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.

What You Need to Know About the Aga Khan Development Network

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is one of the most important philanthropic organizations currently working in Afghanistan. To date, with the support of various donors and partners, AKDN has channeled nearly $750 million into Afghanistan’s rebuilding process.

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Read on for a look at some of the diverse areas of activity that have been supported by these vital contributions.

Education

AKDN works to prioritize all levels of education in Afghanistan, from pre-school and early childhood development through post-secondary learning. Some of the many educational initiatives that AKDN has helped implement in the country include the establishment of more than 200 government and community based pre-school centers in remote and rural areas as well as the corresponding establishment of two Teacher Resource Centers to provide support and training to local early childhood educators.

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Additionally, AKDN established an intervention program for the government of Afghanistan to help increase and expand national capacity to deliver, support, and promote quality education. It also provides scholarships to assist students at the post-secondary level in gaining a quality university or college education.

Health

Providing even basic health care for all of Afghanistan’s citizens has been a challenge in recent decades. With health care facilities having been damaged or destroyed by conflict, to say nothing of a doctor-patient ratio of just two doctors for every 10,000 people, it is extremely difficult for many Afghans to get the care they need. AKDN began work to address this problem in 2002, when the organization launched a program dedicated to building a more effective health care delivery system.

This program has taken a four-tiered approach to care delivery: volunteer community health workers are trained to provide health education and minor treatments; Basic Health Centers, typically established in remote or rural locations, offer essential curative care as well as maternal and child care; Comprehensive Health Centers offer diagnostic, treatment, and referral services as well as emergency maternal care; and Referral Hospitals provide secondary care and other specialized services.

Rural Development

The majority of Afghanistan’s citizens still live in rural areas; however, residents of these areas are often left behind by development activities that concentrate on less isolated and more densely populated regions. AKDN works to support and connect these rural communities through a range of different programs and activities.

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These efforts include: participatory governance programs, which aim to empower local communities to identify their own needs and create and implement their own development projects; programs on agriculture and natural resources management, which move beyond simply distributing agricultural commodities and instead focus on providing farmers with the tools and education they need for a sustainable livelihood; and initiatives to improve access to finance, so that rural communities and families without basic financial services can save for the future and protect their existing assets.

Humanitarian Assistance

Unfortunately, war and conflict are not the only difficulties that affect Afghanistan; the country is highly prone to multiple natural disasters as well. Earthquakes are a frequent occurrence in Afghanistan’s mountainous northern regions. Additionally, landslides often follow earthquakes, and floods are common in the spring due to heavy rains and melting snow.

AKDN works with Focus Humanitarian Assistance, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 1996, to help provide disaster relief efforts and to assist at-risk communities with preventative measures. Specific initiatives in this area include avalanche preparedness, which trains local villages on avalanche safety and establishes weather monitoring posts to gather data needed to predict the likelihood of avalanches striking; the management of emergency stockpiles, which can currently provide food and relief for over 2,000 families in some of Afghanistan’s highest-risk areas; and the creation of community emergency response teams, which help get relief as quickly as possible to areas hit by disaster without having to wait for mobilization efforts from farther away.

Cultural Development

AKDN takes its role in helping conserve and restore Afghanistan’s cultural heritage very seriously. To date, through its Aga Khan Trust for Culture branch, AKDN has restored and rehabilitated dozens of historic public buildings, public open spaces, pedestrian walkways, houses, and monuments in three Afghan cities, including the famous Babur’s Gardens in Kabul.

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Another important cultural initiative recently launched by AKDN is the establishment of two schools of classical Afghan music, one in Kabul and one in Herat. These institutions help revitalize Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition, which is currently in danger of disappearing.

Microfinance

As of 2013, it was estimated that only 9 percent of adult Afghans held an account at a formal financial institution. To address this challenge, AKDN was working to establish microcredit programs in Afghanistan as early as 2002.

In 2004, the organization launched First Microfinance Bank. It was the first of its kind under Afghanistan’s then-newly-developed regulatory structure as well as a pioneering force in connecting underserved Afghans with innovative and flexible microfinance products. These, in turn, help drive vital economic development, particularly in rural areas.

