The Origins and Imagery of Garden Carpets of 16th and 17th century Persia

The magnificent 17th century ‘Wagner Garden Carpet ‘, in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Scotland, represents a genre of carpets inspired by the Paradise Gardens of Ancient Persia.


These gardens existed for two reasons, I would suggest; one was the desire we all have for beauty in our lives and the other was because of an incredible irrigation system. My little essay will look at these hydraulic methods, the gardens they served and the carpets which essentially copied the gardens.

Flying into Teheran, on a rug buying mission early this year, I noticed parts of the land covered with craters, like necklaces strewn across the desert. I knew what they were but it was a thrill to actually see them. They are both functioning and abandoned access shafts which run above the underground water tunnels known as qanats.

Qanats were the key to how towns and even large cities grew up in the desert, far from any water source, many thousands of years ago. They were developed in ancient Persia, though it is possible other systems developed in parallel or perhaps before, in other parts of the world.

The tunnels at the heart of the Qanat systems reduce evaporation which would take place from surface canals.


Here is a sectional view of qanat. Most run less than 5 km, some are 70 km in length. The engineers were highly skilled and had to calculate minute gradients over extremely long distances. An example in Kirman Province runs over a hundred miles.

Mughals of 16th and 17th century India copied and adapted many arts and crafts from the Safavids of Persia, including the qanat system of hydraulics.

An adaptation, allowing storage of water in towns, are these open but extremely deep ‘Step Wells’. They were often magnificent architectural creations with elaborate stone work steps to access varying water levels. This example is near the famous Clock Tower market in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India.


We see here also an access shaft at Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh.


One of the qanats, underground tunnels, at Burhanpur


A map here shows the distribution of qanats over the entire middle East, the Magreb, Spain and beyond. They have been dated back to the time of Alexander the Great. The common theme of these areas is that they were hot and had large areas of desert and mountains which provided a water source.


Although mainly for agricultural and domestic use, those who could afford to would pay to channel water for more luxurious applications, especially gardens.

Cyrus the Great’s garden at Pasargade, north of Persepolis in SW Iran, was constructed circa 559-520BC. It is shown in this plan as the quartered rectangle, an extensive walled park with elaborate irrigated gardens. This quartered arrangement was known later by Safavids of Persia in the 16th and 17th century as a Chahar Bagh.

Cyrus called his garden a ‘Pairidaeza,’ which meant walled enclosure or park. The word passed into ancient Greek and from there into most European languages and into our own language as ‘Paradise’. These gardens must have been truly magical and utterly marvellous to the eyes of people living in arid, hot climates such as Persia.


Eram Gardens of Shiraz in SW Iran is just such a paradise, built during the 13th century, it is much loved by Shirazis and visitors from far and wide. Such gardens are often still irrigated by Qanats which originate sometimes hundreds of miles away.


In India, the Mughals created many sublime examples such as this inside the Amber Fort in Rajasthan. Displaying both the geometry favoured in some forms of Islamic architecture and the use of walk ways over water, mirroring the Quranic picture of heaven as a place with ‘Gardens under which rivers flow’.

The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, created many gardens; here is a huge example in Kabul, Afghanistan. You can see its relationship to the river just beyond and the terracing which allows irrigation of the garden plots either side.

Persian gardens tamed, whether ‘Chahar Bagh’ (Four Gardens) or other arrangements, controlled and nurtured the beauty of the natural world. Here is a lovely miniature showing gardeners tending Babur’s garden. The central water tank feeds channels to the corners of the garden. Some of the planting is identifiable – Evergreen or Holm Oak in the centre, possibly an Orange tree next to it, then a Pomegranite tree, there is Agapanthus and Hollyhocks either side of the gardener on the right, an Almond tree on the left with Lilies at its base. There is what looks like a Himalayan Blue Poppy near the water course.


Surely the most famous Chahar Bagh, the sublime Taj Mahal, was built in the early 17th century by Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his beloved Mumtaz. The surrounding garden form is a classic quartered layout.


The Joseph V. McMullen Garden carpet 685 x 243cms, c.1800. Here is the form stretched out before us like a garden with 8 separate beds divided by water courses. There is a simple but majestic picture of a magical garden. It may be that such carpets provided a sense of a garden during winter time, or inclement weather. They would have been the preserve of the rich, for grand rooms. Talking if inclement weather, in Persia rain is always welcome. Vita Sackville West who created Sissinghurst gardens in England, once travelled in Persia and recorded her hosts explanation of a Persian garden:

‘There is nothing which a Persian enjoys more than to sit sipping his wine from the shelter of a summer-house while he gazes on the falling rain-drops and sniffs up the moist, soft air laden with the grateful scent of the reviving flowers. It is a place to entertain his friends with conversation, music, philosophical discourse, and poetry; and if he can watch the spring rain pouring down, so much the better, for he knows it will not come again for months and months and months.’


In Jaipur is a fine example of Garden Carpet, woven in Kirman, N. Iran in 1632, 28’4 x 12’4.


The weaver has filled the garden with birds, animals, fish, ducks, turtles and some fantastical serpents and strange animals, ferociously determined to eat other smaller animal. There are Cypress, Lemon, Mulberry perhaps and willow.


Persian Carpets are rarely more spectacular or more paradisiacal than this spectacular example, one of the most famous carpets in the world; the ‘Ardabil’ in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It measures a collosal 10.5 m × 5.3 m, 300-350 knots per square inch.


Woven in 1539 for the shrine of Sheikh Safi, founder of the Safavid dynasty, it is a masterpiece of extraordinary sophistication and elegance. The entire central ‘field’ is covered by a single integrated design of flowing interlinked tendrils sprouting leaves and flowers.


In 2012 The Nomads Tent team produced a modern version of a Garden Carpet, inspired by gardens of our own country. It was designed by Laura Mackenzie, Landscape architect and gardener in Scotland. Laura made drawings and we had samples produced before confirming the ‘go-ahead’. She then made a trip to our weaver in Delhi to see progress of the carpet on the loom.


It took over a year to complete and took centre stage at an exhibition celebrating the way gardens have been the source of inspiration for rugs and carpets woven far and wide.

Andrew and Nicky Bradford recently commissioned The Nomads Tent to produce a very large Garden Carpet for Kincardine Castle near Aberdeen. The design will reflect both the plan of their 19th century walled garden which we discovered is exactly like a ‘Chahar Bagh’ and the rolling hills and trees around about.

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