What You Need to Know about Traditional Islamic Gardens

For well over a thousand years, gardens have occupied a special place in Islamic culture. Viewed as an earthly symbol of paradise, Islamic gardens can trace their origins as far back as the 7th century, when Persian gardens were established. Today, beautiful examples of historic Islamic gardens can be found throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, including the gardens of the Taj Mahal in India and the Alhambra palace in southern Spain.

In Afghanistan, the most famous example of a traditional Islamic garden is Bagh-e Babur, or “Babur’s Gardens”. The beautifully restored gardens in the heart of Kabul were originally designed and created by the Mughal emperor Babur approximately 500 years ago. Following a long period of neglect and disrepair, a comprehensive restoration of the gardens was launched in 2002 with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network. Today, Babur offers locals and tourists alike a glimpse of a peaceful and beautiful part of the Islamic cultural heritage.

Like most other traditional Islamic gardens, Bagh-e Babur carefully follows the key principles upon which all such gardens are based, incorporating the vital design elements common to Islamic gardens of all sizes. Read on to learn more about how these gardens were designed.

Basic Principles

Islamic gardens are much more than pleasant green spaces. They are sophisticated, living cultural artifacts that reflect key elements of Islamic tradition and culture. Following are seven important principles on which all Islamic gardens are based.

gardenDiversity—Islamic gardens are unique in that they bring together disparate elements while at the same time celebrating their distinctiveness. In particular, gardens explore and reflect the connection between urban and natural, tangible and symbolic, and physical and metaphysical.

Beauty—In the Islamic culture, beauty is a goal rather than a luxury. Aesthetic considerations are therefore of prime importance in garden design, encompassing everything from the types of plants that are chosen to how the garden structures are decorated.

Conservation—This is an important tenet of Islam. In garden design, it manifests itself in the careful consideration of how water in a garden is used and controlled.

Context—Islamic gardens should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, the gardens’ design should be created in response to the surrounding architecture and planning elements, ensuring that they will fit in harmoniously with their environment.

Individualism—While they are common spaces, Islamic gardens are designed to encourage visitors to have their own individual experiences with and their own responses to the design.

Multi-functionality—The ideal Islamic garden serves many purposes. It should provide food and water for visitors, as well as for the animals and birds that live in it. Its trees and shrubs should not only produce fruit and herbs, but also shade and scent. A range of both active and passive activities should be possible in the garden.

Moderation—Islamic gardens demonstrate restraint and moderation in that they are all about finding a balance between humans and nature.

Design Elements

A number of key design elements are common to all Islamic gardens, regardless of their size and location. They include:

Water—Water is at the heart—both literally and metaphorically—of Islamic gardens. Given that the gardens developed in arid countries and were typically designed by desert dwellers, water assumes an almost sacred importance. Indeed, water is actually a more important part of an Islamic garden than the plants. Many Islamic gardens feature a fountain at the center with four water courses radiating outwards. The water courses are often lined with green or blue tiles that enhance the interplay between water and light.

The number four—Four is an important number in the Islamic culture, representing the four directions and four elements that form the order of the universe. As such, traditional Islamic gardens are laid out in a quadripartite design. That is, they are shaped like a rectangle divided into four parts (the divisions are usually created by the water courses described above). The layout is traditionally referred to as “chahar-bagh,” a term derived from Persian and meaning “four gardens.”

Greenery and shade—The geometric lines of the traditional Islamic garden are softened by greenery, which is planted first and foremost to create shade. Fruit trees are some of the most common plants featured in Islamic gardens, as they not only provide crucial shade, but also nourishment and a pleasant aroma.

Walls and gates—An Islamic garden, much like paradise in the Islamic tradition, is an enclosed space protected by walls and accessible by gates. In physical terms, enclosing a garden serves three main purposes: it helps to keep out the encroaching desert and allows the area within it to be organized and maintained more effectively, it concentrates visitors’ attention on the garden rather than its surroundings, and it designates the garden as a special area separate from its environment.

Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.

What You Need to Know about Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

The creative arts have long served as an important tool for empowerment and social development all around the world. In Afghanistan today, the not-for-profit NGO Bond Street Theatre is harnessing the transformational power of the arts to bring hope and change to Afghans seeking to rebuild their lives and their communities after decades of conflict. Read on to learn more about Bond Street Theatre and its role in Afghanistan’s development.

