Iran: the Lion & Sun

The Sun symbolizes a holy king – the Lion represents a holy warrior of God. Together, these two symbols combine and form a single unified symbol illustrating kingship and divinity of shahs in Persia. 

Iran
Location of Iran (maphill.com)

Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4cwOD8KvG-E

1. History of Iran

cyrus
Cyrus the Great (iranchamber.com)

Iran, also known as Persia, is a country located in the Middle East, Western Asian, was home to one of the oldest civilizations in human history, beginning with Elamite kingdoms in the 4th millennium BC, then were unified by the Kingdom of the Medes. King of Persia, Cyrus the Great (600 BC – 530 BC), overthrew the Medes and merged 2 nations into the Achaemenid empire (also called the 1st Persian Empire) in 550 BC. This empire then embraced all the previous civilized states of the ancient Near East and became the ruler of Asia and the largest empire the world had yet seen. Therefore, the Iranians have regarded him as “The Father. 

After that, under the reign of Darius the Great (522 BC – 486 BC), King of Kings (Shahanshah), Persia flourished brilliantly in an unprecedented way and entered the Golden Age, especially in economy, commerce and also connected with most of the ancient civilizations at that time. However, this empire finally came to an end when being conquered by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and was divided into several Hellenistic states. Then was the rebellion of Persian empires such as Parthia (247 BC – 224), and especially the Sassanid (224 – 651), a leading world power in the next 4 centuries. 

darius
Darius the Great (civilization.wikia.com)
Ismail-I
Shah Ismail I, founder of the Safavid dynasty (wikipedia.org)

The Arab Muslims conquered Persia in the 7th century and Islam gradually replaced Zoroastrianism to become the major religion. Nevertheless, Persia’s achievements in art, philosophy and science were not forgotten but were absorbed into Islamic civilization and then played a crucial role in the Islamic Golden Age. The area was then conquered by the Seljuk Turks and the Mongols respectively before the rise of the native Safavid dynasty in 1501, establishing a united Iranian kingdom under Shahs’ rule. Shah Ismail I took Shia Islam to be the official religion of the empire, marking the most important event in Iranian and Islamic history.

The feudal era of Persia was then continued by dynasties like Afsharid (1736 – 1750), Zand (1751 – 1794), Qajar (1795 – 1925) and finally the Pahlavi dynasty (1925 – 1979). Then the Islamic Revolution of Iran eventually overthrew Reza Shah in 1979 and established the Islamic Republic of Iran to this day. 

The most well-known symbol of Iran throughout its history is the Lion and Sun (known as Shir-va-Khorshid in Persian), was first widely used from the 12th century to 1979, combining all of ancient Persian, Arab, Turkish and Mongol traditions. This symbol has been especially successful in symbolizing Iranian cultural identity since it was influenced by symbol systems of all important cultural elements in Iranian history including Zoroastrianism, Shia Islam, ancient Persia and modern Iran.

lion-and-sun
Coat of arms of Iran in 1979  (wikipedia.org)

2. The Sun god

nimrud_stele_winged_sun
Sun disc symbol of King Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, Iraq (9th century BC)

In ancient Near East and Middle East such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Persia, the sun had existed very early in art, religion, and culture, and was usually depicted in the form of a “winged disk”.  This was one of the oldest images of the Sun in human history. Around 2000 BC, this symbol had appeared in Assyria and symbolized kings, gods and supreme power, associated with the supreme Sun gods of Assyrians and Babylonians such as Ashur and Shamash.

Shamash
Shamash god of the Babylonians (research.britishmuseum.org)

This image later influenced Persian culture and since the reign of Darius the Great, the man figure was placed above the wings, no longer inside the disc like before and that became the Faravahar symbol, symbolizing the supreme deity Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is considered the first monotheistic religions in history, and Ahura Mazda was the only all-power creator God (in prophet Zoroaster‘s words) who created light for humanity, therefore was shown as a Sun god.

1280px-faravahar-gold
Faravahar symbol (wikipedia.org)

This religious-cultural symbol later had a very enduring vitality when it was not lost after Islam’s influence in the 7th century and the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Pahlavi dynasty used it to symbolize the Iranian nation and Iranian nationalism, which has appeared widely in public places in Iran nowadays .

