The Lion of Persia


Whose head is that?

The Lion and Sun (شیر و خورشید‎‎, Shir o Khorshid) emblem (holding a shamshir, scimitar) remained the official symbol of Iran until the 1979 revolution, when it was removed from public spaces and government organizations, and replaced by a coat of arms.

During the Safavid era, the lion and sun represented two foundations of the Persian society, the state and the Islamic religion. It became a national emblem during the Qajar era (1781-1925). The “lion”, of course, is the ancient sign of the sun in the house of Leo, a symbol traced to Babylonian astrology. For the Safavids, the Shah had two roles: king and holy man. This double meaning was associated with the genealogy of Iranian kings. Two males were key people in this paternity: Jamshid (sun) was the mythical founder of an ancient Persian kingdom, and Ali the Shi'te first Imam was affiliated with the lion (Zul-faqar). When the last Shah was removed a few decades ago, the nation no longer conferred two powers in one man and the nation became a theocratic democracy. In essence, the head was severed and the sun was consigned to be carried on the back of the lion. This caricature, intended or not, occasionally appears in the colorful tiles and artwork around the nation. (The shamshir is a curved sword originating in Arabic and Central Asian Turkic Muslim culture and has been associated with the city of Shamshir — which means "curved like the lion's claw" in Persian.)

I first encountered the lion emblem on a wall that is part of the royal dwellings and offices of the former Shahanshah of Iran ( the Shah, His Imperial Majesty). As usual, I encountered many facets and meanings connected to every symbolism and name attached to Persian historical personages and locations. The Pahlavi Dynasty is one such instance.

Palace foyer (no photographs)

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the last Shah, died a year after the popular revolution that seized the country in 1979 and brought back Ayatollah Khomeini from exile. The Pahlavi dynasty (Persian: دودمان پهلوی‎‎) was the ruling house of Imperial State of Iran from 1925 until 1979, when the monarchy was abolished. The dynasty was founded by Reza Shah Pahlavi in 1925, a former Brigadier-General of the Persian Cossack Brigade, whose reign lasted until 1941 when he was forced to abdicate after a joint Anglo-Soviet invasion. He was succeeded by his son.

Mother's Prayer

The word “Pahlavi” itself is a particular and exclusively written form of Aramaic and Middle Iranian languages that seemingly drew on oral Parthian and later, Parsi (Pars) dialects east of the Caspian sea and southwest Iran, respectively. Once again, Arabic language got mixed in with older Persian script and dialects, primarily as a result of the ebb and flow of civilizational overlords from the east (Arabs) and west (Turkic, Azeri). For instance, a dichotomy between pure Persian and Turkic elements intermixed at least until 1925, after which the Pahlavi rule foisted a renewed celebration of Persian culture and language by, amongst other ways, officially banning the use of the Azeri language in schools and newspapers. The new Islamic Republic of Iran, today, is apparently more tolerant.

The Lion appears throughout Iranian history extending back to at least the 5th century BC, King Cyrus’ and Darius’ era. The sun was not always a companion. The bull also is a prominent actor on the Persian stage, and this is very evident in the ancient massive stone cities like Persepolis -- a place that I visited later during my visit to Iran.

The Porch Throne Platform of Marble

House of Mirrors and Glass (design and colors gone wild)

In Iran's capital, Tehran, the Shah's palaces and residence are today open to the public, at least where ongoing renovations and updating are not underway. Like many of the mosques and palace complexes scattered in the large cities everywhere, Tehran's buildings, especially the historical masterpieces, need polishing. With or without the polish, though, the structures and furnitures of these masterful houses of the nation's former powerful are awesome to behold, the Shah's dwellings not excepted. No photography is permitted in some of the most startling locations but accessible exterior porches and public reception areas present some of the finest artistic impulses this nation's craftspeople have to offer. A magnificent interplay of arches and brick and tile (with mirrors and glass) architecture, plus abstract and historical depictions, are found in every religious center of the country and often in the secular spaces as well. However, these uncountable displays definitely and often are serious puzzles to solve, requiring either a genius knowledge of Near Eastern and even some Classical western history or resignation to assigning one's own mythical imaginings to the color and design patterns. And so, my first conundrum, mentioned here, was the ever lurking image of the "lion" and scimitar.

The lion caricature in this case is part of the oldest historical monument in Tehran -- the Golestan complex, designated as a World Heritage site. It began in the 16th century as a fortress by the Safavid Dynasty, encompassing an extensive garden. The complex, used by the Shah for royal events, includes the Marble Throne, created from yellow Yazd marble.

Women on tile here wear not-so-modest dress, one with plunging V-neck and the other an oval neckline.

Brickwork at Golestan Palace

The blending of color, design and architecture in the Golestan Palace royal gardens (Tehran) is typical of Iranian Islamic art.

To be continued....

#Islam #Persia #Iran #sun #photography #fineartphotography #travel #Tehran #history #color

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© 2023 by Edgar David Boshart, edboshart@gmail.com

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