The Paradise Gardens of Uzbekistan

Timur granting audience on the occasion of his accession

The story of how the Mughal gardens were born in Uzbekistan.

In his recent TV series Monty Don’s Paradise Gardens, Monty showed us the great Islamic gardens of Iran, Spain, Turkey and India, but you may have been left wondering how a Persian style of gardens found its way to India. I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful country of Uzbekistan ten years ago, and was delighted to discover that the country was the setting for the refinement of Paradise gardens and their development into the famous Mughal garden style surviving today at the Taj Mahal and other sites in India, visited by Monty in the second episode. This blog describes the gap in the story provided by medieval Uzbekistan gardens.

In the first episode, Monty took us to the excavated remains of the earliest surviving Paradise garden: that of Cyrus the Great at Pasargadae. The Persian empire founded by Cyrus (known as the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330BC) extended into modern-day Uzbekistan (a region known as Transoxiana, ‘the land beyond the river Oxus’), as did the later Sassanian Empire (224-651AD) which saw a great renaissance of Persian culture.

Achaemenid palaces were built in a similar style throughout the empire, and the Greeks described the palaces as having a pairadaeza thickly planted with many kinds of trees in orderly rows, with aromatic shrubs between them, and beautiful, well-watered gardens. It seems likely that such gardens existed in Transoxiana  at this time.

The River Oxus, Uzbekistan.
The River Oxus, Uzbekistan. Transoxia has long been associated with Paradise: in the 2nd century BC Ptolomy even indicated in his Guide to Geography that the four rivers of Paradise originated there.

The mains cities of Transoxiana were Samarkand and Bukhara, names resonant with romantic legend and occupying important positions on the Silk Road. Under the Sassanian Empire, it became a great cultural and scientific centre.

Early 18th century garden carpet from Iran. Garden carpets originated during the Sassanian Empire, and depict walled gardens, outlined by trees, with a central watercourse with one or more cross-channels boarded by paths and multi-coloured, geometric flower beds. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The province was known as Sogdia, and the cultured Sogdians were keen gardeners as well as talented merchants. As well as trading precious metals, spices and cloth along the silk road, the Sogdians introduced central Asian horticulture to China, and introduced plants such as the peony from China to gardens in Samarkand. Sogdia is commemorated in a number of plant species, including Tulipa sogdiana.

7th century Sogdian mural excavated from the ancient site of Afrasiab, near Samarkand.
Left: 7th century Sogdian mural excavated from the ancient site of Afrasiab, near Samarkand. Right: an Iranian tile featuring a peony.

Following the Muslim conquest of Transoxiana in the early 7th century, Samarkand and Bukhara continued to be centres of learning, and the Persian heritage and culture of the Sogdians played an important part in the evolution of Islamic art and architecture in the region, as well as gardens.

The River Zerafshan flowing through Samarkand.
The River Zerafshan flows through Samarkand, fed by snow melt from mountains to the east and south and over the centuries an elaborate network of irrigation channels had been built, creating a wide zone adjacent to the town of forests, orchards, vineyards and meadows where the royal gardens and palaces were to be found.

The tenth-century AD Iranian author Istakhri, who travelled in Transoxiana, describes the natural riches of the region he calls “Smarkandian Sogd”:

I know no place in it or in Samarkand itself where if one ascends some elevated ground one does not see greenery and a pleasant place….Samakandian Sogd…[extends] eight days travel through unbroken greenery and gardens….The greenery of the trees and sown land extends along both sides of the river [Sogd]…and beyond these fields is pasture for flocks….It is the most fruitful of all the countries of Allah; in it are the best trees and fruits, in every home are gardens, cisterns and flowing water…

Little remains of the architecture of this time, due to the destruction wrought when Genghis Khan invaded the area in 1220, but Samarkand was rebuilt as a great city by the conqueror and founder of the Timurid empire, Timur (also known as Tamerlane, 1336-1405), from the 1370s.

