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Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran
A Pictorial Historical Analysis
Part 2: Post Islamic Era

 

Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran, a Pictorial Historical Analysis
Historical Analysis in 3 Parts
Part 2: Post Islamic Era

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
manuvera@aol.com
July 23, 2013

Part 2: Post Islamic Era

The Rise of Turco-Persian Civilization: A shared Legacy between Iranians and Turks

After the overthrow of the Sassanian Persian Empire by the Arabo-Islamic forces (637-651 AD), the use of images on flags ceased with the arrival of the Caliphate. However the Iranian use of imagery in the arts did not cease and these very soon re-emerged in venues such as metal works, masonry, etc. However the specific use of a national flag as seen with the aforementioned Kaveh standard was not to re-emerge until centuries later.

The arrival of Turkic peoples into Iran witnessed a revival of ancient Iranian traditions. This was mainly due to an already existing symbiotic cultural relationship between Turkic and Iranian peoples since at least the 4th century AD or earlier. The Turks and the Iranians underwent a cultural synthesis in what is now Central Asia, a region which had been Iranic for thousands of years. By the early 7th century AD, successive waves of Turkic peoples had made powerful inroads into Central Asia. These however were to be profoundly influenced by the cultural and linguistic legacy of ancient and post-Islamic Iran.

Even as the Caliphate was at the height of its power, the Turkic dynasties such as the Qaznavids (975-1187 AD) did much to promote Iranian culture and the Persian language. These Turks were also fond of Iranian mythology and much work was done by them to promote the Iranian-epic, the Shahname. Iranian motifs from the pre-Islamic era made a vigorous resurgence under Turkic-ruled Central Asia.


One notable example of pre-Islamic Iranian motifs enduring in post-Islamic Turkic-ruled Central Asia is a ceramic work from Nishabur dated to the 9th century AD (two centuries after the fall of Sassanian Persia). The above drawing is from a ceramic work showing a small ship flying a banner showing a Simorq (Iranian phoenix) or Homa (Iranian Griffin) figure (consult Papadopoulo, fig. 420).

The Qaznavids are known to have displayed a number of heraldic figures that resembled those found in pre-Islamic Iran. Examples of Qaznavid patronage of ancient Iranian motifs include the ancient Shir-e Iran (Lion of Persia/Iran) and other ancient Iranian motifs such as Homa (Iranic Griffin) (Nafisi, 1949, pp. 45, 48-58; Yusofi, 1962, pp. 422).


Qaznavid depiction of a Lion.

The History of Rashid e Din shows a number of Qaznavid banners bearing the “checkered squares” motif (Rice & Gray, 1967, consult Plates. 38, 44, 57, 60); this is also what is seen in ancient Achaemenid armies (Sekunda, 1992). Readers are also referred to the works of Kasravi and Nafisi with respect to reference works in this topic.

A steady arrival of Turkic peoples from Central Asia entered Iran through Khorasan from the 11th century AD. The bulk of these were to find their way into Azarbaijan, Arran (modern Republic of Azarbaijan) and further westwards into Anatolia. One of the most important Turkic tribes to arrive upon the Iranian plateau (and beyond) was the Seljuks.

The Seljuk dynasty (ruled in Iran 1037-1194 AD) became a great patron of Iranian arts, language, literature and culture. The Seljuks virtually revived a number of ancient Iranian mythological themes such as the Simorq (Iranic Phoenix), Homa (Iranic Griffin), the Stara (Iranic for “Star”), Shir e Iran (Lion of Persia/Iran), etc. (Consult Nafisi and Minovi in references).

One example is the appearance of the mythical lion symbol on the coins of Sultan Qiyas-eDin Kay-khosrow (reigned 1236-1246 AD), one of the Seljuk rulers in Anatolia known by the ancient Iranic designation of “Rum“, in reference to the region’s Romano-Byzantine legacy. What is of interest is the ruler’s name which had both Sassanian (i.e. Khosrow) and Shahname (i.e. Kay) roots. The usage of the lion motif was evidently the Sultan’s attempt to symbolize his political and military prowess.


Illustration of the ancient Simorq (Iranic Phoenix) on banners from the Seljuk era (Nafisi, 1949, pp. 46, 57). Seljuk banners also depicted Lions in the Iranian manner.

The coins of Sultan Qiyas-eDin Kay-khosrow depicted the Lion and the Sun together (see drawing below). But what is perhaps of even greater interest is Khorasani’s study of a Seljuk-era brass pitcher in the National Museum of Iran in Tehran. This pitcher has 12 angles; each of these having a Zodiac sign. As noted by Khorasani (2006, pp.321):

“For the sign Leo, there is an image of the Lion and the Sun”.

