Safavid Gardens: MEGT

A Catalogue of Known Gardens in Safavid Iran

Mahvash Alemi

This introduction has been edited for style. Read and download the original essay (PDF).
Safavid rulers customarily moved from cool to warm places depending on the seasons, hunting along the way, and, for political reason, possessed residences in different provinces. Both of these reasons led to the creation of a network of gardens in these provinces and along the main communication roads. These gardens can be divided into three main types:
An urban type defined as a dawlatkhānah (house of government). This refers to Safavid royal complexes that consisted of courtyards and gardens, as well as the residence for the king and his family (the haram), buildings used for official audiences (divān khānah) or the private audiences of the king (khalvat khānah), offices (daftar khānah), and spaces for services. These service buildings within the royal complex, called the buyūtāt, consisted of baths (hammām), stables (ṭavīlah), storage areas (sufra khānah), kitchens (matbakh), workshops (kār khānah), and a library (kitāb khānah). These collectively formed a garden city, the bāghistān, that could vary in size depending on the importance of the urban center in which they were created. A maydān constituted the vast outdoor vestibule to the royal complex where public facilities such as mosques, cisterns, and bazaars were provided by the court. Examples of these royal complexes are well-known in the three Safavid capitals of Tabriz, Qazvin and Isfahan, as well as in smaller cities such as Khoy, Shiraz, Kashan, Mashhad, Farhabad, Ashraf, and Sari.
A suburban pleasure garden type called the bāgh-i shāh (royal garden), bāgh-i takht (throne garden) or chahārbāgh. These were large gardens placed in suburban areas used for the use of the ruler and his family. Examples of this type are the Bagh-i Hizar Jarib in Isfahan, Bagh-i Shah in Shiraz, and Bagh-i Shah at Fin near Kashan. A promenade lined with trees and irrigated by water channels called khiyābān usually connected the suburban gardens to the urban center.
A type of garden created at hunting resorts by adding small pavilions or water basins to a natural landscape in the woods or on natural fountains.
The nature of the documents that attest the presence of these gardens include news reports in local chronicles and histories of the period that mention the existence and creation of, or events that took place in, these gardens; poems that highlight their aesthetic and ethical values; miniatures that depict parts of the garden; descriptions by foreign travelers, occasionally illustrated with views, sketches, or plans; and traces of the gardens found in recent aerial photos or city plans. This catalogue includes royal complexes or gardens known from such illustrated documents.
The history of the Safavid kings passes through their gardens. The Safavid dynasty was founded in 1501 by Ismail, the grandson of Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, who ruled Tabriz from 1466 to 1478 and belonged to the Turkoman population of Ardabil. His partisans were Turkoman tribesmen, militant followers of the Sufi order, called the qizilbāsh or “redheaded,” for the red hat (tāj) given to them by Ismail’s father Haydar. The Safavids descended from the great Sufi Sheikh Safieddin (d. 735 A.H./1334), who belonged to the shāfa‘ī sect of Sunni Muslims. Nevertheless, they used Shiite militants against the Sunni Turkomans. This trend became more pronounced under the leadership of Sultan Haydar, and the militia, whose members wore the distinctive red hats, became more effective. It is no surprise that once Ismail conquered Tabriz, he established Shiism as the religion of all his subjects, notwithstanding the fact that the majority of the Tajiks professed the orthodox Sunni religion of the caliphs of Bagdad, the Seljuks, and the Turko-Mongols of Samarkand, Sultaniyya, Herat, and Tabriz
The rise of Ismail (1501–1526) against the Aq Qoyunlu kings of Tabriz is reported in a Safavid chronicle. On his coronation day, coins were struck, proclamations read out, and the prince played polo (chawgān) in the maydān of Tabriz.Shukrī 1984, 45. The Ottoman painter Matrakçi depicts this maydān in a miniature representing the city. It was built by Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu in the suburb north of the Mahan River. The maydān was the vestibule of a royal garden, in which stood the octagonal Hasht Bihisht palace, which became part of Ismail’s possessions.