Registan Square, Samarkand.
The centrepiece of Timur’s Samarkand was Registan Square, which has been described as “the noblest public square in the world”.
Gardens in Registan Square, Samarkand.
Modern gardens in Registan Square.
Ulug Beg Madrassa, Samarkand, and Ulug Beg's observatory.
Building work was continued by his grandson, the Sultan, astonomer and mathmetician Ulug Beg, who built a school (madrassa) in Registan Square (left) and an observatory outside the city (right).
Timur's mausoleum, Gur-e Amir, in Samarkand, with close-up of tiles with flower motif.
Timur’s mausoleum, Gur-e Amir (1403), architectural precursor of the Taj Mahal which was built by Timur’s descendants.

Timur was undoubtedly a ruthless warrior, responsible for thousands of deaths, but in later life he took up gardening (or, at least, garden-building) on a grand scale, bringing in the master builders and architects of Persia. As Elizabeth Moynihan says “it is one of history’s quirks that such a brutal warrior was so important in the history of a great garden tradition and was the ancestor of men who attained such high artistic achievement: the Timurids of Persia and Mughals of India”.

By 1400 Samarkand was famous for its gardens which ringed the city. Timur lived in the splendid gardens he built at Samarkand, moving between them, and while he was away on campaign, according to a contemporary account “the citizens, rich and poor, went to walk therin and found no retreat more wonderful or beautiful than those and no resting place more agreeable and secure; and its sweetest fruits were common to all“.

None of the Timurid gardens survive today, but they are described in miniature paintings of the Timurid period and in several contemporary accounts, most famously the Spanish Ambassador Ruy Gonzales de Clavijo who was sent by the King of Spain to visit Timur at Samarkand in 1403, where he was received in the Garden of Heart’s Ease:

We found Timur and he was seated under what might be called a portal which was before the entrance of a most beautiful palace that appeared in the background. He was sitting on the ground, but upon a raised dais before which there was a fountain that threw up a column of water into the air backwards, and in the basin of the fountain there were floating red apples. His Highness had taken his place on silk cloth, and was leaning on his elbow against some round cushions that were heaped up behind him.”

Left: blue and gold tiled archway, Samarkand. Right: Miniature painting of Timur granting audience on the occasion of his accession.
The Spaniards entered the charbargh through a high gateway “beautifully ornamented with tile work in gold and blue”. Left: blue and gold tiled archway, Samarkand. Right: Timur granting audience on the occasion of his accession. Zafarnama, or Book of Victory, ca 1467 from The John Work Garrett Library of The Johns Hopkins University (photo: Wikimedia Commons,CC BY-SA 2.0).

Clavijo also describes the Bagh-I Naw, or New Gardens:

This orchard was surrounded by a high wall, four square, enclosing it and at each of the four corners was a very lofty round tower, and the enclosing wall going from tower to tower was very high, and built as strong as the work of the tower. This orchard at its centre had a great palace, built on the plan of a cross, and a very large water-tank had been dug before it. This palace with its large garden was much the finest of any that we had visited hitherto, and in its ornamentation of its buildings in the gold and blue tile work far the most sumptuous.

and the vast royal chaharbagh where they were housed some distance outside the city and approached through a vineyard, its wall bordered by shade trees:

a full league round and within it is full of fruit trees of all kinds save only limes and citron-trees which we noticed to be lacking” [the winters being too cold in Samarkand for citrus to survive].

The remains of the huge (65m) gate house of the Ak Sarai, covered in blue, gold and white tiles
The remains of the huge (65m) gate house of the Ak Sarai (1395-6), covered in blue, gold and white tiles, is the only fragment of one of Timur’s palaces to survive. Clavijo’s description tells us that “before it was a large garden with many shady and assorted fruit trees. Inside it were many pools and artfully sited meadows. By the entrance to this garden there was such a vast space that many people could have enjoyed themselves sitting there in the summertime beside the water and beneath the shade of the trees. The workmanship in the palace is so luxurious that, in order to describe everything well, one has to go and examine it a little at a time.”