3. Leo Constellation

leo
Leo Constellation  (wikipedia.org)

By the 12th century, the Sun image continued to combine with the image of the Lion and has became a unified symbol: the Lion and Sun. Its original meaning is based on the ancient configuration in Babylonian astronomy and astrology, showing the time when the Sun enters the Leo constellation. Leo is one of the most noticeable constellations because its many bright stars imitate a lion‘s posture. The Sun is supposed to have maximum strength between July 20th and August 20th, when the Sun is in the ‘house’ of Leo, the time of the summer solstice,  when the Sun reaches its highest position in the sky and is the day with the longest period of daylight. That is why ancient Babylonian astrologers named this constellation after lion, the king of animals

Some mythologists believed that in Mesopotamian mythology, the Leo constellation represents the Humbaba monster that hero Gilgamesh slain in the Lebanese cedar forest. Greek mythology recounted that this was the Nemea lion that hero Hercules conquered, one of his 12 glorious labors.

humbaba-lion
Humbaba monster in the image of a lion (webpages.uidaho.edu)

In the cultural traditions of the Near East since ancient times, there was a close connection between Sun gods and lions. The proof is that the Sun god Shamash was usually depicted standing on a lion’s back. Hence, the Leo constellation became a symbol of victory of the sun, just like Jesus was called the Lion of Judah in the Bible; caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib was viewed by Shia Muslims as ‘Lion of God‘. Therefore, the Sun and Lion symbol in the past had always been associated with shahs (Persian kings), from flags, titles, to the throne, crowns and costumes, showing supreme divine power of the kings. Islamic, Turkish and Mongol cultures also stressed this symbolic association of lion and royalty in similar symbolic systems.

Shamash
Image Sun god Shamash on a lion (pinterst.co.uk)

The archetypal image of the Lion and Sun symbol is the native Persian lion, also known as an Asiatic Lion. They are relatively modest in size and their manes are smaller than African lions, however, they are not less aggressive. An adult male weighs averagely around 160 – 190 kg, reaches up to 120 cm in height and 290 cm in length including its tail. They once inhabited territories spreading from Turkey to Bangladesh, from the Mediterranean to Northeastern India. This kind of lion is the archetype of most lion symbols in Asia and has become the official national animal of Iran.

persian-lion
Persian lion (thebetter.wiki)

4. Meaning under the Safavid dynasty

When the Iranian Safavid dynasty (1501 – 1736) was born, the Lion and Sun stood for 2 pillars of the society: the State and the Religion. By the time of shah Abbas the Great, this symbol had become the most popular emblem in Persia. 

safavid-flag
Flag of the Safavid dynasty (wikipedia.org)

The Safavid dynasty understood the meaning of this symbol based on mythological and historical stories such as the national epic: Shahnameh . For the Safavids, a ‘shah‘ was not only a king but also a saint, and the 2 figures represented these 2 roles in Iranian history were Jamshid and Ali.

  • King Jamshid in the epic Shahnameh was told as the 4th king of the world and also known as the greatest king the world has ever known. He was said to be capable of controlling all angels and demons in the world (similar to king Solomon) and was not only a king but also the highest priest of Ahura Mazda. With several inventions making human’s life better, his reign brought humanity to a great civilization. The most important story about Jamshid was when he tried to save mankind from an evil winter. He had his throne studded with precious stones, jewels and had demons lifted him into the sky. This story was the origin of Iranian New Year, celebrated on March 20th annually.
jamshid
King Jamshid ascends to the sky on a a jewel-studded throne (kingorama.com)
  • 37358435_124296612354Saint Ali ibn Abi Talib was cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, caliph of Islamic caliphate Rashidun from 656 to 661, and was a prominent figure in Islamic history, also known as the Lion of God. Shia Muslims regarded Ali as the first Imam, the legitimate successor to Muhammad to lead the Islam world. This belief conflicted with the Sunni branch, who considered Abu Bakr, companion and father-in-law of prophet Muhammad, to be the 1st caliph.

Thus, the Sun and Lion symbol represented the unified role of a shah: king and saint – compared to Jamshid and Ali – symbolized kingship associated with divinity of Safavid empire. 

