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Glimpsing the Garden

At night I saw domes whirling above me at the edge of sleep. I see them, without much effort, now, like an afterimage cast on the retina by a sunlit day. The city’s monuments had left a deep and restless impression, and I knew I would have to make the effort to understand them better. Those hovering canopies of multiplying arabesques and torrents of turbulent calligraphies, those kaleidoscopic vaults and cloud-piercing minarets wrapped in spiralling wizardries of gleaming tilework, at once both exuberant and rational! I was troubled by the mysteries of their colours and magically resonating shapes, and at the insistence of their bright geometries, as if behind them pressed a language longing to be heard; and I wondered if I might ever learn it. These monuments and their decoration were, I realised, the first examples of Persian art I had properly seen (how these early impressions fall most freshly on the senses and, like a first kiss, linger with uneven fondness!). On earlier visits to Afghanistan I had glimpsed a few of the surviving Timurid monuments at Herat and Balkh, but war had always forced brevity and furtiveness on these encounters: it was not the same.

Troubling too was a question which, looking at books about Persian art, had never occurred to me: why this plenitude of floral life? The primary decorative theme of two of Iran’s – perhaps the world’s - most famous mosques was drawn from the world of plants. Multiplying plant forms adorned the surfaces of nearly every monument I had seen: vines, leaves, tendrils and flowers and, in fabrics everywhere, the cypress tree, whose wind-blown tip describes a spiral like an unfolding baby fern.

Up close, these natural shapes, subtly geometrized, convey a force no book can properly transmit. They suggest an artistic impulse deeper than the merely whimsical. Yet the usual explanation for their abundance - the explanation replicated in almost every western account of Islamic art - is that, deprived of a truly naturalistic repertoire by religious injunction, Islamic artists turned to both geometric and stylised motifs from the natural world by way of compensation; corralled, in effect, into an artistic holding-ground, their natural creativity fettered by a religion intolerant of realism.

This shaky explanation has been so tirelessly invoked that it now passes for an axiom in any study of Islamic art. But once you have actually been there - once you have seen how deeply and pervasively the theme of the garden penetrates all of Persian culture - the conventional exegesis seems particularly inadequate. So too does the term ‘decoration’ to describe the inescapable presence of the garden theme in all of Persian art. Decoration suggests a surface, but the garden runs too deep, and the word does not serve its object well. The garden materialises in a thousand different mediums across the entire spectrum of the visual arts; it is the resounding motif associated with religious art; symbolically it is central to almost all Persian mystical poetry and, concretely, has its most famous expressions not only throughout present-day Iran but as far apart in the east as Kashmir, Agra and Lahore, and in the west at the gardens of the madinat al zahra in Cordoba and the Generalife in Granada.

Nor is it useful to invoke the ostensibly aniconic origins of Islamic art to appreciate the saturation of Persian culture with the imagery of the garden. More than a thousand years before the appearance of Islam, the most beloved creation of Persia’s rulers was already the garden: the creative agency that made it central to Persian culture was at work long before the arrival of the Arabs. The garden was already a thing of sanctity in Persia, steeped from antiquity with connotations of the otherworldly. And the symbolic alliance between spiritual and natural plenitude, between the earthly garden and the paradisical version to which it alludes was, in other words, already there. Under the influence of Islam it has merely been re-expressed. Today the theme of the garden is still woven into the fabric of the culture, and re-expressed in countless ways by the individual souls into which its roots descend.

Persians, of course, already know all this; it is the outsider who needs a new terminology to understand it.


lutfullah mosque dome symbolism iran isfahan 289 al rahim