TABRIZ, July 3, 2010 – There are few things more appealing than a portable paradise.
So appealing, in fact, that in the early decades of the Safavid dynasty in Persia, portable paradises were not only created, they were taken to the highest level of royal art.
The paradises were lush gardens full of trees and animals and they were portable because they were carpets.
They could be rolled out at will in a noble's tent as he campaigned in dry and parched landscapes and instantly the setting would be transformed into a dreamscape of the highest refinement.
The Safavid paradise carpets contained forests of cypress trees and flowering trees teeming with leopards, lions, deer, peacocks, and flying birds. There were fantastic creatures as well, including Chinese phoenixes and sometimes houris.
Some of the carpets were with medallions and some without. When there was a medallion, it might be transformed into a pool with ducks floating on its surface.
How appealing the gardens were can be easily seen in the picture of one of them above. It is a part of a carpet that today exists in two halves, one in a Paris museum and one in Cracow.
Exactly why so much attention and expense was lavished upon garden carpets at this moment in Persia's long history is unknown. But the answer may be in the fact that the times were tumultuous and the first Safavid Shahs, who were still consolidating their empire, had to spend much of their lives in the field.
Here is a photo of a now lost fragment of another Persian carpet which once belonged to Hungarian tycoon Baron Hatvany. It was lost in the turmoil of the 1930s.
The central medallion of the carpet fragment depicts the encampment of a shah on a military campaign or hunting party. The garden around it is fanciful but the details of the royal pavilion are true to life.
Venetian traveler Michele Membré described the encampment of the second Safavid Shah – Shah Tahmasp - in his account 'Mission to the Lord Sophy of Persia (1539–1542).' He describes a ruler who spent so much of his time campaigning that it was his camp, not the capital city, that was the focus of royal life:
“The tents which Shah Tahmasp had in his company were many, according to what I was able to count with my own eyes he seemed to have 5,000. Of horsemen, as it seemed to me, he had 14,000 in number, without counting servants. Of horses and mules he had so many that they could not be counted. All the plains were full of animals.”
He goes on to say that the royal tents or pavilions were “made of sticks of gilded wood in the form of a dome and covered with scarlet. Upon the cloth is foliae, cut out and sewn with silk. Within, on the ground there was a red felt, lined with a kind of wool canvas, and over the said felt there were very fine carpets of silk, on which appeared figures of many animals and foliage.”
The complex of royal pavilions included an audience chamber -- or divan -- a bath, sleeping quarters and not far away a tent for the miniature painters who were part of the Shah's retinue. The presence of the painters allowed the Shah, who was an amateur painter himself, both to enjoy painting as a pastime and to receive reports on the progress of the royal illuminated manuscripts he commissioned.
In other words, this was a time not only of portable paradise carpets, but of portable court life in toto. The miniature painters whose company the Shah enjoyed produced what was the most valued art of all: illustrated books of poetry or tales of past kings. The books, too, were a moveable feast for the eyes.
Here is a miniature painting showing precisely the sort of royal encampment seen in the medallion of the garden carpet and described by the Venetian traveler. The painting is part of Shah Tahmasp's Shahnameh, the book he commissioned to illustrate the poet Firdawsi's epic saga of Persia's kings. It was painted circa 1525.
It is interesting to note that the first two Safavid shahs – Shah Ismail and his son Shah Tahmasp – were so busy campaigning that they, in fact, largely neglected their official capitals.
Art historian Sussan Babaie describes how much so in the book "Hunt for Paradise: Court Arts of Safavid Iran 1501-1576" that accompanied a major exhibition of early Safavid art in New York in 2003/2004.
She writes that “in the historiography of late medieval and early modern Persianate architecture, the 16th century appears to be an anomaly. No single building from the period, for example, could remotely compete with the monumental achievements in the arts of the book (the Shahnameh of Shah Tahmasp) or of weaving (the Ardebil carpet).”
One reason why both Shahs may have neglected their capital Tabriz was that it was on the frontline of their continual struggles with the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans captured and looted the city several times, so making investments in the usual fixed forms of royal art – large monumental buildings – was decidedly risky. Tahmasp finally moved the capital to the safer city of Qazvin but remained more interested in the portable arts than in architecture.
At the same time, both of the earliest Safavid shahs may have preferred the relative privacy of portable art for both religious and political reasons.
Babaie notes "the war-ravaged state of affairs in the newly minted empire and the messianic zeal of the young Ismail whose dream of establishing a divinely inspired utopian empire on earth precluded public displays of wealth and consumption."
Later Safavid Shahs settled down to a more traditional royal life and built great monuments. Most notable of all was Shah Abbas I, who moved the capital to Isfahan in 1598 and created a model of urban beauty.
But throughout the Safavid period, which lasted until 1736, garden carpets remained highly popular. So much so, that their changes in design to some extent reflect the changes in Safavid royal life itself.
Here is a carpet from the 1600s which contrasts dramatically with those of the century before. The free-ranging forest dreamscape has given way to an orderly orchard with irrigation canals and a central pool.
The carpet, named the “Wagner” Garden Carpet after a German collector, is said to be reminiscent of the royal gardens in Isfahan. It is filled with fruit trees, leopards, gazelles, and even pigeons and butterflies, but it is definitely not portable. Its size is immense: 5.5 meters by 4.3 meters.
It would be wrong to leave the subject of garden carpets without noting that – while they reached a peak of refinement in the Safavid era – both gardens and their depictions have always been part of Persian culture and remain so today.
The first recorded garden carpet can be traced back to the 6th century AD and the Ctesiphon Palace of the Sassanian King Khosrow I.
His carpet – in fact a huge embroidery – used multi-colored jewels to depict flowers and stones bright as crystal to depict running streams. The branches of the trees were of gold and silver thread and leaves were of silk. Unfortunately, the carpet was destroyed in the Arab conquest of Iran, when it was torn up and shared out as war booty.
Here is a photo of another garden carpet, from the second half of the 16th century. It is the Mantes carpet, named after the Church of Mantes outside of Paris where it was discovered before being moved to the Louvre Museum.
Interestingly, the use of the word "paradise" in connection with a garden can be traced back very far indeed – to the time of Cyrus the Great.
Around 540 BC, Cyrus built the largest and most beautiful garden ever recorded at his capital Pasargade, northeast of Shiraz. It was enclosed to keep certain animals in and others out and had rows of fruit trees, shrubs and flower beds. Some of its stone watercourses survive to this day.
Cyrus called his garden a “Paradaiza,” or literally an "enclosed park." The word passed into ancient Greek and from there into most European languages.
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