In Persian the word carpet is “farsh” and it comes from the Zoroastrian word “farash
kard” which in the Avesta means “renewal.” The verb “farsh kardan” is also derived from
this word and means “to cover a surface.” But the word “farsh” also has the same root
as the Latin “fresco” from which derive the French ”frais” and “fraiche” and the English


“fresh.” In all these words, there is a connotation of coolness, newness, and to a certain
degree, also joyfulness. Arthur Upham Pope says that the theme of all Persian carpets is
the Persian Garden, whether it is an abstract floral pattern (fig 1), the depiction of real
flowers, plants and animals (fig 2), or whether it is the actual plan of a garden like the
Wagner carpet.(fig 3).
The Garden in the Carpet
All Persian carpets literally or symbolically refer to the Persian Garden. The Wagner
carpet is one of the most beautiful Persian Garden carpets in the world and is original
because it does not represent a typical chahar-bagh plan. There are many chahar-bagh
garden carpets scattered in museums around the world, in the V&A, the Musee des Arts
Decoratifs, the Carpet Museum of Tehran…, but the Wagner Carpet is unique. It shows
a 3-axis garden plan in the shape of H. There are two actual gardens where parts of the
plan come close to this H shape: first the Southern part of the Farahabad garden, (fig 4),
dating from the Safavid period and built on the outskirts of Isfahan, and the Northern part
of the Dowlatabad garden (fig5), which is a Zandieh garden in Yazd, and certainly could
not have been a source of inspiration for the Wagner Carpet’s designer.
In such cases where the carpet shows the structure or the plan of a Persian Garden, it is
actually a bird’s eye view of the garden in one glance. (Fig 6) The carpet is a 2D image
of the garden, but the Persian Garden itself, with its water basins and canals, certainly
when it is laid out on a flat piece of land, also gives the impression of looking at a surface.
Mentally we do perceive a 2D map of the Persian Gaden when we are walking in it.
Literally the Persian Garden was never meant to be seen from the sky, but mentally, every
visitor sees it that way. In this aerial photograph of the Dowlatabad Garden (fig 7), we can
really feel the velvety quality of the trees when seen from the sky. There really is more incommon between the Persian Garden and the Persian Carpet than meets the eye.
I have been able to find seven different types of garden carpets, but there could be more and any one
is welcome to establish a more extensive typology:
-1- The real plans of gardens, like the Wagner Carpet or all the chahar-bagh carpets (fig8)
-2-The chessboard type carpets which have one kind of image in each frame: various trees, various
flowers, and the overall squares refer to the parterres or subdivisions in the Persian Garden. Here the
flowers, plants, trees and animals are depicted in vertical elevation. (fig9)-3-The medallion carpet or what we call “toranj” or “lachak toranj” in Persian. We can
say that 80% of Persian carpets have this medallion design. (fig 10) Symbolically the
medallion represents the central water basin of the garden. In fact in Azari Turkish, “gol”
means “estakhr” or a very large “pool” as in the Ilgoli Garden in Tabriz.
-4- The “golafshan” or “mille fleurs” carpets, where real flowers are scattered all over
the carpet or come out from one big vase. (fig11&12)
-5- Then there are the hunting scene carpets which refer to the “Bagh shakargah” or
hunting domain gardens. (fig13)
-6-There are the gate to Paradise carpets. Usually these are much smaller and used as
prayer rugs since the gate often has the shape of a “mihrab.” In a mosque the mihrab
indicates the direction of Mecca towards which all prayers are addressed. In this
extraordinary example from the Carpet Museum of Tehran (fig14), what we see beyond
the gate is the cypress, which is the symbol of eternity in our antic as well as Islamic
heritage, so that it is the perfect image of Heaven. The carpet itself becomes a window
into infinity. Usually there is no perspective in the Persian carpet, and no up and down.
It is symmetric in all directions and can be looked at from any angle and always gives an
ideal image of the garden. It is mostly in the mihrab prayer rugs that we have a definite
up and down.
-7- Finally there are the “tree of life” carpets or “derakhte jan” which also have an up
and down and depict a single tree in a vertical elevation. The cypress is very common
in this type of design, but alternately other abstract trees are also depicted, as in this
Bakhtiari carpet which is my favorite carpet in the world.(fig15)The first thing we perceive in the carpet is the central design, and the
last thing we see are the margins. The margins represent the enclosing
walls of the garden. Zoroastrians believed that the garden should be
protected by seven rings of walls so that Ahriman, evil, would not be
able to penetrate into the garden. Among these seven walls, one was the
thickest or main enclosing wall. In most Persian carpets we also have
seven margins, one is always broader, bordered by two medium ones, in
turn bordered by two smaller ones. If you count the margins in authentic
Persian carpets, you will always find seven margins. (fig16)
The Pazyryk carpet is most interesting because it seems to be made of
margins only. The subdivisions of a garden into square plots are depicted
in the center and it only has five margins. (fig17). In this carpet which
dates from the Achaemenid period and is the oldest known Persian
carpet, we see an incredible talent for abstraction.