Another reason for the Safavids to choose the Sun as their symbol is that during the same period, Sunni sultans chose the crescent moon as the symbol of the Ottoman empire in the West. Therefore, the Shia Safavids of  in the East should have a symbol to counterbalance their nemesis.

ottoman-safavid
Map of the Ottoman and Safavid empires in the Early Modern period (slideplayer.com)

5. Meaning under the Qajar dynasty

Rostam
The mighty paladin Rostam (pinterest.com)

The Qajar dynasty (1796 – 1925), particularly shah Fat’h Ali, attempted to restore native Iranian cultural traditions in the pre-Islamic period. At that era, written evidences proved that the meaning of the Sun and Lion symbol had changed: the Sun was still a symbol of the king – Jamshid. But the image of Lion at this time represented another figure Rostam.

Rostam is also a character in the epic Shahnameh, the greatest hero in Persian mythology, the mightiest of Iranian paladins (holy warriors). The stories of Rostam were associated with the Parthian period (247 BC – 224), he was described as the bravest hero, who accomplished successfully “Rostam’s 7 Labours” to rescue the shah of Persia. He always rides with his legendary stallion Rakhsh and wears a special suit made of leopard skin called Babr-e Bayan. Due to the association with legendary Rostam, the lion had very a nationalistic interpretationin Qajar time, symbolizing brave heroes of Iran who are ready to protect the country against all enemies.

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The 3rd labour of Rostam: slaying a dragon (irannewsdaily.com)
lion-and-sun
The Imperial Order of the Lion and the Sun (wikipedia.org)

Shah Fat’h Ali also had a Sun Throne constructed which was used by all Persian shahs since then. He also instituted the Imperial Order of the Lion and Sun in 1808 to honor officials who made great contributions to the Persian Empire. A decree pubished in 1846 to officially recognize this medal stated that: 

“For each sovereign state an emblem is established, and for the august state of Persia, too, the Order of Lion and Sun has been in use, an ensign which is nearly three thousand years old—indeed dating from before the age of Zoroaster. And the reason for its currency may have been as follows. In the religion of Zoroaster, the sun is considered the revealer of all things and nourisher of the universe […], hence, they venerated it”

sun-throne
The Sun throne (wikipedia.org)

It could be seen in this era that the Lion and Sun symbol represented the state, the king, and the nation of Iran, associated with all pre-Islamic native traditional history. The image of Lion in this period was presented standing erectly, bearing an Arabian saber, which was believed to symbolize the legendary Zulfiqar sword of Ali, showing the military prowess of the state. The Kiani crown of the Qajars was also shown very prominently, even surpassed the Sun symbol as the symbol of kingship.

qajar-lion-and-sun
Coat of arms of the Qajar dynasty in 1907–1925 (wikipedia.org)

The Lion and Sun symbol has many important meanings in history, culture and religion of oth native Persian culture and Shia Islamic culture. However, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, this symbol was banned at all public places and government organizations because the new Islamic government thought that the symbol represented the previous pro-Western Pahlavi dynasty, forgetting all the real important and holy meanings of this symbol.

flag-of-iran
The current national emblem and flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran are Persian letters composing the name Allah in the form of a tulip (wikipedia.org)

The Lion and Sun symbol used to be the national emblem of Tajikistan, a country in Central Asia that had a close historical and cultural tie with Iran – Persia. 

coat-of-arms-of-tajikistan
Coat of arms of Tajikistan in 1992-1994 (wikipedia.org)

References:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emblem_of_Iran

Babayan, K. (2002), Mystics, monarchs, and messiahs: cultural landscapes of early modern Iran. Harvard College

Cotterell, A. & Storm, R.. (2017). The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology. London: Annes Publishing

Firdawsī (2006). Shahnameh:a new translation by Dick Davis. Viking Adult

Joseph, S. & Najmabadi, A. (2002). Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Family, law, and politics. Netherlands: Brill Academic Publisher

Kingfisher. (2014). Bách khoa thư lịch sử (The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia). Hà Nội: Nhã Nam

Kindermann, H. (1986). “Al-Asad”, Encyclopedia of Islam, 1, Leiden. Netherlands: E.J.Brill

Krappe, A. H. (1945), “The Anatolian Lion God”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, American Oriental Society, 65 (3): 144–154

Kuhrt, A. (1995). “13”The Ancient Near East: c. 3000–330 BC. Routledge

Najmabadi, A. (2005). “II”, Gender and sexual anxieties of Iranian Modernity. University of California Press

Shahbazi, S. A. (2001), “Flags (of Persia)”, in Yarshater, E. et al. (eds.), Encyclopaedia Iranica

Shahnameh, Helen Zimmern translation

Tamra, A. (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky. Oxford University Press

 

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