The Safavids

From the water of immortality to the legendary source of Fin

The Royal Quarters Of Qazvin, The Caspian, And Isfahan: City Garden

The idea of Persia was reborn in adversity.  During the hard centuries after the fall of the Sasanians there was a renaissance in which poetry, painting, textiles, architecture and its attendant gardens entered a golden age.

Between 1491 and 1736, descendants of the revered founder of a Sufi order who also was a master politician and military leader, forged from a chaotic, fragmented territory a great state, strong enough to figure once more in world politics, powerful enough to compete against its Ottoman and Egyptian neighbors, and rich enough to attract the eager embassies of Europe.  The Safavids extended and defined Iran's borders.  They created an entirely new military and economic structure.   They made the Shi'a branch of Islam the state religion and they fostered a rich Persian culture.  Its greatest achievement was in architecture - inseparable, in Persia, from gardens - and its finest monuments stand today.  Their architects was the flower of the Safavid line, Abbas Mirza, known to history as Shah Abbas the Great (1587-1628).

In 1587, when he was sixteen, Shah Abbas seized the throne from his father and set about securing his empire.  During the first ten years of his reign, he was almost continuously at war as he established his borders and manipulated the factions that menaced the throne.  Almost from the beginning, however, he commanded building, both public and private, as his grandfather Tahmasb had done in ornamenting his capital at Qazvin (which he had established to distance himself from the Ottomans and at the same time move closer to the geographical center of the country) with wide avenues and flower beds stretching out in seemingly endless vistas, their length emphasized by flanking waterways and avenues of trees.

Shah Tahmasb's architects designed for Qazvin the group of gardens and the buildings called the Chehel-Sotun Palace, the Dowlat Khaneh, and the Ali Qapu, which face a wide promenade and the great square, Maydan-e Asb.  /Some four hundred feet wide and twelve hundred feet long, this square was used for polo, receptions, and promenades by the court and the citizens alike.  The French scholar Maria Szuppe writes: "From reading sources, it appears that the Bagh-e Sa'adatabad was built according to precise plans....."  Qazi Ahmad Qomi writes that, "the bagh was square and had buildings and covered pavilions (talar), iwans and pools......the bagh was divided geometrically."  We are told by the scribe of the Spanish ambassador, Don Garcia de Silva Figueroa, that for his audience with Shah Abbas in the royal quarters in Qazvin on June 16, 1618, the ambassador and his entourage were led through "a broad alley line with cypress and plane trees, then in the middle and to the right they took another smaller alley heavily covered by trees and more than 150 yards square, in the middle of which stood a pretty pavilion open on all sides....." such gardens would inspire Abbas's greatest creation.

Shah Abbas built shrines, mosques, fortresses, palaces, and bridges.  All across the country he placed a series of Caravanserais and lodges for the relief of travelers, each about a day's journey apart.  Sir Thomas Herbert, traveling the route in 1627 with a British embassy, was appalled at the white glare of this great salt desert, so hot that the parties traveled by night, when, according to legend, afrits and jinns and other monsters wailed in the wind.  As other travelers had, he halted at a royal paradise known now as Tajabad, watered by a clear, small stream fed by a qanat, as it still is.  Because of this stream, Sir Thomas reported, the garden abounded in "Damaske Roses and other flowers, plenty of broad spreading Chenar trees (which is like our beech) with Pomegranates, Peaches, Apricots, Plumes, Apples, Pears, Chestnuts, and Cherries."  It was a paradise indeed, after the desert, "rich in nothing but Salt and Sand."

Sir Thomas met the man he called "Postshaw" (his rendition of Pad-e Shah, or chief ruler) at one of Shah Abbas's summer garden palaces on the Caspian Sea.  It had, the Englishman reported, pleasant gardens and a palace he found confusingly divided into four banqueting houses, all "gorgeously painted."  This was one of a number of pleasure  gardens Shah Abbas built amid the marshes and forests of the region, adapting the chahar-bagh to the slopes of the landscape with terraces and water chutes.

An important element in the creation of Safavid parks, and in their beauty, was the choice of sites.  The love that some rulers felt for the Caspian region gave birth to a whole series of gardens: at Farahabad, Ashraf (a garden complex near Behshahr), Abbasabad, Safiabad, Amol, and Babol.  In their geometrical principles and their respect for symmetry we see repeated the designs of the gardens on the plateau.  Farahabad was established as a new royal quarter in 1611 by Shah Abbas.  The Italian Orientalist Pietro Della Valle, who had an audience with the king at the Chehel-Sotun Palace at Ashraf in 1618 and was able to visit the women's residence, Bagh-e Tappeh or Anarun, in the company of the vazir of Mazanderan, says that "the women's quarters were located in a garden surrounded by walls and filled with orange and lemon trees and fragrant plants."  The king's palace seemed small to him; of the interior he said that "the rooms are all decorated like the palace at Isfahan....on the inside and in the iwans are small basins with water jets."  The Farahabad complex followed the same principles as the Meydan- Shah at Isfahan.

The Caspian gardens are gone now, but the Bagh-e Fin near Kashan, at the edge of the great salt desert where the mountains begin, remains, the oldest living garden in Persia.  A legend recounted by several writers, including Hassan ibn-e Abdolkarim, tells how "Goshtasp, the father of Darius 1, had the village of Fin built, and brought forth water by means of qanats."  Others attribute this wonderful spring, called Solaymanieh, to the legendary king Jamshid or even to Solomon.  The garden covers more than six acres, confined by a high wall that is pierced with a monumental towered gateway.  A spring and a ghanat provide its precious water, which is also used to irrigate fields outside and run a flour mill.  Inside, the garden is a variant of Chahar-bagh, with primary and secondary axes defined by turquoise-tiled watercourses aligned across shallow terraces.  The second course is the route from the pool where water from the spring enters the garden, a blue-tiled pool whose water, according to the British garden designer John Brookes, is reflected on the arched roof of a little pavilion built over it.  Through the watercourses, across the terraces and pools and from the little fountains, the water rushes and bubbles, all in the shade and piney scent of four-hundred-year-old cypress trees.  The garden has several basins located on the axis of its walkways, including a large basin that along with the pavilion occupies the center of the square tract.  Four other pools of water are covered by cupolas both for shade and as a sign of respect for water.  A constantly filled reservoir outside the garden supplies a subterranean conduit which is kept under pressure and gives rise, at regular intervals, to the bubbling jets that supply the water channels and the small basins.  Along the outside course, where the water is channeled from the garden, are willows, with yellow cannas growing near and paddling ducks beneath.  Various buildings and pools have been added over the centuries of this garden's history, and it has had periods of decline, most recently after a nineteenth-century  prime minister, Amir Kabir, was murdered in the bathhouse just outside on the orders of the Shah.  But no ghost now disturbs the garden's peace or charm.