Channels and Chahar Baghs

On the Artistic Refinement and Ennoblement of Level Basin Irrigation in the Islamic Garden. Lecture by Karin Raith

November 16th & 17th, 2016
Universidad de Sevilla - Cátedra al-Andalus
International Conference “The heritage of Al-Andalus, Iberia-Persia II”

It is common knowledge that two of the main types of the Islamic garden – the first with a linear water axis, the second with cross-shaped channels (chahar bagh) – can be traced back to antique Roman villa courtyards and to pre-Islamic Persian palaces, as evidenced in the garden of Cyrus the Great in Pasargadae.


Its fundamental scheme of regular sunken beds watered by narrow channels and separated by elevated walkways originates from even older models: infrastructural prototypes. The system of level basin irrigation which was the indispensable prerequisite for agriculture in Mesopotamia and neighbouring arid regions generated a characteristic pattern of small fields surrounded by earth banks. At a very early stage this functional archetype merged with the cosmological image of an ordered cruciform or linear plan with the fountain of life or a pavilion accommodating man in the centre or at the top end. Practical requirements and symbolic form were connected to a meaningful unity.


Due to the spread of Islam agricultural techniques from the Middle East were propagated and adapted to different local conditions; garden concepts were artistically refined.


The paper investigates how the functional form of the common irrigation system and its elements were transformed into highly formalized garden layouts and components. It outlines the homological connections between the original forms of basic agricultural-technical facilities and the ennobled forms that became the expression of advanced garden art. The genesis and transformation of these garden elements are explored from a morphological perspective and discussed from the point of view of theories such as Semper’s concept on stylistic developments in architecture.



Bagh-e Fin, Kashan, Iran  (c) Karin Raith