Ismail spent the first years of his reign conquering different provinces and expanding his dominion, which now stretched from Baghdad to Khorasan. But after he was defeated by the Ottomans at the battle of Chalduran near Tabriz in 1514, Shah Ismail retreated at Khoy to lead a life of royal pleasures—hunting, drinking wine, and feasting—until his death in 1524. Here he created a garden. The Tarikh-i Sultani, it is reported that Shah Ismail in the seventh year of his reign spent the winter in the qeshlaq of Khoy and Urumi and built at the tomb of Imamzada Sahl Ali a splendid dome and building (gunbad-i ‛ālī va ‛imārat) and at a source of water, a building, basin, and great gardens (‛imārat, hawz̤, chahārbāgh va bāghāt).Husayn ibn Murtaza Husayni Astarabadi, Tarikh-i Sultani, ed. Ihsan Ishraqi (Tehran: ‘Ilmī, 1987), 40. Ismail’s garden is described by a Venetian merchant in 1507, whose account focuses on the turrets made of deer antlers, hunted by Shah Ismail, that were erected in the maydān in front of the royal house to display the king’s skill as a warrior. These turrets can be identified in a miniature by Matrakçi. The royal residence consisted of a great garden with quarters for men and women, disposed around two magnificent courtyards.Francesco Romano, Viaggio di un mercante che fu in Persia, ed. G. B. Ramusio and M. Milanesi (Torino: Einaudi, 1980), 3:442. A later drawing by Pascal Coste shows a similar layout for the gardens at Khoy.
Shah Tahmasp (1524–1576) succeeded Ismail and transferred the capital from Tabriz to Qazvin in 1544 after the attack of the Ottoman Sultan Süleyman. At Qazvin, he undertook a large urban-development program, the greatest part of which concerned the gardens for his court’s residence. It developed into the famous bāghistān, or garden city, named Sa‛adatabad. It was built to the north of the existing city, to which it was linked through a khiyābān and two maydāns. After the completion of the garden city in 1557, Shah Tahmasp moved from the old palace established by Shah Ismail to the new palace. The court poet and historian Abdi Bayk Navidi Shirazi (1515–1580) was ordered to write an encomium of the royal garden complex in verse. He composed a poetic compendium called the Garden of Eden (Jannat-i ‘Adan), completed in 1558–1559. It contained five long poems, four of which were about the palaces, gardens, flowers, and fruits of the Sa‘adat garden, and one focused mostly on the paintings in the royal loggias. Ihsan Ishraqi, “Naqāshihā yi chihil sutūn-i qazvīn,” in Nāmvāra-yi duktur Maḥmūd Afshār, edited by Iraj Afshar (Tehran: Bunyād-i mawqūfāt-i duktur Maḥmūd Afshār, 1988), 4:2183-2200. These poems are a particularly interesting sources for the comprehension of the aesthetic values of gardens, flora and fauna in the Safavid period.
The reigns of Shah Ismail II (1576–1577) and Shah Mohammad (1577–1587) were too short for the establishment of new gardens in the troubled period that followed the death of Shah Tahmasp in 1576. It ended when the majority of the emirs sided with the sixteen-year-old ‛Abbas Mirza, who, aided by his tutor, marched to Qazvin among public demonstrations in his favor in 1587. Once enthroned in the Chihil Sutun (“forty-columned”) palace in the Sa‛adat garden, Shah ‘Abbas ordered his slaves to use their scimitars to behead the emirs who had been compromised in the past, or who posed a threat to his tutor’s authority. The twenty-two heads were then exposed on spears, in the maydān. It marked, in the memory of the emirs, the first day of his reign.Lucien Louis Bellan, Chah ‘Abbas I: Sa vie, son histoire (Paris: P. Geuthner, 1932), 20. The Sa‛adat garden was the core of these dramatic events and the maydān at the door of this garden was the best place to represent his might to his opponents.