How IFAD Is Helping Boost Agriculture in Afghanistan

In the 1970s, a series of food crises focused global attention and concern on the rapidly growing problems of food insecurity and famine. In response to these challenges, the first World Food Conference was held in 1974. One of the major outcomes of the conference was the establishment of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialized United Nations agency, in 1977. Since that time, IFAD has been deeply involved in financing agricultural and food production development projects worldwide, with the goal of ultimately eradicating rural poverty in developing countries.

Although Afghanistan was one of the first countries to join IFAD, development programs that were originally approved for the country in 1979 were not able to be implemented for many years due to conflict and instability in the region. Recently, however, IFAD has been able to support a number of both small- and large-scale efforts to reduce poverty and boost agricultural development in Afghanistan.

Community Livestock and Agriculture Project

Launched in selected districts of three Afghan provinces—Kabul, Parwan, and Logar—the goal of this project was to help close to 170,000 rural households increase their agricultural and livestock productivity, and consequently improve their food security. Targeting small-scale farmers and livestock-keepers, the project aimed to provide support to some of Afghanistan’s most vulnerable populations, including landless households and resettled and nomadic Kuchi people.

Three mutually reinforcing components formed the basis of this project. The first element was community development, focusing on improving infrastructure and helping local organizations and institutions build internal capacity. The second element was livestock and agriculture development, with a strong emphasis on providing marginalized communities and families with critical skills and knowledge to make the most of their assets. This element also aimed to strengthen weak areas of the value chain and reinforce smallholders’ market connections. Finally, project management and policy support made up the third project element, notably in the form of a young professionals program designed to attract and motivate qualified young staff to support the project.

Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support Program

Launched in Afghanistan’s relatively secure and stable northern region in 2009, the Rural Microfinance and Livestock Support program aimed to improve the livelihoods of smallholders and livestock owners living in poverty. Working in partnership with the government of Afghanistan and the Microfinance Investment Support Facility for Afghanistan (MISFA), IFAD initiated this program to address the dual objectives of meeting demand for rural finance and improving the livestock sector.

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On the finance side, the program aimed to help consolidate recent gains made by the microfinance sector and to connect hundreds of thousands of Afghans with their first opportunity to access credit. Through specific measures like the development of a broader range of financial products and services designed to meet the unique needs of smallholders, or the reduction of lending costs in order to combat high interest rates, the program worked to ensure that even the poorest rural people could have access to microfinance services. Some of the program’s particular innovations included creating public-private partnership models for the delivery of livestock extension and veterinary services, and implementing measures to ensure that even landless people, such as the nomadic Kuchis, could access dairy development initiatives.

The livestock improvement side of the program sought to address the sharp decrease in the number of livestock that had resulted from drought and disrupted grazing routes. With small poultry flocks on the brink of disappearance, poor families having lost their few cattle, and conflicts arising over users’ rights and overgrazed rangeland, the agro-livestock owners and nomadic and semi-nomadic people that relied on the livestock sector as their major source of cash income were at risk of losing their livelihoods altogether. The IFAD program aimed to boost the livestock sector and generate greater income for poor rural households by supporting a number of initiatives, including small-scale dairy activities like milk and fodder production; better livestock nutrition and health services in northern Afghanistan; and activities focused on backyard poultry raising and dairy goat raising.

Other Partnerships and Opportunities

As a relative newcomer to Afghanistan’s development landscape, IFAD is working to establish critical dialogue and alliances with many other organizations on the ground, including government agencies, international donors, research institutions, and NGOs.

In particular, IFAD is aiming to enhance its presence and the scope of its activities in Afghanistan by forming country-level collaborations with the World Bank, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Food Programme. IFAD also liaises with the Asian Development Bank to examine opportunities for co-financing and parallel financing arrangements, and connects with bilateral donors to learn from and build on their experiences of working in Afghanistan. Other organizations that have been instrumental in helping IFAD launch its projects include the Aga Khan Foundation, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC).