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Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran
A Pictorial Historical Analysis
Part 3: Qajars and After


Lion and Sun Emblem of Iran, a Pictorial Historical Analysis
Historical Analysis in 3 Parts
Part 3: Qajars and After

Dr. Kaveh Farrokh
July 23, 2013

Part 3: Qajars and After

The Qajars: Retaining the Iranian Flag

As noted by Nafisi (1949, pp. 74), the Qajars considered themselves as the heirs of the Safavids. In this respect, Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar (1742-1797) was to retain the Lion-Sun motif as Iran’s primary symbol.

Emblem of the Lion and the Sun on a coin dated to Aqa Mohammad Khan Qajar (Courtesy of Khorasani, 2006, pp.327). The inscription on the sun reads "Ya Muhammad" or "Hail Muhammad" and the inscription on the bottom reads “Ya Ali” or ”Hail Imam Ali”.

Khorasani, Bakhturtash and Nayernuri fully explain the appearance of the Lion-Sun motif on stamps, regalia, flags, etc. Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) worked to establish the Lion-Sun motif as the sole official flag of Iran. However by the time of Fath Ali Shah’s successor, Mohammad Shah (1834-), Louis Dubeux reports that the latter had two distinct flags:

“one with the sword of Alī, which is double-pointed… [the other] with a lion couchant and the sun rising from its back.” (Dubeux, 1841, pp. 462).

It is important to note that it was the latter (lion and Sun) which was Iran’s primary flag; a fact illustrated by Russian artists depicting Iranian armies during the Russo-Persian wars.

Qajar Standard bearer bearing a red banner with Lion and Sun motif (Iranian Army reconstruction, 1971). There was also a white and a green version of the same flag, although the red version was the one used during the Russo-Persian wars. This is a uniform typical of Abbas Mirza’s regular troops in the early 19th century during his wars against Russian expansion into Iranian territories in the Caucasus. The Russians prevailed and forced Iran to yield all her Caucasian possessions in the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828.

The “two flags” [lion-Sun and Sword of Ali] were combined during the reign of Mohammad Shah (Khorasani, 2006, pp.328; Nayernuri, 1965, pp. 328). However the notion that the sword-wielding lion originates in the Qajar era is not supported by literary citations.

The Shahname epic of Ferdowsi does describe a flag depicting a lion wielding a sword. As noted by Khorasani (2006, pp. 328), this coincides with the pre-Islamic Godarz Gahsvaz’s banner which displays a lion holding a sword.

The sword is an ancient and powerful symbol in Iranian theology. North Iranic peoples such as the Scythians and Sarmatians worshiped the sword as a mythological symbol (Littleton & Malcor, 2000).

The movement of North Iranian peoples from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus into Central Europe and the Balkans. These arrivals allowed for the transmission of a number of Iranic theological themes such as sword-worship into Europe (Map courtesy of Brzezinski & Mielczarek, 2002, pp.7).

The veneration of the sword existed also among the Iranic peoples in pre-Islamic Persia. Despite the passage of thousands of years, this pre-Islamic ritual has survived among the Kurds. Izady notes of Iranic pre-Islamic rituals among the Kurds including:

“…the representation of the deity in the shape of a sword or dagger stuck into the ground” (Izady, 1992, pp. 156).

Sarmatian-Alan warriors engage in ancient rituals in the burial of a late comrade. An important ritual was the thrusting of the sword into the earth, a tradition still found in surviving ancient cults in parts of western Iran. The sword was a potent theological symbol in ancient Iranic rites. The above reconstruction is also of interest in that it shows that lamb sacrifice and the spilling of blood have pre-existed among Iranian peoples before the arrival of Islam into Sassanian Persia, Anatolia or the Caucasus (Map courtesy of Brzezinski & Mielczarek, 2002, Plate B).

The aforementioned Sassanians had a designated “Shapsheraz” or “he who brandishes the sword” (Farrokh, 2005, pp. 62, E2). The function of the Shapsheraz was to carry a ceremonial sword in the court at Ctesiphon, the ancient Sassanian capital (now in Iraq, just 40 km away from modern Baghdad).

The Sassanian broadsword continued to be used in a ceremonial fashion, even after this had been militarily obsolete from the late 5th century AD onwards (Farrokh, 2005, pp. 12). A vivid example of this can be clearly seen at the investiture of Khosrow II (r. 590-628 AD) at Taq-e Bostan near Kermanshah.

The investiture of Khosrow II at Taq-e Bostan. Note the broadsword held by Khosrow II at center, flanked by Ahura-Mazda at right and Goddess Anahita to the left. The straight broad sword appears often in Sassanian arts. It is worth noting that the Qajars also carved reliefs at Taq-e Bostan, perhaps in an endeavor to associate their dynasty with more ancient Iranian icons.

Given the ancient Iranian tradition of veneration for the sword, it is not altogether surpassing that post-Islamic Iranians (especially with the onset of Shiism during the Safavid era) would adopt the Zulfaqar, or the sword of Imam Ali as a potent religious symbol.

A Safavid Alamdar or standard bearer carrying a banner with the Zolfaqar sword of Imam Ali one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures. (Iranian Army reconstruction, 1971). Note that the original Arabo-Muslims did not carry the curved sword at the time of the Muslim conquests – their swords were straight like those carried by the Romano-Byzantines and the Sassanians during the 7th century. The saber is a later Turkic invention during the post-Islamic era.

From the time of Mohammad Shah Qajar onward, the sword-wielding lion was to become modern Iran’s state emblem up to 1979. As noted already in this article, the lion, the sun and the sword are ancient symbols in Iranic customs and mythology.

