Echoes of Paradise

The Mongol Interlude

From Teymur to Babur

For more than eight centuries after the fall of the capital, Ctesiphon, in 637, Persia existed not as a nation but as a subject territory of the Islamic Empire, a territory whose administrative language, as throughout the empire, was Arabic.  Yet Persia survived.  The Persian language - now mainly written in an adaptation of the Arabic script and with the addition of many Arabic words - reemerged within a couple of centuries of the conquest as the peerless instrument of a distinctively Persian literature; the nation itself triumphantly reappeared in 1499.

Scholars offer a good reason for this almost unparalleled history.  They observe that unlike its generally nomadic neighbors and conquerors, Persia had a history of empire, with both an empire's machinery of government and an imperial high culture.

Certainly the governors of the swiftly created Islamic Empire called upon the experience pf Persian bureaucracies to administer their vast holdings, and the rulers of the new and theoretically egalitarian state quickly acquired the style of Persia's absolute monarchies.  And the ancient traditions of the civilized arts persisted. For reasons that will appear, the art of Persia came to embody the philosophies of Islam in profoundly beautiful ways, and the resulting art included gardens.

This art survived the terrible fires that consumed the nations during the age of Islamic empire, as Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan from 1219, his grandson Hulagu decades later, and Teymur-e Lang (Tamerlane) from 1381 on ravaged and ruled the Eastern world.  The savagery of the Mongol invasion, the flattening of plundered cities, the wholesale massacres of their inhabitants, the towers of skulls left as a warning against resistance, the silent field going back to desert, the end of even nominal rule by the successors of Mohammad comprised a disaster beyond comprehension.  It terrified the chroniclers: "Who would find it easy to describe the ruin of Islam and the Muslims?" wrote the fourteenth century Arab writer Ibn-al-Athir.  "O would that my mother had never born me, that I had died before and that I were forgotten."

Despite the terrible Mongol invasion of Iran and the total destruction of the country, which brought about a hiatus in the evolution of Iranian art, the ancient traditions managed to survive.

As Donald Wilber pointed out, among the Mongols of Persia (1256-1336), Ghazan Khan (1256-1304) was a great builder.  It was he who created the great park outside of Shanb, west of his capital, Tabriz.  According to the accounts of historians, this great grade, called Bagh-e-Edalat (Garden of Justice), contained buildings for cultural purposes, as well as hospices.  More than a century later, another famous garden of Tabriz, the Hasht-Behesht, was laid out by Uzun Hassan (1336-1478).  It contained an octagonal pavilion with four entrances in the form of iwans.

In northern Iran, Tamerlane (1335-1405) declared himself the heir of Genghis Khan and seized power in Samarkand (1369).  He conquered Iran and subsequently India and part of Russia.  He took possession of such important cities as Tabriz, Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, and Delhi.  Having come to know and appreciate the Persian tradition of the bagh, he had several gardens planted around his capital, Samrkand, and gave them poetic Persian names.  The Bagh-e Behesht and Bagh-e-Eram (both meaning Gardens of Paradise) were created for Tuman Agha in 1378.

Revisionists like to point out that Mongol rule permitted greatly increased communication between East and West and therefore the widening of intellectual horizons, and that the eventual rebirth of Persia was made possible by the ilkhanate - the Mongol kingdom of the fourteenth century that redefined Iranian borders - and by the power vacuum formed during the failure of Mongol dynastic lines in Iran in the fifteenth century.  Persia paid a very high price indeed for such accidents of history.

It cannot be denied that the conquerors expanded on the delights of the conquered civilizations.  It was Tamerlane's habit, for instance, to spare only craftsmen among the populations he slaughtered.  He shipped them to his homeland to adorn the gorgeous capital he built for himself at Samarkand.  This well-watered city, with its surrounding garden towns named for those Tamerlane had conquered, was by all accounts a miracle of garden design.  The Spanish ambassador, Ruy GonCalez de Clavijo, who arrived with an embassy from the king of Castile and Leon in 1404, left vivid images of the splendors he observed: the aged Tamerlane reclining on silken cushions, Tamerlane's daughter-in-law and her attendants drinking wine from golden cups, the tent pavilions in red, blue, and gold silk erected for celebrations.  He made notes of the entertainments at Tamerlane's feasts, which included demonstrations by armorers and weavers, performances by singers and dancers, parades of elephants and horses, and numerous hangings at various specially built gallows.

Clavijo also kept detailed memoirs of the city and of the gardens where the revels were held, and these memoirs provide a picture of majestic, tree-lined avenues leading to vast, walled enclosures rich with greenery.  A garden in Samarkand typically centered on an artificial mountain or hill, crowned with a palace reflected in the series of pools and channels that defined the garden's main axis and its four quarters and irrigated it as well.  The palaces had second-story balconies overlooking the fields of flowers, the orchards, and the avenues, as did the garden pavilions that were scattered about.

Such gardens, and those of Tamerlane's son at Herat in Afghanistan, were immortalized in the miniature paintings of the period, perhaps the most exquisite of the Persian school, and they served as inspiration for Zahir ud Din Mohammad Babur, Tamerlane's (and Genghis Khan's) fifteenth-century descendant.  Babur, conqueror of India and founder of the Mughal Empire, was also a civilized and delightful man, to judge from his autobiography, the Baburnameh.  He was a poet, a musician, a lover of nature, and a designer of superb gardens, which are carefully described in his memoir.  According to art historian Basil Gray, Babur made Iran play the same role with regard to India as renaissance Italy was to play with regard to France.

Babur's first and most famous creation was near Kabul. "I laid out the Four-gardens, known as the Bagh-e Vafa (Garden of Fidelity), on a rising ground, facing south and having the Sorkhrud between it and Fort Adinapur, " he wrote with endearing detail.  "There oranges, citrons and pomegranates grow in abundance....I had plantains brought and planted there; they did vedry well.  The year before I had had sugar cane planted there; it also did well.....The garden lies high, has running water close at hand, and a mild winter climate.  In the middle of it, a one-mill stream flows constantly past the little hill on which are the four garden plots.  In the southwest part of it there is a reservoir ten by ten, round which are orange-trees and a few pomegranates, the whole encircled by a trefoil meadow.  This is the best part of the garden, a most beautiful sight when the oranges take color."

Some of Babur's Mughal descendants inherited both his love of planting and his genius for design.  Among their creations were the enchanting Shalimar gardens at Kashmir and that matchless exemplar of the classical Persian style, the Taj Mahal.