This is yet another indication of the crucial role of Turkic peoples such as the Seljuks in the revival of Iranic culture. Recall that the ancient Iranians had considered the Lion-Sun motif as an astrological symbol.


A coin of Sultan Qiyas-eDin Kay-khosrow in the 13th century (Courtesy of Khorasani, 2006, pp.321).

The Mongol invasions and aftermath.

As noted in the preamble, in late December 2006 when the ILNA News Service in Iran reported that an Iranian archaeological team at the ancient Castle of Nishabur and Shadiakh had discovered one of the oldest simultaneous representations of the Lion-Sun motif. Quoting the archaeological supervisor, Rajabali Labbaf-Khaniki, ILNA noted that:

“…the castle built by the most skillful craftsmen of the time had caught fire due to unknown reasons following the Mongol invasion… humans who settled in Shadiakh had a rich culture and civilization…Inspired by ancient Persian art, Shadiakh artists made skillfully-designed works“.

The report however did not produce photographs of the Lion-Sun motif at the site and did not specify dates as to when the motif had been produced. The sites originated well before the pre-Islamic era and the term Nishabur itself is derived from Sassanian Pahlavi “Nev-Shapur” from the 3rd century AD.

What is certain is that the Lion-Sun motif at the sites pre-date the Mongol arrivals and are derived from the locale’s ancient Iranic artistic and cultural traditions. These little-reported findings are of major significance as they demonstrate the antiquity of both the Sun and Lion motifs, and in this case, their simultaneous depiction.

The Mongol invasions of Iran (1218-1260) were indeed devastating however these too became highly influenced by the culture of the country they conquered. Prior to their invasions, the Mongols had had significant admixture with Turkic and Iranic peoples in Central Asia over the centuries. It is significant that the Mongols were fond of the rising sun symbol (Spuler, 1985), which is virtually identical to various Iranic solar depiction of Mithras. It is possible to attribute this to a common Turco-Iranian culture or as Kriwaczek has noted due to the long-standing Iranic influence in Central Asia from pre-Islamic times (2000, pp.53-83).

One of the major consequences of the Mongol invasion was the weakening of the authority of the Abbasid Caliphate as a result of Hulagu Khan’s sack of Baghdad in 1258 AD. The decline of the Caliphate’s authority may partly explain why the lion and sun motif witnessed a virtual expansion in the Iranian realm in mediums such as metal works, tiles, clothing and textiles as well as coins (consult Nafisi, 1949, pp.54-60). The lion and sun motif did appear together in banners following the Mongol conquests (see further below).

The Turks and Mongols cultivated a symbiotic relationship with Iranian culture. One example is the Shahname of Shams e Din e Kashani (presently housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris) which was composed to provide an epic of the Mongol conquests. What is remarkable in Kashani’s work is that one of the miniatures shows a number of presumably Mongol horsemen approaching Nishabur with one of the horseman carrying a banner with a simultaneous representation of the Shir-e-Iran (lion of Persia/Iran) and the Sun (a facet of the ancient Iranic god Mithras). It is clear that while the Turks and Mongols militarily conquered many Iranian realms (especially in Central Asia); they too had been heavily influenced by the culture of those whom they had conquered.

There are numerous traces of the enduring ancient Iranian cultural legacy in Central Asia, one example being the Shir-Dar at Samarkand (discussed further below).

The post-Mongol Il-Khanids (1256-1335) continued the patronage of ancient Iranian motifs. One example is the depiction of a dragon-banner in an Il-Khanid era Shahname. This is of interest as the dragon-banner was a major standard among the armies of the pre-Islamic Parthians and Sassanians as well as the Northern Iranian peoples (e.g. the Alans) who had entered Europe by the 4th century AD.


Tile from Iran in 13th century depicting the Lion-Sun motif (Savory, 1976, pp.245). This image is of great significance as it symbolic of an enduring Iranian tradition of “Farr” (kingly glory) as represented by the Sun (an aspect of the ancient god Mithras) and the lion (symbol of strength, prowess and authority).


The armies of Timur Lang or Tamerlane (1336-1405), one of the post-Mongol Turkmen warriors from Central Asia also witnessed the appearance of the simultaneous lion-sun motif. The above depiction is attributed to the year 1450 by Martin (Plate 60).

