. It is no different from a western garden except that it is not attached to a palace.
It is reported that during the hot summer months, Mughal kings left Delhi for the valley of Kashmir. The people who traveled with the King numbered over 100,000 including his personal staff, royal household, and royal guards. Now imagine Emperor Shah Jahan coming to Shailmar garden to escape the oppressive heat of Lahore, where temperatures in summer often reached 120 F / 49 C. This large 42-acre garden probably would have accommodated only the family of the emperor and his closest associates, the rest of tens of thousands of his staff members probably camped outside of the high walls, while the Emperor enjoyed the peace and quiet of the garden.
Plan of Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi India (1570):
Humayun’s Tomb was the first garden tomb built in India by his wife Haji Begum. His tomb was placed in the center of a 30 acre garden, which is divided in four squares and bisected by a water channel. There is a pavilion with 12 doors or openings and a royal bath house. The entire complex is surrounded by a high wall and it was a private garden or a paradise for the tomb of a ruler. The Taj Mahal was also a tomb built for a wife by the surviving husband and the Emperor Shah Jahan and is also situated in an elaborate walled garden. Mughal gardens were not much different from their western counterparts, they were formal in shape and rarely deviated from a long-established tradition of gardening, except that these gardens were free-standing and not attached to homes or palaces.
Generalife Alhambra, Granada, Spain (Early 14th Century)
Persian gardens were emulated by many cultures that crossed paths with the Persian civilization and the Arabs were no different as they adopted the custom of building gardens and brought it with them to the Iberian Peninsula. Generalife or alarife is a transliteration of two Arabic words Janat ul Arif . Janat means paradise or garden and Arif means master or mason, so the garden is known as the Garden of the Architect. However, no one knows who the master builder of this beautiful garden was. It was built outside the walls of the Alhambra Palace compound and was surrounded by orchards, cultivated farm land, stables, and pens.
The garden is small as compared to Mughal gardens in India, but there are pavilions at each end for people to sit, and covered arcades alongside the main waterway. It was planted with fruit trees like citrus, jujube, pomegranate, and grape vines. Aromatic plantings were prized and there was an abundance of myrtle, jasmine, laurel, cypress, and roses. It is a beautiful garden offering great views of the city of Granada.
Court of Myrtle, Alhambra Granada, Spain:
The palace of Alhambra is a masterpiece where home and garden became one. The false dichotomy between architecture and landscape architecture diminished. The Palace of Alhambra (The Red Palace) was built-in the 13th century by the rulers of small city state of Granada. The palace complex was built on the narrow end of the Sabika Hill overlooking the city of Granada. That hill-top does not have much room and in 13th century it accommodated a small city beside the palace and the gardens. Alhambra palace is modest in scale and the residential parts are cozy, and I believe that is where its beauty and charm lies.
What makes Alhambra so unique is the melding of the landscaping elements such as water and greenery into the residential architecture. Court of Myrtle is a beautiful example of where water is brought inside the house: it not only cools its surroundings but reflects the buildings, the bluest sky, and moon at night. The reflecting pool bordered by myrtle hedges is sublime.
In the Court of Lions, marble channels bring water inside the rooms from the main fountain. In the four quadrants, orange trees were planted and this little yard is as close to paradise as one can get in this world.
- Paradise As A Garden in Persia and Mughal India by Elizabeth B. Moynihan
- Isfahan Pearl of Persia by Wilfrid Blunt
- Reading The Alhambra by Jose Miguel Puerta Vilchez