The Greeks and Romans copied their garden sanctuary concept from the Persians, who copied it from the Egyptians. Persia itself considered itself a sanctuary from the rest of the world. Part of its empire building ideal was to conquer the world by establishing a paradise on earth. History proves that, in practice, the concept didn’t work out that way. Even so, the Persian Empire under Cyrus II and his successor, Darius I, was the first to respect the cultural diversity of its conquered peoples. It was the first great multicultural empire of the world. Persia became a land of gardens and poetry, birthing such mystics as Jami, Rumi, Hafir, and Omar Khayyam, its brilliant poet mathematician.
When Persian invaders discovered Egypt’s walled gardens in the sixth century B.C.E., they carried the idea back home and adapted it to their own park traditions. They learned to transform barren ground into a paradise as an attempt to reclaim a lost paradise where once had existed a harmony. Symmetry sought to restore that sense of balance and harmony within strict, axial lines, if only visually.
The word “paradise” derives from Old Persian pairi-daega for exceptional gardens. Its etymology came to mean a celestial paradise on earth. We think of Eden as fitting that description. Indeed, some scholars would suggest Eden was located in the northern Iranian Zagros Mountains, not Mesopotamia. It’s possible, but so far I’ve not found corroborating evidence to support that assumption.
According to Greek historian Herodotus, Cyrus the Great envisioned Persia as a garden holding every sort of plant and flower, and protecting his people within massive walls encircling three sides of the land, with water on the fourth. The highly advanced culture of ancient Persia developed the ability to source and direct water to irrigate this arid land.
“The dry earth was ticking under the sun and the crickets rasped. ‘It’s real godforsaken country,’ said Louis.”
~ John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)
The earliest recorded evidence of a Persian garden is the Pasargadae Palace Complex of King Cyrus the Great in 600 B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). He built palaces and pavilions, enclosed his gardens within mud brick walls, and lined water channels with stone. Not only did the walls provide protection from sand storms whipping across the desert, it also created a sense of mystery in the space designed for intimacy and contemplation in an otherwise hostile environment.
In Persian literature, the word “garden” is pardis, derived from paridaiza, a walled garden sanctuary. Beautiful geometrics and shapes exemplify the basic design concept. Thick mud walls enclosed rectangular plots which, in turn, enclosed smaller rectangular or square plots. A perpendicular straight line intersected an axis to create unity and integrity by both water channels and foot paths.
Within the basic design were four garden rooms, known as chahar bagh, all connected by footpaths and water channels set on axes. The intersection of the main longitudinal water course with an axis marked the placement of a pavilion, often with a reflecting pool in front of the entrance. This pavilion was not a gazebo but a residence. Cyrus had two pavilions and two palaces, as shown in the diagram above.
The entrance had an arched lintel building situated on an axis close to the pavilion to create a sense of anticipation. It visually framed the pavilion and the water channel. Often the lintel building served as a reception room for guests .
Water, of course, was essential for irrigating the gardens. Small waterfalls within the main channel, lined in stone, appealed to aesthetic and acoustic sensibilities. Imagine musical trickling fountains falling in graceful arcs like a water ballet.
Sadly, those mud brick walls of Cyrus’s gardens are mere rubble today, outlining the blueprint of garden room perimeters. Only the remnants of the central aqueduct remains. But this ancient design concept of enclosed gardens lives on in the grand Italian Renaissance estates and classic palace grounds at Versailles, the governor’s Palace gardens at Colonial Williamsburg, and my own backyard herb parterre, albeit without mud walls and stone-lined water channels.