What is Bond Street Theatre?

bondstreettheatrelogoFor more than 40 years, Bond Street Theatre has been using the uplifting powers of the arts to respond to global humanitarian crises. Founded in 1976 with a mission to promote peace and understanding through the arts, the New York-based organization operates around the world, working with local artists and civilians to develop creative programming and performances that illustrate and address important social issues.

Through its theater and theater-based programs, Bond Street Theatre helps inspire and educate youth, promote human rights, give space to marginalized voices, and provide peacebuilding and healing tools for communities recovering from conflict. The organization has worked in more than 40 countries around the world in a variety of settings, including schools, prisons, refugee camps, remote communities, and urban centers.

A history of Bond Street Theatre in Afghanistan

2003—Bond Street Theatre’s first project in Afghanistan—a healing program targeting the thousands of refugee families pouring back into the country—is undertaken in collaboration with Exile Theatre, a local company composed of professional theater artists who were formerly living in exile. In addition, Bond Street Theatre works with Afghanistan-Schulen, a German nonprofit dedicated to education in Afghanistan, to support educational initiatives reaching an estimated 25,000 children in the rural regions of the northern part of the country.

2005—Bond Street Theatre spends two semesters in residence at Kabul University, teaching students and developing Beyond The Mirror, a collaborative production devised with Exile Theater. Beyond The Mirror marks the first-ever theatrical collaboration between Afghan and American companies. The production enjoys its world premiere in Kabul and later tours the US and Japan to resounding critical and public acclaim.

2006-2009—This three-year period sees the launch of the US-Afghan Arts Exchange and Conflict Resolution Project, a bold new initiative intended to foster and facilitate artistic exchange and dialogue among artists from Afghanistan, India, and the US. Participating artists work together to create A Kite’s Tale, a play about children’s rights in India, which is presented together with inspirational and education workshops for women in rural communities, street children, and other marginalized groups.

2007—Bond Street Theatre partners with Aschiana, a Kabul-based organization dedicated to supporting Afghan children working on the streets, to deliver workshops on self-expression, self-confidence, and group cooperation. In addition, the company spends time at the Mediothek Center in Kunduz training a local theater group.

2008—Bond Street Theatre’s partnership with Aschiana continues, this time in Mazar-i-Sharif, where the company delivers theater technique-based workshops to build self-confidence and improve education for street children.

2010-2012—The year 2010 marks the launch of the Theatre for Social Development Project, in which Bond Street Theatre works to train and support Afghan theater companies. The project’s broad goals are to use theater to bring new information and ideas to rural areas with very low literacy rates. It also aims to help build the capacity of local theater companies to serve as an educational and inspirational resource for their own communities on an ongoing basis.

Four Afghan theater companies participate in the project: Simorgh Film & Theatre in Herat creates two shows that focus on conflict resolution and family issues and are presented in correctional centers, drug rehabilitation facilities, and schools and youth centers; Kabul’s White Star Company produces two shows that use audience participation to explore alternative solutions to critical social issues; Nangarhar Theatre in Jalalabad develops two performances addressing women’s rights and rule-of-law issues; and Kandahar Theatre introduces two shows, one of which is performed directly in family homes for audiences who have never before seen live theater.

2013-2014—Funded by the United States Institute of Peace, Bond Street Theatre launches the Voter Education and Fraud Mitigation Project in the months leading up to Afghanistan’s presidential and run-off elections. Working together with local partner theater companies, Bond Street Theatre’s touring performances help educate more than 150,000 people on voter rights and related issues.

2014-2016—Bond Street Theatre continues its focus on young people with the launch of the Youth-Led Community Improvement Project. In this country-wide initiative, 375 youth from 25 provinces come together to receive intensive training in leadership, community service, and the arts. Theater-based workshops focus on creative problem-solving, improved communication skills, and identification of key issues in the participants’ home communities.

The project culminates with each participant creating a community Action Plan, and then returning to his or her home community to implement those plans. The Youth-Led Community Improvement Project participants are now a vitally important part of Afghanistan’s growing network of young people committed to creating lasting change.

2017—Bond Street Theatre works with youth leaders from eight Afghan provinces to help inform and engage communities across the country on issues and questions around access to justice and legal rights.