The Gardens of the Great Kings

From Cyrus to Alexander (559-330 B.C.)
From The Ancient Gardens of the East
To the Royal Gardens of Pasargadae

From a book by the same name


Please do visit this site, it is simply fantastic


An early-nineteenth century map of the Persian Empire at the time of Darius the Great, the third of the Achaemenian King of Kings (522-486 B.C.)  This map also shows the twenty-two satrapie of the empire, each of which contained a royal garden.

The Achaemenian spear established Persia's empire, an empire that covered nearly two million square miles and absorbed nations from Libya to India and from Greece to Ethiopia.  The Achaemenian government united the disparate peoples under a single rule, leaving them their cultures and their gods, tying them together through far-reaching chains of communication and sophisticated administration.  The Achaemenian genius, it seems, was for synthesis, in governing as in the arts of civilization.

Thus the imperial culture that Cyrus and his descendants created was a rich tapestry of many colors: Entirely new, it was woven from threads as old as civilization itself.  Achaemenian palaces derived their style from those of subject peoples. Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks, among others, built those soaring royal halls, and all the peoples of the empire brought as tribute the objects that adorned the buildings and their great gardens.


For these were garden palaces, with vast colonnades open to the walled green spaces that surrounded them, and throne rooms overlooking reflecting pools and groves of trees.  They were paradises in an austere wilderness; in fact, paradise derives from the Old Persian pairi-daeza, "a walled space." The Greeks adapted the word as paradeisos to describe the gardens of the Persian Empire, and Greek translations of the Bible used this word as the term for the Garden of Eden and for heaven.  Modern Persian uses the arabized version ferdows. As the word implies, the gardens of the Persian kings embodied the images of sacred myth.  To ancient man, the entire natural world was charged with meaning:  The gods were everywhere and immanent.  As might be expected in a region where all of human existence depended upon agriculture, particular power resided in water and trees, and the Mesopotamian idea of an everlasting, ever-fruitful paradise was already thousands of years old by Achaemenian times.  Fragments of the earliest known writing - that of Mesopotamian Sumer of 2800 B.C. - include a poem describing the creation of such a paradise, ordered by the water god ad provided by the god of the sun.  The Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, only slightly less ancient, presents an immortal garden, centered on a sacred tree that stand beside a holy fountain.  The concept was universal in Semitic myth.  

The earliest historical records about the Achaemenian "paradise" are those of the Greek author Xenophon (ca 431-355 B.C.), a disciple of Socrates.  In 401 B.C. he describes the passion of Darius I for gardens: " all the districts he resides in and visits, he takes care that there are 'paradises,' as they call them, full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will produce......." And in his Anabasis, he expresses admiration for the way in which Cyrus the Younger (424-401 B.C.), the son of Darius and satrap of Lydia, looked after his large garden at Sardis, which he had designed himself and in which he had planted some of the trees with his own hands.  As for the Persian' love for shade trees, Herodotus describes how Xerxes, during his long campaign against the Greeks in 480 B.C., stopped on the royal route and saw a plane tree, the sacred tree of the Iranian plateau, which was so majestic and beautiful that he decorated it with golden ornaments and appointed a lifetime guard to watch over it!


As the empire grew ever richer from the tributes of its provinces-the famous satrapies - such paradises proliferated.  The Achaemenians were builders on a grand scale.  Cyrus began the restoration of the old Elamite capital at Susa, Darius and Artaxerxes expanded it to a city of palaces and courtyards covering more than seven acres, all organized around a central garden.  Susa was a winter administrative capital.  To escape the summer heat on the plain, the court moved with the season to Ecbatana, the ancestral capital of the Medes six thousand feet high in the Zagros, where the modern city of Hamadan now lies.  Inside the ring of seven walls set to guard the city, they planted terraced gardens of great magnificence.  And the kings ordered paradises, with trees in orderly rows and aromatic plants, created at the satrapal palaces as well, so that the idea and the plants spread throughout the ancient world.  Thus Darius I commending the garden of the satrap Gadatas in Asia Minor:  " It is evident that you devote your attention to cultivating the land that belongs to me, since you transplant into Lower Asia trees that grow on the other side of the Euphrates; I laud your diligence in this matter, and for it you shall enjoy great favor from the House of the King."  In fact, the import and export of plants was a deliberate policy of empire.  The Achaemenians, according to the archaeologist Roman Chirshman, introduced pistachios to Aleppo, sesame to Egypt, and rice to Mesopotamia.

Of all the palaces that at Perseoplis, begun by Darius, expanded by Xerxes and Artaxerxes I, pillaged and burned in 330 B.C. during Alexander of Macedon's conquest, remains the emblem of Achamenian glory.  Yet it is the one where paradise is difficult to imagine:  Although the architecture incorporates such plant forms as the lotus, the rosette, the palm, and the fir tree, these are lost on the impregnable platform fifty feet high, with its reversing staircases wide enough for eight men to walk abreast, its giant doorways, its fallen columns.  The plant become insignificant beside the endless processions of subject peoples bearing gifts, the winged Assyrian bulls that guard the gatehouse, the enormous mythological animals and griffins that served as capitals for the columns.

To recall the Achaemenian garden, it is better to return to the tomb of Cyrus, the first and greatest of the Kings of Kings, at Pasargadae.  It is a lofty building, the peak of its gabled roof rising forty feet above the treeless, plowed fields around.  Its monumental simplicity has moved the hearts of generations.  When in 330 B.C. Alexander the great paused to salute it, he found it set in a garden.  According to Alexander's biographer, the first-century Greek historian Arrian, "The tomb of this Cyrus was in the territory of the Pasargadae, in the royal park; round it had been planted a grove of all sorts of trees; the grove was irrigated, and deep grass had grown in the meadow...."

The tomb was a place of pilgrimage for Cyrus's successors, for Alexander, and for other soldiers paying homage to greatness.  Some of them left their names carved on the walls.  In later centuries, as Cyrus was forgotten, the tomb was named "The Shrine of Solomon's Mother."  A mehrb "altar" facing toward Mecca was carved inside the building.  Beside it, village women praying for fertility hung bits of votive cloth.