The garden is one of Islam’s most evocative symbols. Its flowing waters and verdant paths offered a vision of paradise on Earth, a place of peace and respite that resonated in the heat of Middle Eastern summers. In Persian culture, however, these evocations of heavenly delight were only one aspect of a garden’s appeal. Kings and their courtiers also favoured gardens because the manpower required to create them, and the act of making the desert bloom, symbolised their power over not only their subjects, but also nature itself.
By the time that Timur, a Turco-Mongolian conqueror of the 14th century, came to power, the garden had become the ultimate symbol of Persian culture and sovereignty. Prior to his rule, however, the garden had been a private space used for the personal enjoyment of the ruler. Timur, who spent the majority of his time governing from elaborate tent cities, transformed the Persian garden into an elaborate venue for courtly activities, a public stage upon which to act out the splendour of his power.
One of the most popular court activities under Timur and his successors was the drinking bout among boon companions. These events, which took place in decorated tents and pavilions, involved not only drinking, but also the recitation of poetry, and confirmed the garden’s role as a space of leisure. Hunting, also a popular activity, took place in extensive game parks with herds of managed deer raised in cultivated landscapes.
The Mughals, an offshoot of Timur’s dynasty that ruled in northern India, took the family’s passion for gardens to a new height. Babur, the first Mughal conqueror, ordered a Persian garden built at every place he conquered. For Babur, the garden’s associations with kingship complemented a poetic appreciation of the garden as a venue for the celebration of courtly love. In a ghazal, or Persian poem, he captures the romance of the garden:
“Petal upon petal, my heart is like the rosebud
If there would be even 100,000 springs it would not open
If I wished to pass through the garden without the one whose brow is a bow
The flowering cypress would be like an arrow for the eye
and a fire for the heart.
Why should I stroll in the garden in spring,
since in my poem,
the beloved’s face is a flower, their hair–a hyacinth
and body–a cypress…” (Dale, p.655).
The dynasty’s love of gardens did not end with Babur, however. His descendant Jahangir spent almost 6 consecutive years away from his capital during his reign, travelling from garden to garden in continuous hunting and drinking parties. The extent of his enjoyment can be gaged from a couplet written for him: “I have two lips, one devoted to wine and the other apologising for drunkenness.”
In Persianate culture, the garden thus captured both the promise of paradise and the overindulgence in earthly pleasures which characterised royal ritual.
Thomas W. Lenz and Glenn D. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, (Washington D.C., 1989).
Dale, Stephen F., ‘The Poetry and Autobiography of the Babur-nama,’ The Journal of Asian Studies 55.3 (1996), pp.635-664.