Shah ‘Abbas engaged in battles for many years to reunify Iran and to restore lost regions to his authority. The year 1597 saw the definitive pacification of the Mazandaran and Gilan regions and the return, for a time, of benevolence. Shah ‘Abbas created royal gardens in Sari, Rasht, Farahabad, and Ashraf. The latter hunting resorts were colonized by people who had been deported from Georgia. In each of them, the royal complex was composed of a contiguous fabric of gardens (bāghistān) accessed through a maydān, in which certain public facilities such as cisterns, schools, mosques, and bazaars were provided. He stayed in Ashraf, a city he considered his second capital, for long periods and at times received guests and ambassadors in his gardens. These royal garden cities illustrate how a shah used gardens to improve an existing city or create a new one to colonize the land.
Shah ‘Abbas’s historian Iskandar Munshi reports that the shah erected three lofty pillared porches (tālār) at Miyankal, a hunting resort on the Caspian Sea, where he displayed his power by inviting emirs and guests to take part in a hunting ritual.Iskandar Munshi, Tārīkh-i ʻālamʹārā-yi ʻAbbāsī (Tehran: Maʼassasah-i Maṭbāʻāt-i Amīr Kabīr, 1956–1957), 3:945. These tālārs, together with great water basins, were typical garden structures that transformed wild nature into a royal pleasure garden. Mulla Jalal, another historian of Shah ‘Abbas, recounts how the the ruler, during a hunt at Lanjan, chanced upon a piece of land full of water and waterfowl. There he ordered houses with loggias (ayvāns) to be built, and they created a small hut made of bamboo beside the water where he could hide and wait for the birds. The space was made into a rectangular pond with a bridge, in such a manner that when the bridge was removed, no one could enter. Lilies, pot marigolds, violets, and wild carnations were planted on the banks of the pond. Oats were sown all around it so that the place was always green, and plane trees surrounded by a moat bordered with bamboo prevented animals from entering. A poem indicates it was called the “pleasure corner of the shah” (gūsha-yi ‛aysh-i shāh) and dates its creation to 1017 A.H./1608.Mulla Jalal Munajjim, Tārīkh-i ʻAbbāsī, yā, Rūznāmah-ʼi Mullā Jalāl, ed. S. A. Vahidniya (Tehran: Vaḥīd, 1987), 353–54. In the Safavid context, wild nature, or rather untouched nature, was God’s creation, epitomized by Paradise, the bihisht, and its numerous passing evocations in the Quran as such. Architectural and decorative elements, such as the water basin or the khiyābān, were part of the garden. They did not preclude a sense of being in untouched nature, but rather revealed the role of the shah presiding over the world that he created as the shadow of God.
In 1590, Shah ‘Abbas, following in the steps of his father in Qazvin, ordered the construction of a royal bazaar (qaysariyya) in Isfahan. This bazaar was substantial and considered superior to its model in Tabriz. According to his historian Natanzi, “the maydān was leveled for polo and horse racing, river sand was spread on it, and it became a colored reflector of the forms of the heavenly bodies.”R. D. McChesney, “Four Sources on Shah ‘Abbas’s Building of Isfahan,” Muqarnas 5 (1998): 106. At that time, the maydān had a one-level arcade with shops opening directly onto it. The ‘Ali Qapu gate on the western side of the maydān gave access to the preexisting Naqsh-i Jahan garden. In 1601–1602, further improvements were carried out in the maydān to make it more attractive to merchants and customers. Plane trees and willows were planted, and it was surrounded by a stream that transformed it into a promenade and resting place. A two-tiered bazaar with spacious shops and a lofty roof was built around the maydān. Della Valle says that the maydān provided better shade in Isfahan than in Qazvin. The shade, a garden feature, was provided by the two tiers of arcades surrounding it. The bazaar venders had to move there from the former commercial, religious, and social heart of the city, the old maydān that was related to the Jami‘ Mosque and bazaars that were established under the Seljuks in the eleventh century. The construction of the mosques Sheikh Lutfullah (finished 1603) and Shah (begun 1612) completed the construction in the maydān, turning it into the new center of Isfahan. At the same time, these improvements of the maydān brought the largest commercial and religious city activities under the gaze of the shah, enabling him to collect taxes from the new bazaar, and providing an audience for the rituals he staged on the maydān in front of his palatial gate of ‘Ali Qapu.