Savory, noting of the consequences of the Fall of the Caliphate in Baghdad, writes:

“…for six hundred the years the Caliphate had been the visible symbol of the unity of the Islamic world, and this symbol had now been removed. For Iranians who, as we have seen, had steadfastly preserved their sense of separate identity throughout this long period, this was an event of utmost importance. When Hulagu established a Mongol dynasty with its capital in Iran, Iran for the first time since late Antiquity ceased to be a mere geographical expression. By creating a state whose boundaries roughly coincided with those of the ancient Persian empires, Hulagu and his successors created, albeit unwittingly, the pre-conditions for the establishment of an Iranian national state under the Safavids at the beginning of the 16th century“. [Savory, 1976, pp.146.].

The case of the Shir Dar in Samarkand

Perhaps one of the most interesting portrayals of the Lion and Sun motif lie outside the territorial boundaries of modern Iran, namely the “Shir Dar” (The Lion gate/doorway) city of Samarkand in modern Uzbekistan. Central Asia as a whole is heir to the Turco-Persian or “Persianate” civilization and for many centuries much of Central Asia was part of the Iranian realm. The cities of Samarkand and Bukhara played a very important role in the revival of the Persian language and literature after the Arabian conquests of Sassanian Persia.

Paul Kriwaczek, who undertook a massive study of Iranian theology (especially Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism) and its influence on cultures and theologies (east and west), has noted the following:

“Mithra stood for the contract, therefore for fairness, therefore for justice, therefore for honesty, therefore for truth, therefore for light, therefore for the sun. In Christendom, it is Jesus with whom believers have a personal relationship, rather than the austere, if unimaginably glorious, figure of God the Father. In Iran it was Mithra rather than Ahura Mazda. He became, like Christ, the mediator between God and humanity. The sacred rite in a Zoroastrian temple is performed in a consecrated area known as Mithra’s gateway (Dar-e-Mehr). Upholder of truth and justice, it is he who bestows kingship. hence the Mithra-Sun on the Sher-Dar madrasah at Samarkand.” [Kriwaczek, 2002, pp.120]


The “Shir Dar” (Lion Gate/doorway) of the Islamic college at Samarkand built originally in 1627 (Nafīsī, 1949, p. 62). The sun motif is characterized by Kriwaczek (2002, picture Plate 1) as”…the image of Mithra, the rising and unconquered sun, Zoroastrian intercessor between God and Humanity.” (Courtesy of Kriwaczek, 2002).

The Samarkand Shir-Dar is significant in that it is much more than a symbol of Iranian cultural identity. As noted earlier, these symbols are also representative of a very ancient theological tradition, one that predates even the Achaemenid dynasty.

The Safavids: Revival of Iranian pre-Islamic Symbols

The Safavid dynasty (1501-1722) was the first Iranian dynasty which finally reunited much of the old realms of the pre-Islamic Sassanian state. While certainly true that the Safavids were fierce proponents of the Shia' branch of Islam, they were very cognizant of the Iranian national ethos and identity.

Western historians however, correctly point out that the lion-sun motif cannot be seen in art works and references depicting Jonayd’s son, Shah Ismail (1487-1524).


The flag of Iran at the time of Shah Ismail. It was a basic green color inset with the yellow figure of the moon. The Safavid flag however was to soon transform into the Lion-Sun motif, while retaining its green-color background.


A 16th century European portrait of the founder of the Safavid dynasty Shah Ismail I (1487-1524) now housed at the Ulfizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Partially visible Latin lettering states Ismail as the king (note the term “Rex”) of Persia (note the “Per” is evident on the top right side of this partial photo).

After Ismail, the Sun motif was to re-emerge as one of Iran’s major symbols centuries after the Arabo-Islamic conquests.


Safavid flag at the time of Tahmasb (1524-1576) son of Shah Ismail. Note the sun and the ram or sheep. The ram or sheep was a potent symbol in pre-Islamic Sassanian times and was often used as a banner by the ancient clans of Iran. The ram however was to be permanently displaced by the lion as the symbol of Persia or the Iranian state.

The Safavids however did draw upon two of Iran’s most ancient symbols: the sun and the lion. These became emblazoned on various metal and arts works and even coins (consult Nafisi, 1949, pp. 65). This had become apparent on the Iranian flag following the reign of Tahmasp (1524-1576). But perhaps most significant was their appearance on the Iranian banner.


Safavid flag at the time of Ismail II (1576-1578). The lion has now become the primary symbol with the face of the sun rising in the background. Background is green.

