domenico ingenito, “gardens of medieval afghanistan”

Tuesday, February 1st 2022.

Gardens of Medieval Afghanistan: Exercising Literary Archaeology
Domenico Ingenito (UCLA)
Persian Studies Colloquium, McGill University

Persian poetry and the visual arts of medieval Central Asia and Iran cannot be fully appreciated without considering the socio-cultural role of gardens in Persianate societies and the way they informed both the poetic breadth of figurative arts and the visual dimensions of lyric expression.

Early Persian poems of praise were usually introduced by descriptions of natural and amatory vignettes revolving around stylized depictions of princely gardens, palaces, and pavilions. Through such portrayals, poets staged the contrast between the architecturally domesticated space of gardens and the untamed natural settings in which cosmic cycles offered a background for the social festivities presided over by the ruler. Usually discounted as idealized representations that lack historical veracity, such descriptions deserve to be analyzed in the context of the relationship between material culture and the aesthetic impact of poetic creativity.

By focusing on the case of the understudied city of Balkh, the winter capital of the Ghaznavid sultanate, this talk explores the role of gardens in the representation of natural and architectural landscapes in the panegyric poetry of the early Ghaznavids (999-1040 CE). Nestled in a lush oasis that was crossed by a network of rivers and canals, Balkh provided Ghaznavid poets with a complex ecology in which nature and ephemeral architecture overlapped at multiple levels.

The material and symbolic veracity of “architectural” poems and natural descriptions composed by Farrukhi Sistani and ‘Unsuri Balkhi between 1015 and 1035 CE will be compared against evidence provided by geographical and historiographical sources such as Hudud al-‘ālam and Tārikh-i Bayhaqi. These comparisons will help us locate the topographic position of key Ghaznavid gardens in Balkh and explain how ephemeral architectural landmarks emerged through the interaction between urbanized natural contexts and spaces of wilderness.