Isfahan followed the model of Qazvin’s urban layout. A garden city (bāghistān) was created to the south of the old city center. A large khiyābān was built in 1596 to connect the entrance at the Dawlat Gate near Shah ‘Abbas’s urban residence, the dawlatkhānah, to his great suburban garden known as the Chaharbagh-i Hizar Jarib that stood south of the Zayande River. A canal dug from the river irrigated the garden and ran through the khiyābān that constituted the main axis of the new garden city.Pietro Della Valle, I viaggi di Pietro Della Valle, vol. 1, Lettere dalla Persia (Rome: Istituto Polografico dello Stato, Libreria della Stato, 1972), 30. The Georgian Allahvirdi Khan was commissioned to build a monumental bridge, finished in 1602, that connected the two portions of the promenade. The part on the side of the city was called Chaharbagh-i Pain (“low chahārbāgh”) and the one across the river was called Chaharbagh-i Bala (“high chahārbāgh”).
A drawing by Kaempfer showing gardens along the khiyābān leading to the royal suburban garden bears the names of the high dignitaries, revealing the creation of a residential neighborhood for the Turkic aristocracy located within easy reach of the city. The new addition was not only separate but also in competition with the old center, where powerful families controlling real estate and commerce continued to live.McChesney, “Four Sources,” 118. A comparison of the architectural features of this promenade and that of Qazvin gives an idea of the change in scale, reflecting the shah’s display of power. A grand perspective with strong theatrical effects was conveyed by the elaborate design of water that flowed through variously shaped basins and waterfalls. These were flanked by steps and four rows of trees. At regular distances, the entrance buildings (‘imārat-i sardar or dargāh) of the gardens, with their ornate painted loggias, presided over the promenade. One of these structures, admired by all European travelers to the Safavid Isfahan, survives in a 1888–1890 picture by Ernst Höltzer. The historian Junabadi refers to the promenade, with its water basins and resting places for drinking wine or coffee and smoking opium, as a worldly paradise for the people.McChesney, “Four Sources,” 114. A drawing by Pascal Coste from 1840 identifies the water basins and other features of the promenade designed as an elongated garden.
After the death of Shah ‛Abbas in 1629, his successors, Shah Safi I and Shah ‛Abbas II, were more sedentary and created multiple palaces and gardens in Isfahan, attracting European tradesmen and adventurers. Safi I (1629–1642) built the Talar-i Tavila in the urban precincts, where the Nawruz feast of 1637 was celebrated, and after, providing room for great receptions. He also built the āyina khānah palace in the suburban Sa‘adat garden, also called the New Hizar Jarib on the southern bank of the Zayanda River. Here too, a great tālār was combined with a masonry building, following the model of the palace built in the Hizar Jarib garden established by Shah ‛Abbas I, who was credited as “the inventor of the columned porch, tālār, in building ‛imārat.”Astarabadi, Tarikh-i Sultani, 134. The tālār of āyina khānah provided a view of the river in the garden.
During the reign of Shah ‛Abbas II (1642–1666), under the supervision of Saru Taqi and probably thanks to his conception, a great tālār was added to the ‘Ali Qapu building.Vali Quli Shamlu, Qisas al-khaqani, MS add. 7656:49b, British Library, London. It provided not only a more spacious belvedere for the shah, who could watch the rituals performed in the maydān in the company of dignitaries, clergy, and guests, but also a gilded tālār that would frame the shah for his audience below. Shah ‘Abbas II added tālārs to the Chihil Sutun and Khalvatkhanah palaces in the royal precincts.Luftfullah Hunarfar, “Kākh-i Chihil Sutūn,” Hunar va mardum 121 (1972). He was the last Safavid ruler to enhance the city with other theatrical devices related to gardens. A new khiyābān, through the Hasan Bayk bridge, linked the palace precincts to the royal pleasure gardens and to the New Hizar Jarib. Here, the ruler also added the namakdān pavilion and the haftdast palace for the members of his harem. Tavernier compares this khiyābān to the one created by Shah ‘Abbas I, remarking that, although wider, it lacked such important garden and architectural features as the water channel in the middle and the beautiful gate buildings of the flanking gardens. The works carried out in 1650 transformed the bridge-dam into a monumental theater on water. The reception of the New Hizar Jarib garden, its annexed bridge, and khiyābān in the poem written in 1124 A.H. by Sheikh Ramzi, the admirer (maddāh) of Shah ‛Abbas II, reveals a shift of attention toward the pleasures of royal life.Muhammad Hadi Ramzi Kashani, 1965.
After ‘Abbas II died in 1667, decline set in when Shah Sulayman (Safi II), who ruled from 1667 to 1694, took power. His successor Shah Sultan Husayn (1694–1722) was the last Safavid ruler to commission a monumental suburban garden called Farahabad to the south west of the river. It was, as Brignoli writes, the architectural outcome of a dynastic folding inward that started after ‘Abbas I, undermining the base of royal power and preparing the ground for the Afghan crisis and the collapse of the Safavids. The royal garden, which under the first Safavids had been a political proclamation, found itself reduced in Farahabad to no more than the shadow theater of a court, and its destruction meant the fall of the Safavid dynasty. 

-Mahvash Alemi

Originally published at: Alemi, Mahvash. “A Catalogue of Known Gardens in Safavid Iran.” Middle East Garden Traditions. Dumbarton Oaks, May 8, 2017. Archived at:

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