Built in 1612 by the order of Shah Abbas I (r.1587-1629), the Bagh-i Shah was one of many palatial outposts built by Shah Abbas I and his successors along a three-hundred mile long route following the southern edge of the Caspian Sea, in Iran's Mazanderan province. The Bagh-i Shah, along with Farahabad, another one of his Caspian gardens, are known to have been the Shah's favorite residences, where he came to celebrate the New Year and spend most of his winters. It was also here, either in Bagh-i Shah or in Farahabad, that he died in 1629.
The gardens are located at the base of a mountain, overlooking the Caspian Sea five miles distant to the north. Originally composed of eight separate gardens, six of which had their own pavilions, only three gardens and the ruins of buildings remain. The gardens, built as enclosed chahar baghs, were reminiscent in layout to those at the Isfahan palace. With the exception of the Bagh-i Chesmeh, or Garden of the Spring, which is oriented along a southeast-northwest axis, the entire complex is oriented to the north, facing the Caspian.
The entrance gate to the north begins the main axis of the gardens which climbs up via terraces to the south leading into the Bagh-i Chihil Sutun. The gate led directly into the Naqqara Khaneh, which was a gallery for musicians, and was followed by the Bagh-i Shimal, a garden that also housed the guards and served as a kind of reception area. The same axis led further south into the Bagh-i Chihil Sutun. The Bagh-i Chihil Sutun was flanked to the west by the Bagh-i Khalvat, the Bagh-i Haram, and the Bagh-i Sahib Zaman, and flanked to the east by the Bagh-i Tepe, the Bagh-i Zeytun, and the Bagh-i Chesmeh. The Bagh-i Khalvat, the Bagh-i Haram, and the Bagh-i Sahib Zaman, flanking the Bagh-i Chihil Sutun to the west, were connected by a central water channel running south-north, parallel to the main water channel. Of the eight gardens, only the Bagh-i Chihil Sutun, the Bagh-i Chesmeh, and the Bagh-i Tepe remain, their buildings are either in ruins or represent later constructions.
The Chihil Sutun, or Garden of the Forty Columns, is the central and largest of the gardens in the entire original garden complex. Although the pavilion it contained is known to have twelve columns (not forty), here "forty" is simply meant to imply "many", as was the case with the garden pavilion of the same name in Isfahan. The extant colonnaded building from which the garden takes its name is not the original built by Shah Abbas I, but rather a reconstruction by Nadir Shah (1736-1748), carried out in the middle of the eighteenth century. A large rectangular pool, called the Pool of Lights after candles inserted in holes in its stone linings, formerly stood in front of the pavilion. The central water channel would have passed through the center of the pavilion, trickling down a cascade into the large pool.
The Bagh-i Khalvat, the Bagh-i Haram, and the Bagh-i Sahib Zaman to the west were linked not only compositionally, as rectangular enclosures along an axis marked by a water channel, but also programmatically. The first, the Bagh-i Khalvat, housed the private residence of the shah, while the second, the Bagh-i Haram, served as the women's quarters. The Bagh-i Sahib Zaman, or Garden of the Lord of Age, served as an audience hall where the shah received his visitors. It contained a large two storied building whose flat roof was used as a reception area.
To the east, the Bagh-i Tepe, or Garden of the Mound, was literally built on a mound that may have been up to ten meters above the rest of the gardens. Although some historical references refer to this garden as the Andarun, reserved for the women of the court, others suggest that it may have housed the baths. Still-existing portions of this garden show a large rectangular pool centered on a quadripartite garden enclosed by thick walls with cylindrical bastions for corners. To the southeast is the Bagh-i Chesmeh (Garden of the Spring), where a domed pavilion still stands. The spring, located approximately twenty meters south of the pavilion, feeds the water channels surrounding the pavilion and the axial channel which trickles down from terrace to terrace into the channels of the other gardens. Between the Bagh-i Chesmeh, the Bagh-i Tepe, and the Bagh-i Chihil Sutun was the Bagh-i Zeytun, or the Garden of the Olive Trees. As its name suggests, it was known to have been planted with groves of olive trees; at present, not a single olive tree remains.
Only the pavilion of the Bagh-i Chesmeh, believed to be original, shows the use of faience tiles for decoration. Historical references reveal that the site's other pavilions, such as that of the Bagh-i Sahib Zaman, were also decorated with wall paintings. Considering the contemporaneous Safavid precedent of the palace gardens and their pavilions in Isfahan, it is likely that the other pavilions were also ornamented with mosaic faience.
The Bagh-i Shah was severely damaged by various Turkmen invasions. It also suffered long periods of neglect, seeing periods of limited restoration only during the reigns of Nadir Shah (1736-1748) and the Qajar ruler Agha Muhammad (1779-1797), and in the 1930s during the reign of Reza Shah (1925-1941). Part of the site was used as a military base for a period of time.
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