According to Wilber, the main characteristics of the Timurid gardens were:

  • the enclosure within high walls
  • the division of the enclosed areas into quarters
  • the use of a main axis of water
  • the location of a palace or pavilion at the centre of the area
  • the choice of natural slope of the creation of an artificial hill in order to ensure the proper flow of water
  • a mixture of utilitarian vineyard or orchard with the pleasure garden
  • occupying a very large area
  • the magnificent portals decorated with blue and gold tiles

In the century after Timur’s death, the politics and power of the Timurids moved to Herat in Afghanistan, where a number of gardens were built under the rule of Husayn Bayqara, including the Bagh-I Jahan Ara or Garden of the World Adorned, covering over 100 acres and featuring a palace, pools and masses of red tulips and roses. A remarkable agricultural manual exists from this time, which describes the garden tradition practised in Herat by the later Timurids. They are similar to Timur’s gardens, except the pavilion is placed at one end of a rectangular enclosure, looking out to the formal fourt-part garden: an arrangement found in Moghul gardens such as the Taj Mahal.

Eventually the Timurid empire split into many separate kingdoms. A descendant of Timur called Zahirud din Muhammad Babur (usually known simply as Babur) won the throne of one such province and in 1504 he conquered Kabul. A long-time admirer of the gardens of Samarkand and Herat (described in detail in his memoir), he set about beautifying Kabul with gardens, along the same lines.

The Gardeners of Kabul is a beautiful film telling the story of Babur and the Bagh-i Babur in Kabul where he is buried and how a love of gardens and gardening still exists in the city.

In 1508 Babur founded the Bagh-iVafa, or Garden of Fidelity, in Kabul which he describes: “Its grass plots were all covered with clover, its pomegranate trees were entirely of a beautiful yellow colour. It was then the pomegranate season and the pomegranates were hanging red on the trees. The orange trees were green and cheerful, loaded with innumerable oranges. I was never so pleased with the Bagh-iVafa as on this occasion.

Persian miniatures paintings of Babur Entertained in the Jahan Ara Garden in Herat, and Babur giving instruction for the layout of the Bagh-iVafa near Kabul.
Left: Babur Entertained in the Jahan Ara Garden in Herat. Late 16th century, © The Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow. Right: Babur giving instruction for the layout of the Bagh-iVafa, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

By this time, the power of the Uzbeks in Central Asia was growing, so Babur looked to north India for land to conquer, and in 1526 he founded the Mughal Empire there. The garden style of the Timurids was to have a huge influence on later Mughal gardens. As Lisa Golombek puts it “The diversity in Mughal gardens reflects the diversity in the Timurid models, available to the Mughals in eye-witness reports, descriptions in the chronicles and agricultural manuals, and manuscript illustrations. The Mughals venerated their Timurid ancestors and sought inspiration from Timurid culture. When the Mughals wished to emphasise their decent from Timur, they chose freely from the full menu of artistic traditions developed over the entire Timurid century. The garden was where the descendants got in touch with their noble ancestry and their fantasies about Timur’s nomadic lifestyle.”

The chaharbagh, the Timurid formal garden, was not a Timurid invention: the concept of a walled, four-part garden containing a pavilion was an ancient one going back to Sassanian and even Achaeminid times. But the Timurids adapted and perfected it to perhaps the highest degree.


Further reading

Golombek, L. (1995). The Gardens of Timur: New Perspectives. Maqarnas Vol. 12 pp. 137-146.

Moynihan, E. Paradise as a garden in Persia and Mughal India.1979.

Wilber, D.N. Persian gardens and garden pavilions. 1979.

1 Comment

  1. Very interesting history — I was not aware of the connection through Uzbekistan in transmitting Persian gardens to Mughal India. Thanks for the book and article references too. Best, -Beth

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