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.

5 Things You Need to Know About Turquoise Mountain

turquoise mountain logoEstablished in 2006 by Prince Charles in partnership with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, the non-profit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain aims to preserve historical areas and revive traditional artisanal activities in Afghanistan. In just over a decade, the organization has already achieved remarkable success, garnering an international reputation and transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans. Read on for the five things you need to know about this unique organization that are helping to revitalize a cultural industry and rebuild a country.

  1. Turquoise Mountain is bringing traditional Afghan arts and crafts back to life.

Due to decades of civil conflict and political instability in Afghanistan, many traditional arts and crafts practices were, until recently, all but abandoned. Turquoise Mountain is helping to bring these activities back to life at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institution for arts and crafts. Students receive a world-class education in some of Afghanistan’s most culturally rich crafts. They can select from disciplines such as woodwork, jewelry and gem cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, or miniature painting. Around 15 artisans are selected for each craft every year. The students learn from some of Afghanistan’s most renowned and skilled master craftsmen, thus reviving the traditional practice of knowledge transmission from master to pupil. At the end of three intensive years of training, students at the institute graduate with a City & Guilds accreditation that is internationally recognized.

  1. Turquoise Mountain completely revitalized an at-risk historic district.

Looking now at the magnificent setting of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul’s historic Murad Khani district—once an ancient silver bazaar—it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the entire area was buried under several meters of accumulated garbage. (Not surprisingly, the district was featured on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, which keeps track of the world’s most endangered historic sites). Turquoise Mountain worked to completely restore Murad Khani, digging through the garbage to reveal the beautiful centuries-old structures and courtyards below. The process was also a learning opportunity for artisans, focusing on the traditional skills of architectural woodwork and mud-plastering. Today, the beautifully restored old city is a vibrant artistic and economic hub.

  1. Turquoise Mountain plays an important community role.

The Murad Khani district is not only the home of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, it’s also an established community of long-term residents. Community development was an integral part of Turquoise Mountain’s restoration activities in the area. In partnership with the Murad Khani community, Turquoise Mountain has worked to provide employment, education, and healthcare programs to local residents, including a public school and an out-of-school education center that is free of charge. The Firuzkuh Family Health Center, which focuses on maternal and child health, welcomes thousands of patients every year. The center also hosts regular events and gatherings where the entire community can come together and celebrate their culture. Due to Turquoise Mountain’s work, and the active presence of the institute, residents of Murad Khani are feeling a renewed sense of pride in their district and their community.

  1. Work from Turquoise Mountain has been exhibited internationally.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s main goals is to train artists in Afghanistan and revitalize the country’s arts and crafts industry. The organization also believes in the importance of international connections. As a result, Turquoise Mountain works hard to showcase the work of its students and artisans not only at home, but also on the global stage. The work of Turquoise Mountain artisans has been exhibited in Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, the UK, and, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition, Turquoise Mountain works to find international buyers and retailers for its artisans’ work. Some of the individuals and organizations that Turquoise Mountain has partnered with include Kate Spade Fifth Avenue and London’s five-star Connaught Hotel.

  1. Turquoise Mountain by the numbers.

Some of the most important statistics associated with Turquoise Mountain are:

  • 112—The number of historic buildings, such as those in Murad Khani, that Turquoise Mountain has restored worldwide. (Turquoise Mountain operates in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.)
  • 36,000—The number of cubic meters of garbage that were excavated from the Murad Khani district during the old city restoration project.
  • $5 million—The dollar value of traditional crafts that have been sold through Turquoise Mountain to international markets and customers.
  • 1,100—The number of artisans who have received training in the restoration of heritage buildings (including activities such as traditional architectural woodworking) through working on Turquoise Mountain restoration projects.
  • 80%—The percentage of Turquoise Mountain Institute graduates who go on to own their own businesses (entrepreneurship and business training are an important part of the Turquoise Mountain curriculum, in addition to craft work).
  • 17,000—The number of patients who obtain primary health care annually through Turquoise Mountain’s community development projects and health care initiatives.
  • 10,000—The number of artisans whose lives that Turquoise Mountain aims to transform over the next decade.