European accounts of travelers to Iran during the reign of Shah Abbas I the Great (1587-1629) note that the lion and the emerging sun on the Iranian flag had appeared as early as the time of Sheikh Jonayd (consult Herbert, 1928, pp. 239).


An Iranian army reconstruction in 1971 of a Safavid Alamdar or standard-bearer holding a two-pronged white banner with the lion and sun motif. It is of interest that the Safavids defined these symbols both within a Shahname context as well as Shiite symbols.

By the time of Shah Abbas, lion-sun motif had become Iran’s national symbol. In their quest to revive the national ethos of Iran (albeit within a Shia’ Islamic interpretation), the Safavids (like the Turco-Persian dynasties cited before) appear to have drawn their inspiration from the Shahname, Iran’s equivalent of the Greek Iliad.


The copper engraving shown above of Shah Abbas, made by Dominicus Custos lists him among the Atrium of the heroic “Caesars” of history. Note the Latin inscription at the top of the plate “Schach Abas Persarum Rex” which translates as “Shah Abbas the Great monarch of Persia”. This was in reference to Shah Abbas’ victories over the Ottomans. Custos makes a particular emphasis on linking Shah Abbas to the “Mnemona Cyrus” (the Memory of Cyrus the Great of Persia). The Safavids regarded themselves as the heirs of the Persian Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC), as corroborated by European sources (Consult Matini 1992).

Perhaps most revealing is the European drawing made by Egedius Sadeler in 1601. This pertains to an illustration of the envoy of Shah Abbas, Hossein Ali-beg Bayat, who had been sent as the Iranian emissary to the European courts.


An Iranian delegation led by Mohammad-Reza Beg visits French dignitaries at Versailles, August 1715. Note the Iranian flag with Lion and Sun motif carried by the “Alamdar-Bashi” or standard bearer at Versailles (Consult Herbette, pp. 115 originally in a print in the Gazette de France).

A European traveler Adam Olearius, who visited Iran in 1636 noted that:

“Nowadays [meaning 1630s] the Turks use the crescent moon (as their emblem), and the Persians the sun which is mostly placed above the lion.”


Iranian ambassador Reza Beg enters Paris to a warm welcome by the local French populace. Note the banner with the Lion and Sun motif carried by the standard bearer or “Alamdar-Bashi” (Consult Herbette, 1928, pp. 115, original from the Cabinet des Estampes).

The fact that the Safavids were immensely popular in Europe had much to do with their battles against the Ottoman Turks. This has received only passing reference by western historiography. Had Persia been conquered by the Ottomans, Europe would have had face the full wrath of the mighty Ottoman superpower. The Turks were a formidable military power and were pioneers in the use of cannon in reducing many of Eastern Europe’s powerful fortresses to rubble during their early conquests in the Balkans. The Ottomans ruled much of Eastern Europe and Greece for hundreds of years and very nearly captured Vienna. Safavid military action did much to assuage Ottoman military pressure upon Europe during the 17th to 18th centuries.


A European drawing of the Iranian flag in the early 19th century (Consult Honar o Mardom 31, p. 18. and Falsafī, 1955-67, IV, opp. p. 160).

As in Sassanian times, the sun is used to refer to Iran as “Khorsheed-e Iran” or “the Sun of Iran“. This is of keen interest as the western rivals of the Safavids, the Ottoman Turks, had adopted the crescent shaped moon as their symbol. As noted earlier, the pre-Islamic Sassanians had referred to the Romano-Byzantines to the west as being symbolized by the moon. By the time of the Safavids, the Ottoman Turks had fully displaced the Byzantines in Anatolia. As in Sassanian times both the lion and the sun acquired an exalted status, however in this case, these two motifs became central to the Iranian flag.

However it is important to note that the Safavid selection of the sun and lion motif was also applied within a Shiite Islamic context as well. The sun of Mithras was in pre-Islamic Iran, yet another display of the celestial “Farr” or “Divine Glory“. By the post-Islamic era and especially by the onset of the Shiite Safavids, the “Farr” had been redefined as “Nur” or “light” in Arabic. The Prophet of Islam and the Imam Ali were ascribed with the “Nur ol Anwar” or “light of lights“. It is of interest that Iranian post-Islamic arts often portray divine figures in possession of the “Nur ol Anwar” as being bestowed with halos of light (consult Qazvini, 1979, pp. 165), without actually revealing their faces.