Compared to the Greeks, the Persians knew how to create abstract forms
from the elements of nature, and were thus able to bring a metaphorical
dimension to the motifs they were showing. So it is this ability for
abstraction which we inherited from pre-Islamic times and which
continued during the Islamic period, which differentiates all Iranian arts
from the rest of the Islamic world and is most visible in the art of carpet
design. (fig18) Sometimes the whole carpet represents an abstract motif,
as in the case of this Bakhtiari rug which depicts a single tree. (fig19)The Carpet in the Garden
We enter a garden with awe and respect, and so it is when we step onto a
carpet: we Iranians always take off our shoes. We sit on carpets, we eat on
them, we lie down and sleep on them, we pray on them…in short we live
on our carpets. But most of all, we gaze at them. I always thought that an
Iranian is not really Iranian unless he or she owns a Persian rug, no matter
how small and humble. The Persian carpet is one of those artifacts which
gives meaning to our life and connects us to our glorious past.
There is no picnic without laying out a carpet first. In all the Persian
miniatures, when there is a scene in the garden, there is always a carpet or
sometimes several ones. Whether it is a royal gathering or a commoners’
feast makes no difference, the presence of the carpet is assured. (fig 20&
21) But in the case of Princes and Kings, the carpet is laid out on a “korsi”
or sort of a wide and low wooden bench which tries to simulate a royal
throne. (fig22)
Two of the main activities which usually take place in the Persian Garden
are playing music – and of course listening to it – and reciting poetry, and
of course listening to it. Smoking opium is also a favorite pastime finding
its ideal setting in a Persian Garden. The first two activities have been
memorably depicted in miniatures (fig 23&24) and the last one recorded in
this old photograph taken in the Dowlatabad Garden. (fig 25)I have always thought that in order to be creative, one has to be happy, or at least
be at peace with oneself and the world. The Persian Garden gives us an image
of the world which brings us peace of mind and is thus conducive to creativity.
It is the same imaginal world we perceive when we gaze at a Persian carpet.
But the Persian Garden is also conducive to hedonism and in general I believe
the Persians are a hedonistic race of people. The Persian Garden is the ideal
place for deriving pleasures, so it provides the best scenery for eating, and
therefore also for cooking. This kind of activities is best represented by the
miniature where the Moghuls are celebrating the birth of Homayoon. (fig 26)
The Persian garden is also the ideal place for picking up fruit and eating them,
and in fact for many of these fruit we have special rituals:
-we lay down watermelons in the garden water canals and let them get cold
before slicing them and eating them
-we are the only country which has white mulberry trees, “toot”, and it is
impossible to pick up these mulberries which are so small and fragile, so we lay
down a huge piece of clean canvas material under the tree and several children
climb up on it to shake the branches and make the berries fall on the cloth. Then
we gather the berries in large plates and eat them in great quantities, before swallowing “dough”, watered down yogurt
-the picking up of pistachios is most interesting,
because they have to be rid of the small leafy skin
and then the shells have to be opened before we can
eat them, and this is done by plunging the pistachios
in boiling water for just one minute. Imagine the
pistachio garden of Kerman at the time of picking
with the huge pans of boiling water!
Once the pistachio shells have been slightly opened,
we call them “khandan” or “smiling” pistachios!
-Iraj Afshar once told me about Nasser al Din’s
habits when it came to eating sour cherries: his
cook would prepare a boiling pan of caramel and
walk around the garden behind the King who would
pick sour cherries from the tree, dip them in the
hot caramel and then eat them! I think this is the
pinnacle of hedonism!
Although the Persian carpet is ubiquitous in the
Persian garden, once it is laid out on the floor, its
importance wanes compared to the garden itself,
and the most important activity in the Persian
Garden is contemplation. We lay on the carpet and
we watch the water flow in the canals, and listen to
the music of the water flowing. Water is the subject
of the Persian Garden. The display of the water is
important, and there are many technical feasts for
making it look more voluminous than it really is,
but its movement is even more important. There
is a mystic dimension to flowing water which is
compared to the passage of life, whereas stagnant
water is supposed to be dirty and not appropriate for
ablutions. Stagnant water is depressing, and has a
connotation of death, and that it is why even in the
large basins, the water always circulates, coming in
from one canal and going into another one. What
differentiates metaphysically the Persian Garden
from other types of Oriental or European gardens, is
that water has to be flowing: a mystic contemplation
of life which goes by and is never the same in two
instants, or as Hafez says:
Sit by the stream and see life pass by.
The Persian Garden is the gift of a small stream,
either above or under the ground, which on its way
to irrigate arable lands, lingers for a while in a
garden for a moment of human enchantment.

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