The lion and sun motif as seen in a newspaper during the reign of Nasser e Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896) (Courtesy of Khorasani, 2006, pp. 330). Note that the lion is now rampant and wielding a curved sword. Nevertheless, the notion that this sword first appeared during Nasser e Din Shah’s reign can now be questioned.

In a 2011 trip to Stepankert in Karabakh (Qarabaq) Professor George Nercessian discovered a walled structure housing a lion-sun emblem with the lion bearing a curved saber (see below):

The Iranian Lion and Sun emblem on a tile embedded in an old wall structure in Stepankert, Karabakh. This structure dates to the early 19th century (not Nasser e Din Shah’s time) – the karabakh khanate and all other Caucasian Iranian khanates (i.e. Baku, Shirvan, etc.) were conquered from Iran by imperial Russia by 1828 (Photo courtesy of Professor George Nercessian, 2011).

The appearance of the Green-white-red tri-color motif appears to have been later during the Qajar era. The color of Mohammad Shah’s flag at a siege near Herat is reported as triangular with a green border with white inset bearing the lion (without sword) and Sun motif. The earlier red color version of the flag is also reported in 1850; this having the Sun and lion which carries staff (instead of a sword) with the name of Imam Ali. By 1886 the tricolor (Green-White-Red) legend was applied onto the Iranian flag bearing the Sword-wielding lion and Sun motif.

Qajar flags by 1886. Though not evident here both have the green color on top, white in the middle and red at the bottom. The version of the flag at the right was designed by statesman Amir Kabir (1807-1852) probably sometime between 1848-1852. It was the “equal stripe width” version at left which gained prominence from the late 1800s onwards.

The actual meaning of the colors is heavily debated. In general, Green is said to represent Islam, white peace and industriousness and red for courage. The latter color (red) was reported among Sassanian troops by Ammianus Marcellinus (24.8, 1).

Another view of the Amir Kabir version of the Iranian flag. This was the forerunner to the “equal stripe width” version discussed above.

The Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911): The Tri-Color and Lion-Sun Motif

The Iranian Constitutional Movement was the first of its kind in advocating human rights; equality and democracy in Western Asia (see Chaqueri, 2001). The aim of the Iranian Constitutionalists was to limit the absolute powers of the Qajar Shahs in favor of a democratically elected parliament. As noted by Professor Atabaki:

“In the constitutional revolution, like minded Azerbaijanis, Persians, Bakhtiaris, and Gilanis fought alongside one another against…the absolute arbitrary power of the monarchy…their objective was not to divide this power (of Law and government) among the different ethnic groupings in the country in order to establish separate independent states based on ethnic identity.” (Atabaki, 2000, pp.28)

Sattar Khan (1868-1914) and his allies from Iran’s different regions fought under the Iranian flag bearing the lion and sun motif. The motifs (i.e. the Lion of Persia, the Sun-god Mithras, etc.) are ancient symbols and despite the centuries, have continued to provide common ground among Iran’s diverse language groups.

Constitutionalist troops fight in the name of democracy against Qajar Royalists and their Russian allies in Tabriz sometime in 1906. Note that these troops fight under the Iranian flag. Note that the colors are of equal width.

Despite an attempt by some constitutionalists to display red banners, these were easily overruled in favor of the tri-color Lion-Sun motif. Most significant however is the late Professor Shapour Shahbazi’s observation in Encyclopedia Iranica that an amendment to the Iranian Constitution of 1906 established the Iranian flag with:

“…”three colors (in stripes of equal width and length) of green, white and red, with a lion (sword-bearing and passant) and sun as its device“

Simply put, the tri-color Iranian flag with the Lion-Sun motif is not dateable to the Pahlavi era – it had already been established as the national Iranian flag during the Constitutional Revolution which was greatly indebted to Sattar Khan. What is significant is that the Iranian flag during the Constitutional revolt was not solely representative of the ruling cast at the time – the Qajars.

The Evolution of the Flag from 1925

The Pahlavi regime which attained power in 1925, is certainly not the creator of the Lion-Sun motif of the Iranian flag. In fact it is by all appearances very similar to its predecessors in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Iranian flag from 1925-1964.

In 1964, however modifications were applied upon the Iranian flag. These were the application of a wreath and a crown around the existing symbols (lion and sun).

The Iranian flag from 1964-1979. Note the addition of the wreath and the crown. The Sun in this case is visible but somewhat diminished compared to earlier versions of the Iranian flag seen in pre-Islamic, pre-safavid, Safavid, Afsharid, Zand and Qajar eras.

While the wreath and the crown were certainly new additions upon the already-existing Lion-Sun motif, the roots of the sword-wielding lion and sun can be traced back across the millennia to ancient Iranian mythology, astrology, statecraft, and cultural identity.

Following the 1979 revolution, the colors of the Iranian flag were retained, with major changes occurring with respect to its symbols. The recent wreath and crown were removed as were the more ancient Lion-Sun motif. These were now replaced with the emblem of “Allah o Akbar” or “God is great” in Arabic.

The Iranian flag from 1979.

Related articles:

Iran's Flag: Save Persian Lion from becoming a Gay Pussycat!

Meaning of Faravahar, Derafsh Kaviani and Persian Colors

Related Books:

Pictorial History of Iranian Flags (Book in 14 Chapters)

Pictorial History of Iranian Military Uniforms (Book in 23 Chapters)

Published Books

Please read these valuable books by Kaveh Farrokh:



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