The lion motif was also “linked” to Shiite theology. The pre-Islamic lion of Persia also known as the “Shir e Khoda” or “Lion of God” now also referred to the Imam Ali as “Asadollah” or “Lion of God” in Arabic (consult Qazvini, 1979, pp. 165, 472). Interestingly the Safavids also claimed descent from the house of Imam Ali (Kasravi, 1944).

These attributions created a powerful counter-reaction from the followers of the Sunni branch of Islam. From the Sunni view, the Shiites of Iran had desecrated or “corrupted” Islam by linking it to the ancient pre-Islamic traditions of Sassanian Iran (see discussion in Boyce, pp.33-35). This is a major factor which inflamed the relations between (Shiite) Safavid Iran and the (Sunni) Ottoman Empire.

The animosity of the doctrinal Sunnis was to endure well into the 20th century, and by implication, the modern age. An example of this can be seen in the statements of Ibn Saud, one of the founders of Wahhabism who mentioned to William Shakespeare (British political agent in Arabia at the time) that:

We Wahhabis hate the Turks only less than we hate the Persians for the infidel practices which they have imported into the true and pure faith revealed to us in the Koran [Allen, 2006, p.245].

Already in British India, a powerful anti-Iranian and anti-Indian movement had been initiated by pan-Muslim purist thinkers. As noted by Drefuss and Lemarc:

“The son of Shah Wallullah, Shah Abdel-Aziz, gathered around him a network of disciples who visited India in 1809. Radiating from Indian centers where the British Colonial Office ruled, Eastern mysticism engendered a revival of xenophobic, Islamic purity that considered all outside influences as suspect and evil. Some of the Islamic orders demanded that all Muslims safeguard themselves from the penetration of Persian traditions and Indian habits [Dreyfuss & LeMarc, 1980, p.119].

In the eyes of the Sunni purists and their pan-Muslim offshoots (such as the modern Taliban, Wahhabites, Muslim Brotherhood, etc.), the Iranians had “corrupted” Islam in their attempt to retain their ancient traditions. This may partly explain why Iranian pan-Muslim activists remain unfavorable towards native Iranic theological symbols.

Nader Shah and Karim Khan Zand: Reassertion of Iran’s cultural identity and territorial integrity

Nader Shah (c. 1688-1747) revived the power of Iran following the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1722. He forced the Russians and Ottomans to yield the territories they had seized after the fall of the Safavids and ejected the Afghans who had occupied Iran from 1722 (consult Axworthy, 2006).

Nader Shah retained the Lion-Sun motif as Iran’s major emblem. In general, the Lion-Sun circled the words Allah ol Malek (Arabic: God the sovereign) (Consult Nayernuri, 1964, figure 4). The choice of colors however for the Iranian imperial standards did transform in relation to the former Safavid era. The choice of Green was consciously avoided by Nader Shah, perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from the powerful Shiite tradition of the Safavids.


Standard bearer from the time of Nader Shah bearing the Lion and Sun motif (Iranian Army reconstruction, 1971). As noted by Axworthy (2006), one of the major reasons for Nader Shah’s military successes was due to his use of organized infantry musketry and cannon.

There also were two imperial multi-color standards at the time of Nāder Shah.


Standard bearer from the time of Nader Shah bearing a multicolor motif (Iranian Army reconstruction, 1971). Note the coincidental resemblance of the tri-color to those of the French flag. As noted by Hanway: there was also another banner “…in stripes of red, blue and white, and the other of red, blue, white and yellow, without any other ornaments” (I, p. 248).

Bakhturtash (1969, pp.124) and Khorasani (2006, pp.326) report of a royal seal of Nader Shah in 1746 in which a lion faces to the right with a sun rising in the background.


Royal seal with Lion and Sun motif during the reign of Nader Shah. Note the word Al-Molkollah (Arabic: Land of God) within the sun (Courtesy Khorasani, 2006, pp.326).

The succeeding administration of Karim Khan Zand also retained the Sun-Lion motif (Nafīsī, 1949, pp. 73).


Standard bearer from the time of Karim Khan Zand bearing a banner with Lion and Sun motif (Iranian Army reconstruction, 1971).

Khorasani (2006, pp. 326) has examined the swords of Karim Khan Zand in the Pars Museum in Shiraz and the Military Museum of Tehran. He notes that both swords have gold-inlaid inscriptions which refer to the:

“…celestial lion…points to the astrological relationship to the Zodiac sign of Leo…”


The Lion-Sun motif as seen on a tombstone dated to the Zand dynasty (Courtesy of Khorasani, 2006, pp.326).

Please continue to Part 3 on the next page.

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